- TheBlaze examines Dr. Warren Throckmorton’s and David Barton’s disagreement over the “Jefferson Bible,” slavery, the Thompson Hot-Press Bible and Jefferson’s involvement in the planning of the University of Virginia
- Barton claims Jefferson was “orthodox” for most of his life, while Throckmorton says there’s no such evidence
- While Barton maintains that Jefferson fought against the institution of slavery, Throckmorton claims he took few steps to free his own servants
- Liberty University’s Mathew Staver tells Throckmorton and other critics: “Be prepared to eat crow.”
The controversy over David Barton’s book, “The Jefferson Lies,” is a complicated one that involves multiple layers comprised of a litany of historical and theological ideals and themes. Simply stated: It’s not an easy debate to sift through.
On Monday, TheBlaze provided extensive analysis that included interviews with Barton, Thomas Nelson publishers and Dr. Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor at Grove City College and one of the author’s key critics. As the dust settles on the publisher’s decision to cancel and pull the book from shelves, many individuals on both sides of the Barton divide likely have a plethora of questions.
There’s no doubt that the key element — arguably the most important one — missing from the debate has been adequate analysis of the facts and explicit charges being waged against the historian. To date, media outlets covering the drama have done little to ask both Throckmorton and Barton to highlight their arguments against one another. So, TheBlaze spoke with both individuals to gain a better sense of where they’re coming from, while also attempting to explore just a few of the points of contention.
As we noted earlier this week, Throckmorton published “Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President,” alongside professor Michael Coulter, in an effort to clear up what he claims are inaccuracies in Barton’s “The Jefferson Lies.” In an exclusive interview, TheBlaze asked Throckmorton to highlight some of the biggest errors he believes are present in the book — a challenge he willingly accepted. Then, we brought these concerns to Barton, who explained his side of the story.
THE SO-CALLED “JEFFERSON BIBLE”
One of the primary issues that Throckmorton tackles in his critiques of Barton’s views is the so-called “Jefferson Bible.” The academic claims that, throughout his life, Jefferson — whom Barton believes created two versions of the book, one in 1804 and another in 1820 — was always clear about his views on the virgin birth and other central Christian tenets (the president lived from 1743 to 1826, a factor that is important to the overall debate).
“Every time he talked about both versions he said he was separating the diamonds from a dunghill,” Throckmorton explained, going on to note that he believes Jefferson intentionally left out some of the more supernatural and doctrinal portions of the Bible.
“David says that Jefferson just laid out the words of Jesus end to end, but he left out John 3:3 and John 3:16…This was not just Jefferson wanting to have an abridgement for the Indians,” Throckmorton continued.
Here, the professor is speaking about Barton’s claim that Jefferson was intent on not just teaching, but also evangelizing the Native American population. While this is a point of debate over Barton’s book, Throckmorton was already criticizing this ideal back in 2011 when he wrote a blog post entitled, “Was the Jefferson Bible an Evangelism Tool?”
While Barton has contended that the so-called bible was created to introduce the Indians to “Christian morality,” Throckmorton believes that Jefferson’s intent was to create a book for “his own use.” When it comes to the two versions, Throckmorton disagreed with Barton’s assessment that it’s a settled matter that the 1804 and 1820 versions are different. He claims that Jefferson certainly linked them, but that it’s unknown whether they were 100 percent distinct from one another.
Throckmorton points to Jefferson’s own words in an attempt to prove his point. In an October 12, 1813 letter that the former president wrote to John Adams, Jefferson explained his project in detail (emphasis is Throckmorton’s):
In extracting the pure principles which he [Jesus] taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves. We must dismiss the Platonists and Plotinists, the Stagyrites and Gamalielites, the Eclectics, the Gnostics and Scholastics, their essences and emanations, their logos and demiurgos, aeons and daemons, male and female, with a long train of … or, shall I say at once, of nonsense. We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages, of pure and unsophisticated doctrines, such as were professed and acted on by the unlettered Apostles, the Apostolic Fathers, and the Christians of the first century. Their Platonizing successors, indeed, in after times, in order to legitimate the corruptions which they had incorporated into the doctrines of Jesus, found it necessary to disavow the primitive Christians, who had taken their principles from the mouth of Jesus himself, of his Apostles, and the Fathers contemporary with them. They excommunicated their followers as heretics, branding them with the opprobrious name of Ebionites or Beggars.
