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Who’s Afraid of John Calvin? Answer: Thomas Jefferson

November 18th, 2019 | 8 min read

By Miles Smith

In 1822, Thomas Jefferson was enjoying a quiet retirement at his beloved Monticello. His family troubles gave him sleepless nights but he found solace in his correspondence and, as always, in his books. The former president’s mind turned over Virginia’s politics, the state of the young American republic, and his plans for the new University of Virginia. Jefferson also experienced something of a religious awakening and became a convinced Unitarian in his last years.

Ever introspective, Jefferson thought at length about religion, especially the relative compatibility of various religious groups with what he firmly hoped would remain a liberal society. He never seemed to like historic Christianity, which he believed had been perverted at the end of the third century by Athanasius’ articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Jefferson preferred “Primitive” Christianity, in which Jesus was not God, there was no Trinity, and the church did not exercise any civil or social power. One Christian group in the United States appeared to him especially committed to each of those hated dogmas: Calvinists.

Jefferson and his relationship to Calvinism seem worth revisiting in light of the ongoing conversation regarding Christianity and the civil order among conservative Christian intellectuals. Recently on Twitter Sohrab Ahmari, a former Neo-Conservative journalist who recently converted to Roman Catholicism, tweeted that Mark David Hall’s new book, Did America Have a Christian Founding? represented a half-hearted attempt to maintain Christian politics in the United States, which he termed, “burning incense to the Founders.” Ahmari was responding to a quote from a Hillsdale PhD student, Tom Tacoma, in Tacoma’s review of Hall’s book. Tacoma said that Hall dispelled “many contemporary myths concerning religion and the founding. Let us finally be done with false claims that the founders were deists, or that they were hostile to religion and wanted to exclude it from public life.”

Tacoma is mostly correct. Hall does an admirable job of dispelling the contrived notion that the American Revolution was a sort of largely deistic enterprise. But is the reconciliation of Jefferson’s Declaration and what Straussians identify as the “Founding” all there is to the story?

Increasingly there is a cartoonish rendering of Protestant political thought that associates Protestantism with a liberal historical trajectory, and Roman Catholicism—or at least “liturgy”—with conservatism. The truth is far more complicated. In the Early Republic, Calvinism, not Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism, appeared to Jefferson to be the religious persuasion most at odds with liberalism.[1]

Since his election in 1800, Jefferson believed that Calvinists represented a return to European conservatism. The prospect of Calvinists—Congregationalists in New England, Presbyterians in the Middle Atlantic and South, and a smattering of evangelical Anglicans—exercising civil, political, or social influence in federal politics horrified the Deistic Virginian. His later embrace of Unitarianism in fact allowed him to continue his loathing of historic Christian teaching like the Trinity that he found so essential to Calvinism. Both Deists and Unitarians found the divinity of Christ and associated doctrines–the Virgin birth and the Incarnation–revolting. Jefferson’s fear of the Calvinists was not without reason.

The orthodox scions of New England Puritanism, far from being individualists or liberals, remained traditional conservatives into the nineteenth century. Timothy Dwight IV, son-in-law of Jonathan Edwards, president of Yale College, and a staunchly conservative Calvinist, saw Jefferson’s election as the advent of French revolutionary Jacobinism in the North American republic. “The great object of Jacobinism,” he warned after Jefferson defeated John Adams, “both in its political and moral revolution, is to destroy every trace of civilization in the world, and to force mankind back into a savage state.”

Dwight bewailed the advent of Jeffersonian politics and opined that the United States had “now reached the consummation of democratic blessedness. We have a country governed by blockheads and knaves.” He despaired that “the ties of marriage with all its felicities” had been “severed and destroyed” by the coming Republican order. “Our wives and daughters are thrown into the stews; our children are cast into the world from the breast and forgotten.” The very structure of the family seemed under attack. “Filial piety is extinguished, and our surnames, the only mark of distinction among families, are abolished. Can the imagination paint anything more dreadful on this side of hell?”[2]

Jefferson scoffed at Calvinist intransigence. He hated Calvin for many reasons, but he held an especially impassioned loathing for the French Reformer’s throaty trinitarianism and the doctrine of election. Calvin, in Jefferson’s reading of history, represented the clearest intellectual successor to the medieval Christian order he despised. He compared what he called the “simple” doctrines of Jesus—his phrase for Unitarianism—with “the demoralizing dogmas of Calvin.” Jefferson objected to the mysticism and anti-rationalism of Calvinism. He believed that Calvin was an enemy to reason.

Jefferson despised the Calvinist obsession with the incomprehensible nature of the divine. He called Athanasius and Calvin “impious dogmatists” and “false shepherds.” Athanasius’ and Calvin’s “blasphemies” drove “thinking men into infidelity, who have too hastily rejected the supposed author himself, with the horrors so falsely imputed to him.”

If the doctrines of Jesus had been preached “always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian.” Jefferson rejoiced “that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving.” That genuine doctrine was Unitarianism, and Jefferson trusted

“that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian. But much I fear, that when this great truth shall be re-established, its votaries will fall into the fatal error of fabricating formulas of creed and confessions of faith, the engines which so soon destroyed the religion of Jesus, and made of Christendom a mere Aceldama; that they will give up morals for mysteries, and Jesus for Plato. How much wiser are the Quakers, who, agreeing in the fundamental doctrines of the gospel, schismatize about no mysteries, and, keeping within the pale of common sense, suffer no speculative differences of opinion, any more than of feature, to impair the love of their brethren. Be this the wisdom of Unitarians, this the holy mantle which shall cover within its charitable circumference all who believe in one God, and who love their neighbor.”

Calvinism, Jefferson feared, heralded the reclamation of the medieval imagination that he believed benighted the world for one thousand years.[3]

Jefferson need not have worried about Virginia. The changes made to the Westminster Confession in 1789 took the last serious teeth out of Calvinist political theology, and most serious Protestants in the Commonwealth saw disestablishment as prudential, if not good. New Englanders and the occasional Carolinian remained more circumspect.

Ultimately, however, all forms of western Christianity struggled to define their relationship to liberalism. There were and are Calvinist conservatives and Calvinist liberals, Anglican conservatives and Anglican liberals, as well as Roman Catholic conservatives and Roman Catholic liberals.

But in a time such as our own when Protestantism is seen as being inherently liberal and Catholicism as the only refuge for Christians who see catastrophic problems with the classical liberal order, it is worth remembering this history. History is far more complicated than we realize, and we might avoid contrived and ultimately ahistorical insinuations about other faith traditions by taking the time to read them in charity and sobriety.


  1. Jefferson, of course, was hardly the only Enlightenment philosopher to feel this way: Recall that Rousseau, tired of the conservative Calvinistic Geneva traveled to progressive Paris to interact with enlightenment luminaries, which in the 1770s consisted mostly of heterodox or apostate Roman Catholics.
  2. Henry Adams, History of the United States During the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson Vol. 1, 225
  3. Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Waterhouse, 19 July 1822 in Paul Leicester Ford Ed., Writings of Thomas Jefferson Vol. 10., 221

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Miles Smith

Dr. Miles Smith IV is a historian of the American South and native Carolinian. Follow him on Twitter @ivmiles.