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    Historiography of the religious beliefs of the American founders (edited).

    Attention mods: please close/delete the former thread. I have edited this to retain the paragraphs in ODN's format.

    Kevin Browning, 4-19-2008

    A Historiography of the Personal Religious Beliefs and the Public Religious Policies of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America

    Today, many people have divergent views on the place of religion in American government and society. These views are often supported by quotations from the founding fathers of the United States. Such statements about religion and its relation to the American republic, both positive and negative, are found from men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, John Jay, James Madison and others. However, the consensus on these men’s general views on the subject has changed through time.

    The period in which the nation declared independence in 1776 and adopted the Constitution in 1789 was between two religious Great Awakenings. The first was from the 1730s-1740s and the second was from the 1800s-1830s. Between these two religious revivals, an Enlightenment philosophy called deism had gained traction in Western Europe and the American colonies. Deism, influenced by the contemporary emphases on logic and reason, held that there is a Creator God who set events in motion but does not interfere in the daily lives of humans or perform supernatural miracles and that Jesus Christ was not divine but human, although a great moral teacher.

    In this strict sense, none of the founders except perhaps Thomas Paine was a deist. However, several of them were deistic, denying Christ’s divinity, miracles or resurrection but believing God, or divine Providence, had interceded dramatically on the emerging nation’s behalf during the Revolution. These included Thomas Jefferson in particular and to some degree George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and others. The modern scholarly conclusion is that although all of these men identified as Christians or praised Christian values to some extent, only a few such as John Jay, Samuel Adams and Elias Boudinot were orthodox Christians who believed in Christ’s divine nature and the miracles of the Bible. David L. Holmes of The College of William and Mary published a book to this effect in 2006, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, as did Steven Waldman of U.S. News and World Report in 2008, Founding Faith.

    Holmes classifies Benjamin Franklin as a deist, George Washington as an unorthodox Christian, John Adams as a Unitarian or Christian deist, Thomas Jefferson as a moderate Unitarian, James Madison as a moderate deist, James Monroe as an Episcopalian of deistic tendencies and Samuel Adams, Elias Boudinot and John Jay as orthodox Christians. Curiously, he leaves out Patrick Henry, traditionally considered one of the most devout of the founders. In generally less concrete but more illustrative terms, Waldman describes Benjamin Franklin as a Puritan new ager, John Adams as a Unitarian, George Washington as deeply spiritual, Thomas Jefferson as a pious infidel and James Madison as a radical pluralist. However, he declines to comment on those Holmes considers orthodox Christians.

    It is instructive to explore how American historians have analyzed George Washington’s religion throughout the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, since of all the founders his beliefs especially are controversial and defy consensus. Washington, as general of the Continental Army and first president of the United States has held special importance in American memory and is depicted as more orthodox of a Christian than scholars now believe. Washington was baptized and raised in the Established [Anglican] Church of Virginia and when not in the field leading the Continental Army, attended church an average of once or twice a month, which was often considering transportation difficulties in that time. He served as an adult as a vestryman and churchwarden in the Episcopal Church. However, these were social and political positions and many have questioned his personal devoutness. During the Second Great Awakening, several books were published attempting to prove Washington’s piety, such as Parson Mason Locke Weems’ The Life of George Washington in 1800 and Edward C. McGuire’s The Religious Opinions and Character of Washington in 1836.

    Weems’ biography in particular has been influential, becoming one of the best-selling books in American history. President Woodrow Wilson would cite Weems’ work in his own biography of Washington published in the 1890s. However, great doubt has grown around Weems’ credibility, as Washington’s contemporaries disputed the account. Weems added the now famous story of Washington and the cherry tree in the fifth edition of his book in 1806 and the story of Washington praying at Valley Forge in the 17th edition in 1817. In his account of Washington’s prayer at Valley Forge, Weems wrote,

    “In the winter of ’77, while Washington, with the American army lay encamped at Valley Forge, a certain good old FRIEND, of the respectable family and name of Potts, if I mistake not, had occasion to pass through the woods near head-quarters. [. . .] As he approached the spot with a cautious step, whom should he behold, in a dark natural bower of ancient oaks, but the commander in chief of the American armies on his knees at prayer! Motionless with surprise, friend Potts continued on the place till the general, having ended his devotions, arose, and, with a countenance of angel serenity, retired to headquarters: [. . .].”

