Thomas Jefferson Papers

Abraham O. Stansbury to Thomas Jefferson, 7 January 1815

From Abraham O. Stansbury

New york January 7th 1815

Dear Sir

It is one of the characteristics of our free government, that the humblest individual in Society may address without fear of repulse the most exalted, and even calculate upon a favourable reception—Your example Sir, as the most elevated in office and distinguished in Science & literature in condescending to reply to the letter of an obscure individual is an admirable comment upon our Republican Institutions & calculated to encourage that spirit of free inquiry which is the best guardian of Truth whether Religious Moral or Political. These remarks are prompted by seeing in the Evg Post printed here a communication addressed to you by one of the Society of friends together with your reply and though I greatly disapprove of such a correspondence getting into the public prints & consider it a flagrant breach of private confidence, yet since it has been made public I hope to be excused for making it the occasion of addressing you. The sentiments there advocated are such as I once held, & with the celebrated Pope I once agreed that whether as Jehovah of the Israelites, Jove of the pagans, or Lord of Christians there was no difference in the worship of the “Great first Cause.” I hope therefore to be viewed as exempt from fanaticism & as a candid advocate when I solicit your attention to a few points in your Letter which appear to merit your serious reconsideration.

That the subject itself has engaged your attention you freely acknowlege and truly it is one of all others the most momentous—We find ourselves possessed of an intelligent nature & feel that we are responsible Creatures we know that very shortly we must die, & what is to be the issue of the dissolution—into what State our intelligent nature shall enter when separated from the body in which it has hitherto dwelt is a question the most interesting & which has agitated the hearts of all reflecting men in every age of the world: to affect indifference on this subject is not a proof of Philosophy but insanity, not of a liberal mind, but of a depraved heart. Nothing so powerfully disinclines to the investigation of truth as the dread that its discovery will disclose our own condemnation, and it is this which has ever opposed the strongest obstacle to the reception of the doctrines of the Bible—professing to come from God & to be a revelation to man of the will of his maker, it teaches him that he is the subject of his just displeasure—that he has forfeited the favour of God by his sins and represents that God as infinitely holy—as a consuming fire, with whom iniquity cannot dwell—The Bible & that alone, makes known a State of blessedness after death, but it bars admission to all but the holy—The man who is conscious that this is not his character goes away offended and either openly rejects the system or endeavours to mould it to suit his own views—selecting certain parts & passing over others till he has formed such a set of notions as allow him to cherish hope beyond the grave The character of a Sinner exposes him to punishment & that character his conscience testifies is his—how then shall he meet his Judge? The Scriptures are express on this point but here too something occurs to be modified—instead of a sacrifice for Sin by which the obligation to punishment is taken away: instead of the doctrine of substitution by which the righteousness of the head covers & extends to all the members—instead of the principle of faith embracing & resting on this sacrifice & this righteousness—some other way is sought & the performance of something acceptable in its nature to the revealed character of God offers the readiest expedient for securing his favour. thus while men profess to receive the Bible as a revelation from heaven they act the inconsistent part of rejecting its principal requisitions & endeavour to satisfy their conscience by substituting what they imagine ought to be required—That this is the true reason why the doctrines of the Gospel are not more cordially embraced is certain from the experience of many who have long practised deceptions on their understandings but who recovering from the delusion & honestly embracing the truth, have confessed their former disingenuousness. But I am detaining you with digressions, to return therefore to your Letter;—the first thing that struck my attention was your expressions on the subject of moral obligation as learned from “all the beings around us” & their prescribing the course we should observe.—that any standard of duty is to be learned from all the beings around us which can regulate our conduct towards God & restore us to his favour appears so inconsistent with the tenor of the New testament that I am at a loss to reconcile such expressions with your subsequent declarations & you evidently refer to the Scripture in speaking of admission into Heaven; the point to be determined seems then to be on what ground the hope of Heaven may be built; & here you cordially coincide with the preacher that “good men” will all be regarded “as children & brethren of the same family.” what constitutes this1 character you do not say, but it is conveyed in that general expression “the moral precepts in which all religions concur” as distinguished from & opposed to, “the dogmas in which all differ” & more fully explained in “the principles which are in concert with the supreme mind”—observance of these moral precepts & this conformity constitute the good man, & whether he be with Aristides a pagan idolater, & Cato an advocate of self destruction, or Penn the denyer of the atonement, or Tillotson the advocate of Christian truth & ordinances it makes no difference in your estimate—still you profess your preference for the System of Morality “of Jesus” over every other that has come under your observation.