THE RELIGIOUS BELIEFS OF THE FOUNDING FATHERS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
THE RELIGIOUS BELIEFS OF THE FOUNDING FATHERS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA by IAN ELLIS-JONESA REVISED PRECIS OF AN ADDRESS DELIVERED BEFORE THE SYDNEY UNITARIAN CHURCH SUNDAY, 7 AUGUST 2005IntroductionFundamentalist Christians tell us that the United States of America wasfounded as a Christian nation. That is a lie. They would also have us believethat the Founding Fathers of the United States of America were all good,evangelical Christians. That is also a lie. The truth is that the United Statesof America had, as Robert Green Ingersoll pointed out, “the first seculargovernment that was ever founded in this world”, with a distinctly non-sectarian Constitution. Furthermore, the Founding Fathers of the countrywere far from being fundamentalist evangelical Christians. For the most part,they were Deists, freethinkers, rationalists and secularists. (A “Deist” believesthat an essentially unknowable and otherwise uncontactable god createdeverything but denies supernatural revelation altogether.)The distinctly religiously unorthodox origins of the United States of America isconfirmed in the first volume of The Rise of American Civilization (by CharlesA and Mary R Beard): When the crisis came, Jefferson, Paine, John Adams, Washington, Franklin, Madison, and many lesser lights were to be reckoned among either the Unitarians or the Deists. It was not Cotton Mathers God to whom the author of the Declaration of Independence appealed, it was to “Natures God.” From whatever source derived, the effect of both Unitarianism and Deism was to hasten the retirement of historic theology from its empire over the intellect of American leaders, and to clear the atmosphere for secular interests.The Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, which aims at “protectingreligious liberty by keeping church and state separate”, and which representsa number of Baptist organizations in the United States, has written: There can be no doubt that we are a "religious people." … However, that is not the same thing as declaring that Christianity has been legally privileged or established to the exclusion of other religions or to the exclusion of irreligion. Moreover, the Constitution, which is our civil compact, is decidedly non-sectarian and … mentions religion only to disallow religious tests for public office.
As a sidelight, it was a Baptist minister, one Francis Bellamy, who wrote theUnited States Pledge of Allegiance in 1892. Consistent with the Baptistprinciple of separation of church and state, Bellamy made no reference toGod or religion in his version of the pledge, but in 1954 the US Congressadded the words "under God" after pressure by the Knights of Columbus andother religious groups.The “Founding Fathers”In the context of US history and constitutional law the phrase “FoundingFathers” ordinarily refers to a specific group of men, namely, the 55 delegatesto the Constitutional Convention of 1787. There were, however, many otherimportant players not in attendance at the Constitutional Convention, such asThomas Jefferson (who drafted the Declaration of Independence and wholater became the 3rd US President) and John Adams (who would become the1st US Vice President and then the nation’s 2nd President), whose far-from-orthodox religious thinking deeply influenced the shaping of the United Statesof America. They, too, are sometimes, and not wrongly, seen to be part of the“Founding Fathers” as well.Despite their respective denominational affiliations, most of the FoundingFathers rarely practised orthodox Christianity. Most of them believed inDeism and many had also embraced Freemasonry, which to this day remainsan anathema to most conservative Christians and their churches by reason ofits religious naturalism and religious indifferentism. Professor ClintonRossiter, in his much celebrated work 1787: The Grand Convention (1966),wrote, “The Convention of 1787 was highly rationalist and even secular inspirit.” (Indeed, by the end of the 18th century Deism had become a dominantreligious attitude among upper class Americans. The first 3 US Presidentswere Deists; that is demonstrably clear from their writings.) Furthermore, thereis a total absence of any mention of Jesus, Christ, Christianity or indeed anyChristian church in all of the “founding documents” of the United States ofAmerica, being the Declaration of Independence, the United StatesConstitution, and the Federalist Papers.The Declaration of IndependenceAlthough the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776 does mention God,it is not the God of Christianity. The document, with its various references to“the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”, the “Course of human events”, “thePowers of the earth”, and “a decent respect to the opinion of mankind” (cfnotions of monarchical theocracy), smacks of Deism and religious naturalism.The Declaration makes it perfectly clear that those in government derivedtheir “just powers” from “the consent of the governed”, not God.The United States ConstitutionThere is not a single mention of God, Jesus or Christianity in the USConstitution. The only two references to religion are negative andexclusionary: firstly, Article VI, Section 3 provides that “no religious test shall
ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under theUnited States; and, secondly, the First Amendment says, “Congress shallmake no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the freeexercise thereof”.The Federalist PapersAlexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison (the “Father of theConstitution” and 4th US President) produced a series of written arguments forthe Constitution entitled “The Federalist Papers”. These documents werehighly influential in the ratification debates on the Constitution. There is nomention of God as such in any of these papers. There are only Deisticreferences to “Providence”.As a sidelight, at the Constitutional Convention held in 1787 a motion byBenjamin Franklin to have prayer in the hall prior to the formal deliberationswas defeated.Thomas PaineThomas Paine, who was highly praised for his work The Rights of Man, andwho was otherwise strongly influential in forming the early republic, was afreethinker and Deist. In The Age of Reason he wrote: I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my church.Paine also wrote: Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is no more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory to itself than this thing called Christianity.Benjamin FranklinBenjamin Franklin was also highly influential in forming the early republic. Hewas also a freethinker and Deist. In a letter he expressed “some Doubts as to[Jesus’] divinity”. Unitarian minister and scientist Dr Joseph Priestly, a veryclose friend of Franklin, wrote in his autobiography that Franklin was “anunbeliever in Christianity”.George WashingtonAlthough a nominal member of an Episcopal church, there is no record of thenation’s 1st President ever becoming a communicant in that or any otherChristian church. A firm believer in religious pluralism, Washington reportedlyattended Episcopalian, Quaker, German Reformed and Roman Catholicservices. In 1787 Washington wrote:
Being no bigot myself, I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church that road to heaven which to them shall seem the most direct, plainest, easiest and least liable to exception.There is also a credible amount of evidence that Washington was also aDeist, and that was attested to by the Rev Dr James Abercrombie, rector of StPeter’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. After Washington’s death,Abercrombie wrote to a Dr Wilson, who had enquired as to Washington’sreligion, stating, “Sir, Washington was a Deist”. The rector knew Washingtonwell, and it is widely written that Washington would regularly leave churchbefore communion, in common with the other non-communicants. Further,when Abercrombie in one of his sermons expressed the view that persons inhigh places who chose not to communicate set an “unhappy example” it iswritten that Washington ceased attending church at all on communionSundays.In fact, the first President rarely spoke about religion, never mentions Jesus inany of his thousands of letters or in any of his other writings. He was aFreemason, indeed, the only President to serve as master of his lodge duringhis presidency. (The other Masonic Presidents are James Monroe, AndrewJackson, James Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, James Garfield,William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William H Taft, Warren Harding,Franklin D Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford, withRonald Reagan as an “honorary” Mason.) Washington was a religiouspluralist who said that every person “ought to be protected in worshipping theDeity according to the dictates of [their] own conscience”. He also made itclear that he would accept “Mohometans, Jews or Christians of any Sect, orthey may be Atheists”.It is written that Washington did not ask for a minister of religion on hisdeathbed, although one was available. He died a “death of civility” and had aMasonic funeral.John AdamsThe nation’s 1st Vice President and 2nd President was a Unitarian (the first of 4- 5, if you count Thomas Jefferson - US Presidents who were Unitarians). Herejected the orthodox Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the Deity of Jesus.He also denied the doctrine of eternal damnation. In a letter to JeffersonAdams wrote: I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved - the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!During his presidency, the Treaty of Tripoli was signed. In that document it isofficially stated that “the Government of the United States of America is not inany sense founded on the Christian religion”. This is in direct and objectivecontradiction to the attempts by the Religious Right to get the US federalgovernment to declare the country a Christian nation.
