Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Religion of the Founding Fathers

This posting is inspired by the comments made in the Huckabee posting below. Raven mentioned that he is opposed to the notion that the Founding Fathers were Christian men. Obviously this is a very popular and controversial topic, so I am expecting this post to be a lot of fun. I look forward to what you all have to say.

In his book The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (which I happen to believe is the best source on this issue), author David Holmes has created a religious test of sorts that I feel is very applicable. Holmes states that, "An examination of history cannot capture the inner faith of any man. But in the case of the Founding Fathers of the United States, readers can use these four indicators to locate the founders on the religious spectrum with some confidence." Holmes has devised a four-point test that I believe is very helpful in understanding the religious nature of the Funding Fathers. These four points allow us to put the faiths of the Founding Fathers into perspective. The points are:

1. Church Attendance
2. Approach to the Sacraments and Ordinances
3. Level of Church Activity and Involvement
4. The Type of Religious Language Used

Using these four criteria, Holmes states where each of the Founding Fathers ranks on the religious spectrum. First off, it is important that we recognize the role that the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening played in shaping the religious beliefs of colonial America. As Daniel Walker Howe states in his epic book What Hath God Wrought, religious ideology, especially Christian ideology, was very different during the colonial era than it is today. By looking at these four points, we can determine to what degree deism and Christianity influenced the individual.

There is of course many other factors than these simple four points, which shaped the individual beliefs of our Founding Fathers. These points, however, can help us see the impact of deism and Christianity on the individual. A deist would be more likely to attend church less frequently, would strongly oppose sacraments and ordinances, would have a low level of church involvement, and would use very neutral religious language when referring to deity. An orthodox Christian, however, would be the exact opposite. With that said, let us look at several of the Founding Fathers using the test provided by Holmes.

George Washington: Obviously Washington is the most popular of the Founding Fathers, and there is a great deal of religious myth that surrounds him. There is perhaps more written on the religious views of Washington than any other Founding Father. His legacy has been used by secularists and religious zealots alike, in order to shape their respective agendas. But what were his religious beliefs? Here is what Holmes states:

1.) Church Attendance: Washington, though not as devout as the typical orthodox of his day, did attend church with some regularity, and as Holmes states, “held organized religion in high regard, and was known to pray privately.”

2.) Approach to the Sacraments and Ordinances: Washington was known for regularly leaving church services before any and all sacraments. Washington strictly refused to partake in any other religious ordinances.

3.) Level of Church Activity and Involvement: Washington was a vestryman in both the Anglican and Episcopal churches, but was never confirmed in any church. Washington strongly opposed any orthodox allegiance to any one church, and remained a non-ordained, non-confirmed churchgoer.

4.) Religious Language Used: Washington’s religious vernacular was mixed with Deist and Christian phrases. Though he regularly referred to deity as “Providence” and “the Grand Architect” Washington also used the words “God” and “Christ” on a regular basis as well.

So where does Holmes rank Washington? He calls him a “Christian Deist.”

Thomas Jefferson

This one is almost too easy. Jefferson attended very little church, he never participated in sacraments and ordinances, was never ordained or confirmed (in fact he believed such practices were morally reprehensible), and his religious language was VERY common for a Deist (just look at the Declaration of Independence where Jefferson uses phrases like "Providence" and "Nature's God"). Jefferson also regularly denied the divinity of Christ, but referred to him as "the greatest philosopher." In his Bible, Jefferson even removed all references to Jesus being a savior figure.

Holmes states, and I strongly agree, that Jefferson was a non-Christian Deist. This one is pretty easy.

Benjamin Franklin
Franklin is an interesting figure. He donated a large amount of money to virtually every religion in Philadelphia and even attended most of them. Franklin, however, was never confirmed, nor did he participate in sacraments and ordinances of any church. Franklin even states in his autobiography that he denies the divinity of Jesus. Holmes also calls Franklin a Deist.

