THE MORALS OF JESUS
To Dr. Benjamin Rush, with a Syllabus
Washington, Apr. 21, 1803
DEAR SIR, -- In some of the delightful conversations with you,
in the evenings of 1798-99, and which served as an anodyne to the
afflictions of the crisis through which our country was then
laboring, the Christian religion was sometimes our topic; and I then
promised you, that one day or other, I would give you my views of it.
They are the result of a life of inquiry & reflection, and very
different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who
know nothing ofmy opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am
indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I
am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely
attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to
himself every _human_ excellence; & believing he never claimed any
other. At the short intervals since these conversations, when I
could justifiably abstract my mind from public affairs, the subject
has been under my contemplation. But the more I considered it, the
more it expanded beyond the measure of either my time or information.
In the moment of my late departure from Monticello, I received from
Doctr Priestley, his little treatise of "Socrates & Jesus compared."
This being a section of the general view I had taken of the field, it
became a subject of reflection while on the road, and unoccupied
otherwise. The result was, to arrange in my mind a syllabus, or
outline of such an estimate of the comparative merits of
Christianity, as I wished to see executed by some one of more leisure
and information for the task, than myself. This I now send you, as
the only discharge of my promise I can probably ever execute. And in
confiding it to you, I know it will not be exposed to the malignant
perversions of those who make every word from me a text for new
misrepresentations & calumnies. I am moreover averse to the
communication of my religious tenets to the public; because it would
countenance the presumption of those who have endeavored to draw them
before that tribunal, and to seduce public opinion to erect itself
into that inquisition over the rights of conscience, which the laws
have so justly proscribed. It behoves every man who values liberty
of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of
others; or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his
own. It behoves him, too, in his own case, to give no example of
concession, betraying the common right of independent opinion, by
answering questions of faith, which the laws have left between God &
himself. Accept my affectionate salutations.
SYLLABUS OF AN ESTIMATE OF THE MERIT OF THE DOCTRINES OF JESUS
COMPARED WITH THOSE OF OTHERS
In a comparative view of the Ethics of the enlightened nations
of antiquity, of the Jews and of Jesus, no notice should be taken of
the corruptions of reason among the ancients, to wit, the idolatry &
superstition of the vulgar, nor of the corruptions of Christianity by
the learned among its professors.
Let a just view be taken of the moral principles inculcated by
the most esteemed of the sects of ancient philosophy, or of their
individuals; particularly Pythagoras, Socrates, Epicurus, Cicero,
Epictetus, Seneca, Antoninus.
I. PHILOSOPHERS. 1. Their precepts related chiefly to
ourselves, and the government of those passions which, unrestrained,
would disturb our tranquillity of mind. In this branch of philosophy
they were really great.
2. In developing our duties to others, they were short and
defective. They embraced, indeed, the circles of kindred & friends,
and inculcated patriotism, or the love of our country in the
aggregate, as a primary obligation: toward our neighbors & countrymen
they taught justice, but scarcely viewed them as within the circle of
benevolence. Still less have they inculcated peace, charity & love
to our fellow men, or embraced with benevolence the whole family of
II. JEWS. 1. Their system was Deism; that is, the belief of one
only God. But their ideas of him & of his attributes were degrading
2. Their Ethics were not only imperfect, but often
irreconcilable with the sound dictates of reason & morality, as they
respect intercourse with those around us; & repulsive & anti-social,
as respecting other nations. They needed reformation, therefore, in
an eminent degree.
III. JESUS. In this state of things among the Jews, Jesus
appeared. His parentage was obscure; his condition poor; his
education null; his natural endowments great; his life correct and
innocent: he was meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, & of
the sublimest eloquence.
The disadvantages under which his doctrines appear are
1. Like Socrates & Epictetus, he wrote nothing himself.
2. But he had not, like them, a Xenophon or an Arrian to write
for him. On the contrary, all the learned of his country, entrenched
in its power and riches, were opposed to him, lest his labors should
undermine their advantages; and the committing to writing his life &
doctrines fell on the most unlettered & ignorant men; who wrote, too,
from memory, & not till long after the transactions had passed.
