May 21, 2024

A Detail About Jefferson and the Bible and Education

President Thomas Jefferson allowed and allocated personal funds for the Bible and Watts’ hymnals (as in Isaac Watts) to be taught in a couple of schools in Washington, D.C. Below are details about this.

Thomas Jefferson was a complicated man spiritually. It is a mistake to classify him as a full-fledged believer in Christ. It is also a mistake to classify him as a lifelong skeptic. Dr. Mark Beliles and I wrote a book for MorganJames called, Doubting Thomas, which makes 2 major points. 1) Jefferson was not a lifelong skeptic and 2) Jefferson did not embrace today’s understanding of the “separation of church and state” by which strict separationists mean in effect, the separation of God and state.

Mark A. Beliles and Jerry Newcombe, Doubting Thomas? The Religious Life and Legacy of Thomas Jefferson (New York: MorganJames, Publishers, 2015).

Here is a detail about Jefferson and the Bible and education. On pp. 239 of our book:

“Also while president in Washington, Jefferson ‘Subscribed 200 Dollars [i.e., $4800 today] to an academy at this place.’ The editors of the account book say, ‘The movement to establish public elementary schools in Washington began in 1805 with the formation of the Permanent Institution for the Education of Youth, and Jefferson was named president of its board of trustees. It is unclear how much time Jefferson could give to it but he never expressed opposition to the board hiring two clergymen as its first teachers and the use of the Bible and Watt’s hymnals for teaching reading.” [emphasis added] The board granted two lots for schoolhouses on October 27, 1806, and allowed churches to use them as well.

Source: John C. Proctor, ed., Washington Past and Present (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co, 1930), 414-423.