    President Woodrow Wilson, a political science professor and a devout Presbyterian, published his biography of Washington in 1896, during what is sometimes considered the Third Great Awakening of the 1850s-1890s. Wilson repeated Weems’ account of a little girl hearing Washington recite a biblical battle cry before a battle, writing, “A little child remembered afterwards how [Washington] had prayed at her father’s house upon the eve of battle; how he had taken scripture out of Joshua, and had cried, ‘The Lord God of gods, the Lord God of gods, He knoweth, and Israel he shall know; if it be in rebellion, or if in transgression against the Lord (save us not this day).’” This continued scholarly reference to Washington’s acts of piety as found in Weems, at the turn of the 20th century, shows either ignorance or disregard for the accounts of Washington’s deistic leanings given by his contemporaries Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Bishop William White.

    A more extensive summary of the historiography of the first president’s religion is found in Paul F. Boller, Jr.’s George Washington and Religion, published in 1963. By this period of the 1960s, the beliefs of the founders were being explored more critically as scholars realized the Second Great Awakening had painted some of the founders as more religious than they probably were. Aaron Bancroft in 1807 and John Marshall in 1804-7 declared Washington a Christian, although a private one. Robert Dale Owen and Frances Wright questioned Washington’s Christianity in the 1830s towards the end of the Second Great Awakening but their doubts did not have much influence. Jared Sparks in 1837 and Washington Irving in 1855-59 did not cite Weems’ fables but continued to take Washington’s Christian faith for granted. Finally, in the 1880s, John E. Remsburg returned to the questions raised by Owen and Wright in the 1830s as to Washington’s orthodoxy, but failed to convince most historians through the first half of the 20th century. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge in 1889, President Wilson in 1896, Sir George Otto Trevelyan in 1915, William Roscoe Thayer in 1922, Luther A. Weigle in 1928 and John C. Fitzpatrick in 1931 all described Washington as a Christian to some degree. Rupert Hughes in 1926-30 was one of the few biographers at that time to strongly scrutinize the traditional legends of Washington’s piety and orthodoxy. Boller himself concludes that if Washington was a Christian, he was a Protestant of the most liberal persuasion.

    Along with the Enlightenment ideas of deism that influenced the founders’ thought in this area, one must examine the political atmosphere of the colonies from their settlement to the Revolution, to understand the founders’ emphasis on religious toleration and no establishment of a state religion. Although the founders believed that religion, which leads to morality, is indispensable to virtue, they did not sanction establishing one sect as the official church. The attempt of the Church of England to send an Anglican bishop to the colonies was a great source of unrest among the colonists and increased revolutionary sentiments. Rather than a revolution only of political ideals of liberty and equality or protest against taxation without representation, the American Revolution was also popularly a religious revolt against Catholicism and the authority of the pope and former Catholic persecution of Protestants such as under Queen “Bloody” Mary I, and against Anglicanism, which was deemed to be too close to it. Monarchy itself was depicted by the revolutionaries, including such ardent deists as Thomas Paine, as an unholy system condemned in the Old Testament. Further, it was argued that it is a people’s duty to rebel against the ruler when he violates the God-given rights of the people. This is how the revolutionaries downplayed St. Paul’s exhortation to obey governments, since they are established by God.

    However, the American view had not always opposed church establishment. During the Second Great Awakening, there were many efforts by Christian pastors to remind Americans of the distinctly Christian heritage of the early colonial era, and the long history of individual colonies and states having established churches supported by taxes. An enlightening glimpse into the debate over the relation of church and state during the 1830s, amid increasing secularism, is found in Daniel L. Dreisbach’s Religion and Politics in the Early Republic, published in 1996. This book reproduces the 1833 sermon of the Reverend Jasper Adams on the Christian yet non-denominational identity of the United States: The Relation of Christianity to Civil Government in the United States. It is followed by replies to the sermon by distinguished men of the time who had defined that relationship, such as Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, Justice Joseph Story and President James Madison, the author of the Constitution.

