Thomas Jefferson, Statesman, President, Mormon?

By May 14, 2008

I found this while going through the Times and Seasons, and it reminded me of Chris’s post on Mormonizing John Wesley. Apparently Mormon J. M. Grant (Jedediah, I presume) wrote a letter to the New York Messenger, and included an excerpt from a letter from Jefferson to John Adams, and asked his readers if they thought Thomas Jefferson was a Mormon. Grant’s letter was later republished in the Times and Seasons.

… 

An extract from a letter written to JOHN ADAMS BY THOMAS JEFFERSON, of Virginia, published by Mr. John Stewart, of New York, in the second volume of the ‘Bible of Nature,’ page 271-272.
“I feel, therefore I ‘exist’. I feel bodies which are not myself: there are other existences, then. I call them matter. I feel them changing places: this give me motion. Where there is an absence of matter, I call it void. or nothing, or immaterial space. On the basis of sensation, of matter and motion, we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need. I can conceive thought to be an action of a particular organization of matter, formed for that purpose by its creator, as well as that attraction is an action of matter, or magnetism of loadstone.
when he who denies to the Creator the power of endowing matter with the mode of action, called thinking, shall show how he could endow the sun with the mode of action called attraction, which reins the planets in the track of their orbits, or how an absence of matter can have a will and by that will put matter into motion, then the materialist may be lawfully required to explain the process by which matter exercise the faculty of thinking. When once we quit the basis of sensation, all is in the wid. To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothing. To say that the human soul, angels, God, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is not God, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by the Locks, the Tracys, and the Stewarts. At what age (Athanasius and the Council of Nice) of the Christian Church this heresy of immaterialism, or masked atheism, crept in, I do not know. But a heresy it certainly is. Jesus taught nothing of it. He told us, indeed, that God is a spirit, but he has not defined what a spirit is, nor said that it is not matter. And the ancient fathers, generally of the three first centuries, held it to be matter, light and thin indeed, an etherial gas; but still matter.
To JOHN ADAMS.”

Will the editor the Messenger inform us whether Thomas Jefferson was a Mormon or not?[1]

After providing this excerpt, the editors of the Times and Seasons then commented:

It seems the editor the Messenger has not answered Elder Grant’s request, and so we take the responsibility to give a sentence of revelation on the subject, which came throughout the great prophet and seer, (Joseph Smith). On the 373d page of the second edition of the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, last clause of the tenth paragraph, we find these words: “(And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, BY THE HANDS OF WISE MEN, whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood”) So it seems that the immortal (Thomas Jefferson) was so much of a Saint or Mormon, that God knew he was a (wise man), and raised him up on purpose to prepare the way for breaking to pieces Nebuchadnezzar’s image of governments, priests, misrule, confusion and false religion!
970The whole world can bear witness that God’s “(wise men)” have shown more genuine humanity and wisdom, than all christendom put together; and this makes revelation triumphant. Glory to God, Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith, and all the prophets! men could kill their bodies, but they could not hurt their souls, nor their words. (They are eternal.)[2]

So, after reading this, what do you think of Grant’s query?

_________

[1] J. M. Grant, “Steadfast,” Times and Seasons, July 15, 1845, 970.

[2] Ibid.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History From the Archives Memory


Comments

  1. Interesting excerpt, David. More recently, Mormons have made TJ out to be a sort of proto-Mormon because of comments he made about a falling away from truth and a promised restoration (see, for example, this electronic version of an old missionary pamphlet), but I’d never seen this quote by Jefferson used by Mormons. Good find.

    Comment by Christopher — May 14, 2008 @ 9:37 pm

  2. Very interesting David. This makes me wonder how much Grant knew about Jefferson’s religious ideas. It is common knowledge now that TJ was rationalistic deist with nothing but contempt for the supernatural elements of religion (leading, of course, to his well-known redaction of the New Testament). The entire premise of the Joseph Smith story, with its angels, gold plates, and a God concerned enough with human affairs to actively, and personally, intervene in human history would have been intolerably “superstitious” for Jefferson.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 15, 2008 @ 8:14 am

  3. Very fun find, David. This is especially good timing for me, since I am about to head out the door to visit Monticello for the first time…

    Like Chris, I am also fascinated how we feel more confident about ourselves when we attach wise men from the past to our own religion.It’s too bad TJ had to wait thirty-some years to finally be baptized by Woodruff…..

    Comment by Ben — May 15, 2008 @ 9:28 am

  4. Grant seems to be drawn to Jefferson’s rejection of immaterialism, which Grant seems to think is unique enough of a Mormon doctrine to see Jefferson as an inspired predecessor. I also find it a bit amusing that Grant assumes that the non-Mormon editors would have any clue what he was talking about.

    Comment by David G. — May 15, 2008 @ 10:13 am

  5. A quick search suggests that the New York Messenger was actually a Mormon paper edited by Samuel Brannan (it was the forerunner to Brannan’s The Prophet), so unless there is another New York Messenger in 1845, this letter was actually written to a Mormon audience.

