From the very beginning of this year’s political campaign, it was obvious that religious concerns would be important. For the first time in United States history, an ordained minister made a serious run for a major party’s presidential nomination. Another contender had formal theological training. The eventual Democratic nominee, himself a minister’s son, set out quickly to recapture some of the religious constituency from the Republican incumbent, who has been pursuing it energetically throughout his first term. From all quarters this fall, candidates’ policies are being measured against standards of religious value.

God is Lord of the ballot box and of the halls of Congress as well as of private lives, families, and churches, so in general, this desire to bring religious standards into the political arena is a very good thing. The traditions of the various denominations and, above all, the written Word of God, provide invaluable general principles for approaching every conceivable political issue. And so it is not merely a minor mistake if Christians exclude politics from the scope of their religious concerns. Rather, this is a denial that God rules over the affairs of peoples and nations as well as over the individual heart.

The pages of history offer many examples of great good arising from Christian political activity. William Wilberforce’s efforts in the British Parliament to free the slaves and William Jennings Bryan’s efforts as U.S. Secretary of State (1913–15) to solve international conflicts through peaceful means are two of the most noteworthy. But history also reveals some of the dangers of misdirected religious zeal. One such example was the election of 1800, an election that also offers several cautionary lessons for political involvement in 1984.

Politics Past

Probably more than any presidential race until 1928, when candidate Al Smith’s Catholicism became a major issue, the election of 1800 was a religious event. The focus of concern was Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, candidate of the Democratic-Republicans, who was contending for the presidency against the incumbent, John Adams of Massachusetts. The heart of religious concern was the expectation that the nation would come to grief if the “infidel” Jefferson were elected. Those who expressed this concern were almost exclusively evangelicals. Moreover, they were not insignificant persons on the fringes, but were among the country’s leading Christian spokesmen.

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They included such dedicated New England Congregationalists as Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College, and Jedidiah Morse, a leading promoter of theological education, foreign missions, and the dissemination of the Bible. Evangelical clergymen in New York, such as the Scottish Presbyterian John Mitchell Mason, echoed the concerns of their Congregational brethren to the North. Presbyterians from New Jersey, including the president of Princeton, Samuel Stanhope Smith, and one of the most active Christian laymen in the country, Elias Boudinot, expressed a similar foreboding for the nation’s future if Jefferson were to win the election.

These evangelicals feared Jefferson for several reasons, all of which seemed to make the prospect of his election a horror. In the first place, Jefferson had led the fight in Virginia for the disestablishment of the Anglican church immediately after the American Revolution. Evangelical Congregationalists in New England saw this move as an assault upon religion altogether, for their denomination was still established by law in both Connecticut and Massachusetts. To them this establishment was but the necessary recognition that societies needed to acknowledge and heed the will of God. Evangelicals in New York and New Jersey were not committed to establishment, but they resented the way in which Jefferson had appeared to belittle all religion when he had spoken out for disestablishment.

Particularly galling to these evangelicals were statements Jefferson had made in his Notes on Virginia, published in 1784. In it, Jefferson seemed to dismiss the importance of Christian belief in favor of a radical kind of freedom. “It does me no injury,” Jefferson had written, “for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Jefferson rather put his trust in “reason and free inquiry,” for these were “the only effectual agents against error.” Such statements, and the flippant spirit evinced by some of Jefferson’s other comments (e.g., “the happy discovery, that the way to silence religious disputes, is to take no notice of them”), seemed to indicate that Jefferson opposed religion itself as much as its establishment.

To be sure, Jefferson’s stand on church and state had won him the support of a few Baptists and a small number of other evangelicals who opposed a religious establishment in principle. But their influence was much less than that exerted by the presidents of the country’s two most prestigious evangelical colleges (Yale’s Dwight and Princeton’s Smith) and the most visible leaders of interdenominational cooperation (Massachusetts’s Morse and New Jersey’s Boudinot).

