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Wednesday, November 24, 2004


Reasonable Men?
Excerpts from an Edwin S. Gaustad article that appeared in Christianity Today:


Jefferson was a religious man, as were the other founding fathers—Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison.Though none could be considered orthodox Christians (all were products primarily of the Enlightenment), none of them was "an enemy to God."...

Though sometimes claimed by the Presbyterians or Episcopalians, Franklin can be rightly classified—with all our other founders—only as a deist or freethinker. That is, he would construct a creed for himself, not recite one created by others. He would test all by the mark of common sense and find his revelation not in the Bible but in Reason and Nature (always capitalized by Enlightenment thinkers).

On these grounds, Franklin strongly affirmed the existence of God, the freedom of human beings to make their own choices, and the potential value of institutional religion as a teacher and enforcer of a high moral code. But churches that focused exclusively on dogma and ignored morals infuriated Franklin. He denounced and satirized them and emphatically separated himself from them....

Puritan Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, knew of Franklin's deist leanings,but wanted, if possible, to pin down the nimble-footed freethinker to some basics. In friendship Stiles asked for some kind of creedal confession, however limited. Franklin, who said that this was the first time he had ever been asked, on March 9, 1790, readily obliged:

"Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the universe: that he governs the world by his providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we can render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal and will be treated with justice in another life respect[ing] its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion, and I regard them as you do,in whatever sect I meet with them."

In addition, Stiles wanted to know specifically what Franklin thought of Jesus: Was Franklin really a Christian or not? Franklin responded that Jesus had taught the best system of morals and religion that "the world ever saw." But on the troublesome question of the divinity of Jesus, he had along with other deists "some doubts."...

Of the five founders, George Washington (1732-1799) had the least to say about religion. Like most members of the Virginia gentry, he was baptized,married, and buried in the Anglican (Episcopal) church. But he wore his denominational labels lightly and kept his private religion strictly private."In politics as in religion," he wrote in 1795, "my tenets are few and simple."

As president for two terms, he did not altogether avoid the language of religion,but it was a public or civil religion that he addressed, doing so in a language that demonstrated no great passion. When he chose to speak of God, it was in terms like "the Grand Architect," "the Governor of the Universe," "the Supreme Dispenser of all Good," "the Great Ruler of Events," and even "the Higher Cause."...

Moreover, Washington studiously avoided referring to the person and ministry of Jesus. When in 1789 some Presbyterian leaders complained to Washington about the Constitution's absence of any reference to "the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent," the nation's first president calmly replied,"The path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction."...

Born in Braintree (Quincy), Massachusetts, John Adams (1735-1826) grew up in the sheltering fold of New England Congregationalism. But when many of those churches turned toward liberal Unitarianism, Adams turned with them.That movement, coupled with the Enlightenment (to which Adams in France was fully exposed) ensured that he also would become a freethinker....

Adams impatiently dismissed the doctrine of original sin: "I am answerable enough for my own sins," he wrote in 1815, because "I know they were my own fault, and that is enough for me to know."...

With respect to his own religious views...Madison's convictions are more cloudy. When he entered the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1769,he came under the influence of President John Witherspoon and other Presbyterian members of the faculty. He read theology with some care, even after his graduation. But once he was caught up in the Revolutionary whirl, his interest in deeper religion evaporated. When asked in 1825 to explain his own views of the being and attributes of God, he replied that he had essentially ceased thinking about those subjects fifty years earlier....

Well before Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) found himself in the midst of a mean-spirited presidential campaign in 1800, he had paid a great deal of attention to religion—primarily to its liberty. For seven years, 1779-1786,he fretted over the absence in his home state (Virginia) of a clear guarantee of religious freedom. Finally, his long-neglected bill became the Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom....

Jefferson also pushed for a bill on the national level that would offer similar guarantees of religious freedom, which helped bring about the First Amendment in 1789. And as president he placed his own famous spin on that amendment by employing the phrase "a wall of separation between church and state."...

In his private correspondence, not in his public declarations, he argued for a Christian religion devoid of mystery and dogmatic absurdity, a religion that rallied around the Enlightenment standards of Reason and Nature....

If Christianity could be cleansed of 17 centuries of corrupting tradition,the barnacles scraped off, the mysteries jettisoned, and the irrationalities tossed into a heap, then it would appeal again to an emancipated and enlightened world, even to Jefferson himself. With respect to the "genuine precepts of Jesus himself," Jefferson observed in 1803, "I am a real Christian … sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others."

But he rejected the divinity of Jesus (as he believed Jesus did) and denounced the idea of the Trinity as "mere abracadabra," the saddest example of what happens when one trades "morals for mysteries, Jesus for Plato." So perhaps he was more precise when he noted in 1819, "I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know."



On the other hand, here's what Wallbuilders says:


In dictionaries like Websters, Funk & Wagnalls, Century, and others, the terms "deist," "agnostic," and "atheist" appear as synonyms. Therefore, the range of a deist spans from those who believe there is no God, to those who believe in a distant, impersonal creator of the universe, to those who believe there is no way to know if God exists. Do the Founders fit any of these definitions?

