THOMAS Jefferson was a highly intellectual figure and is regarded as a towering intellect and probably the greatest President the United States has ever had.
President Jefferson was master of many disciplines, which ranged from surveying and mathematics to horticulture, architecture and mechanics. His keen interest in religion and philosophy earned him the presidency of the American Philosophical Society. Well versed in linguistics, he spoke several languages. He also founded the University of Virginia after retiring from public office and among those who physically worked on this project was an Ulster exile named John Neilson from Ballycarry in County Antrim.
Jefferson shunned organized religion, but was influenced by both Christianity and deism. He was also responsible for what is known as the Jefferson Bible, an extraction from the Bible of the sayings and works of Christ, which he believed to be the essence of Christianity.
Jefferson discarded everything else. Like many he doubtless pondered on apparent contradictions in the text of the Bible. He lived in an age when old certainties were being questioned and this applied to understanding of religion.
The issue of whether the Bible should be viewed allegorically at some points has exercised many minds over the centuries. On one hand are those who believe that what is now in print is entirely literal and infallible. On the other are those who see allegorical aspects which were meant to be illustrative but not taken literally.
Different people have their own paths to understanding. That’s why Jefferson did not form a church or intend his Bible to be in some public contest for truth.
Jefferson believed that Christ was the centre of belief and he noted that the Jewish belief system was Deism, belief in one only God. Most commentators would see this as a considerable influence on his views. Hence the Jefferson Bible is a much shorter book and only employs the actual verses of the Bible which mention Jesus and excludes any supernatural accounts.
The proper title for what is known as ‘the Jefferson Bible’ was ‘The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth’. Jefferson’s effort could be titled as literally ‘Christ Centred’ although evangelical churches would probably not appreciate that view of the work.
In the mix of the President’s views, there is also the Masonic Order and its universality in terms of belief and outlook, highlighted perhaps best by Robert Burns’ poem A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
“That man to man, the world o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that”
Whether Jefferson was a Freemason is still debated by historians. But many of his circle – and other Presidents – were.
Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnston, James Knox Polk, James Buchanan and Warren Harding are among the Scotch-Irish Masons who were President. The first of them, Andrew Jackson, was Grand Master of the Tennessee Freemasons in 1822-23, and another Andrew Johnston was photographed in his Masonic regalia.
Although Jefferson may not have been a member of the Masonic fraternity, he clearly shared much outlook and ethos with Freemasonry. He was a product of and influenced by the European Enlightenment whose ideas had found a ready home among the universality of Masonry.
The same ethos and influences had been prevalent in 18th century Ulster. In the 1790s the ideas of the Enlightenment were finding favour among thinkers and debaters within the Presbyterian community. Some took the ideas further, forming and joining the United Irishmen, who eventually rebelled in an attempt at establishing their own government.
There would seem to be a relationship between Presbyterian United Irishmen and Freemasonry. The two most senior leaders of the United Army of Ulster to be executed after the failure of the Rising were both Masons; Henry Joy McCracken and Henry Monroe. William Orr, the martyred hero of the United Men in 1797, was waked after his death by the Masons of the village of Ballynure and a Masonic salute was said to have been given at his grave by a military officer.
Ballycarry is a few miles east of Ballynure, and one of those who survived the Rising there was the poet James Orr, one of the founders of a Masonic Lodge in the village in the early 19th century, although it is not clear whether he was a Mason in 1798.
Another survivor of the Rising was John Neilson, whose 16 year old brother William was hanged for his small part in the 1798 Rising locally. John was exiled to the West Indies but the ship he was on was captured by the French and he was released. He ended up in Virginia.
We do not know whether John Neilson of Ballycarry was a Freemason, but we do know that he was one of a small group of 1798 exiles around President Thomas Jefferson and that he was personal architect to the President (which might well indicate, at that time, that he was indeed a member of the Freemasons). It is very likely that the pair shared similar outlook and views. It would be interesting to be able to step back and peruse the library of Neilson and view what political, philosophical and religious texts might have been on the shelves in the 1820s.
It would also have been interesting to overhear any conversations on such weighty issues as religion and politics between the two men.
One thing we can be sure amidst all the mystery is that Jefferson’s religious philosophy was really quite simple.
John Neilson may not entirely have subscribed to Jefferson’s religion views, for the President did not believe in the divinity of Christ. He was convinced, however, that the teachings of Jesus constituted the “outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man.” He did acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being (the Great Architect of Masonry…) but questioned the concept of the Trinity of orthodox Christianity.
“To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the general precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other,” Jefferson wrote to his daughter in 1803 enclosing the text which has become referred to as The Jefferson Bible.
I like that Jefferson never clearly accepted anything at face value. He seems to have been on a life-long quest for knowledge, information and answers.
In respect of God, he advised his nephew Peter Carr in 1787: “Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear”.