3. According to the ordinary fate of those who attempt to
enlighten and reform mankind, he fell an early victim to the jealousy
& combination of the altar and the throne, at about 33. years of age,
his reason having not yet attained the _maximum_ of its energy, nor
the course of his preaching, which was but of 3. years at most,
presented occasions for developing a complete system of morals.
4. Hence the doctrines which he really delivered were defective
as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us
mutilated, misstated, & often unintelligible.
5. They have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of
schismatising followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating
& perverting the simple doctrines he taught by engrafting on them the
mysticisms of a Grecian sophist, frittering them into subtleties, &
obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject
the whole in disgust, & to view Jesus himself as an impostor.
Notwithstanding these disadvantages, a system of morals is
presented to us, which, if filled up in the true style and spirit of
the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime
that has ever been taught by man.
The question of his being a member of the Godhead, or in direct
communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers, and
denied by others, is foreign to the present view, which is merely an
estimate of the intrinsic merit of his doctrines.
1. He corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their
belief of one only God, and giving them juster notions of his
attributes and government.
2. His moral doctrines, relating to kindred & friends, were
more pure & perfect than those of the most correct of the
philosophers, and greatly more so than those of the Jews; and they
went far beyond both in inculcating universal philanthropy, not only
to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all
mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love,
charity, peace, common wants and common aids. A development of this
head will evince the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over
3. The precepts of philosophy, & of the Hebrew code, laid hold
of actions only. He pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man;
erected his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the
waters at the fountain head.
4. He taught, emphatically, the doctrines of a future state,
which was either doubted, or disbelieved by the Jews; and wielded it
with efficacy, as an important incentive, supplementary to the other
motives to moral conduct.
"I HAVE SWORN UPON THE ALTAR OF GOD . . . "
_To Dr. Benjamin Rush_
_Monticello, Sep. 23, 1800_
DEAR SIR, -- I have to acknolege the receipt of your favor of
Aug. 22, and to congratulate you on the healthiness of your city.
Still Baltimore, Norfolk & Providence admonish us that we are not
clear of our new scourge. When great evils happen, I am in the habit
of looking out for what good may arise from them as consolations to
us, and Providence has in fact so established the order of things, as
that most evils are the means of producing some good. The yellow
fever will discourage the growth of great cities in our nation, & I
view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the
liberties of man. True, they nourish some of the elegant arts, but
the useful ones can thrive elsewhere, and less perfection in the
others, with more health, virtue & freedom, would be my choice.
I agree with you entirely, in condemning the mania of giving
names to objects of any kind after persons still living. Death alone
can seal the title of any man to this honor, by putting it out of his
power to forfeit it. There is one other mode of recording merit,
which I have often thought might be introduced, so as to gratify the
living by praising the dead. In giving, for instance, a commission
of chief justice to Bushrod Washington, it should be in consideration
of his integrity, and science in the laws, and of the services
rendered to our country by his illustrious relation, &c. A
commission to a descendant of Dr. Franklin, besides being in
consideration of the proper qualifications of the person, should add
that of the great services rendered by his illustrious ancestor, Bn
Fr, by the advancement of science, by inventions useful to man, &c.
I am not sure that we ought to change all our names. And during the
regal government, sometimes, indeed, they were given through
adulation; but often also as the reward of the merit of the times,
sometimes for services rendered the colony. Perhaps, too, a name
when given, should be deemed a sacred property.
I promised you a letter on Christianity, which I have not
forgotten. On the contrary, it is because I have reflected on it,
that I find much more time necessary for it than I can at present
dispose of. I have a view of the subject which ought to displease
neither the rational Christian nor Deists, and would reconcile many
to a character they have too hastily rejected. I do not know that it
would reconcile the _genus irritabile vatum_ who are all in arms
against me. Their hostility is on too interesting ground to be
softened. The delusion into which the X. Y. Z. plot shewed it
possible to push the people; the successful experiment made under the
prevalence of that delusion on the clause of the constitution, which,
while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom
of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of
obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity thro'
the U. S.; and as every sect believes its own form the true one,
every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians
& Congregationalists. The returning good sense of our country
threatens abortion to their hopes, & they believe that any portion of
power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes.
