Alexander Campbell and Thomas Jefferson
A Comparative Study of Two Old Virginians


    In the immediate generations before Jefferson the Puritans of New England had constructed a religious philosophy that was a synthesis of Protestantism and Platonism. The Platonic heritage inspired the idea of a Holy Commonwealth, which called for a totalitarian religion and anything but religious freedom and separation of church and state. The first Protestants in America set up church states similar to the Roman Catholic states they had left behind in Europe. Back in Geneva Calvin had been such a religious despot that he fined people for not going to church, jailed them for wearing jewelry and lace, and burned them at the stake if they were heretics. A father was jailed for naming his child other than a Bible name and a woman was incarcerated for wearing her hairdo too high. Calvin condemned 58 to death as heretics during his theocratic rule in Geneva.

    It was this kind of Calvinism that came to America, and once it was fused with Platonic philosophy, it provided the religious austerity found in colonial America and which in part followed the frontier as it moved west. Plato's philosophy not only supported regimentation of men and ideas, censorship, collectivism, and thought control, but it was also critical of democracy. It also provided resource for metaphysical speculation. Roman Catholicism, on the other hand was more Aristotelian, due to the influence of Thomas Acquinas some centuries before. This is to say that while Calvinistic Protestantism was more mystical and speculative, Roman Catholicism was more scholastic and institutional.

    Jeffersonian democracy and what might be called Campbellian individualism drew their inspiration other than from Plato and Aristotle. Jefferson had an aversion of Plato, viewing his writings as "sophisms, futilities and incomprehensibilities."

    In a letter to John Adams he said of Plato:

    "His foggy mind is forever presenting the semblances of objects which, half seen through a mist, can be defined neither in form nor dimensions. Yet this, which should have consigned him to early oblivion, really procured him immortality of fame and reverence." Of the clergy's use of Plato he commented: "The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding, and too plain to need explanation, saw in the mysticism of Plato materials with which they might build up an artificial system . . . The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them, and for the obvious reason that nonsense can never be explained." (Norman Cousins, In God We Trust, p. 162)

    Jefferson went on to explain that the divines had canonized Plato for speculative purposes and "it is now deemed as impious to question his merits as those of an Apostle of Jesus." He goes on to tell John Adams: "It is fortunate for us, that Platonic republicanism has not obtained the same favor as Platonic Christianity, or we should now have been all living, men, women and children, pell mell together, like beasts of the field or forest." He points out that Plato is especially appealed to on the immortality of the soul, but contends that no one would believe such if there were no better arguments than those given by Plato.

    The Monticello sage would have been pleased if he could have read after a different kind of "divine" up in Bethany. Campbell made it clear that his reformation was not philosophically oriented: "We build not on poetry nor on philosophy. We build on the living oracles of the living God. We have the full assurance of understanding only when we build or rest upon the express oracles of the Holy Spirit, addressing us in the Apostolic writing." (Mill. Harb. 1862, p. 292)

    And Jefferson would surely have nodded his approval if he could have read the following from Campbell: "We are ashamed to see any brother, young or old, learned or unlearned, gifted or not gifted, substituting any philosophy of faith for faith itself, any philosophy of hope for hope itself, any philosophy of love for love itself, and thus, unintentionally however it may be, substituting any theory however specious and plausible in his own eyes, for the simple belief of the simple testimony of the Holy Spirit." (Ibid, p. 294) On the other hand he argued that a true philosophy and a true faith were not antagonistic. (Mill. Harb. 1857, p. 481)

    It is especially interesting that just as Jefferson poked fun at Plato's arguments for the immortality of the soul, Campbell too lampoons those "simple philosophers" who speak of the immortality of the soul. It is the spirit of man that is eternal, he contends, distinguishing between soul and spirit, and he insists that: "The body and the soul die, but the spirit is immortal. An immortal soul is not once found in Holy Writ." (Mill. Harb. 1862, p. 112)

    Surely Thomas Jefferson, after reading Plato, would have become very interested in Alexander Campbell could he have read the Millennial Harbinger, which unfortunately circulated throughout Virginia a little too late for Jefferson.

