Who is Nature's God?

David J. Voelker

Note: In January 2010, David J. Voelker wrote an introductory note for this 1993 essay.

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.[1]

In the "Declaration of Independence," the founding document of what would become the United States, Thomas Jefferson mentions "nature's God." Unfortunately, this phrase is unclear. The religious beliefs of Jefferson were much debated in his time and still are over two centuries later. Through the letters and other writings of Jefferson, it is possible to construct an outline of his beliefs. Although he supported the moral teachings of Jesus, Jefferson believed in a creator similar to the God of deism. In the tradition of deism, Jefferson based his God on reason and rejected revealed religion.

Jefferson's parents reared him in the Episcopal Church. Although there is no known record of him being baptized, it is almost certain that an Anglican clergyman baptized him. Records show that both Thomas Jefferson and his father Peter were elected vestrymen. These positions, however, merely reflected the Jeffersons' social status; they were both land-owning and educated men. The positions were given "with small regard to their personal convictions or even their way of life."[2]

That Jefferson participated in the administration of the parish does not reflect his specific beliefs. Despite his social and familial ties to the Episcopal Church, Jefferson came to disbelieve its creeds and rejected most Christian doctrine. In his book The Religion of Thomas Jefferson, Henry Foote says that Jefferson did not believe in the divinity of Jesus but he viewed him as a "human teacher."[3] He believed only what his reason allowed: "His knowledge of science led him to reject all miracles, including the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus."[4] By the time he was a young adult, Jefferson had developed his own religious views outside the framework of any sect.

Jefferson believed that the various sects of Christianity had corrupted the original message of Jesus: "They [the teachings of Jesus] have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatizing followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines he taught."[5] However, Jefferson did believe that the teachings of Jesus had some merit.

Jefferson felt that religion was a deeply private matter. People did not need to proclaim their beliefs: "I never told my own religion nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wish to change another's creed."[6] Jefferson saw religion as private and therefore found priests unnecessary. He wrote in the same letter "I have ever thought religion a concern purely between our God and our consciences for which we were accountable to him, and not to the priests."[7] He only spoke about his own religious beliefs when he was asked to, and only in his private letters did he speak clearly of his beliefs.

Without supporting revealed religion, Jefferson subscribed to the moral teachings of Jesus. He stated this belief explicitly in a letter to John Adams in which he wrote that the moral code of Jesus was "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man."[8] Jefferson even made a collection of Jesus' moral teachings from the Bible which seemed to be in their original simplicity. He used this collection as an ethical guide to his own life.

Jefferson's God was the source of moral values. In a letter to his nephew Peter Carr, he wrote that "He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler, if He had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science."[9] Rather, God made man "with a sense of right and wrong."[10] People were responsible for their actions on earth and would be rewarded or punished in some kind of afterlife.

More important than beliefs to Jefferson was the way people lived their lives. "I have ever judged the religion of others by their lives . . . for it is in our lives and not from our words, that our religion must be read."[11] In a letter to Adams, Jefferson concluded about religion: "the result of your 50 or 60 years of religious reading, in four words 'be just and good' is that in which all our inquiries must end."[12] This emphasis on behavior over belief was at the core of Jefferson's creed, although he did think that morality was connected to belief in God.

Jefferson based his belief in God on reason. In a letter to John Adams, Jefferson wrote that he believed in God because of the argument from design:

I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in it's [sic] parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of it's [sic] composition. . . it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is . . . a fabricator of all things.[13]

After applying his faculty of reason, in which he placed much faith, Jefferson found that he had to believe in a creator.

Jefferson believed most aspects of the creator could not be known. He rejected revealed religion because revealed religion suggests a violation of the laws of nature. For revelation or any miracle to occur, the laws of nature would necessarily be broken. Jefferson did not accept this violation of natural laws. He attributed to God only such qualities as reason suggested. "He described God as perfect and good, but otherwise did not attempt an analysis of the nature of God."[14] Also in a letter to Adams, Jefferson said, "Of the nature of this being [God] we know nothing."[15]

Although Jefferson never gave a label to his set of beliefs, they are consistent with the ideas of deism, a general religious orientation developed during the Enlightenment. Jefferson, being a non-sectarian, did not subordinate his beliefs to any label. He once said, "I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion...or in anything else."[16]

Deism was not actually a formal religion, but rather was a label used loosely to describe certain religious views. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word deist was used negatively during Jefferson's lifetime.[17] The label was often applied to freethinkers like Jefferson as a slander rather than as a precise description. Thus the deist label is not highly specific. Deists were characterized by a belief in God as a creator and "believed only those Christian doctrines that could meet the test of reason."[18] Deists did not believe in miracles, revealed religion, the authority of the clergy, or the divinity of Jesus. Like Jefferson they "regarded ethics, not faith, as the essence of religion."[19]

"Nature's God" was clearly the God of deism in all important ways. That Jefferson included God in the "Declaration of Independence" is very significant because it helped lay the foundation for a civil religion in America. Paul Johnson addressed the civil religion begun by the founders in his article, "The Almost-Chosen People,"[20] saying that the United States was unique because all religious beliefs were respected. People were more concerned with "moral conduct rather than dogma." So Jefferson helped create a society in which different religions could coexist peacefully because of the emphasis on morality over specific belief.[21]


1. Thomas Jefferson, The Complete Jefferson, ed. Saul K. Padover (New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1943), 28.
2. Henry Wilder Foote, The Religion of Thomas Jefferson (Boston: Beacon, 1947), 6.
3. Ibid., 57.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., 55.
6. Jefferson, 955.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid., 951.
9. Arnold A. Wettstein, "Religionless Religion in the Letters and Papers from Monticello," Religion in Life, 46 (Summer: 1977): 158.
10. Ibid., 154.
11. Jefferson, 955.
12. William B. Huntley, "Jefferson's Public and Private Religion," South Atlantaic Quarterly, 79 (Summer 1980): 288.
13. Lester J. Clapton, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters (New York: Van Rees, 1959), 592.
14. Huntley, 79: 288.
15. The Adams-Jefferson Letters, 592.
16. Wettstein, 152.
17. J.A. Simpson and E.S. C. Weiner, eds., Oxford English Dictionary (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1989), s.v. deism.
18. Marvin Perry, Western Civilization (Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 1990), 280.
19. Ibid., 280.
20. Paul Johnson, "The Almost-Chosen People," American History, R.J. Maddox, ed., vol.I, 10th ed. (Guilford, Conn: Dushkin Publishing Group, 1989): 34-37.
Ibid., 37.