None of the notable Founders fit this description....

In Benjamin Franklin's 1749 plan of education for public schools in Pennsylvania, he insisted that schools teach "the necessity of a public religion . . . and the excellency of the Christian religion above all others, ancient or modern." Consider also the fact that Franklin proposed a Biblical inscription for the Seal of the United States; that he chose a New Testament verse for the motto of the Philadelphia Hospital; that he was one of the chief voices behind the establishment of a paid chaplain in Congress; and that when in 1787 when Franklin helped found the college which bore his name, it was dedicated as "a nursery of religion and learning" built "on Christ, the Corner-Stone." Franklin certainly doesn't fit the definition of a deist.

Nor does George Washington. He was an open promoter of Christianity. For example, in his speech on May 12, 1779, he claimed that what children needed to learn "above all" was the "religion of Jesus Christ," and that to learn this would make them "greater and happier than they already are"; on May 2, 1778, he charged his soldiers at Valley Forge that "To the distinguished character of patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian"....Washington's own adopted daughter declared of Washington that you might as well question his patriotism as to question his Christianity....

The reader, as do many others, claimed that Jefferson omitted all miraculous events of Jesus from his "Bible." Rarely do those who make this claim let Jefferson speak for himself. Jefferson own words explain that his intent for that book was not for it to be a "Bible," but rather for it to be a primer for the Indians on the teachings of Christ (which is why Jefferson titled that work, "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth"). What Jefferson did was to take the "red letter" portions of the New Testament and publish these teachings in order to introduce the Indians to Christian morality. And as President of the United States, Jefferson signed a treaty with the Kaskaskia tribe wherein he provided—at the government's expense—Christian missionaries to the Indians. In fact, Jefferson himself declared, "I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus." While many might question this claim, the fact remains that Jefferson called himself a Christian, not a deist.

James Madison trained for ministry with the Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon, and Madison's writings are replete with declarations of his faith in God and in Christ. In fact, for proof of this, one only need read his letter to Attorney General Bradford wherein Madison laments that public officials are not bold enough about their Christian faith in public and that public officials should be "fervent advocates in the cause of Christ." And while Madison did allude to a "wall of separation," contemporary writers frequently refuse to allow Madison to provide his own definition of that "wall." According to Madison, the purpose of that "wall" was only to prevent Congress from passing a national law to establish a national religion....

The reason that such critics never mention any other Founders is evident. For example, consider what must be explained away if the following signers of the Constitution were to be mentioned: Charles Pinckney and John Langdon—founders of the American Bible Society; James McHenry—founder of the Baltimore Bible Society; Rufus King—helped found a Bible society for Anglicans; Abraham Baldwin—a chaplain in the Revolution and considered the youngest theologian in America; Roger Sherman, William Samuel Johnson, John Dickinson, and Jacob Broom—also theological writers; James Wilson and William Patterson—placed on the Supreme Court by President George Washington, they had prayer over juries in the U. S. Supreme Court room; and the list could go on. And this does not even include the huge number of thoroughly evangelical Christians who signed the Declaration or who helped frame the Bill of Rights.

Any portrayal of any handful of Founders as deists is inaccurate. (If this group had really wanted some irreligious Founders, they should have chosen Henry Dearborne, Charles Lee, or Ethan Allen). Perhaps critics should spend more time reading the writings of the Founders to discover their religious beliefs for themselves rather than making such sweeping accusations which are so easily disproven.



James Watkins at gospelcom.net says that the answer is more complex:


True or False: The Founding Fathers of The United States were Christians who formed a government based on godly principles.

That's a more complex answer. The "revisionist left" would like to make them secular and the "religious right" would like to make them saintly. Let's take a look at some of the more prominent Founding Father's beliefs . . . in their own words.

But first, for the sake of argument, let's use the Apostle' Creed as a common description of orthodox Christian doctrine:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.


As a Unitarian, [John] Adams flatly denied the doctrine of eternal punishment believing all would eventually enter heaven. (Many Unitarians reject the Trinity and most accept all religions as valid expressions of faith.) But being a good Unitarian, he was certainly open to the teachings of Christ

"Jesus is benevolence personified, an example for all men… The Christian religion, in its primitive purity and simplicity, I have entertained for more than sixty years. It is the religion of reason, equity, and love; it is the religion of the head and the heart" (Letter to F.A. Van Der Kemp, December 27, 1816).

During Adam's administration the Senate ratified the 1797 Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Tripoli, which states in Article XI that "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion." Some view this as "a smoking gun" that America was not founded as a Christian nation, while others argue that it was simply a concession to the Muslim nation (when the treaty was renegotiated eight years later, Article XI was dropped)....

In his autobiography, Franklin describes himself as "a thorough Deist." "I began to be regarded, by pious souls, with horror, either as an apostate or an Atheist."