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Jefferson himself was always reticent to make public his religious beliefs. He was a member in good standing of his Episcopal church in Virginia, and later in life he would even contribute to a local Bible society. Yet rumors had spread of his unorthodox views. It was said that he so highly exalted reason that he had no place for divine revelation. Another widely circulated suspicion was that Jefferson did not believe in the deity of Christ, but rather held him simply to be an extraordinarily good man. While nothing definite could be said about these matters in 1800 (they happened substantially to represent Jefferson’s actual beliefs), enough information was abroad to make some Christians very uneasy.

Yet another cause for concern was Jefferson’s connections with France. He had served as an ambassador to that country for several years, and had made no secret about his admiration for the French philosophes and for the general course of the French Revolution. Even when that revolution turned to bloody excess, and when many other Americans began to repudiate it, Jefferson continued to support those Frenchmen who wanted to rid themselves of the fetters of the past. To many evangelicals in America, Jefferson’s fondness for things French told volumes about his own instability. In their minds France was the country where a prostitute had been crowned as the Goddess of Reason at the cathedral of Notre Dame. It was the place where unchecked violence had first overthrown settled government, then executed the ruling family, and at last given way to the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte. Anyone who professed to find this attractive was a threat to his own country.

A third reason why many evangelicals feared Jefferson was that he represented the political opposition. During George Washington’s first term as President (1789–93), political leaders had succeeded in preserving the vision of nonpartisanship that had been born during the Revolution. But in Washington’s second term and during the tenure of John Adams as President (1797–1801), great infighting had broken loose. Democratic-Republicans contended for liberty and the people; the Federalists were loud in defense of order and security. To those evangelicals who were also Federalists, Jefferson as the leader of the Democratic-Republicans had to bear the responsibility for destroying the harmony of the republic. Faction, partisanship, discord, turmoil—all seemed to be the responsibility of the upstarts who clamored for states’ rights, liberty, and the freedoms of the people. (Democratic-Republicans, it is hardly necessary to add, felt that the cause of public strife was the highhandedness of the Federalists, represented most strikingly to their minds by the repressive Alien and Sedition Laws that had been passed during President Adams’s tenure.)

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These then were the reasons why many evangelical leaders feared Jefferson. He was a foe to the public influence of religion. He was suspect in his own personal beliefs. He was contaminated by the irreligion and disorder of France. And he was responsible for the great degeneration in American public life.

As the election of 1800 neared, evangelicals went into action to make their views on Jefferson known. On the Fourth of July in 1798, Timothy Dwight spoke out against the party of Jefferson by linking Democratic-Republicans explicitly to the atheistic movements of France. “For what end shall we be connected with men of whom this is the character and conduct?… Is it that our churches may become temples of reason … and our psalms of praise Marseilles hymns? Is it that we may change our holy worship into a dance of Jacobin frenzy and that we may behold a strumpet impersonating a Goddess on the alters of JEHOVAH?”

As the election came closer, concern grew more intense. John Mitchell Mason posed the terms very starkly in the election year itself: “Fellow Christians—A crisis of no common magnitude awaits our country. The approaching election of a president is to decide a question not merely of preference to an eminent individual, or particular views of policy, but, what is infinitely more, of national regard or disregard to the religion of Jesus Christ.… I dread the election of Mr. Jefferson, because I believe him to be a confirmed infidel.” And shortly before the states began to vote, the Federalist Gazette of the United States offered its own ultimatum: “THE GRAND QUESTION STATED: At the present solemn moment the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is ‘Shall I continue in allegiance to GOD AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT (John Adams) or impiously declare for JEFFERSON AND NO GOD!!!’ ”

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A Conspiracy Theory

The last fear hanging over the heads of these leaders was that Jefferson might be the agent of an atheistic conspiracy. In 1798, first Jedidiah Morse and then Timothy Dwight had proclaimed the existence of a vast conspiracy, called the Bavarian Illuminati, which they supposed was reaching its tentacles into the United States. Morse and Dwight were availing themselves of detailed exposés from the continent that had identified the Illuminati as the source of most of the public evil that had occurred in Europe for the past century. Now they felt that the combination of godlessness and disorder spreading over the United States was a sign that the agents of this conspiracy were abroad in the land. And since they linked the “levelling” (or democratic) ideas and the French Revolution to this conspiracy, it was only natural that they saw Jefferson as the agent, witting or unwitting, of this cabal.

