Thomas Jefferson's Apocalyptic Influences

Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God.

--Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia

With the Declaration of Independence safely signed, the apocalyptic literature of the early nineteenth century gave way to the softer comforts of New Age spirituality. Although Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia seem quite mild, even reticent, in its use of apocalyptic metaphors, his enlightened philosophy certainly had some rather quirky apocalyptic influences.


At right: Thomas Jefferson. Notes on the State of Virginia. Illustrated with a Map, including the States of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania. London: Printed for John Stockdale, opposite Burlington-house, Piccadilly,1787. Thomas Jefferson's own copy. From the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History.

The copy of Alexander Smyth's An Explanation of the Apocalypse exhibited here, for example, was presented directly to Jefferson by its author. 

At right: Alexander Smyth. An Explanation of the Apocalypse, or Revelation of St. John. By Alexander Smyth. Washington City: Way & Gideon, printers, 1825.From Thomas Jefferson's personal library.

Jefferson was also familiar with the speculations of the visionary Emanuel Swedenborg, and actually invited Swedenborgians to deliver addresses before Congress. Johnny Appleseed also took Swedenborg directly to the American people, spreading "the news straight from Heaven" from Vermont to Ohio.

At right: Emanuel Swedenborg. The Apocalypse. Or Book of revelations, explained according to the spiritual sense, in which are revealed the arcana which are there predicted, and have been hitherto deeply concealed. Translated into English, from a Latin posthumous work, of the Honorable Emanuel Swedenborg, and revised by the translator of the Arcana Coelestia. London: Printed and sold by J. and E. Hodson, 1811-1815. Gift of John S. Hutchins.

At right: Shakers [Benjamin Seth Youngs]. The Testimony of Christ's Second Appearing, exemplified by the principles and practice of the true Church of Christ, history of the progressive work of God, extending from the creation of man to the "Harvest" comprising the four great dispensations now consuming the Millenial Church, fourth edition. Union Village, Ohio: Published by order of the ministry in union with the church, 1823.

The followers of the English prophetess Ann Lee, often known as Shakers, claimed that Jefferson had approved the theological views of Benjamin Seth Youngs' Testimony of Christ's Second Appearing, claiming that Jefferson had read it through "three times three." If this work revealed the somewhat unorthodox doctrine that Jesus Christ had come again in the form of an English woman sometime in the late eighteenth century, A Summary View of the Millennial Church, another early Shaker work, combined this doctrine with a call for utter celibacy, and the potent yet perennial combination of apocalyptic fervor and radical sexual ethics was born.

At right: Calvin Green and Seth Y. Wells, eds. A Summary View of the Millennial Church, or United Society of Believers (commonly called Shakers), comprising the rise, progress and practical order of the society, together with the general principles of their faith and testimony. Published by the order of the ministry, in union with the Church. Albany: Printed by Packard & Van Benthuysen, 1823.