A Private Endeavor
"No man can conform his faith to the dictates of another. The life and essence of religion consists in the internal persuasion or belief of the mind." —Thomas Jefferson, 1776
Jefferson insisted that religious beliefs were purely of personal and private concern. He grew up in a world where political rulers routinely established a single faith as the official orthodoxy. He promoted religious freedom in order to secure the rights of dissenting denominations and to protect individuals who belonged to no sect at all.
In accordance with this view of religion, Jefferson kept silent about his own beliefs in most public writings. When he ran for the presidency, he refused to reply to opponents who attacked him as "anti-Christian" and "an infidel." Yet he did discuss Christianity, the bible, and moral philosophy with a small circle of friends. From the 1790s he conversed and corresponded with Revolutionary Era colleagues, including Dr. Benjamin Rush and John Adams, and with English scientist and theologian Joseph Priestly. These men shared Jefferson's desire to secure tolerance for religious dissent as well as to forge a moral compass for the new American republic. Out of such conversations emerged the project of extracting Jesus's teachings from the New Testament to create this private volume.