So where are the Orthodox Christians? Here is just a small list:
Patrick Henry
Samuel Adams
John Jay
Martha Washington
Charles Carrol
Elias Boudinot
John Q. Adams

And Christian Deists? Here again is another small list that Holmes mentions:
George Washington
Abigail Adams
Alexander Hamilton
John Hancock

And here is Holmes's list of non-Christian Deists:
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
James Monroe
John Adams
Benjamin Franklin
Thomas Paine

Ok, let the debating begin!


Raven said...

I read "Faiths of the Founding Fathers" and thought it was an excellent book so I agree with what you wrote. I would call Washington a full deist though.

Lindsey Shuman said...

This happens to be the topic of one of my research papers actually. You mentioned the importance of the Enlightenment of the Founding Fathers and I would like to emphasize that point. The Enlightenment was the SINGLE BIGGEST influence on the upper class of colonial society. The Enlightenment taught reason and rationalization as a fundamental factor in understanding religion. It comes as no surprise that so many of our Founding Fathers disagreed with the teachings of the various churches. It is also no surprise that so many of them found Jesus to be a philosopher and not a savior.

The Enlightenment also taught our Founding Fathers that religion should be taken with a grain of salt. Many of the Founding Fathers had received excellent educations baced on Enlightenment thinking. They knew of all the radical religious notions that had led Salem to burn "witches," had convinced Christians to embark on the Crusades, and had caused the inquisition in Spain.

With all of that said, the Founders were religious people. It is true that many held a different interpretation of Christianity or religion in general, but this does not ignore the fact that many still embraced a belief in deity.

Brad Hart said...

I agree with you, Lindsey. The Enlightenment was huge. There is no doubt that it shaped the upper class of both European and American society during the colonial era.

I think that the best definition I have ever heard in regards to the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers is that they were "Theistic Rationalists." What this means is that for the most part, they were believers in some form of diety. At the same time, however, they were stong supporters of rational thought. I think of George Washington who stated that America must be governed "by reason and not religion" but at the same time kissed the Bible and stated "so help me God" at his swearing in. That pretty much sums up the religon of many of the Founding Fathers.

Lindsey Shuman said...

That is an interesting definition: "theistic rationalists." I think it applies to some of the Founders but not all. Thomas Paine, for example, would not fit that mold.

It is important also that we recognize that fact that the Founding Fathers were, in many cases, angry at organized religion. America (contrary to popular opinion) was not created on religious freedom, but religious TOLERANCE. There is a big difference and the Founders knew it. Tolerance meant that you had to accept religions into your colony, but did not have to give them equal treatment. Most people don't know this, but 10 out of the 13 colonies had STATE SANCTIONED RELIGIONS. It's no surprise to me that one of the first orders of business for the Founding Fathers would end that practice.

Lindsey Shuman said...

I think it would also be interesting to look at how some of our Founders rationalized their sexual promiscuity with women. Did they use religion? Did Franklin use religion to justify all the sex he had with prostitutes, and did Jefferson do the same with Sally Hemmings?

Anonymous said...

The founding fathers were diest. It is the christians that can't accept this obvious fact. They said many times that they were sick of religion and that is why trhey created america in the first place. America was going to be a country that didn't give favoratizm to religions but now they do.

David Mabry said...

I would say that the intial colonial roots were religiously intolerant. The secular laws for the colonies included punishmenta for dissidence, blasphemy, etc. I love the potrayal of this in part 3 of the PBS show, "Colonial House" which is named "A City of God" after aportion Winthrop's often quoted speech that he wrote aboard the Arabella, "A Modell of Chrisitan Charity".

It is important to remember that both Connecticut and Rhode Island were founded by those rejected and banished by the Puritans of Mass. based on religious differences. There was a reason for the Great Awakening, religious indifference. Many colonists were more interested in their economic opportunity rather than their religious freedom. The basis for the Revolution after all was, economic, as Fred pointed out earlier. Mercantilism forced the colonies into a corner when the Empire came looking for their revenue.

