What did Lewis and Clark believe about heaven? It is perhaps telling that in the entirety of the journals, despite the jaw-dropping beauty of many of the places they passed through, the word “heaven” was never once invoked by either Lewis or Clark. The closest they came to referring to any kind of afterlife was in Lewis’s 31st birthday note of August 18, 1805, when he mentioned that “I had in all human probability now existed about half the period which I am to remain in this Sublunary world” – implying that he believed there might be a world apart from this earthbound one.
Like most educated men of the enlightenment, Lewis and Clark were deists. The deist image of heaven in the late 18th and early 19th century was of a very beautiful place, far away and separated from this cruel and dark world. Full of clouds, angels and harps, it was a place where a virtuous man might, after death, enjoy reward, respite, and reprieve from the toils and pains of physical life. For all its beauty, the deist heaven was somewhat impersonal. The individuality and identity of the soul on earth was no longer of much importance once you reached the celestial plane.
Thomas Jefferson, Lewis’s mentor, has been considered by some an agnostic and heretic, and his religious belief – or lack thereof – remains a matter of controversy. But even Jefferson believed in the concept of heaven. In general, Jefferson applauded the idea of heaven’s existence because of the positive, practical effect the promise of heaven had on earthbound human behavior. Jefferson also believed in the intervening hand of Providence. In his First Inaugural address, he declared that we should be “acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.”
In his first message to Congress in 1801, Jefferson optimistically thanked the “beneficent Being” who had instilled in the contentious political parties a “spirit of conciliation and forgiveness.” In his second message, he attributed the nation’s economic prosperity, peace abroad and even good relations with the Indians to the “smiles of Providence.” Sounding the same theme in his second inaugural address, Jefferson said that to avoid making the mistakes which he, as a human, was prone, “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.” Jefferson might have been a man of Reason, but clearly God –if not organized religion – had a strong presence in his life and thinking.
Jefferson had a strong belief that the Bible and Christianity had been “corrupted” shortly after the death of Christ. Influenced by Joseph Priestley’s book, The History of the Corruptions of Christianity, Jefferson came to distrust organized religion and to despise any religious doctrine that eliminated good behavior as the path to salvation. While Jefferson doubted the divinity of Christ, he had the highest admiration and respect for Christ’s teachings, which he compiled into his own version of the Bible. “Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips,” Jefferson asserted, “the whole civilized world would now have been Christian.”
Like Jefferson, Lewis and Clark appeared to be men who turned to the power of science, rather than religion, to explain the world and to prove the existence of God. Both were Freemasons, which emphasizes virtue, education, good works, and service, rather than strictly faith in Christ, as a valid means of getting into heaven. But they clearly believed God was looking out for them. On May 11, 1805, Lewis wrote in his journal:
Set out this morning at an early hour, the courant strong; and river very crooked; the banks are falling in very fast; I sometimes wonder that some of our canoes or perogues are not swallowed up by means of these immence masses of earth which are eternally precipitating themselves into the river; we have had many hair breadth escapes from them but providence seems so to have ordered it that we have as yet sustained no loss in consequence of them.
Clark referred indirectly but humorously to God in January 1806, when recounting that the Corps of Discovery was able to procure a small supply of blubber and whale oil from a beached whale on the Pacific Coast. “Small as this Stock is I prise it highly,” Clark wrote, “and thank providence for directing the whale to us; and think him much more kind to us than he was to jonah, having Sent this monster to be Swallowed by us in Sted of Swallowing of us as jonah’s did.” In July 1806, Lewis remarked that it was only “the hand of providence” that had saved the men from grizzly bears, “or some of us would long since have fallen a sacrifice to their farosity.”
Lewis and Clark’s lack of mention of heaven and roundabout references to God reveal an impersonal relationship with the divine that was characteristic of their time, deist faith, and social station. It was a very different view than most Americans have today. I was fascinated to learn recently about how much a single, long-forgotten book shaped our modern notions of heaven as a deeply personal place in which personality, soul, and family remain intact. This information is from Drew Gilpin Faust’s excellent book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. (Thanks to Rebecca at My Adventures in History for putting me onto this gem.)
In the aftermath of the awful, grisly cataclysm of the Civil War, a young woman named Elizabeth Stuart Phelps penned a novel called The Gates Ajar. Phelps had lost her lover in the war. Overwhelmed not only by her own grief but by the enormity of the tragedy suffered by all who had lost husbands, fathers, sons and brothers, she decided to write a book that offered comfort to the bereaved and suggested they would see the beloved dead once again.
The view of heaven presented in The Gates Ajar was a perfect recreation of Victorian domesticity, where families are reunited with their loved ones, live in houses, walk the streets of heaven, and spend eternity in perfect harmony. Broken bodies are restored to health, and earthly toil and fear of death are banished forever in the light of heavenly happiness. Phelps does not explicitly say that all our old pets will run out to greet us, but she comes close. Released in 1868 and reprinted 55 times, The Gates Ajar was one of the best-selling books of the 19th century, second only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This one book shaped, much more than we realize, notions of heaven that we cherish to this day.
More great reading:
Excellent article on Jefferson’s religious beliefs: The Pious Infidel