—What more, may it be asked could any Christian ask than such an avowal—is it not liberal, can any but a bigot object? You seem yourself amply satisfied, & conclude there is no ground for uneasiness though all that marks Christianity as differing from mere systems of moral obligation be disregarded. all this you term subtlety & mystery erected on the doctrines of Jesus & mere unessentials—Now Sir I would beg leave to call your serious attention to this point—Is Christianity then no more than the morality of Jesus?—If so I would ask what sort of morality was that he taught when he assumed to himself what would be considered intolerable arrogance in any Man who should use the same expressions in our day—When he declared “before Abraham was I am.” “I & the Father are one” “except ye eat my flesh & drink my blood ye have no life in you” “I go to prepar[e] a place for you that where I am ye may be also” “If2 I go away I will send the Comforter the Holy Spirit who shall be in you &c” “I have power to lay down my life & I have power to take it again” “I am the resurrection and the life he that beleiveth in me shall never die”—“I3 lay down my life for my Sheep” “I4 give unto them eternal life and they shall never perish!”—listen to him at the well instructing the woman of Samaria—& promising what none but God had power to bestow—mark his reply to the question what shall we do that we might work the works of God? “this is the work of God, that ye beleive on him whom he hath sent” and in all his discourses making use of language utterly irreconcileable with the idea of his being a simple teacher of morality—the enumeration were almost endless As a teacher he professed to have power never arrogated by man—power to raise the dead from their5 graves—declaring that the time should come when all that were in their graves should hear his voice and come forth As a teacher he claimed the prerogative of pardoning Sin—As a teacher he commanded the wind & the Sea—what other teacher ever taught thus? And is all this indeed no more than the morality of Jesus? What was it that excited the rage of the Jewish doctors against him but such claims as they well observed belonged to none but God—did he deny the charge did he not admit it? and wherefore was he crucified? because he made himself “equal with God” it was this that roused their resentment he came as the Lord of the Temple—He came “the messenger of the Covenant” But I forbear—I have already greatly trespassed on your patience and have to apologize for so far exceeding the limits I had prescribed to myself The importance of the subject must plead my excuse—I am a stranger to you Sir, & may be thought impertinent; but as one who had long wandered in the darkness of unbelief upon the Son of God and in that dread uncertainty as to a future state which nothing but the Gospel can remove—as one too who by the grace of God has been brought out of that darkness & uncertainty into the blessed light of divine truth, and been made a partaker of the consolations which result from believing on him who is the Lord our Righteousness our strength & our Saviour from the wrath to come resting on his faithful word & looking up to him for grace to walk worthy of the profession of his holy name—commemorating his death with tender gratitude & waiting until the hour of my dissolution shall introduce me to his Kingdom to behold his glory, I feel an interest in all who yet remain strangers to his love—secure in a fancied conformity to the divine Will while they reject that revelation of divine mercy in the atonement of Christ which alone can take away their guilt and restore them to the favour of God.—You speak Sir,6 of your age—let me entreat you then as the term of life draws to a close, and the realities of eternity are near at hand to consider Christ Jesus as revealed in the Gospel not only the preeminent teacher but as Paul considered him “the apostle & high priest of our profession” the Sent of God the sacrifice for Sin—the Lamb of God—predicted by the prophets typified in the Sacrifices of the Law, testified by the apostles, ascended to that glory which he had with the father, & ever living to make intercession for his people—as the head of all things to his Church & to use his own words “the way the truth and the Life no man coming to the Father but by me.” And may he grant that the eyes of your understanding being enlightened you may be enabled to perceive with all Saints what is the breadth and length & depth and height and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowlege that you may be filled with all the fulness of God & I would conclude with his apostle’s benediction to the Ephesians—To Him that is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us To Him be glory in the Church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages world without end

I am Sir, with great consideration Your hble Servant

A. O. Stansb[ury]

RC (DLC); edge trimmed, torn at seal; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson Esqr Monticello Virginia”; franked; postmarked New York, 12 Jan.; mistakenly endorsed by TJ as a letter of 7 Jan. 1814 received 20 Jan. Recorded in SJL as received 20 Jan. 1815.