By the time of the actual voting in 1800, doubt had been cast on the Illuminati theory, but numerous evangelical leaders still believed that such an evil conspiracy was a genuine threat. In this Morse and Dwight were joined by some of the Presbyterians, including Samuel Stanhope Smith.

Immediately after Jefferson’s victory, some of those who had opposed him on religious grounds felt that the worst was just around the corner. Princeton’s President Smith, for instance, felt that Jefferson was promoting policies that led to “national imbecility and disorganization” and that he was encouraging “turbulence and anarchy” by delivering the nation “from one hotheaded and furious faction to another, till we are torn asunder.”

Inconsistencies And Ironies

No one can doubt the sincerity of the evangelicals who opposed Jefferson, nor can they be faulted for their desire to promote godliness in the public sphere. They were also approximately correct in their assessment of Jefferson’s own religious beliefs. He was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an orthodox Christian. And he valued Christian churches mostly for their role in preserving public morality. It is certainly true as well that evangelical leaders saw correctly some of the dangers in Jefferson’s political convictions. His educational theories, as an example, had no place for religious influence, but rather promoted a false ideal of humanistic neutrality.

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All this having been said, the great religious outcry against Jefferson was both inconsistent and quite ironical. It was inconsistent because Jefferson’s opponents failed to apply their exacting religious standards to their own candidates. And it was ironical because the “infidel” Jefferson turned out to be among the most moral and upright of Presidents.

In the first instance, Federalists who opposed Jefferson for his heterodoxy failed to apply the same standards to their own candidate. While John Adams, like Jefferson, did not display his religion on his sleeve, his actual convictions were very close to Jefferson’s. John Adams’s wife, Abigail, was evangelical in belief and practice, but he was more of a conservative Deist. Like Jefferson, he belittled the Christian reverence for Scripture, once writing his son John Quincy in reproof for the younger Adams’s belief that one could find the scriptural solution to a problem. And like Jefferson, he held that the idea of an Incarnation was simply nonsense.

Much more important for modern considerations is the larger irony that attends the Christian opposition to Jefferson. His administration turned out to have a moral tone and to promote policies that, in several crucial areas, comported well with basic Christian values. In matters of personal rectitude, as an example, Jefferson was scrupulous in accounting for federal funds and conducted himself with great probity in the dispensation of patronage. In this he differed dramatically from Alexander Hamilton of the Federalists and Aaron Burr of his own party, two statesmen who regularly used politics to enhance their own prestige or increase their own wealth. Jefferson, by contrast, went out of his way to act honorably with the funds and personnel entrusted to his care. When he died he was in debt, not because he was profligate with his abilities and goods, but because he had put the public good ahead of private gain.

Apart from matters of personal honesty, Jefferson’s policies were also generally moral. He carried into the White House the effort he had begun in Virginia to insure freedom of religious expression for all citizens, and to prevent the state from imposing one form of religious belief or another on its citizens. This was but a specific instance of his belief that governmental intrusion into ordinary life was dangerous. Throughout his career Jefferson was an advocate of less government rather than more. He did not despise the accomplishments of organized politics, but he felt that the great powers potentially available to government made it a likely candidate for corruption. In this the Enlightenment thinker (who otherwise had an optimistic view of human nature) displayed a greater degree of Christian realism than the believers among his opponents (who often talked as if governmental aid for the churches and large-scale governmental activities were both unalloyed blessings).

