David Barton’s “The Jefferson Lies” and Early Methodist James O’Kelly

on August 16, 2012

There continues to be fallout from the controversy about evangelical writer David Barton and his latest book The Jefferson Lies, which publisher Thomas Nelson has withdrawn. Here’s my piece about it in Patheos. One of Barton’s critics is Grove City College Professor Warren Throckmorton, who responded to my piece here.

Barton asserts that Jefferson was largely an orthodox Christian until late in life when he became Unitarian. Reputedly Jefferson was influenced by the early preachers of the Restoration Movement, who strove to replicate early church Christianity and rejected church tradition. Some rejected the Trinity on this basis, at least for a time. Many of these Restorationists would later form what became the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). But also among them, and cited by Barton, was early Methodist leader and dissident James O’Kelly, who split with Bishop Francis Asbury and the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1792. O’Kelly was often accused of rejecting the Trinity, though his defenders denied it.

Throckmorton writes there’s no firm evidence that O’Kelly and Thomas Jefferson ever knew each other. There is apparently lore, now available on the internet, of their supposed friendship, which included Jefferson inviting O’Kelly to preach in the U.S. Capitol.  O’Kelly’s sermon supposedly brought tears to the eyes of Jefferson, who proclaimed O’Kelly one of the greatest preachers. The story seems wonderfully too good to be true. Barton implies the source was a contemporaneous newspaper editor. Actually, the cited source in the footnote was a Christian Church publication editor not alive at the reputed time and recounting the story a century later.

(James O’Kelly)

O’Kelly and Jefferson are linked perhaps in part because both were “republican” and rejected strong, central authority. The early Methodist Episcopal Church was largely governed autocratically by Bishop Asbury for nearly 40 years.  Against this “Ecclesiastical Monarchy,” O’Kelly wanted more democratic governance that included a pastor’s right to appeal his appointment to the General Conference instead of complete subordination to the bishop, i.e. Asbury.

Popular in southern Virginia and North Carolina, O’Kelly formed the Republican Methodist Church that later became the Christian Church, which reportedly had about 20,000 members in the early 19th century. He wanted “Bible government, Christian equality, and the Christian name.” Strongly congregationalist, this denomination merged with the historically Calvinist Congregationalist Church in the early 1930s, which is now part of the United Church of Christ. Somewhat surprising, since Wesleyan Methodists were always non-Calvinist. The O’Kelly split foreshadowed the creation of the Protestant Methodist Church in 1828 over similar complaints about bishops.

(Bishop Francis Asbury)

Bishop Asbury last met O’Kelly in 1802, when the latter was ill (he recovered and lived beyond age 90). Asbury recorded in his diary: “We met in peace, and asked of each other’s welfare, talked of persons and things indifferently, prayed, and parted in peace. Not a word was said of the troubles of former times. Perhaps this is the last interview we shall have upon the earth.”

Unfortunately, there is apparently no similarly firm documentation of any meeting between O’Kelly and Thomas Jefferson.  More work is needed about Thomas Jefferson’s religious practices and beliefs, especially his associations with many clergy.  It would be enjoyable to learn that Jefferson was friends with or influenced by early Methodists, even a dissident like O’Kelly!

  1. Comment by barb on August 17, 2012 at 7:38 am

    What difference does it really make? This hoopla about David Barton’s book is ludicrous. He is trying to thwart the lies within our culture that have painted Jefferson as a godless secularist. All these other issues are very petty and irrelevant in my opinion. I’m glad he wrote the book. God bless him!

  2. Comment by Marilyn on August 17, 2012 at 8:17 am

    Thwarting lies with misrepresentations is not a good way to go. There is nothing wrong with questioning David Barton’s sources. It makes a huge difference.

  3. Comment by Al DeFilippo on August 18, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    Beware of trusting Throckmorton’s scholarship, he’s not an historian, he’s a psychiatrist. My experience (more than 15 years) of reading the extensive documentation of Barton’s work has me trusting the historian instead of the psychiatrist. It was recently exposed that one of Throckmorton’s criticisms about Jefferson being able to free his slaves but didn’t, (Barton says that it was impossible for Jefferson to legally free his slaves) proved to fall short, Throckmorton didn’t have all the facts. I think that in time the O’Kelly claim will probably fall in Barton’s favor also.

  4. Comment by mrkunzel on August 22, 2012 at 9:09 pm

    Out of all the criticisms and ad hominen directed to Barton on his FB page. He urgently deletes post like the one below. Perhaps this is something that needs to be perpetuated.