Throckmorton uses this letter to claim that Jefferson clearly had no interest in the other elements that were cut out of the book he had assembled. Many of these tenets, as he noted, involved Jesus’ resurrection and related verses that some — mainly non-believers — would see as superstitious or beyond the human realm.
Additionally, the professor uses other examples to dismiss the more nuanced approach that Barton takes to Jefferson’s theological views (we explained this in our last article about “The Jefferson Lies”). Rather than embracing the notion that he took on a more orthodox Christian view for most of his life, Throckmorton cites statements from Jefferson that seem to indicate that he had always held questions about the divinity of Jesus.
In 1788, Throckmorton said that Jefferson also told a friend that he couldn’t be a godfather, because he would have to affirm the trinity — something he wasn’t willing to do. On his blog, Throckmorton explains:
Jefferson, in 1788, refused to sponsor a friend’s child as a godfather because he would have to affirm his belief in the Trinity. He told his friend, Derieux, that he held that belief [rejecting the Trinity] from early in his life. Jefferson also confided to a Unitarian friend that he attended Priestley’s Unitarian church before 1800, while he was Vice President. In Jefferson’s 1803 Syllabus, he laid out his belief that Jesus was not part of the Godhead. Barton’s attempt to make Jefferson seem orthodox during the active part of his political engagement is contradicted by Jefferson’ own words.
In the letter that Throckmorton cites, Jefferson wrote, “The difficulty of reconciling the ideas of Unity and Trinity have, from a very early part of my life, excluded me from the office of sponsorship, often proposed to me by my friends, who would have trusted, for the faithful discharge of it, to morality alone instead of which the church requires faith.”
And, here’s an image of the letter in Jefferson’s own writing:
TheBlaze asked Barton about these criticisms and he responded, first taking aim at the “diamonds in the dunghill” portion of Jefferson’s letter.
“There’s a couple things there. One is the diamonds in the dunghill — Jefferson very clearly said that he thinks the gospels are the good part and the epistles are the bad part,” Barton countered, going on to say that this was a view that Jefferson shared for the last 15 years of his life. “He loved the teachings of Jesus, but not the epistles.”
And as far as Jefferson’s life goes, Barton sees the figure as predominately orthodox before turning away from such views later in life.
“In 1804, Jefferson was very orthodox in his Christian beliefs,” Barton contends. “As we point out in ‘The Jefferson Lies’…he went through a progression [and] in last 15 years, he was very anti-orthodox.”
In July, Barton took these issues on, writing that he had proven that Jefferson included some of the more spiritual portions of the Bible (however, Throckmorton has said that these elements are a mixed bag and that Barton mentions verses that aren’t actually in either version):
[Critic Clay] Jenkinson, like Throckmorton and Coulter, admits major points I make in The Jefferson Lies but then also tries to explain them away. For example, I show that even though modern scholars repeatedly claim that Jefferson omitted everything related to the Divine and the supernatural from his so-called “Jefferson Bible,” that he actually included Jesus raising the dead, healing the sick, casting out demons, calling Himself the Son of God, speaking of His Second Coming, etc. 16 Jenkinson admits that Jefferson did include these passages but then dismisses them as unimportant by (1) first pointing out that all other scholars similarly dismiss those passages, and (2) then giving his own personal opinion that Jefferson really didn’t believe what he included in that work. 17 This ploy is called “psychohistory,” and results when a modern so-called “psychological” analysis is applied to the actions of a person long dead; “psychobabble” is the result of such an analysis. This trick enables folks like Jenkinson (and scholars like him) to assert that he personally knows what Jefferson was secretly thinking two centuries ago, so therefore whatever Jefferson actually said or did should be completely ignored.
Clearly, the two sides are in disagreement on a number of fronts when it comes to the so-called “Jefferson Bible” and on Jefferson’s faith more generally.
