Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Another Barton Lie Exposed

Jon Rowe and I have spent much of the last two years pointing out the numerous false quotations and false claims about the religious views of the founding fathers that are tossed about by both sides in debate over church/state separation. While false quotes are not as common on the separationist side, they’re not unheard of, and we still have to deal with the perpetual “they were all deists” claims, which is as false as claiming that they were all Christians. Jon has found an unlikely ally in that battle in Derek Wallace, a homeschooled Christian conservative who has written this post debunking a false claim by David Barton that I hadn’t seen before.

The false claim in question is that the Jefferson Bible was written as a “primer” for the benefit of the Indians. I’d never heard this claim before, but Wallace quotes Barton and some of his followers, including D. James Kennedy, on the subject. Here’s Barton:

“Jefferson’s own words explain that his intent for that book was not for it to be a ‘Bible,’ but rather for it to be a primer for the Indians on the teachings of Christ,” David Barton’s Wallbuilders website repeatedly says, without quoting or providing a source to Jefferson’s own words.

And here’s Kennedy:

“It is not a Bible, but an abridgement of the Gospels created by Jefferson in 1804 for the benefit of the Indians,” wrote D. James Kennedy on WorldNetDaily.

And a third source:

“There never was a Jefferson Bible per se. Jefferson did cut out miracles from the Gospels in order to produce a book on ethics–the ethics and morals of Jesus Christ for the purpose of evangelizing and educating the American Indians.”

I’ve never seen this claim before, but even with Barton’s track record of playing fast and loose with the facts, I find it astonishing. Wallace points out some of the problems with this claim, the most obvious of which is that Jefferson’s treatment was not only never given to the Indians, it was hidden even from his family and most of his friends. He only mentioned it to a very few people, including John Adams and Benjamin Rush, and when he did so he explicitly said that he had created for his own use. He was also very careful to instruct his friends not to share any information about his religious views with others. He never talked about his views in public because, after the election of 1800, he was extremely wary of how they would be turned against him. He refused to publish the book while he was alive; indeed, it was not published until 1903.

Why on earth would someone claim that a book that was kept hidden from virtually everyone was intended to be given to the Indians? Jefferson explicitly said otherwise. This isn’t even a good lie, it’s a transparently false one. Wallace does a terrific job of debunking the entire claim and of establishing that Jefferson was certainly not a Christian in any sense that the vast majority of Christians would accept. It’s worth reading the whole thing.


  1. #1 Hume's Ghost
    July 29, 2006

    Thanks. I had heard this claim before, but didn’t know it had originated from Barton. Glad to know he was hired by the GOP to tour the country to promote this drivel.

    I took it as absurd on its face, considering, as you note, that the Jefferson Bible was private.

  2. #2 MrsCogan
    July 29, 2006

    I have heard this claim for many years and it has sort of a quasi truthiness about it. The title page does say that it is for the benefit of the Indians. I have a copy somewhere in the house but can’t lay my hand on it so I did a Google Book search for “Jefferson Bible, Indian” and found the exact passage. If Jefferson wrote it, he wasn’t serious because you are right that it never left his house. I have a feeling somebody else added it later, probably to the 1903 version, but that’s a pure guess on my part.

  3. #3 kehrsam
    July 29, 2006

    Yes, the claim is made as part of the preface to a printed version of the Jefferson Bible. I was shown it some years back by a unitarian friend who had purchased a copy and was surpised to find the claim in print. I wish I had a copy for authentication, but am quite certain it exists. The book was billed as a “Facsimile Edition” although it definitely was not a facsimile of the Jefferson original; maybe they meant a facsimile of the 1903 edition?

    That being the case, “Lie” is a bit strong here. “Overly credulous” seems about right.

  4. #4 386sx
    July 29, 2006

    1904 edition:


    Photocopies of the 1904 edition:


    (Just type “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” in the search box there.)

  5. #5 386sx
    July 29, 2006

    Peer reviewed wikipedia article:


  6. #6 Ed Brayton
    July 29, 2006

    The first link by 386sx is quite important. It is the full text, including discussions of all the mentions of the work by Jefferson. Although the text claims that it was originally written for the Indians but later converted for his own use, you will notice that this is mentioned nowhere in Jefferson’s writings. It’s possible that an earlier compilation, which he called The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, was written for that purpose. But the later syllabus, which he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth: Extracted Textually from the Gospels Greek, Latin, French, and English – the one that he sent to Benjamin Rush and John Adams and the one that was published in 1904 as the Jefferson Bible – contains no reference whatsoever to that. Nor was it ever shared with anyone else, Indian or otherwise. Indeed, that site contains excerpts from his letter to Rush where he speaks of his trust that Rush will not reveal its contents to anyone and thus hold him up to public exposure.

  7. #7 JimC
    July 29, 2006

    That being the case, “Lie” is a bit strong here. “Overly credulous” seems about right.

    I think it is more likely the former given the ease with which even a casual student of this issue can find the needed information. One likely could conclude that they are simply ignoring contrary evidence or being untruthful.

    Either way it seems dishonest.

  8. #8 Hume's Ghost
    July 29, 2006

    Considering Jefferson’s view on organized religion and his written comments that his edited edition extracted the pure Christian doctrine from silly superstitions, that inscription comes across as possible satire.

    “Indians unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehensions” can be taken as a jab at the clergy who believes in the portions that Jefferson excised. Otherwise this doesn’t really make sense, considering Jefferson himself thought the portions he cut out were ridiculous.

    Kind of like an inside joke, the “savages” get it but the clergy doesn’t.

    But this is just speculation without knowing why and how that inscription got there.

  9. #9 Ed Darrell
    July 29, 2006

    There is no claim anywhere in Jefferson’s writings of this being intended for publication or for use outside of Jefferson’s own study.

    I think Barton and Kennedy jump on it because of another claim that would be tangentially related, were either true. There are those who claim that Jefferson sent missionaries to the Indians, and generally the treaty with the Kaskaskia tribe is offered as evidence.

    In that treaty, the U.S. agreed to send the Kaskaskias money to build a chapel and get a priest. I’ve heard the ‘Jefferson wrote his Bible for the Indians’ claim in conjunction with the Kaskaskia claim, but did not realize it was attributed to Barton, nor that Kennedy had picked up on the error.

    Now that I’ve let that cat out of the bag, let’s get the rest of the story. The Kaskaskia treaty was a quid pro quo agreement. Remember, Indians were treated as foreign nationals, as foreign nations. This was not a case of the president and Congress building churches for people on the frontier — it was a case of the Kaskaskias giving up their claims on most of what is now Illinois in return for a pledge not to be pushed off of the lands they kept, and a pledge to finally get them a priest, since the Kaskaskias had converted to Catholicism a century early — courtesy of the French — and had been repeatedly promised a priest, though none had ever appeared.

    Generally the two stories are told in tandemas evidence that Jefferson didn’t really believe in a separation of church and state — ‘I mean, after all, how could he send missionaries to the Indians, and publish a Bible to spread the gospel of Jesus at government expense, if he really held to separation of church and state?’

    I haven’t tracked down the posts you link to, Ed B., but I hope this isn’t a full-fledged looney eruption. I haven’t heard this stuff argued in some years, and then by a dominionist (former dominionist, now perhaps, I understand).

    The best remedy for such stuff is actually reading Jefferson’s words — I recommend people start with the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Truth wins in a fair fight; teach the facts, truth will win.

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