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.





April, 1803


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

& injurious.


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

all others.

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.





_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.







_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