And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god,
eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.
But this is all they have to fear from me: & enough too in their
opinion, & this is the cause of their printing lying pamphlets
against me, forging conversations for me with Mazzei, Bishop Madison,
&c., which are absolute falsehoods without a circumstance of truth to
rest on; falsehoods, too, of which I acquit Mazzei & Bishop Madison,
for they are men of truth.
But enough of this: it is more than I have before committed to
paper on the subject of all the lies that has been preached and
printed against me. I have not seen the work of Sonnoni which you
mention, but I have seen another work on Africa, (Parke's,) which I
fear will throw cold water on the hopes of the friends of freedom.
You will hear an account of an attempt at insurrection in this state.
I am looking with anxiety to see what will be it's effect on our
state. We are truly to be pitied. I fear we have little chance to
see you at the Federal city or in Virginia, and as little at
Philadelphia. It would be a great treat to receive you here. But
nothing but sickness could effect that; so I do not wish it. For I
wish you health and happiness, and think of you with affection.
JESUS, SOCRATES, AND OTHERS
_To Dr. Joseph Priestley_
_Washington, Apr. 9, 1803_
DEAR SIR, -- While on a short visit lately to Monticello, I
received from you a copy of your comparative view of Socrates &
Jesus, and I avail myself of the first moment of leisure after my
return to acknolege the pleasure I had in the perusal of it, and the
desire it excited to see you take up the subject on a more extensive
scale. In consequence of some conversation with Dr. Rush, in the
year 1798-99, I had promised some day to write him a letter giving
him my view of the Christian system. I have reflected often on it
since, & even sketched the outlines in my own mind. I should first
take a general view of the moral doctrines of the most remarkable of
the antient philosophers, of whose ethics we have sufficient
information to make an estimate, say of Pythagoras, Epicurus,
Epictetus, Socrates, Cicero, Seneca, Antoninus. I should do justice
to the branches of morality they have treated well; but point out the
importance of those in which they are deficient. I should then take
a view of the deism and ethics of the Jews, and show in what a
degraded state they were, and the necessity they presented of a
reformation. I should proceed to a view of the life, character, &
doctrines of Jesus, who sensible of incorrectness of their ideas of
the Deity, and of morality, endeavored to bring them to the
principles of a pure deism, and juster notions of the attributes of
God, to reform their moral doctrines to the standard of reason,
justice & philanthropy, and to inculcate the belief of a future
state. This view would purposely omit the question of his divinity,
& even his inspiration. To do him justice, it would be necessary to
remark the disadvantages his doctrines have to encounter, not having
been committed to writing by himself, but by the most unlettered of
men, by memory, long after they had heard them from him; when much
was forgotten, much misunderstood, & presented in very paradoxical
shapes. Yet such are the fragments remaining as to show a master
workman, and that his system of morality was the most benevolent &
sublime probably that has been ever taught, and consequently more
perfect than those of any of the antient philosophers. His character
& doctrines have received still greater injury from those who pretend
to be his special disciples, and who have disfigured and
sophisticated his actions & precepts, from views of personal
interest, so as to induce the unthinking part of mankind to throw off
the whole system in disgust, and to pass sentence as an impostor on
the most innocent, the most benevolent, the most eloquent and sublime
character that ever has been exhibited to man. This is the outline;
but I have not the time, & still less the information which the
subject needs. It will therefore rest with me in contemplation only.
You are the person who of all others would do it best, and most
promptly. You have all the materials at hand, and you put together
with ease. I wish you could be induced to extend your late work to
the whole subject. I have not heard particularly what is the state
of your health; but as it has been equal to the journey to
Philadelphia, perhaps it might encourage the curiosity you must feel
to see for once this place, which nature has formed on a beautiful
scale, and circumstances destine for a great one. As yet we are but
a cluster of villages; we cannot offer you the learned society of
Philadelphia; but you will have that of a few characters whom you
esteem, & a bed & hearty welcome with one who will rejoice in every
opportunity of testifying to you his high veneration & affectionate