    Jefferson would have admired Campbell's anti-Calvinism, for he himself viewed that school of Protestantism as tyrannical and demoralizing. Like Campbell, Jefferson was anti-Trinitarian, contending that the Calvinistic idea of three Gods is a blasphemous dogma. Both men voiced strong objection to the Calvinistic teaching that, as Jefferson put it "God from the beginning elected certain individuals to be saved, and certain others to be damned, and that no crimes of the former can damn them; no virtues of the latter save." (Cousins, Op. Cit. p. 161)

    The two men even talked similarly about the restoration of primitive Christianity. One wonders if Jefferson might possibly have had Campbell in mind when he wrote the following in a letter to Benjamin Waterhouse in 1822, one year before Campbell began his publications, but well after he began his crusade throughout Virginia for the restoration of primitive Christianity: "Happy is the prospect of a restoration of primitive Christianity. I must leave to younger athletes to encounter and lop off the false branches which have been engrafted into it by the mythologies of the middle and modern ages." (Ibid. p. 162) Did he see in Alexander Campbell, then only 35 years old, one of those "younger athletes" who would tear down the strongholds of speculative Calvinism?

    In any case Jefferson saw a restoration preacher as having a lot of trouble with the clergy: "He might be excluded by our hierophants from their churches and meeting-houses, but would be attended in the fields by whole acres of hearers and thinkers." He would have endorsed most of all Campbell's effort to restore a creedless religion free of the speculative dogmas that only confused and divided people. He would also have appreciated Campbell's concept of the priesthood of all believers, his emphasis upon reason as well as faith, and his "common sense" approach to theological questions. But Jefferson feared that any effort to re-establish the true religion of Christ would be followed by "the fatal error of fabricating formulas of creed and confessions of faith, the engines which so soon destroyed the religion of Jesus" and thus negate any restoration effort.

    While both men were heterodox in religion, Jefferson's non-conformity is more difficult to define. Was he a deist as he was accused of being? Deism in Jefferson's time was at its peak in American thought. Forms of it are much alive in present-day Unitarianism and perhaps Quakerism. Unlike an atheist who rejects wholesale any notion of God, a deist views God as the Great Architect of the universe, but not as one who interferes with the creation or in any way involves himself in human affairs. God is the perfect clock maker who has left his creation to tick on as it will. To think of the Supreme Being as tinkering with his finished clock is to make him seem trivial, anxious, and ridiculous. So God politely bowed out of the universe according to deism. There can therefore be no miracles, and any idea of God as a "Father" who cares for each one of his children is to be rejected.

    If Jefferson was a deist, he was a "Christian" type deist, for he could speak of "the revival of primitive Christianity" with as much excitement as a Tennessee "Campbellite." He saw three great principles in Christianity: the belief in one God, a future state of rewards and punishments, and the Golden Rule. From this point on much of his religious thinking was negative in that it was mostly antagonistic to the "crazy imaginations" of Calvinism. He saw Calvinism as believing in three Gods and as urging that the love of one's neighbors and good works are nothing. He complained that in Calvinism "faith is everything and the more incomprehensible the proposition the more merit is its faith." It teaches that reason in religion is of unlawful use, and its Deity "is not the God whom I acknowledge and adore, the Creator and benevolent Governor of the world, but a demon of malignant spirit." (Russell: Jefferson, Champion of the Free Mind, p. 338)

    Calvin was to Jefferson "an impious dogmatist" and "a false shepherd" that taught "a counter-religion as foreign from Christianity as is that of Mahomet." "Their blasphemies have driven thinking men into infidelity," Jefferson lamented, "who have too hastily rejected the supposed author himself with the horrors so falsely imputed to him." He insisted that the whole civilized world would be Christian "had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips."

