Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Another Christian Nation Myth Debunked

Chris Rodda has a new post at Talk2Action debunking another major Christian Nation myth, this one about Thomas Jefferson. The claim is that Jefferson tried to bring a bunch of Calvinist theologians from Switzerland to the US to establish a seminary. Sometimes it’s claimed that he intended to use this as the basis of the University of Virginia. She begins with D. James Kennedy’s version of the myth:

Jefferson “wanted to bring the entire faculty of Calvin’s theological seminary over from Geneva, Switzerland, and establish them at the University of Virginia.”

There are so many things wrong with this claim that it’s hard to know where to begin, but as usual such myths begin with a tiny little kernel of truth: Jefferson did indeed consider a proposal, first made by an economist named François D’Ivernois, to move the faculty of the Geneva Academy to the US. But that was in 1794, long before Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, and this academy was not a theological seminary.

The Geneva Academy had been founded as a seminary by John Calvin in 1559, but as Rodda points out, by 1794 it had long since evolved into an academy of science and philosophy. Political upheaval in Geneva was threatening the Academy and D’Ivernois, who had met Jefferson and Adams when they served as ambassadors in Europe in the years leading up to this, had given Jefferson a list of the scholars there who would likely accept the move to the US. Jefferson repeated this list in passing on this proposal in a letter to George Washington:

probably these have been communicated to you by Mr. Adams, as D’Ivernois desired should be done; but lest they should not have been communicated I will take the liberty of doing it. his plan I think would go to about ten or twelve professorships. he names to me the following professors as likely if not certain to embrace the plan.

Monchon, the present President, who wrote the Analytical table for the Encyclopedists, & which sufficiently proves his comprehensive science.

Pictet, known from his admeasurements of a degree, & other works, professor of Natural philosophy.

his brother, said by M. D’Ivernois to be also great.

Senebier, author of commentaries on Spallanzani, & of other works in Natural philosophy & Meteorology; also the translator of the Greek tragedies.

L’Huillier} both mathematicians, and said to be inferior to nobody in that line except La Grange, who is with out an equal.

Prevost, highly spoken of by D’Ivernois.

De Saussure & his son, formerly a professor, but who left the college to have more leisure to pursue his geological researches into the Alps, by which work he is very advantageously known.

Not a theologian among them. What really makes this especially laughable is the notion that Jefferson would, under any circumstances, support the efforts of Calvinist theologians. Jefferson’s utter loathing of Calvinism is legendary. In an 1823 letter to John Adams, Jefferson minced no words:

I can never join Calvin in addressing his god. He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was Dæmonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did. The being described in his 5. points is not the God whom you and I acknolege and adore, the Creator and benevolent governor of the world; but a dæmon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin.

In an earlier letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, he wrote:

The blasphemy of the five points of Calvin, and the impossibility of defending them, render their advocates impatient of reasoning, irritable, and prone to denunciation.

In that same letter to Cooper, Jefferson noted that the University of Virginia, then still in the process of being founded, contained no professor of divinity at all and that this was quite intentional on his part. Those facts, well known to anyone who is familiar with Jefferson’s writings, would have been enough to disprove Kennedy’s claims in this regard.