    “Barton noted that if Jefferson cannot be upheld as a”racist” and “anti-Christian secularist,” then liberals have noother Founding Father on which to lean.”

    The problem is how David is trying so hard to discredit the secular
    government by claiming that some of the deists architects of the
    constitution are professed Christians. Next He attempts to combat the
    idea of secularized government with Religious syncretism. Which is
    ironic and hypocritical.

    David uses omissions and blatant lies in order to turn deists into
    theists, while completely ignoring earlier founders of this country, who
    unlike the founding fathers, were professed Christians. David knows
    who these men were, but refuses to share their part in his version of
    history, which doesn’t meet his agenda, forcing his morality on others.
    Who were these men? They were the founders of Rhode Island and Baptist
    Churches all over the Colony. The men Barton refuses to acknowledge are
    men like Roger Williams and John Leland.

    A term used in the political brainwashing of Christians is known as
    “Individual Liberty”. This term was used by the founders and most
    Baptist in the 18th Century, but Barton and many others have taken this
    term completely out of context by defining it as the liberty for free
    market to operate without government intervention, to perpetuate greed.
    This is how the term was intended to look in its entirety, “Individual
    Liberty of Conscience”.

    Individual Liberty of Conscience was the hallmark of the Baptist
    Mission of Faith for over 300 years. During much of the Baptist Faith is
    was believed that all men had the right to worship as they please. It
    did not matter the gods name, or if there was more than one god, or no
    god. They just believed it was the right of everyone to believe in
    whatever they wanted without the intervention of any institution, be it
    Church or State. A lovely idea that is rarely mentioned in Baptist
    Churches today.

    To say the real christians did not support the idea of a secular
    government, and the omission of God and religion from the constitution
    is historical and theological fallacy. The Baptist were strong
    proponents of a secular Government. John Leland would not ratify the
    Constitution without an amendment to separate church and state.

    It is time to put an end to turning deists into theist, it is time to
    look to the Christians who weren’t ashamed to profess their faith, the
    ones who were mutilated, and murdered for their faith. The early Baptist
    of America.

    I am liberal and the founding fathers I lean on are men like Roger Williams and John Leland.


  5. Comment by Marilyn on August 23, 2012 at 8:00 am

    mjkunzel wrote: ““Barton noted that if Jefferson cannot be upheld as a”racist” and “anti-Christian secularist,” then liberals have noother Founding Father on which to lean.”
    Then you finished with “I am liberal and the founding fathers I lean on are men like Roger Williams and John Leland.’
    Are you saying, then, that Roger Williams and John Leland are the racist and anti-Christian secularists on whom you lean? Otherwise, your post doesn’t make much sense.

  6. Comment by Marilyn on August 23, 2012 at 8:59 am

    My reply above was sarcastic. Sorry about that. From what I’ve read, Roger Williams never actually accepted the Baptist faith and was waiting for another Messiah. That could be mistaken, also. This “My Founding Father is better than your Founding Father” can get tricky. They were, after all, ordinary men who, with the help of God, did extraordinary things, no matter how you cut it.

  7. Comment by Al DeFilippo on August 24, 2012 at 11:13 pm

    It’s kind of ironic that secularism, a 20th century concept (naturalism) is being attributed to 18th century men.

  8. Pingback by Amidst the Culture War, David Barton Merits a Court-Marshal: a Dispatch from an Ex-Wallbuilder « Juicy Ecumenism on September 6, 2012 at 1:09 pm

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  9. Pingback by Amidst the Culture War, David Barton Merits a Court-Martial: a Dispatch from an Ex-Wallbuilder on September 7, 2012 at 12:02 am

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  10. Comment by R. D. Hardesty on May 7, 2021 at 2:15 am

    Researching lore that Baptist Andrew Tribble (1741-1822) had any influence over Jefferson, I stumbled over a most curious situation. Like Tribble, Jefferson was a church organizer.

    In 1777 Jefferson drew up bylaws for a Calvinistical Reformed Church (that he initially thought to style as Protestant Episcopal, but which proved unpopular). Jefferson’s papers have him in February leading a list of subscribers, personally committing to £2 annually as his share in compensation for Anglican evangelist Charles Clay’s services.

    Interestingly, we may mistake Jefferson’s “wall of separation between Church & State:” his scruples did not preclude private worship in a public edifice. While Tribble was in Ivy Creek environs, Jefferson’s congregation met in the Albemarle County Courthouse, undoubtedly a log construction (built c1765) and perhaps a mile from Monticello.

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