JEFFERSON’S SLAVE OWNERSHIP
The second issue that Throckmorton and Barton can’t seem to agree on is slavery and whether or not Jefferson had the power, ability and means to set the 260 or so (it fluctuated throughout his life) individuals he owned free. Barton contends that there were a slew of slave laws governing the state of Virginia (he was the governor there from 1779 to 1781).
These laws, he contends, complicated the situation and made it difficult for Jefferson to set his slaves free — specifically the alleged requirement that owners provide security bonds for each slave.
“As I pointed out in the book, [there were] a whole bunch of slave laws. Probably 20 slave laws and dozens of court cases that interpreted those laws,” Barton told TheBlaze. “As Throckmorton pointed out…Jefferson’s finances were so poor – he [was] not in a position to provide security bonds for 260 slaves.”
Barton does agree that there are some occasions in which slaves were freed, but that Jefferson’s situation — especially due to his finances — was different. Based on the pure numbers, Barton’s points are accurate.
In fact, the Library of Virginia reports, “Between 1723 and the American Revolution only about twenty-four enslaved people were legally emancipated in Virginia.” In 2000, Barton wrote about this subject in detail, claiming that it was extremely difficult for George Washington and Jefferson to allow these individuals to obtain freedom:
As a middle colony, Virginia experienced the stress from the divergent pull of both northern and southern beliefs meeting in conflict in that State. Several northern States were moving rapidly toward ending slavery, while the deepest southern States of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia largely refused even to consider such a possibility. 4 Virginia contained strong proponents of both attitudes. While many Virginia leaders sought to end slavery in that State (George Mason, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, etc.), they found a very cool reception toward their ideas from many of their fellow citizens as well as from the State Legislature… […]
As Jefferson and Washington sought to liberalize the State’s slavery laws to make it easier to free slaves, the State Legislature went in exactly the opposite direction, passing laws making it more difficult to free slaves. (As one example, Washington was able to circumvent State laws by freeing his slaves in his will at his death in 1799; by the time of Jefferson’s death in 1826, State laws had so stiffened that it had become virtually impossible for Jefferson to use the same means.)
Later in the piece, Barton continued, explaining that these tough laws were loosened “for a short time” by the manumission law:
In 1782, however, Virginia began to move in a new direction (for a short time) by passing a very liberal manumission law. As a result, “this restraint on the power of the master to emancipate his slave was removed, and since that time the master may emancipate by his last will or deed.” (It was because of this law that George Washington was able to free his slaves in his last will and testament in 1799.)
In 1806, unfortunately, the Virginia Legislature repealed much of that law, and it became more difficult to emancipate slaves in a last will and testament…
In an interview with TheBlaze, Throckmorton also raised this time frame (1782 to 1806) to claim that Jefferson could have readily released his slaves while the manumission law was on the books, as Washington had (read the complete law here).
“Until 1806, a lot of people freed their slaves. I show on my web site – Robert Carter freed slaves in 1791,” Throckmorton explained. “Carter had a pay a clerk’s fee when he filed the deed. … There were fines at various times in Virginia history, but not then.”
The professor took particular issue with the fact that, in “The Jefferson Lies,” Barton left out the crucial portion of the Law of Manumission that would have allowed people to free their slaves. While Throckmorton saw this as an error that scholars simply shouldn’t be making, Barton maintains that leaving it out doesn’t change the facts (and, as noted, he had covered this issue, in detail, back in 2000 — and very publicly on the Wallbuilders web site).
Here’s a section from Throckmorton’s “Getting Jefferson Right” that provides Barton’s portion of the law — and then Throckmorton’s clarification. Again, the main issue that Throckmorton raises here is that Barton has removed important information that shows that it was, indeed, possible to free slaves:
Part of the debate on this point may be centered upon semantics. While Barton purportedly said that there were essentially fines against releasing slaves, Throckmorton said there was no evidence of this. However, the clerk’s fee, in some peoples’ eyes would be a “fine” of sorts. Still, others would distinguish between a clerk’s fee and a fine.