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Jefferson And War

Perhaps most strikingly, Jefferson also showed a Christian respect for life. The most obvious example here was his great reluctance to commit the nation to war. During his administration, tensions with both France and England were often high. As a consequence there were voices in both major parties insisting on war as a way to defend the national honor. Many patriots felt that only the field of battle could bring vindication against England’s highhanded dominance of the sea, or against France’s attacks on American shipping. While Jefferson was not a pacifist, he nonetheless was deeply opposed to warfare, except as a last resort. And so he resisted these appeals and tried to find peaceful alternatives to international conflicts.

Jefferson’s most explicit pursuit of peaceful internal politics involved the Embargo Act. This was an effort to force Britain and France to negotiate with the United States by closing American ports to all shipping, foreign and domestic. The occasion for this policy was a blatant act of British aggression on America’s very shores. In late June 1807, the British warship Leopard attacked an American ship, the Chesapeake, as the American vessel was clearing the harbor at Norfolk, Virginia. The British were looking for deserters from their navy, but the unprovoked assault upon the American ship, which resulted in 21 casualties, was a recognized justification for war. Against the outcry for immediate retaliation, Jefferson pursued a course of deliberate procrastination. Finally, he acted late in the year by encouraging Congress to pass the Embargo Act. His purpose in all of this was to avoid the slaughter that battle entailed, even in that day of wooden warships and single-shot muskets.

Historians and political scientists have long been divided concerning the success of the Embargo Act. It did bring much greater economic hardship to American merchants than to either the British or the French. And Jefferson was not entirely successful in cooling tensions. Still, his efforts were a partial success. He had shown how it was possible at least to attempt peaceful means of solving international conflicts. And he had demonstrated that a President could cool passionate nationalistic ardor. Many historians today feel that when war with Britain did come in 1812, under the leadership of President James Madison, it was a needless conflict that could have been avoided with only a little more of the restraint that marked Jefferson’s handling of the earlier crisis.

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In sum, the individual whom evangelicals had feared as an “infidel” turned out to be not only an honest President, but a President whose policies reflected at least a general agreement with basic Christian values. This is not to say that Jefferson was more moral than Adams or even that his policies were always more in line with biblical values. It is to say that the great fears of Jefferson’s opponents in 1798, 1799, and 1800 were misplaced. They had misread the man and the times as well.


A number of observations from the history of 1800 are pertinent for 1984. But first, it is important to say what the earlier story does not mean for our campaigns this year. It does not mean that Christian involvement in politics should cease. Nor does it mean that Christians are doing something illegitimate when they assess candidates and issues by moral and religious criteria. Soon after the election of 1800, in fact, evangelicals did tend to pay less and less heed to politics. It was as if they were being doubly cautious in light of their mistakes in assessing the issues in 1800. But this was unfortunate because large public issues—like states’ rights and slavery—needed consistent Christian consideration. Christians did much good in the first half of the nineteenth century in evangelism, moral reform, and mission efforts. But they did not contribute measurably to the political process. And the nation was the poorer for it.

The lessons to be learned from the anti-Jeffersonian fear deal rather with how Christians are to be involved politically. Here at least three matters are important.

The first of these concerns the damage done to the church when Christians identify their cause completely with any political party, position, or person. It simply was not the case that Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans were the quintessence of evil, nor Adams and the Federalists the paradigm of virtue. Given important Christian teachings on human nature—that the redeemed can still act as sinners and that sinners can still contribute to public good—Christians in 1800 should have realized that a mixture of good and evil would be found in both parties. When they did identify the Christian cause with only one party, they demeaned both the faith and the political process.

