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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

So, I logged onto WordPress a few days ago, with vague thoughts of doing a semi-religion-related post, when I saw this.  A sign from God?  Well, at the very least, it’s a sign from Barbie dressed up as an Episcopalian minister, and that’s good enough for me.

Now, last time I talked about religion here, we had some argumentation.  And I will admit, I was completely, utterly caught off guard by it.  I’d never really consciously thought about my audience before, but if you asked me three months ago who I thought was reading the blog here I would have guessed my mom, my aunt and uncle, and possibly my aunt and uncle’s three cats.   One of the latter in particular, Mitzi, doesn’t seem to like me much, but I don’t worry about her being offended by anything I say on the blog because she’s unlikely to express her displeasure at me on Facebook.  Now I’ve been forcibly reminded of the fact that there are people other than Mitzi the cat reading what I write here, and they don’t necessarily know me personally or have a sense of my motivations.   So I just want to state, for the record, that my personal political and religious beliefs do not enter into my work, nor should they.  I feel very strongly about that.  I, and my other colleagues who engage in social media on behalf of Monticello, occasionally bring up the subjects of religion and politics, but we do so because any mention of Jefferson is of academic interest to us, and we think it might be of interest to you.   Truly.

Now that I’ve cleared that up, we shall now proceed with the latest Jefferson-related curiosity.  This item was recently the subject of a reference question we received.  It’s a document with Jefferson’s signature (and some other things) on it, and you will note that the description reads as follows:

Following is an original document in our possession, signed by Thomas Jefferson on September 24, 1807. This document is permission for a ship called the Herschel to proceed on its journey to the port of London.

(Here’s the interesting part):

The interesting characteristic of this document is the use of the phrase “in the year of our Lord Christ.” Many official documents say “in the year of our Lord,” but we have found very few that include the word “Christ.” However, this is the explicitly Christian language that President Thomas Jefferson chose to use in official public presidential documents.

Hmmm.  Two phrases in that last sentence that I’d like to look at more closely:

  1. “explicitly Christian language.”  Well, actually I guess it is literally explicit Christian language, mentioning Christ as it does.  What I mean is, it’s also…the date.  This is not usually the portion of a document in which important points are made.   Now, I totally agree that “In the year of our Lord Christ” instead of “In the year of our Lord” sounds a bit unusual, but I just don’t know that it really has anything to do with the religious beliefs of the person who signed the document.
  2. “that President Thomas Jefferson chose to use” – But did Jefferson specifically choose that language?  It seems unlikely to me.  It seems more likely that a clerk would be doing that.

As I was googling around, investigating this document, it became clear to me that it’s become a “thing,” or maybe the kids would call it a “meme” (possibly just a mini-meme).  I gather that somebody said something about this document on the television, and now it’s proliferating around the Internet, gathering more religious connotations as it goes.  Like this person.  Here it seems to be getting associated with Jefferson’s views on separation of church and state.  My googling turned up other appearances as well, each slightly different.  But I see the way this choo-choo is chugging, hence my post here to say, very sensitively, in the most kid-glove-way possible…let’s think about this before we draw any conclusions.  (And before I get any more reference questions about this.)  When in doubt, you can’t go wrong with thinking.  Unless maybe you’re standing in front of a rushing choo-choo.

I personally don’t have all the facts about this document – I don’t have any facts, in fact! – but now I’m super intrigued.  Especially since I can only read half the English portion in the image on the site above, and I can only understand half the Dutch part.  But I bet if we all put our heads together, we can come up with some good context for this document and maybe be able to figure out why it bears the unusually-extended phrase “in the year of our Lord Christ” instead of your usual “in the year of our Lord.”   I already have my own cockamamie theory about that, but I will keep it to myself for now.  Unless it turns out to have some merit, in which case I will tell everyone that’s what I was thinking all along.

So, back to the Herschel, and that document that started this whole thing.  Any maritime historians or similar out there, who can give us an idea of what this document is?  Any experts on government procedure or forms, who can help us out with how the specific language for this form may have been devised, and by whom?  Any experts in the history of the phrase “in the year of our Lord”?  Anybody?  Mitzi?

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Everybody loves countdowns, right?  Right.  So, I’ve come up with my own list of things people get wrong about Jefferson, based on my extensive observation of the stuff people put on the Internet or ask us about.  Here goes:

  1. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Constitution. That would be the Declaration of Independence.  For Pete’s sake, they don’t even rhyme or anything, people!
  2. Thomas Jefferson invented coathangers/triple-sashed windows/skylights/polygraphs/dirt. Well, this is somewhat debatable, depending on what your definition of an “invention” is, but the party line now is that Jefferson invented only the moldboard plow and not any of those other things.
  3. Thomas Jefferson said [x]. TJ said lots of things, but strangely enough, not most of the things people think he said.
  4. Thomas Jefferson was a Democrat/Republican/liberal/conservative. Yeah, you wish, Democrats/Republicans/liberals/conservatives!  For one thing, the names of the parties have changed (that one really gets the ignoramuses out there).  For another, it’s practically impossible to put a modern political label on TJ, because, well, he’s not a modern politician.
  5. Thomas Jefferson grew marijuana. He did grow hemp, but as I understand it, the type of industrial hemp grown to make rope and cloth and so forth contains only minimal amounts of the compound that makes so many people so happy.  Nice try, potheads!
  6. Thomas Jefferson was an atheist/Deist/not a Christian. Some say that TJ cannot be called a Christian because he did not believe in the divinity of Jesus.  On the other hand, TJ called himself a Christian, so I’m just going to take him at his word.
  7. Thomas Jefferson was my ancestor/relative. Well, that could be, actually.  Statistically speaking, however, most people would be wrong about this.
  8. Jefferson was the first to bring vanilla/macaroni & cheese/ice cream to the United States. Jefferson was most likely not the first person to bring any of these foods to America, although his name probably has become attached to them because these were foods he served at dinners during his Presidency, which tended to be highly remarked-upon. So perhaps one could say that although he didn’t introduce them, he may have played a large part in popularizing them.
  9. Jefferson was a Freemason. Negatory.
  10. Thomas Jefferson bought a Qur’an so he could study his enemies and fight the Muslims. Some people clearly wish this was true, but sadly: no.

So there you go.  I apologize if your favorite Jefferson misconception didn’t make it onto the list, but you can always post it in the comments.  I love misconceptions, as long as they’re not mine!

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I’ve been curiously watching the flutterings about this in the news for the past week or so – the Seattle Atheists are running a bus ad campaign featuring quotations by Jefferson and some other people. (You can see images of all three ads here.) Before anybody asks, that is in fact a genuine Jefferson quote – it’s from a letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787. It’s in the Encyclopedia!  I might note, however, that there is a slight error in the bus ad – Jefferson said, “question with boldness even the existence of a god,” while the bus ad says, “question with boldness even the existence of God.”  Not that anybody will probably care except me.  I won’t even mention the extra preposition they’ve inserted.  That would be nitpicking.

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