While Jefferson certainly could have freed his slaves based on the laws of that time, his finances may have been a problem preventing him from doing so. If Barton’s contentions about Jefferson’s devotion to stopping the institution are accurate, one would assume that, if Jefferson had the means to free the slaves, he would have. On the flip side, if the president was immensely devoted to the cause, opponents like Throckmorton could argue that freeing these men and women should have taken precedence.
JEFFERSON’S ROLE IN THE THOMPSON HOT-PRESS BIBLE
The third area of debate that was discussed with both Throckmorton and Barton was the Thompson Hot-Press Bible. Cedarville University has more about this unique version of the holy book that was published from 1796 to 1798:
It was quite late in Colonial American history when the first English language Bible was printed in America. Robert Aitken did so in 1782 under an authorization by the United States Congress. Prior to this time, English language Bibles were available in the Colonies, but had to be imported from England. What followed Aitkin’s work were printings by Matthew Carey , William Young , Isaac Collins , Isaiah Thomas , and Jacob Berriman . These were all printings of the King James Bible, some in personal size and others in family Bible size.
In November of 1798, John Thompson of Philadelphia produced the first King James Bible ever to be “hot-pressed” in America. This printing technique helped to sear the ink clearly into the paper with heat. This printing was a large pulpit folio Bible, the largest Bible printed in America up until that time. The Thompson Hot-Press Bible remains a very rare collector’s item.
Here, of course, one would wonder what, in the world, Throckmorton and Barton could possibly be arguing over — and how Jefferson might be involved. To summarize the debate, Throckmorton takes particular issue with the way in which Barton describes Jefferson’s involvement in the effort to print, produce and distribute the Thompson Hot-Press Bible.
Thompson was joined by Abraham Small in the effort to bring the book to print. According to Throckmorton, the two advertised that they would use a new process (i.e. “hot-pressing”) to put out a new addition of a portion of the Bible every two weeks. Each section would cost 50 cents and at the end of two years, pending someone purchased each part, he or she would have a completed book. In sum, the project had 1,272 subscribers.
Now, here’s where the debate comes into play.
“Barton says that Jefferson and some of the Founders invested in that bible to get the word of God to families,” Throckmorton said, going on to say that he didn’t finish paying for his subscription until 1799, well after it was done and over. “Jefferson just bought [one] Bible…Jefferson bought one and he didn’t even finish paying for it until after it was done.”
Again, here we have a semantics debate. While Barton has used the words “put up the financial backing” and “funded by,” Throckmorton draws a major distinction between these sentiments and someone taking out a subscription, though the professor did write on his blog earlier this year that, “Buying a Bible by subscription was common then and was a way to provide the printer with some idea of how many copies to print.”
When TheBlaze asked Barton about this, he answered candidly:
“A subscription is very much like taking out a bank loan. You’re pledging ahead of time that you’re going to purchase. It’s very much like having an IOU in hand. When the book came out, they listed all of the subscribers — all the guys who said they’d pay for the book…there’s a whole lot of books that never got printed…subscribers really are investers. The fact that Jefferson put his name in as a subscription — he was pledging to invest.”
In Kirk Cameron’s film “Monumental,” Barton told the actor-turned-producer (emphasis added), “This Bible was funded by about a dozen signers of the Constitution and signers of the Declaration as well as by President John Adams and Vice-President Thomas Jefferson. They’re the guys that put up the financial backing to do this Bible.”
Watch the clip, below:
So, here we have a difference between the definitions surrounding “investor” versus “subscriber” (the primary definition of the former word is: “to put (money) to use, by purchase or expenditure, in something offering potential profitable returns, as interest, income, or appreciation in value”).
JEFFERSON’S ROLE IN CRAFTING THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
On another front, the two parties have been debating back and forth over content in “The Jefferson Lies” surrounding the president and his role in planning the University of Virginia. Barton claims that, in 1818, Jefferson wrote a letter to the trustees planning the university, asking them to establish a seminary.
This, in essence, made the school “transdonimational” in the historian’s view, seeing as eight seminaries were slated to be present there, with students essentially having the option to choose one from the pool. Barton also noted that Jefferson wanted Christian resources for every student’s use inside of the school’s library.
