Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh: An Interview with Thomas S. Kidd

by Brett Fredenberg, Thomas Kidd July 4, 2022

Thomas S. Kidd serves as research professor of Church History at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His latest book, Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh (Yale University Press, 2022), is a revelatory new biography of Thomas Jefferson, focusing on his ethical and spiritual life.

Timothy Larsen said of the book, “Set aside everything you think you know about Thomas Jefferson and religion, and read this book.”

Russell Moore said, “In this long-awaited book, Thomas Kidd, one of the world’s most respected historians, portrays for us a compellingly complicated human being- who through both genius and will, and despite grave flaws, gave us a country we could not recognize apart from him.”

Karen Swallow Prior also commented, “I don’t know a scholar more able than Thomas Kidd to bring breadth, depth, and moral clarity to a treatment of a figure as significant and complicated as Thomas Jefferson- and to do so with vivid, compelling prose that will engage a broad audience of readers.”

James Byrd said that this book “will make an outstanding contribution to scholarship on Jefferson.”

Kevin R.C. Gutzman also stated, “Thomas Kidd gives us the Thomas Jefferson we need right now.”

Recently, Dr. Kidd joined us to answer a few questions about his latest book.


BF: As you state, your latest book is a “narrative of Jefferson’s moral universe more than a traditional biography.” What prompted you to take on Thomas Jefferson as your latest subject and to discuss him from this angle?

TK: There has been increasing controversy in recent years about the Founding Fathers generally, and Jefferson specifically, much of which has to do with moral questions. Many wonder how to reconcile the Jefferson who said that slavery was wrong, and who wrote that “all men are created equal,” with the Jefferson who owned hundreds of people as slaves. “Hypocrisy” is an easy and somewhat deserved reaction to Jefferson’s inconsistency, but I don’t think hypocrisy is a very helpful answer historically when trying to understand the enigma of Jefferson’s beliefs and contradictory life. In this book, I hope I offer a genuinely new approach by trying to understand how Jefferson’s religious and ethical views synced with how he actually lived.

In the book, you describe several tensions in Jefferson’s life. What are some of these tensions, and how do you hope readers will respond to hearing the story of Jefferson’s ethical life?

The most familiar tension is between Jefferson’s belief in God-given equality, and his deep investment in the enslavement of African Americans. A related tension is Jefferson’s constant touting of the virtue of frugality, or living within one’s means, and the disastrous state of his personal finances. Finally – and the one that may be of most interest to the Midwestern Seminary community – is Jefferson’s virtual obsession with the Bible, and his brazen deletion of the miraculous content from the Gospels in the “Jefferson Bible.”

I hope that when confronting as perplexing a character as Jefferson, readers will steer clear both of patriotic apologetics, and of today’s temptation to cancel those in our national past who have manifest failings and sins. It’s much better, I think, to ponder (in Jefferson’s case) how someone who did terrible things could also be used for great good in American history, most notably his articulation of our God-given rights and equality, and his championing of religious liberty.

Jefferson’s religious beliefs often did not help him politically. His convictions even led him to cut out sections from the New Testament to form the “Jefferson Bible.” Can you tell us more about the origins of the Jefferson Bible, and how Jefferson’s contradictory spiritual convictions can serve as a warning for Christians today?

 A lot of Bible readers implicitly cut out parts of Scripture they don’t like. But Jefferson literally did so, with scissors. He was an early example of what became “higher criticism” of Scripture, or the assumption that some parts of the Bible are erroneous, unreliable, or are later additions. Jefferson’s Jesus became a great teacher of ethics, but not the resurrected Son of God. The warning here is that as soon as we place our own standards of reason above any part of the Word of God, we are on a slippery slope.

As you’ve mentioned, Thomas Jefferson can serve as a needed example for us today. What are some of the other ways, possibly missed in a traditional biography, that Jefferson’s ethical life can give us lessons for our current cultural moment?

One of our biggest cultural challenges is knowing what to do with historical figures who were once widely revered, such as Jefferson, but who engaged in behavior we see as appalling and immoral, such as enslaving people. Somehow we have to be able to clearly repudiate these actions, while also not casually assuming that we are morally superior because we denounce (or cancel) such people. A proper Christian reaction to the terrible failings of people in history is sober humility, not pride or “virtue signaling.”

 

Editor’s Note: Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh is now available for purchase.

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