    Comment by Christopher — May 15, 2008 @ 11:33 am

  6. Thomas Jefferson was a deist who rewrote the new testament leaving out all of Jesus’ miracles. He paid people to spread lies about John Adams while serving as his vice president. He was promiscous with his female slaves while hypocritally writing that all men are created equal. A proto-Mormon? No thanks.

    Comment by larry — May 15, 2008 @ 11:47 am

  7. and…he treated Native Americans horribly, second only to Andrew Jackson for his contempt of them.

    Comment by larry — May 15, 2008 @ 11:51 am

  8. Good find, Chris.

    Comment by David G. — May 15, 2008 @ 11:52 am

  9. I recall that Jefferson was baptized by proxy in Nauvoo in the early 1840s as well.

    Comment by Justin — May 15, 2008 @ 12:06 pm

  10. Do you have a source for that Justin? (I’m not doubting you here at all. I was just unaware and am interested).

    larry,

    Yeah, what a jerk. He had an unorthodox understanding of deity, revised the NT, appears to have been deceitful at times, was involved in sexual promiscuity, and was condescending in his attitudes toward Native Americans. Let’s consign him to hell now. Along with Joseph Smith, who’s equally guilty on each point.

    Comment by Christopher — May 15, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

  11. Likewise, I’d love to see a source on that.

    Comment by David G. — May 15, 2008 @ 12:32 pm

  12. Brian Stuy’s Spring 2000 JMH article “Wilford Woodruff’s Vision of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence” (pp. 66-67, 69).

    Comment by Justin — May 15, 2008 @ 12:58 pm

  13. Excellent. Thanks, Justin.

    Comment by Christopher — May 15, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

  14. Yeah, what a jerk. He had an unorthodox understanding of deity, revised the NT, appears to have been deceitful at times, was involved in sexual promiscuity, and was condescending in his attitudes toward Native Americans. Let’s consign him to hell now. Along with Joseph Smith, who’s equally guilty on each point.

    Nice point Chris. And pretty funny as well.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 15, 2008 @ 3:58 pm

  15. Funny you should post this now. I mention this in the paper I’m preparing for MHA next week. I argue that it has something to do with searching out the “fragments of Mormonism” in the mythic past, including the very recent past. They also mormonized Isaac Watts, the entries in Buck’s Theological Dictionary, and the followers of Peter Waldo (though they did that in a complex way).

    No Steve Martin, though.

    Comment by smb — May 16, 2008 @ 10:22 pm

  16. #6 said:

    “Thomas Jefferson was a deist who rewrote the new testament leaving out all of Jesus’ miracles.”

    Joseph Smith “translation” of the bible. Check.

    “He paid people to spread lies about John Adams while serving as his vice president.”

    Money digging, glass looking, and Kirtland scamming. Check.

    “He was promiscous with his female slaves while hypocritally writing that all men are created equal.”

    Fanny Alger et al, Nauvoo, D&C 132…Check.

    “A proto-Mormon? No thanks.”

    Uh, care to rethink your conclusion?

    Comment by Bill — May 19, 2008 @ 12:06 am

  17. I might have missed the point and this comparison is not meant to be literal; however, TJ died in 1826 and Mormonism is generally considered to have started in 1830. On another note, Mormons are [edit] crazy.

    Comment by Andrew — May 19, 2008 @ 12:45 am

  18. Does this mean ol’ Jedediah believed that spirits were “material”? Is there a substantive difference between the Mormon concept of “spirit matter” and Jefferson’s “immateriality”?

    * * *

    I was struck the same way as David (#4); that Grant was clever, but wondering if anyone reading the paper in 1845 would “get it”? Even with a predominantly Mormon audience, as Christopher helpfully points out (#5), Grant might have thrown in a bone like, “Given Mr. Jefferson’s awareness of the Great Apostasy and the Materiality of the Celestial Spheres, will the editor inform us…&c.” Fun find.

    Comment by John Hamer — May 19, 2008 @ 11:04 am

  19. smb (#15): Sorry, I think your comment got stuck in the spam filter for a couple of days there. When I found this I immediately thought of some of your arguments; I’m glad that this is making it into your MHA paper. Sadly, I won’t be there, but I’d love to get a copy of it.

    John (#18): I agree. The lack of context is pretty interesting. Hopefully Clark will stop by and shed some light on Mormon materialism.

    Comment by David G. — May 19, 2008 @ 11:38 am

  20. Just a note that view of the materiality of spirits wasn’t that uncommon. There are several major figures in the Renaissance such as Telesio who accepted that. And major theologians who did such as Bonaventure. In folk traditions spirits were treated as quasi-material (much as folk traditions of ghosts continue to do). The idea of real immateriality which would entail no place at all – which is what a Thomist soul or Cartesian mind are – just isn’t that common.

    We as Mormons tend to think seeing spirits as material is really unique. While in terms of formal theology it certainly is rare in terms of common belief I suspect it’s the default view.

    Comment by Clark — May 19, 2008 @ 12:44 pm


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