For 77 years, Thomas Jefferson’s name has been on the local Unitarian Universalist church because he championed liberty, equality and freedom for all religions when those ideas were radical.
That could end soon.
Members of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church-Universalist Unitarian, founded in 1943, are scheduled to consider removing Jefferson’s name from the congregation. The congregation will vote Sunday, with an 80% majority needed to drop the name.
The traditional Jefferson legacy has run up against his status as a plantation owner using enslaved people to build his home, work his fields and earn his money.
“The name ‘Thomas Jefferson’ means a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” said the Rev. Linda Olson Peebles, the church’s interim lead pastor. “There is a lot of good and bad. We have to see how his legacy lines up with the congregation’s values of justice, equality and compassion in human relations. We know it’s a difficult question. He was a great thinker, but he was a man of his times.”
No new names are being considered as of yet. If the name is dropped, congregation members will then look into what to name the Charlottesville church.
The church’s board of trustees created a name change task force this summer to look into the issue, writing that “Jefferson enslaved over 600 people in his lifetime, depriving them of the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness that he declared a universal truth.”
In creating the task force, the board members wrote that Jefferson once was associated by most of society with democratic rule and freedom of religion but that has changed over time.
“We urge the members of this church to vote to replace the name of our congregation with one that does not convey a message of, at best, myopia, and at worst, racism and white supremacy, to those members of our community who are descended from enslaved laborers, to Indigenous people, and to all people who work to dismantle white supremacy,” they wrote.
The congregation is not alone with its struggle over Jefferson’s legacy versus the reality of the life he led. In 2011, the Thomas Jefferson District of the Unitarian Universalist Association officially dropped the third president’s name and opted for the geographic descriptor of Southeast District.
It was the third time the name change had come up for a vote, and the first time the vote yielded the two-thirds majority needed to pass.
The district — which includes congregations in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia — was named after Jefferson in 1962, when it was established. The first vote to shed Jefferson’s name came in 1997.
According to the district, proponents of the name change claimed that even though Jefferson argued eloquently for religious freedom, he was a slave holder with troubling views of Native Americans and women.
They noted that Jefferson was not a Unitarian. According to Unitarian history, the sect was formally founded in 1774 in London. At that time, the Anglican Church was the only denomination that was legal in the Colonies.
At the time, then-District President Jim Key said the vote to drop Jefferson’s name from the regional organization was a positive move.
“We bent the arc toward justice just a little bit,” he said.
Meanwhile, the University of Virginia, founded by Jefferson, is looking to provide context about Jefferson’s life and treatment of enslaved people.
“It is apparent that crucial to improving the racial climate is to reframe the historic landscape to tell a broader story about all of those who contributed to building and operating the university over its 200-year history, including recontextualizing the monuments to its founder, Thomas Jefferson,” the UVa Board of Visitors stated in a resolution earlier this month.
The local Unitarian congregation is active in local civil rights, gender rights, gay and lesbian rights and other movements. The congregation also operates a food bank and has been active in housing and feeding the homeless.
For the congregation, its efforts on behalf of equal and civil rights makes Jefferson’s name problematic.
Peebles said the congregation’s progressive political and religious values may conflict with how Jefferson is seen by others and may have negative connotations for the congregation.
“It used to be an asset to align yourself with Jefferson because of his ideals,” she said. “As we come to grips with all that is going on in society, his name takes on a different connotation.”