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Second, the story of 1800 should remind us that Christian activity in politics must involve an examination of public positions as well as of personal beliefs. Even if Jefferson were an unbeliever, his policies deserved to be analyzed in their own right. It is at least arguable that on more than one issue his public actions came closer to meeting biblical standards than those of the Federalists whom the evangelical leaders supported. On the matter of individual liberties, Jefferson recognized more clearly than his opponents that governmental meddling can lead to the abuse of religion even more than to its support. Given the American circumstances and the actual nature of the current threat, the Federalists’ Alien and Sedition Acts were an assault on liberty that did not comport well with Christian principles. In a similar way, Jefferson’s restraint on warfare showed a more consistent appreciation for the value of life than did the policies of those Federalists who were eager to go to war. Jefferson realized that no ultimate questions of justice or national self-existence were at stake in disputes with France or England, and so he sought peaceful solutions. In this he again acted in accord with general Christian principles.

The critics of Jefferson would have seen this more easily if they had pushed themselves beyond a mere reaction to his supposed beliefs to an analysis of his public record. Before the election of 1800, Jefferson had served as governor of Viriginia, the first secretary of state, and vice president. In each of these positions he instituted programs that showed a remarkable discernment concerning the potential evils of big government. And in each he evidenced a consistent respect for human life and dignity. As governor of Virginia he had worked to protect the rights of religious minorities (mostly evangelicals) who were not members of the Episcopal church. As Washington’s secretary of state in the early 1790s he had displayed considerable skill in promoting the interests of the United States against Britain, France, and Spain, while proceeding cautiously to avoid war.

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Finally, the history of this entire subject constitutes a fresh reminder about the complexity of the political process. While certain issues will be more important in some campaigns than in others, issues are interrelated. While certain leaders may indeed be more genuinely Christian than others, their policies may yet contain a mixture of biblical and nonbiblical values. In the election of 1800, believers probably were correct to worry about Jefferson’s excessive commitment to democracy and his disrespect for political and religious traditions. Yet if they had gone on to analyze other issues with the same religious care, they may have discovered that other aspects of Jefferson’s record coincided much more closely with biblical values. It was not a mistake to judge Jefferson’s commitment to democracy with religious standards. It was a mistake to let a judgment on one part of his record overwhelm concern for the whole.

1800 And 1984

To realize the complexity of politics is certainly as important in 1984 as it was in 1800. Because politics partakes of the human condition, and because humanity is complex, Christians do well to approach political issues with careful analysis with a distrust of their first impressions, and with a commitment to explore as many sides of an issue as possible. Here the words of Elton Trueblood are appropriate: “One of the best contributions which Christian thought can make to the thought of the world is the repetition that life is complex. It is part of the Christian understanding of reality that all simplistic answers to basic questions are bound to be false. Over and over, the answer is both-and rather than either-or.”

A brief account of the 1800 election is not going to tell you how to vote in 1984. But it does offer some clues. First, look beyond rhetoric to actions. A person who uses God-talk freely should display a concern for public policy that conforms to godly standards. One who speaks moralistically in behalf of “the people” should not speak for only part of the population.

Second, analyze public action as well as stated platforms. Take time to examine the record of candidates. Let that record speak louder than the platitudes that make up so much of political advocacy.

Third, and most difficult, push your analysis out further to issues that do not at first strike you as particularly “religious.” For example, if you are consumed by a biblical vision of peace, by all means judge candidates by this criterion. But go further. Ask yourself if there are other important biblical values that should also be used to evaluate the policies and performances of candidates. A single issue—whether nuclear arms, abortion, women’s rights, educational freedoms, economic policy—may be more important at some times than others. But such single issues never exhaust the range of political life to which Christian values need to be applied.

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With the hindsight of history it is possible to say that evangelical leaders in 1800 saw some things clearly and some things with distortion about politics. Today we may take from them the positive example of believers who were willing to speak out courageously in bearing witness to God amidst the give-and-take of the political marketplace. But evangelicals in 1800 would have been able to do better in politics if they had applied religious values more thoughtfully to more of the issues of the day. Almost 200 years later the world still needs redeeming Christian voices in politics as desperately as in any other human endeavor. May such voices in 1984 display both courage and intelligence, both fire and light.

Mark Noll is professor of history at Wheaton College. This essay was prepared with the assistance of Robert Lackie, a doctoral student in American history at the University of Illinois.

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