Back to the topic, I think the that the religious beliefs are impotant only to the point that they shape their views on the nature of man and morality as this will play into their construction of our government and laws.

Brian Tubbs said...

Two great books on this controversial subject are...

The Founders on Religion by James Hutson

America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln by Mark Noll

Brian Tubbs said...

Brief word on the Enlightenment....

There's a myth that the Enlightenment represented a rejection of religion. It did not. It emphasized the importance of education, individual thought and rationalization. In that sense, it was a rejection of any organized religious church, organization, and system that sought to SUPPRESS rational thought. I'll grant that. But the Enlightenment did not (in and of itself) represent a repudiation of God's existence or the place that faith can play in society or in the life of an individual.

Brad Hart said...

Brian brings up an important point when it comes to the Enlightenment. By no means was the Enlightenment a time when religious views were looked down upon. Instead the Enlightenment promoted rational thought, which was injected into the religious world of the Founding Fathers.

Hercules Mulligan said...

I don't know why Holmes classified Alexander Hamilton as a "Christian deist." I have studied his life, faith, and writings for about 3 and a half years, and there is no evidence that Hamilton favored deism or rationalism at all. He may not have talked about religion a lot or all the time, but since when does that prove that he wasn't Christian. Anything he said about religion was compatible with the Bible.

I have an entire blog dedicated to this subject:
The sidebar will take you to a whole bunch of links that detail his faith as expressed through his own writings and eyewitness testimony.

And Brian Tubbs has an excellent point about the relationship between Christianity and the Enlightenment. Many of the Enlightenment thinkers that our Founders relied upon (John Locke, William Blackstone, Hugo Grotius, etc) had bibical worldviews; John Locke once went so far as to say that he based his ideas on the Bible.

I have a blog dedicated to the roots of our Constitution and form of government, which does address this subject also:

And I have a friend who has been blogging about this subject quite extensively, here:

I have never read Holmes' book, but if I am correct, he sees church attendance as a key in determining the Founders' Christianity, including Hamilton's.

It is often claimed that Hamilton did not attend church. I have found no ground for this argument, although it is true he did not officially become a MEMBER of a church until his death. But how does this prove that he had doubts about the Bible, which never says "Thou shalt go to church." Now, the Bible DOES say, "And do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together, as is the manner of some," however, Hamilton did not "forsake the assembling" on Sunday; he conducted "church services" in his own home with his own family at the Grange! Before then, it is uncertain whether or not he attended church (although the "Patriot window" in Christ Church, Phila. seems to indicate this; I am currently checking the issue with the church historian there). but uncertainty of his attendance does not disprove his Christianity, and it does not prove that he never attended church.

Anonymous said...

I'm puzzled why God was mentioned more explicitly in the Declaration of Independence. I understand Jefferson's motivation, but this did become a group effort.

Anonymous said...

I just want to point out that the term Christian Deist is LITERALLY an impossibility.

Deism is defined as the belief, based solely on reason, in a God who created the universe and then abandoned it, assuming no control over life, exerting no influence on natural phenomena, and giving no supernatural revelation.

To be a Christian, according to the Bible, means that you accept Christ as THE Son of GOD and your personal intermediary with God. (Although technically the bible only uses the word Christian twice and refers to them as disciples or brothers/sister/followers of Christ. It was a Greek term meaning "Little Christ"; it was initially a derogatory term.)

The two are mutually exclusive by their very definition. It has to be one or the other. No fencepost sitting.

Anonymous said...

"Faiths of the Founding Fathers" was an excellent book but I personally agree with both Brian and Brad, the enlightenment was not anti-religion, quite the opposite in fact, the enlightenment saw spirituality in everything however, it was nature rather than an obvious God that was looked to for this spirituality.

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