Harry Rubenstein is cradling the small, red, leather-bound book in his hands as if it were a baby bird. He lets it fall open, and the back room at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is suddenly filled with the wafting aroma of old yellowed pages.
What he holds is Thomas Jefferson’s 1820 Bible, though a closer look reveals this to be no ordinary Bible. The author of the Declaration of Independence had used a razor to meticulously excise favored passages from a pair of King James Bibles and pasted them onto blank, bound pages. Left behind: every miracle, every hint of the divinity of Jesus. So Jefferson’s New Testament has no loaves and fishes, no walking on water, no water into wine, no Resurrection. Jefferson dismissed such passages as superstition. What he wanted was something more straightforward, as reflected in the title he gave the work: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.
“This project was purely of the Enlightenment: rewrite the Bible,” says Rubenstein, head of the museum’s division of politics and reform. Jefferson’s experiment ran squarely against the grain of American culture, adds Barbara Clark Smith, a Smithsonian expert in 18th-century America. “He was attacked,” she says. “People wrote he was an infidel.”
To this day, there are those who stand aghast at Jefferson’s chutzpah, and that raises a fair question: Does faith exist without miracles? Are there miracles at all, and if not, just how do we explain those events that inevitably become defined as such?
Nearly 200 years after Jefferson, we decided to find out who’s winning that intellectual tug of war. In an AARP The Magazine survey, we asked 1,300 people 45 and over what they thought about miracles, and the results were striking: fully 80 percent said they believe in them, 41 percent said they happen every day—and 37 percent said they have actually witnessed one.
Intriguingly, though, the older you are, the less likely you are to believe in miracles.
In setting out to understand how Americans feel about miracles, we first had to come up with a definition for the word—because, frankly, miracle seems to get tossed around an awful lot. Some may quibble, but for our purposes the Mets’ winning the 1969 World Series is not a miracle. Neither is hitting 24 Black on a roulette wheel. Rather, we chose to raise the bar and define a miracle as “an incredible event that cannot be scientifically explained.”
Then we went in search: Why do skeptical, modern Americans still believe in them?
Dennis Finch, 63, of Kuna, Idaho, says it’s simple: he himself experienced one. “A few years ago I was in the hospital, in a coma,” he recalls. “I stopped breathing several times, and the doctors told all my relatives they’d better get to the hospital to say their goodbyes. But people were praying for me. I remember, in my coma, seeing my brother David and my brother-in-law Roy—who had both passed on—and I was really upset because they wouldn’t talk to me.
“Well, it turned out they wouldn’t talk to me because it wasn’t my time. I lived. The doctors still don’t know what was wrong with me, and they also don’t know why I survived. One doctor calls me his miracle child.”