Thomas Jefferson, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Extracted textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French, & English

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Around 1820 Thomas Jefferson cut and pasted verses from the New Testament to create this work, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Extracted textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French, & English. His purpose was to distill Jesus' ethical teachings from accounts of miracles and other elements that he considered distortions of Jesus' history and thought. Jefferson was a Deist--he believed in a Creator but did not believe in the divinity of Jesus. He thought he could distinguish between Jesus' true message and the apostles' later additions or misunderstandings by using reason as a guide.
Jefferson created this book for his own reading and reflection. He used texts in four different languages and placed them side-by-side so that he could compare which version seemed to him to express Jesus's moral views most clearly. He believed that those views provided "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man."
Jefferson made no plans to publish this work. He knew that his beliefs were unorthodox and that they offended both religious authorities and political opponents. He considered his own and others' religious beliefs to be a matter of private conscience and thought they should not be subjected to public scrutiny or governmental regulation. "I not only write nothing on religion, but rarely permit myself to speak on it," he told a friend.
The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth descended in Jefferson's family until late in the 19th century, when it came to the National Museum. The U.S. Congress first provided for the publication of the book in 1904. Since then, many editions have appeared in print. Some of them carry a title that Jefferson himself never used: "The Jefferson Bible"
Location
Currently not on view
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
owner
Jefferson, Thomas
Jefferson, Thomas
Physical Description
leather (overall material)
paper (overall material)
Measurements
overall: 8 3/8 in x 5 1/8 in x 1 in; 21.2725 cm x 13.0175 cm x 2.54 cm
See more items in
Political History: Political History, Presidential History Collection
Religion
National Treasures exhibit
Government, Politics, and Reform
ca 1820
Object Name
book
ID Number
PL*158231
catalog number
158231
accession number
147182
Related Publication
Kendrick, Kathleen M. and Peter C. Liebhold. Smithsonian Treasures of American History
Treasures of American History online exhibition
Publication author
National Museum of American History
Publication URL
http://americanhistory.si.edu/treasures

Exploring religion in early American history

What was the significance of religion in the early history of the United States? In the summer of 2017, we will open a new exhibition titled Religion in Early America. It will feature a blend of important objects, documents, and images that explore religion's role in the formation and early development of the nation. The exhibition will focus on three themes: the diversity of religious traditions in America during this period, the principle of freedom of religion that became a guiding principle in American life, and the growth of religion in the early republic.

These are also some of the themes we will explore in depth during our Religion in Early America Symposium on Friday, March 20, 2015. Register to attend in person or watch live via webcast.

The objects we plan to exhibit will include unique treasures and those of everyday religious practice. They are representative of a different era, but continue to speak to us today. Following are six examples from the Smithsonian's collection that we are considering. The exhibition will also include objects we will borrow from other institutions.

1. This German Bible was presented by President John Quincy Adams to his granddaughter in 1837. It is inscribed with a poem in his hand. Adams was a longtime member of the American Bible Society and served as its vice president.

Bible open to page with a poem

2. The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English, also known as the Jefferson Bible, was created by Thomas Jefferson around 1820 as an expression of his own broad-minded approach to faith. Working from source books in several languages, Jefferson used a pen knife and glue to craft a condensed version of the New Testament in keeping with the reason-driven spirit of the Enlightenment. "I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know," he wrote in 1819.

Jefferson made no plans to publish this work; it was solely for his own reading and reflection. He knew that his beliefs would offend some religious authorities and be used against him by his political rivals. 
 
The book remained privately held throughout his life. Its existence was only known to a few of his closest circle of friends. The book remained in his family until his great-granddaughter sold the volume to the Smithsonian Institution in 1895. 

Bible with columns of text, open

3. Lucretia Mott was a prominent Quaker, abolitionist, and pioneer of women's rights. She became a Quaker minister in 1821 and led efforts to avoid the use of goods produced through the labor of slaves. In 1848, she organized the Seneca Falls Convention with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Beige cloak with bonnet

4. This sampler illustrates how creating objects inspired by religion was part of everyday life in the early republic. Stitched in its fabric is the phrase: "Love the Lord and he will be a tender father unto the[e]"

5. Religious ceremonies marked rites of passage for Americans during this era. These included baptism, first communion, marriage, and death. The exhibition will include President George Washington's christening robe, which came to the Smithsonian in 1883.

White robe with red interior turned down in corner

6. Some American Indians used wampum in trade as a form of money, but also in religious ceremonies, and betrothal or marriage agreements. The beads symbolized peace, harmony, and contentment. The exhibition will include wampum from the museum's numismatic collection, as well as other objects related to American Indian religious traditions.

Small white shells on string

David Allison is associate director of the Office of Curatorial Affairs. Peter Manseau is the author of One Nation, Under Gods and guest curator. Our Religion in Early America Symposium on Friday, March 20, 2015, is free and open to the public. Register to attend in person or watch live via webcast.

Author(s): 
David Allison and Peter Manseau
Topic
American History
National Museum of American History
Creator
National Museum of American History
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Published Date
Tue, 17 Mar 2015 13:00:34 +0000
Type
Blog posts
Smithsonian staff publications
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