Thomas Jefferson's private, personal Bible offers a case study in how politics and Christianity mix it up in America
"The Jefferson Bible" ends with Jesus' entombment, and, given all the trouble caused by his published thoughts on religion, Jefferson seemed happy to take the book to his grave. When he mentioned it in letters to a small circle of friends, he cautioned them to keep it a secret. Even his family didn't find out about it until after he'd died.
In 1895, his heirs sold the book to the Smithsonian for $400. A few years later, a congressman — a devout Christian from Iowa, as it happens — wrote a widely reprinted article about it. The government produced an extravagant edition at a cost to taxpayers of more than $500,000 in today's dollars. Some protested the price. Others argued about whether the book confirmed or refuted Jefferson's atheism. Still, in 1904 the government published more than 9,000 copies, with 14 going to each congressman — and with enough kept in reserve that a copy also went to every incoming representative or senator, a tradition that continued through the 1950s.
Today, the facts about "The Jefferson Bible" might seem like an impossible obstacle to anyone who wants to fashion Jefferson as a hero for right-leaning Christians — and America as a "Christian nation." Instead, the book has been distorted to fit the religious right's agenda.
There's no better example of this than David Barton, an amateur historian who's become quite popular with Perry, Santorum and Michele Bachmann. Barton loves archival flourishes — his Texas offices include a concrete vault filled with 18th century arcana — but his true concerns lie in the present. Though Barton admits that "The Jefferson Bible" often comes up as proof that its namesake wasn't the evangelical Christian conservatives want him to be, he also says he can refute this. In a TV appearance in 2010, Barton fixated on Jefferson's "Indians" title page, mixed in some unrelated material about Jefferson's Indian policy, then pivoted to an outrageous fabrication: "He then gave it to a missionary," Barton said of Jefferson and his Bible, "and he said, 'Here, if you get this printed, and you use this as you evangelize the Indians.'"
There's absolutely no evidence of Jefferson giving either version of his Bible to anyone other than his bookbinder. Perhaps it's no surprise that last year, in Iowa, Newt Gingrich said, "I never listen to David Barton without learning a whole lot of new things." That's because Barton loves to cherry-pick a phrase and manipulate it support his side in a partisan, present-day debate.
But there's a bigger problem with Barton's method: He strips history of its complex human appeal. After all, "The Jefferson Bible" stands as one of the most interesting and iconoclastic moments in America's religious past — one man with a razor, a pot of paste and a unique and private set of ideas. They were intricate ideas: Jefferson was no more a Bible thumper than he was a Bible burner. And that's why he and his handmade book have enjoyed such an odd and exciting afterlife. After one politician got his 14 copies of the 1904 edition, he reported receiving more than 2,000 requests from his constituents.
Let's hope just as many people seek out the new Smithsonian edition, where they can see for themselves what Jefferson spent so much time making — and no doubt reading as well.
Craig Fehrman is working on a book about presidents and their books. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
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