But, because the university didn’t start until 1825 and he died in 1826, Jefferson was barely able to see much of these plans come to fruition. In a February 2009 article on WallBuilders’ web site, Barton (along with co-author Dr. Mark Beliles) wrote the following, attempting to dispel the bullet-pointed items:
As a result of this modern academic malpractice, four oft-repeated claims have emerged about Jefferson’s founding of the University of Virginia:
1. Jefferson founded a deliberately secular university
2. Jefferson sought out Unitarians to be its faculty
3. Jefferson barred religious activities and instruction from the program of the school
4. Affirming its commitment to secularism, the University of Virginia had no chaplain
Barton and Beliles go on, in detail, describing the university’s founding:
Jefferson and his Board of Visitors (i.e., Regents) founded the University of Virginia as a school not affiliated with only one denomination; it was specifically founded as a trans-denominational school. Consequently, it did not incorporate the three features so commonly associated with other universities at that time, thus causing modern critics wrongly to claim that it was founded as a secular university.
In implementing a trans-denominational approach, Jefferson was embracing the position that had been nationally set forth by an evangelical Presbyterian clergyman, Samuel Knox of Baltimore, whom Jefferson later asked to be his first faculty member at the University of Virginia. 8 In 1799, Knox penned an educational policy piece proposing the formation of a state university that would not have just one specific theological school but rather would invite many denominations to establish schools at the university; the various denominations would therefore all work together in mutual cooperation rather than in competition. 9 Jefferson agreed with this philosophy, and it was this model that he employed at the University of Virginia. […]
Since the University would have no single denominational seminary but rather the seminaries of many denominations, Jefferson and the Visitors (i.e., Regents) decided that there should be no clergyman as university president and no specified Professor of Divinity, either of which might wrongly cause the public to think that the University favored the particular denomination with which the university president or Professor of Divinity was affiliated.
But, Throckmorton stands firmly opposed to these sentiments — specifically the idea that the university was “transdenominational.” While he said that Jefferson told the trustees that they could incorporate religion later if they so chose, that the president was not pushing these elements in the way that Barton claims.
“There was no chapel at the university of Virginia,” he explained. “If you’re going to be a Christian college, it seemed like [there] would be a chapel.”
After some intensive searching on the subject, TheBlaze found that a note was apparently sent from Jefferson to a man named Thomas Cooper. In it, Jefferson wrote, “I agree with you that a professorship of theology should have no place in our institution.”
The New International Encyclopedia (early 1900s) has more about the relationship between these two figures, writing, “Cooper was very highly esteemed by Thomas Jefferson, who secured for him the appointment as first professor of natural science and law in the University of Virginia — a position which Cooper was forced to resign under the fierce attack made on him by the Virginia clergy.”
Barton also notes on his web site that Cooper was a Unitarian and he explains that, when this information reached the public, the university’s offer to hire him was rescinded.
While the aforementioned note seemed nearly impossible to track, the full version was found in a book called “The Thomas Jefferson Papers.” It can be read below, with the section pertaining to faith and religion boxed in red:
While this by no means validates or derides either Throckmorton or Barton’s views, it does seem to indicate that Jefferson didn’t want theology professors to be a part of the university he was planning. The aforementioned letter was written in 1814 and another was penned by Jefferson to Cooper in 1822. In it, he wrote about the divinity program (or lack thereof) at the University of Virginia:
In our university you know there is no Professorship of Divinity. A handle has been made of this, to disseminate an idea that this is an institution, not merely of no religion, but against all religion. Occasion was taken at the last meeting of the Visitors, to bring forward an idea that might silence this calumny, which weighed on the minds of some honest friends to the institution. In our annual report to the legislature, after stating the constitutional reasons against a public establishment of any religious instruction, we suggest the expediency of encouraging the different religious sects to establish, each for itself, a professorship of their own tenets, on the confines of the university, so near as that their students may attend the lectures there, and have the free use of our library, and every other accommodation we can give them; preserving, however, their independence of us and of each other. This fills the chasm objected to ours, as a defect in an institution professing to give instruction in all useful sciences. I think the invitation will be accepted, by some sects from candid intentions, and by others from jealousy and rivalship. And by bringing the sects together, and mixing them with the mass of other students, we shall soften their asperities, liberalize and neutralize their prejudices, and make the general religion a religion of peace, reason, and morality.
