Thomas Jefferson was a Deist who famously cut and pasted, with a razor and glue, his own version of the New Testament to remove all the miracles of Jesus and any reference to his Resurrection. So why did Baptists in New England cheer when he won the presidency and claim he had won a providential victory over John Adams?
As Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins explain, despite their differences the Baptists were able to find common cause with Jefferson on the issue of religious liberty:
Baptists across America rejoiced when Thomas Jefferson was elected president, because they saw Jefferson as the great champion of religious liberty, especially in light of his 1786 Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia. The Danbury Baptists wrote to Jefferson in late 1801 and congratulated him on what they saw as a providential victory over John Adams: “We have reason to believe that America’s God has raised you up to fill the chair of state out of that good will which he bears to the millions which you preside over.” They knew that Jefferson could not alter state laws by fiat, but they hoped that his commitment to religious liberty would, “like the radiant beams of the sun . . . shine and prevail through these states and all the world till hierarchy and tyranny be destroyed from the earth.” To them, one of God’s ultimate purposes for the War of Independence was to bring about gospel liberty, and Jefferson’s election was the next milestone in that process.
The Republican Jefferson was delighted to have such allies in predominantly Federalist New England, and he wanted his response to the letter to sow “useful truths and principles among the people” regarding religious liberty. During the 1800 campaign, Jefferson’s opponents had attacked him as a heretic, and as president he was already coming under criticism for failing, unlike his predecessors, to declare public days of prayer and fasting. He wanted to clarify that, just like the Baptists, he really did support the flourishing of religion in America. To Jefferson, the best way to support religion was to grant all citizens religious liberty. This was the ingenious compromise of the First Amendment’s religion clauses: the free exercise of religion required the absence of a national church.