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Questionable Quotes: Jefferson and the Sacred Volume

Posted by sbh on Sunday, 5 July 2009

Did Thomas Jefferson say

I have always said, and will always say, that studious perusal of the sacred volume will make us better citizens.


Maybe.  The words are not Thomas Jefferson’s directly; they are words recalled by someone else many years later.

It’s always chancy to rely on the recollection of a witness for the words of another person, and it’s even chancier to rely on them after the passage of some time.  This saying falls into both these categories.  On the other hand, as such things go, this one is better than most.  It’s not the recollection of some anonymous person at an unknown time; in this instance we know the path this recollection traveled, and can form some estimate of its reliability.

On 15 June 1852 Daniel Webster—statesman, former Senator, and then Secretary of State under Millard Fillmore—wrote a letter to “Professor Pease” (possibly Professor Calvin Pease, D.D. (1813-1863), who was active in the sabbath-school movement and later became a New York minister), to thank him for a report on the condition of New York sabbath schools.  In the course of his letter he recalled a sabbath spent with Thomas Jefferson more than a quarter of a century earlier and reported some of Jefferson’s views as he remembered them (paragraphing mine):

Many years ago I spent a Sabbath with Thomas Jefferson, at his residence in Virginia. It was in the month of June, and the weather was delightful. While engaged in discussing the beauties of the Bible, the sound of the bell broke upon our ears, when, turning to the sage of Monticello, I remarked, “How sweetly, how very sweetly sounds that Sabbath bell!”

The distinguished statesman for a moment seemed lost in thought, and then replied: “Yes, my dear Webster; yes, it melts the heart, it calms the passions, and makes us boys again.

Here I observed that man was only an animal formed for a religious worship, and that notwithstanding all the sophistry of Epicurus, Lucretius and Voltaire, the Scriptures stood upon a rock as firm, as unmovable as truth itself; that man, in his purer, loftier breathings, turned the mental eyes towards immortality, and that the poet only echoed the general sentiment of our nature in saying that,—

The soul secure in her existence, smiles
At the drawn dagger, and defies its point.

Mr. Jefferson fully concurred in this opinion, and observed that the tendency of the American mind was in a different direction; and that Sunday Schools—(he did not use our more correct term, Sabbath)—presented the only legitimate means, under the constitution, of avoiding the rock on which the French republic was wrecked. “Burke,” said he, “never uttered a more important truth than when he exclaimed that a ‘religious education was the cheap defence of nations.’ Raikes,” said Mr. Jefferson, “has done more for our country than the present generation will acknowledge; perhaps when I am cold he will obtain his reward; I hope so, earnestly hope so; I am considered by many, Mr. Webster, to have little religion, but now is not the time to correct errors of this sort. I have always said, and always will say, that the studious perusal of the sacred volume will make better citizens, better fathers, and better husbands. Of the distinguished Raikes, he was clarum et venerabile nomen.

I took the liberty of saying that I found more pleasure in Hebrew poetry than in the best productions of Greece and Rome. That the “harp upon the willows by Babylon” had charms for me beyond anything in the numbers of the blind man of Smyrna. I then turned to Jeremiah (there was a fine folio of the Scriptures before me of 1458) and read aloud some of those sublime passages that used to delight me on my father’s knee.

First, a couple of notes.  Edmund Burke said that “chivalry,” not “religious education” was the cheap defense of nations (Reflections on the Revolution in France). Robert Raikes (1735-1811) was the founder of the Sunday School Movement. With these minor clarifications out of the way, let us continue.

As I noted above there are at least two strikes against the authenticity of this statement—the passage of time, and the fact that we are at one remove from the original. On the other hand Daniel Webster may be considered a credible witness, and the circumstances are such as to fix events in his memory. Spending an afternoon with one of the most revered figures of your time is the sort of thing that is not easy to forget, and certainly Daniel Webster is likely to have recalled and treasured the memory.

The statement that “the studious perusal of the sacred volume will make better citizens” is often cited in present-day controversial literature by those who wish to insert government-mandated Bible-reading in public schools.  As Chris Rodda points out, “…Webster’s recollection of Jefferson saying that Sunday schools were “the only legitimate means, under the constitution” for teaching religion, and Webster’s failure to disagree with this opinion, mak[e] this letter, whether the other quotes in it were accurately recalled by Webster or not, a much better argument against the public school Bible curriculum than for it.”

This letter had appeared in print by 1858 (see The National Magazine for August 1858), and was circulated originally to counteract emerging evidence of Jefferson’s “infidel” opinions. The National Magazine’s editorial comment read:

Some there have been who have labored hard to prove that the sage of Monticello was an infidel, and that he ignored all religion but that of nature, and lived in the atmosphere of a blank and cheerless atheism. The testimony above given by so eminent a witness must be received as conclusive on this point.

Of course Jefferson’s own writings easily trump anything written by anybody else, no matter how eminent. And his work does show that he was far from being an orthodox Christian by the standards of his time.


Historical Revisionism from the National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools (Chris Rodda)

The Bible is the Source of Liberty (Jefferson Encyclopedia)

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