Throckmorton went on to say that people wouldn’t have wanted to fund the initiative if it was viewed as an atheistic institution. This notion, especially based on this latter source, could be at the heart of Jefferson’s openness to allowing people of faiths on campus (there is, of course, also yet another letter on record surrounding faith and public policy between these two figures).
The professor also notes that the portion of the above note that is bolded was cut out from the sourcing in Barton’s “The Jefferson Lies,” citing this as a possible intent to change the conversation and omit the fact that these religious institutions were set to be separate from the university. Below, see a portion from Barton’s book that does, indeed, show this omission:
But, an omission doesn’t necessarily mean that the meaning of the overall message is debunked, of course. The difference here is over whether the school was planning to formerly align itself with these denominations — or whether it was simply attempting to respect its student body by providing access to numerous faiths.
The arguments framed in this article represent only a sliver of the overall points of contention. Both sides are doubling down, with individuals coming out to publicly support each. But — unlike traditional debates, these new people who are weighing in all come from an evangelical and/or a conservative worldview.
Take, for instance, Charles Dunn, the former dean of the school of government at Regent University. The Republican and academic has now officially come out against Barton. Here’s what he had to say in a statement that Throckmorton released to TheBlaze:
“Getting Jefferson Right” by Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter stands up for truth in scholarship against the prevarications in David Barton’s “The Jefferson’s Lies.” Because of the courage of Throckmorton and Coulter, Barton has now fallen from his pedestal of preeminence as a scholar of the early American era. Throckmorton and Coulter deserve the “Medal of Honor” for courage and probity.
But not everyone is siding against the historian. In an e-mail interview with TheBlaze, Mathew D. Staver, vice-president of Liberty University, an evangelical higher educational facility, defended Barton. Aside from saying that he doesn’t put any credibility into “Throckmorton’s self-published ebook” (the book is also available in print, as we’ve noted), he dismissed the professor as “a psychologist [and] not [a] historian.”
“I have never heard him speak or write on Jefferson until now,” he continued,” going on to share some interesting information about his recent interaction with Thomas Nelson:
“I have not had the opportunity to look at all the allegations, but I have looked at some of Throckmorton’s claims and Barton’s responses. I would put my money on David Barton any day. Herein lies a serious issue for Thomas Nelson. I was asked to review Throckmorton’s arguments, but before I could respond, Thomas Nelson shocked everyone by its knee jerk reaction to criticism by non-experts only two weeks or so after ask[ing] for my response. I am very disappointed in the way Thomas Nelson handled this matter.”
Staver also noted that Dr. Roger Schultz, dean of Liberty’s colleges of arts and sciences and an expert on American history, and Rena Lindevaldsen, associate dean for academic affairs at the university, both back Barton. In speaking of critics, Staver warned that they should “be prepared to eat crow.”
The Rev. James Robison, too, weighed in on the scenario. While not directly placing blame or accusing Barton of inaccuracies, he told TheBlaze about the importance of upholding godly values — and embracing truth. On a grander scale, he discussed the attempt to ongoing attempt by liberals to “minimize the importance of Judeo-Christian principles.”
“We must stand together against the liberal, progressive mind-set that is seeking to destroy what made us great. The bottom line is: Truth matters,” he continued. “We must exalt the truth and always be willing to be corrected by it. It is truth that makes us free, and only truth can keep us free.”
Robison went on to stress the double standard that he believes any and all Americans — and in this case, conservatives and evangelicals — risk falling prey to.
“If we expect our nation’s leaders to respond to truth and correction, each one of us must also be anxious to respond to the standards our founders put in place,” Robison continued. “Those standards corrected many founders who had signed them. I, for one, am anxious to be corrected and directed by God’s truth, which is marching on.”
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