Abraham Ogier Stansbury (1776–1829), merchant, publisher, inventor, educator, and Presbyterian minister, was born in Philadelphia and moved to New York City by 1800. He received patents for an Egyptian lock and an improved printing press in 1807 and 1821, respectively, and was the superintendent of a school for the deaf and dumb late in the 1810s. A member of the New-York Missionary Society, Stansbury published a short work entitled Considerations on the Lawfulness of Lotteries, and the propriety of Christians holding tickets (New York, 1813). He died in the town of Southeast, Putnam County, New York (Stephen O. Saxe, American Iron Hand Presses [1992], 29–33; DNA: RG 29, CS, N.Y., New York, 1800; Longworth’s New York Directory description begins Longworth’s American Almanac, New-York Register, and City Directory, New York, 1796–1842 (title varies; cited by year of publication) description ends [1801]: 323; [1803]: 269; New York Chronicle Express, 11 July 1803; List of Patents description begins A List of Patents granted by the United States from April 10, 1790, to December 31, 1836, 1872 description ends , 58, 225; New York National Advocate, 4 May 1818; Albany Argus, 12 Jan. 1819; Hartford Connecticut Courant, 19 May 1829; Quarterly Register and Journal of the American Education Society 2 [Aug. 1829]: 54; New York Genealogical and Biographical Record 33 [1902]: 140–1).

Two days earlier the New-York Evening Post (evg post) had published William Canby’s letter to TJ of 27 Aug. 1813 and TJ’s reply of 18 Sept. 1813. The first five lines of “The Universal Prayer” by Alexander pope read: “Father of All! in every Age,/ In every Clime ador’d,/ By Saint, by Savage, and by Sage,/ Jehovah, Jove, or Lord/ Thou Great First Cause, least understood!”

The following biblical quotes are all from the book of John: before abraham was i am (8.58); i & the father are one (10.30); except ye eat … no life in you (6.53); i go to prepare … ye may be also (14.3); if i go away … shall be in you (16.7); i have power … take it again (10.18); i am the resurrection … shall never die (11.25); i lay down my life for my sheep (10.15); i give unto them … shall never perish (10.28).

The conversation between Jesus and the woman of samaria appears in John 4.7–29. The question what shall we do that we might work the works of god and Jesus’s reply are in John 6.28–9. Jesus asserts that those in their graves should hear his voice and come forth in John 5.28–9. In the New Testament Jesus spends time pardoning sin (Mark 2.5), commanding the wind & the sea (Mark 4.39), and making himself equal with god (John 5.18). God promises to dispatch the messenger of the covenant in Malachi 3.1. In Hebrews 3.1, Jesus is described as the apostle & high priest of our profession, while the way the truth and the life … by me is from John 14.6. Paul’s benediction to him that is able … world without end is in Ephesians 3.20–1.

1Stansbury here canceled “modified.”

2Omitted opening quotation mark editorially supplied.

3Omitted opening quotation mark editorially supplied.

4Omitted opening quotation mark editorially supplied.

5Manuscript: “thein.”

6Reworked from “Sin.”

Index Entries

  • Abraham (Old Testament patriarch) search
  • Bible; A. O. Stansbury on search
  • Bible; Ephesians referenced search
  • Bible; Hebrews referenced search
  • Bible; John referenced search
  • Bible; Malachi referenced search
  • Canby, William; and TJ’s religious beliefs search
  • Cato the Younger (Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis); mentioned search
  • Christianity; A. O. Stansbury on search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Correspondence; publication of papers search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; Jesus search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; religion search
  • Jesus; crucifixion of search
  • Jesus; doctrines of search
  • Jesus; miracles of search
  • Jesus; TJ on search
  • newspapers; New-York Evening Post search
  • New York (city); New-York Evening Post search
  • New York (state); newspapers search
  • New-York Evening Post (newspaper) search
  • Paul, Saint search
  • Penn, William; religious beliefs of search
  • Pope, Alexander; religious beliefs of search
  • Quakers; mentioned search
  • religion; exhortations to TJ search
  • religion; Quakers search
  • religion; TJ on search
  • Stansbury, Abraham Ogier; and TJ’s religious beliefs search
  • Stansbury, Abraham Ogier; identified search
  • Stansbury, Abraham Ogier; letter from search
  • Stansbury, Abraham Ogier; religious beliefs of search
  • Tillotson, John; as Christian author search