Charles Francis Adams, grandson of John Adams, wrote a biography of hisgrandfather and also edited his Works. He wrote this about his grandfather’sreligious beliefs: Rejecting, with the independent spirit which in early life had driven him from the ministry, the prominent doctrines of Calvinism, the trinity, the atonement and election, he was content to settle down upon the Sermon on the Mount as a perfect code presented to men by a more than mortal teacher.Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, became the 6th US President. He, too, wasa Unitarian.Thomas JeffersonThe man who was responsible for the United States of America becoming afirst secular state, who was the author of the Declaration of Independence,and who was the nation’s 2nd Vice President and 3rd President, was a non-practising Episcopalian, but not a communicant member of that or any otherChristian church. His work, The Jefferson Bible, completed in 1819, wasUnitarian in theology, and he regularly attended Joseph Priestley’sPennsylvania church when he was nearby. (Jefferson read and admiredPriestley’s A History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782).) In 1822Jefferson declared Unitarianism to be the future faith of the United States ofAmerica, and in the last year of his life he did indeed declare himself to be aUnitarian.In fact, Thomas Jefferson had always denounced the superstitions ofChristianity and rejected the Trinity and Deity of Christ. He also rejected allnotions of supernaturalism, believing in materialism, reason and science.Forrest Church, senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New YorkCity, writes that Jefferson’s only interest in the Bible was the life andteachings of Jesus. He wrote to the Universalist Dr Benjamin Rush: I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.However, in a letter to Peter Carr, dated 10 August 1787, Jefferson wrote,“Question with boldness even the existence of a god.”Working in the White House in 1804 Thomas Jefferson embarked on the taskof putting the blue pencil through the Gospels in order to extract the authenticmessage of Jesus. Out went the Annunciation, the Virgin Birth, and even theResurrection. In 1813 John Adams wrote approvingly to Jefferson: I admire your employment in selecting the philosophy and divinity of Jesus, and separating it from all mixtures. If I had eyes and nerves I would go through both Testaments and mark all that I understand.James Madison
The nation’s 4th President, and the principal draftsperson of the Constitution,as well as the author of the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to theConstitution), believed in religious freedom and tolerance. Although anEpiscopalian, it is written that he had no conventional sense of Christianity. In1785, in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,Madison wrote: During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.Madison called into question the influence of ecclesiastical establishments onsociety. “A just government … needs them not,” he wrote.ConclusionThe Founding Fathers of the United States of America were children of theEnlightenment. They believed in the supremacy of reason over superstitionand notions of supernaturalism. They were very much aware of the dangersof religious dogmatism and sought to avoid it. They sought to build, inJefferson’s oft-quoted words, a wall of separation between Church andState. In the words of famed American atheist, freethinker and secularistMadalyn Murray O’Hair: They were not really concerned with the opinion of god [sic] and his agents. They respected first the opinion of “We the People” or of “mankind”.In conclusion, if it was the intention of the Founding Fathers of the UnitedStates of America to make the nation a Christian one, they could not havedone a worse job of it. Indeed, the Founding Fathers’ views on religion standin marked contradiction to those of today’s highly politicized Religious Rightwho seek to establish their own very narrow version of fundamentalistProtestant Christianity as some sort of de facto established church of theUnited States of America.FOOTNOTE. On 27 June 2005 the United States Supreme Court, in McCreary County vAmerican Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky (SC No 03-1693), ruled 5-4 that the public displayof the “Ten Commandments” in court buildings or on other government property wasunconstitutional. On the same day, the Court ruled in Van Orden v Perry (SC No 03-1500)that the public display of the Commandments on government land could be permissible if thedisplay is in a historical context with a distinctly secular purpose.