While Jefferson referred to "Nature's God" in the Declaration of Independence, he preferred to keep his personal beliefs to himself, which lined up with his philosophy of individual freedom and religious tolerance. In Notes, he wrote: "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
In a presidential campaign, and in the hands of Jefferson's enemies, this passage became proof of his radicalism. One popular pamphlet by a pro-Adams minister quoted it and then countered: "Let my neighbor once persuade himself that there is no God, and he will soon pick my pocket, and break not only my leg but my neck."
Such attacks proved effective enough that, when Jefferson won the election, some families buried their Bibles in their gardens, fearing the new president would burn them. So it made sense that Jefferson continued to keep his religious views private.
Years later, after he and Adams had resumed a correspondence, Jefferson described Jesus' teachings as "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals." The problem, he wrote in another letter to Adams, was the "artificial scaffolding" that surrounded those teachings - the virgin birth, the miracles, and so on.
The Jefferson Bible is his attempt to tear down that scaffolding. Jefferson took his first stab at it while he was still president. In the White House, "after getting through the evening task of reading the letters and papers of the day," he used a razor to slice Jesus' teachings out of a couple of King James Bibles, then grouped them by subject (e.g., "false teachers") and pasted them into a scrapbook. Its title page included the words "an abridgment ... for the use of the Indians." Scholars agree that was most likely a joke about the impossibility of circulating such a genuinely radical book, or perhaps a joke about Adams' political allies, whom Jefferson referred to as "Indians" in his second inaugural.
The scrapbook didn't survive, other than a copy of its title page. What did is a second, more elaborate version Jefferson created once he retired. It includes four columns of text (Greek, Latin, English, French) from the Gospels and is covered in gold-tooled red leather. Jefferson preserved Jesus' life story and teachings but removed anything that strained reason - walking on water, or Lazarus' resurrection. And he applied this standard to the smallest details.
Matthew 19:2, for example, reads: "And great multitudes followed him, and he healed them there." Jefferson carefully excised "and he healed them there." The Smithsonian's gorgeous facsimile of the restored Bible shows the comma after "him" just dangling there.
The Jefferson Bible ends with Jesus' entombment, and, given all the trouble caused by his thoughts on religion, Jefferson seemed happy to take it to his grave. When he mentioned it in letters to friends, he cautioned them to keep it secret. Even his family didn't learn of it until after his death.
A rich afterlife
In 1895, his heirs sold the book to the Smithsonian for $400. A few years later, a congressman - a devout Christian from Iowa, as it happens - wrote a widely reprinted article about it. The government produced an extravagant edition at a cost to taxpayers of more than $500,000 in today's dollars. Some protested the price. Others argued about whether the book confirmed or refuted Jefferson's atheism. Still, the government published more than 9,000 copies, with 14 going to each congressman. A copy also went to every incoming member of Congress into the 1950s.
The Jefferson Bible might seem like an impossible obstacle to anyone who wants to fashion Jefferson into a hero for right-leaning Christians - and for America as a "Christian nation." But it has been distorted to fit the religious right's agenda.
There's no better example than David Barton, an amateur historian who is popular among conservative Christians. Though Barton admits the Jefferson Bible often comes up as proof that its namesake wasn't the evangelical Christian conservatives want him to be, he says he can refute this. In a 2010 TV appearance, Barton fixated on Jefferson's "Indians" title page, mixed in some unrelated material about his Indian policy, and then pivoted to an outrageous fabrication: "He [Jefferson] then gave it [his Bible] to a missionary, and he said, 'Here, if you get this printed, and you use this as you evangelize the Indians.' "
There's absolutely no evidence that Jefferson gave either version of his Bible to anyone other than his bookbinder. Perhaps it's no surprise that last year, in Iowa, Newt Gingrich said, "I never listen to David Barton without learning a whole lot of new things." That's because Barton loves to cherry-pick a phrase and manipulate it to support his side.
But there's a bigger problem with Barton's method: He strips history of its complex human appeal. After all, the Jefferson Bible stands as one of the most interesting and iconoclastic moments in America's religious past - one man with a razor, a pot of paste, and a unique and private set of ideas.
They were intricate ideas: Jefferson was no more a Bible thumper than he was a Bible burner. And that's why he and his handmade book have enjoyed such an odd and exciting afterlife. After one politician got his 14 copies of the 1904 edition, he reported receiving more than 2,000 requests from his constituents.
Let's hope just as many people seek out the new Smithsonian edition, where they can see for themselves what Jefferson spent so much time making - and no doubt reading as well.
Craig Fehrman is working on a book about presidents and their books. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.