According to a Deist publication, a Deist is "One who believes in the existence of a God or supreme being but denies revealed religion, basing his belief on the light of nature and reason." Deists reject the Judeo-Christian accounts of God as well as the Bible. They do believe that God is eternal and good, but flatly reject having a relationship with Him through Christ.

Franklin certainly believed in the providence of God. In his famous speech to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on June 28, 1787:

"I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth--that God governs in the affairs of men... If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground unseen by him, is it probable an empire could arise without his aid? I firmly believe this, and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building not better than the builders of Babel."...

The writer of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States wrote to Charles Thomson in 1816:

"I, too, have made a wee-little book from the same materials, which I call the Philosophy of Jesus; it is a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book, and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus."

Jefferson was a Deist who respected Christ's teachings, but rejected His divinity, His miracles, and His resurrection. In a letter to William Short dated April 13, 1820, he wrote:

"I am a Materialist.

Among the sayings and discourses imputed to [Jesus] by His biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others, again, of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same Being. I separate, therefore, the gold from the dross; restore to Him the former, and leave the latter to the stupidity of some, and roguery of others of His disciples. Of this band of dupes and impostors, Paul was the great . . . corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus."

In separating Jesus divine and human natures, Jefferson wrote to John Adams, January 24, 1814 that the divine aspects of Christ were "the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills."

And so he compiled The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels. Jefferson simply cut out anything of a supernatural or miraculous nature....

The first President's faith is a bit harder to pin down.

Many Christian writers and commentators point to Washington's twenty-four page manuscript book, titled, Daily Sacrifice. It was found in April 1891 among a collection of Washington's papers in his confirmed handwriting when he was about the age of twenty. In it he prays:

"Bless my family, kindred, friends and country, be our God & guide this day and for ever for his sake, who lay down in the Grave and arose again for us, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

". . . in and for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ offered upon the cross for me; for his sake, ease me of the burden of my sins, and give me grace that by the call of the Gospel I may rise from the slumber of sin into the newness of life.

"Let me live according to those holy rules which thou hast this day prescribed in thy holy word; make me to know what is acceptable in thy holy word; make me to know what is acceptable in thy sight, and therein to delight, open the eyes of my understanding, and help me thoroughly to examine myself concerning my knowledge, faith and repentance, increase my faith, and direct me to the true object Jesus Christ the way, the truth and the life, bless O Lord, all the people of this land, from the highest to the lowest, particularly those whom thou has appointed to rule over us in church & state. continue thy goodness to me this night. These weak petitions I humbly implore thee to hear accept and ans. for the sake of thy Dear Son Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen."

In his Speech to Delaware Indian Chiefs on May 12, 1779, Washington said:

"You do well to wish to learn our arts and our ways of life and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do everything they can to assist you in this wise intention."

However, during his presidency (1789-1797) and in his later life, Washington is not recorded referring to Jesus Christ and rarely to God. He preferred titles such as "the Divine Author of our blessed Religion," "Almighty Being," "Providence" and "Grand Designer" (all terms from Deist beliefs).

Washington also used the title "Supreme Architect" (a Freemasonary term of which he became a devout member, served as the head of the original Alexandria Lodge No. 22, and presided over the laying of the U.S. Capitol in a Mason apron).

According to Bishop White, Washington's pastor for nearly 25 years at the Protestant Episcopal Church of America, as well as Washington's adopted daughter Nelly Custis-Lewis, the President would leave the service before communion was served. (The Eucharist or Holy Communion is considered an essential part of salvation for Catholics and for many members of litergical churches.)

Lewis however defended her step-father's faith in a letter:

"I never witnessed his private devotions. I never inquired about them. I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those who act or pray, "that they may be seen of men" [Matthew 6:5]. He communed with his God in secret [Matthew 6:6]."

Thomas Jefferson was less charitable:

[Washington] "had never, on any occasion, said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion, and they thought they should so pen their address as to force him at length to disclose publicly whether he was a Christian or not. However, he observed, the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly, except that, which he passed over without notice" (Jefferson's Works, Vol. iv., p. 572).

So, were the Founding Fathers Christians?

They were certainly godly men who believed in a supreme being, but not everyone would subscribe to the Apostles' Creed.

Three things do seem clear to me:

First, we must always check our sources before making any claim--or passing one on.

Both revisionists and the religious right have tried to make the Founding Fathers fit their ideology. It gives neither side of the debate any credibility when quotes are found to be ficticious or grossly out of context.

For instance, I've seen articles proclaiming that Jefferson claimed to be "a real Christian" while conveniently avoiding his opinion that belief in Christ's divinity was "dung" (see contexts above).

Second, we must be careful with labels, especially "Christian."

One author claims that 51 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence held a "Christian worldview." He doesn't go on, however, to define what he means by Christian worldview. Would Jefferson and Franklin, who admired Christ's teachings, be included in the 51?

And third, we should be grateful that the Founding Fathers--whatever they believed--were so intent on making religious liberty a right for those of us who do subscribe to the Apostles' Creed and those who don't.


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