The year is 1819. It is a year ripe with promise. In January, Thomas Jefferson learns that efforts to establish an institution modeled after his education ideals have borne fruit. The Virginia General Assembly has decided to appropriate $15,000 for the founding of the University of Virginia.
His dear friend Joseph Carrington Cabell writes him on Jan. 18, “Grateful, truly grateful, is it to my heart, to be able to announce to you ... a decisive victory.”
The achievement crowned a lifetime dedicated to public service, one Jefferson could look back on with a sense of satisfaction. And yet, at age 77, there was one project—so intensely private it remained a secret for decades—that gnawed at Jefferson. So in quiet moments at Monticello, he hunched over several copies of the New Testament, cutting, pasting, translating, scribbling notes, compiling passages—all as a means to explore his own beliefs and deepen his understanding of Christianity.
“For him, this was an honest attempt to get at the genuine sense of what God wanted us to get from this text,” says University religion professor Charles Mathewes.
There must also have been an emotional release. Jefferson had been vilified for his conviction that religion was a personal matter. That belief was the bedrock of his work to establish the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and secure the separation of church and state. “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others,” he wrote. “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Plus, he never wanted to “preach” to others and held that as a former president he should stay silent on religious matters, says Peter Onuf, the University’s Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History.
“Every word which goes forth from me,” Jefferson wrote, “whether verbally or in writing, becomes the subject of so much malignant distortion, and perverted construction, that I am obliged to caution my friends against the possibility of my letters getting into the public papers.”
It was his closest friends, including Founding Father Benjamin Rush, who spurred the idea for the project decades earlier. Their animated discussions about religion and spirituality led to a pledge that Jefferson would write down his beliefs, which were far from orthodox. “I am a sect by myself, as far as I know,” he wrote.
His spiritual life began conventionally enough by 18th-century Virginia standards. Raised in the Anglican Church, he began to ask questions about religion as a young man and did so throughout his life. Although inquisitive and filled with doubts, Jefferson believed the Bible was a source of great wisdom, Mathewes says.
A child of Enlightenment rationalism and revolutionary thinking, Jefferson rejected miracles and the idea of Christ as the son of God. He saw Jesus as a powerful, persuasive moral teacher, author of “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”
In 1804, during his first term as president, he made a stab at cutting and pasting passages of the New Testament to reflect “The Philosophy of Jesus,” as he called it. Other affairs took precedent, however, until 1819, when, with exacting precision and characteristic ingenuity, he compiled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English.”
Today, that work is known simply as “The Jefferson Bible,” and thanks to efforts by the Smithsonian Institution, it is available for all the world to view. The book recently underwent extensive conservation and now is displayed at the National Museum of American History. In addition, Smithsonian Books, the institution’s publishing arm, recently printed a facsimile edition. It gives deeper insights into Jefferson’s beliefs.
“This book is like a window into his mind,” says Carolyn Gleason (Col ’85), Smithsonian Books director.
One of those insights is Jefferson’s yearning to strip away all but the essential teachings of Jesus and his disdain for the “dross [that has] concealed the gold.” “Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian,” he wrote.
“Jefferson was driven to edit the Bible the way a parent whose child was kidnapped is driven to find the culprit,” writes historian Steven Waldman. “Jefferson loved Jesus and was attempting to rescue him.”
His approach reflected a lifetime interest in religion. According to Endrina Tay, Monticello librarian, 190 of the works Jefferson sold Congress in 1815 covered religious topics. These volumes included sermons, prayer books and editions of the Bible and New Testament in Latin, Greek and English.
The book he created served predominantly as a personal study guide, one rooted in the routine 18th-century practice of using “commonplace books,” Onuf says. In these, people noted ideas, passages and quotations for deeper reading and reflection. It was a small step from this practice to re-ordering Biblical material.
The Smithsonian acquired the “Jefferson Bible” in 1895 from the former president’s great-granddaughter for $400. In 1904, the Government Printing Office published a facsimile and gave copies to Congress members. New senators got copies until the 1950s.
Over time, the original became fragile. Almost 200 years after Jefferson made the book, its pages were stiff and brittle, and tight binding had caused cracks and tears. Smithsonian officials chose to conserve the book to ensure its long-term survival. Treatment, which was completed in 2011, included cleaning, stabilizing, repairing and rebinding with the original covers.
The facsimile, created by Smithsonian Books, has struck a responsive chord. Three printings have sold out quickly. The experience also has been a powerful one for Gleason, particularly when she handled the original. “The first time I saw it I was a little star-struck,” she says. “I kept thinking, ‘This actually is Jefferson’s book.’”
Re-creating that kind of impact drove the Smithsonian’s efforts. “We took a one-of-a-kind object and mass-produced it,” Gleason says. “We wanted to leave the reader feeling that he’s experienced the real thing.”
That set a high bar. The publishing team had to make an item the same size as Jefferson’s with the same type of covers, paper color and endpapers.
“It was by far the most challenging project I’ve ever worked on,” Gleason says.
“I felt compelled to get it right. Of course, we always want to ‘get it right,’ but the Jefferson connection made the desire even stronger.”
How Jefferson Created It
Unlike other books of its time, Jefferson’s creation was not printed by a single printer on one type of paper. It was more like a scrapbook.
HOW THE SMITHSONIAN CONSERVED IT
Before conservation began, the team did material analysis, microscopic examination, photographic documentation and historical research.
IN A NUTSHELL
To repair the artifact, the cover and silk endbands were removed intact. Jefferson’s pages were stabilized with conservation repair tissue and reversible adhesives. High-resolution digital images were captured to ensure public access. The pages were rebound in the historic cover in a manner sympathetic to the original, but with modifications to prevent the same damage from recurring.