Sunday, December 18, 2011

The faith (and doubts) of our fathers: What did the makers of America believe about God and religion? The subject is stirring the very rancour they wanted to avoid

    Sunday, December 18, 2011   No comments

IN THE year of our Lord 1816 two grand old men of the American Revolution corresponded eagerly about the work they had recently done, in their rural retirement, on the Bible. Ex-President Thomas Jefferson thanked his old friend Charles Thomson, a co-sponsor of the Declaration of Independence, for sending a copy of his newly completed synopsis of the Gospels.

At a time when many modern Americans are arguing feverishly over the real significance of the nation's religious and political beginnings, such letters can be dynamite. So let the contents of this exchange be noted carefully. Thomson, like most members of the first American Congress, which he had served as secretary, was a committed member of a church—in his case Presbyterian—but he still felt that there might be things in the Bible that organised Christianity hadn't grasped. So he spent years re-translating the scriptures; the ex-president approved.

But Jefferson, like most of the top figures in the American Revolution, was far more of a sceptic in religious matters. He was fascinated by metaphysics but he had no time for the mystical. In contrast with today's vituperative exchanges, these differences did not stop the two gentlemen maintaining a warm correspondence. But Jefferson's approach to redacting the Bible involved something more radical than translation. He literally snipped out everything supernatural: miracles, the Virgin birth, the resurrection. The result was his own, non-mystical account of the life of Jesus. He told his old comrade: "I too have made a wee little book from the same materials which I call the 'Philosophy of Jesus.' It is a paradigma [sic] of his doctrines, made by cutting the pages out of the book and arranging them on the pages of a blank book…A more beautiful or precious morsel…I have never seen. It is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists who call me infidel and themselves Christians."

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