    It is difficult to tell Jefferson and Campbell apart when they are speaking on the evils of Calvinism, the jargon of Trinitarianism, the corruption of the clergy, or the confusions of creedalism. Compare their views on these subjects in these quotations:

    Thomas Jefferson: "When we shall have done away with the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three; when we shall have knocked down the artificial scaffolding, reared to mask from view the simple structure of Jesus; when, in short, we shall have unlearned everything which has been taught since his day, and got back to the pure and simple doctrines he inculcated, we shall then be truly and worthily his disciplines." (Cousins, p. 156)

    Alexander Campbell: "I object to the doctrine of the Trinity not because it is contrary to reason or revelation, but because of the metaphysical technicalities, the unintelligible jargon, the unmeaning language of the orthodox creeds on this subject, and the interminable war of words without ideas to which this word Trinity has given birth." (Mill. Harb. 1833, p. 155)

    Thomas Jefferson: "The Presbyterian clergy are loudest, the most intolerant of all sects, the most tyrannical and ambitious; ready at the word of the lawgiver, if such a word could be now obtained, to put the torch to the pile, and to rekindle in this virgin hemisphere, the flames in which their oracle Calvin consumed the poor Servetus, because he could not find in his Euclid the proposition which has demonstrated that three are one and one is three, nor subscribe to that of Calvin, that magistrates have a right to exterminate all heretics to Calvinistic Creed. They want to re-establish, by law, that holy inquisition, which they can only infuse into public opinion." (Cousins, p. 151)

    Alexander Campbell: "If the legislature incorporate a University for creating priests, let all the religious sects in Kentucky, who desire to have priests manufactured in modern style, have a fair, that is, an equal chance of participating in its advantages . . . But, perhaps, it may be thought expedient to have a few high priests in the state; if so, then do not give the control of the University to the Presbyterian synod, for they stand in the least need of it, inasmuch as they are pretty generally high priests already." (Chris. Bap. 2, p. 137: Gospel Advocate Edition)

    Thomas Jefferson: "You ask my opinion on the items of doctrine in your catechism. I have never permitted myself to meditate on a specific creed. These formulas have been the bane and ruin of the Christian church, its own fatal invention, which, through so many ages, made of Christendom a slaughter-house, and at this day divides it into casts of inextinguishable hatred to one another." (Cousins, p. 158)

    In this same letter Jefferson states that all present sects have creeds except "religionists calling themselves Christians" and the Quakers, which is a reference no doubt to the Campbellites, or to the O'Kelly movement which eventually became a part of the Restoration Movement.

    Alexander Campbell: "Human creeds have made more heretics than Christians, more parties than reformations, more martyrs than saints, more wars than peace, more hatred than love, more death than life." (Campbell-Rice Debate, p. 765)

    Thomas Jefferson: "It is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read. By the same test the world must judge me. But this does not satisfy the priesthood. They must have a positive, a declared assent to all their interested absurdities. My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel if there had never been a priest." (Cousins, p. 147)

    Alexander Campbell: "In this country we have no kings and no king-craft. We are not, therefore, afraid to laugh at the impious and vain pretensions of the allied sovereigns. But in this country we have priests and priestcraft, and therefore many tremble to lisp a word against priests and priestcraft." (Chris. Bap. 1, p. 88)

    Needless to say that such views as these brought the wrath of the clergy upon them. Jefferson, for instance, was branded "an atheistical monster" by the president of Trinity College (Methodist), now called Duke University. The president said Jefferson's establishment of the University of Virginia was "a long-range plan for the subversion of Christianity" and "a bold enterprise and deistic daring of enormous proportions." He called him "a deist, an infidel, agnostic and materialist." (M. D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image, p. 243)

    As for Campbell, the leading clerics did everything but curse him, and some of them did worse than that. In Scotland he was imprisoned; in America church buildings were closed to him. In the press he was castigated with such mildness as Andrew Broaddus' "unsound and dangerous" and such harshness as J. B. Jeter's "There is a screw loose in his mental machinery."