    After examining the 13 colonial charters and the state constitutions of the 24 existing states, Adams concludes that,

    “The principle obtained by the foregoing inductive examination of our State Constitutions, is this: THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES HAVE RETAINED THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION AS THE FOUNDATION OF THEIR CIVIL, LEGAL AND POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS; WHILE THEY HAVE REFUSED TO CONTINUE A LEGAL PREFERENCE TO ANY ONE OF ITS FORMS OVER THE OTHER. In the same spirit of practical wisdom, moreover, they have consented to tolerate all other religions.”

    In his letter of response, James Madison replied against Adams’ idea of non-sectarian Christianity as the state religion, saying,

    “I must admit, moreover, that that it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation, between the rights of Religion and the Civil authority, with such distinctness, as to avoid collisions and doubts on unessential points. The tendency to a usurpation on one side, or the other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best guarded by an entire abstinence of the Government from interference, in any way whatever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order, and protecting each sect against trespasses on its legal rights by others.”

    In contrast, Joseph Story affirmed Adams’ conception of the United States as a Christian nation without preference for any sect and tolerant towards other religions, writing,
    “My own private judgement has long been, (and every day’s experience more and more confirms me in it,) that government can not long exist without an alliance with religion to some extent; and that Christianity is indispensable to the true interests and solid foundations of all free governments. I distinguish, as you do, between the establishment of a particular sect, as the Religion of the State, and the Establishment of Christianity itself, without any preference of any particular form of it.”

    Thus, it is apparent that there was a great divide of opinion during the first half of the 19th century on the exact intent for the relation between church and state. If Madison’s word is taken as most authoritative, as the father of the Constitution and the author of the First Amendment, then Christianity is not the state religion, but the primary motive of the Establishment Clause is not prohibiting civil religion but protecting churches from violations of their legal rights. Madison’s image of the line of separation between church and state, as opposed to Jefferson’s wall, signifies a more flexible and intimate relationship between the two institutions, rather than two completely separate spheres. Although Madison did not speak for all of the founders, his view is probably representative of their general viewpoint regarding civil religion. However, it does not necessarily shed any more light on their personal religious convictions.

    While Washington is now usually seen as a deistic Christian, Thomas Jefferson is viewed today as a strict deist, although he greatly respected Christ as a moral teacher. This is vividly demonstrated by his “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” his edited version of the New Testament which removed all accounts of miracles or teachings of Jesus’ divinity or identity as the Savior but left Christ’s ethical teachings intact. However, he was presumably baptized in and raised in the Church of England, studied under Anglican clergy, and remained an Episcopalian throughout his life, when an Episcopalian priest presided at his funeral. We will now turn to Jefferson and how this most blatantly deist of the primary founders has been interpreted by historians through the years.

    Unfortunately, as Charles B. Sanford writes in The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson, published in 1984, scholarly studies of Jefferson’s personal religious beliefs have only appeared recently. When Jefferson ran for president against John Adams in 1800, his opponents attacked him as an irreligious atheist, yet as time passed scholars have realized that Jefferson held strong religious beliefs which leaned towards Unitarianism, and emphasized good works and morality while denying conventional church doctrines. Sanford examines the historical perspectives on Jefferson’s religion early in his book. Eminent 20th century Jefferson scholars such as Adrienne Koch in 1943, Karl Lehmann in 1947, Merrill D. Peterson in 1970 and Dumas Malone in 1948-81 did not give much thought to Jefferson’s religion. Even Norman Cousins in 1958 and Elbert D. Thomas in 1950, who focused on Jefferson’s religion, did so mostly in the context of human rights and freedom as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, rather than his personal convictions.

    Merrill D. Peterson wrote that Jefferson did not wish for freedom from religion for Americans but for freedom to pursue religion wherever reason led. Leslie Hall in 1913 criticized Jefferson’s religious thought as “undigested” and “ignorant” but Henry Wilder Foote, a Unitarian minister and scholar, wrote that Jefferson’s “knowledge of and admiration for the teachings of Jesus have never been equaled by any other president.” Henry Randall, in his early Jefferson biography The Life of Thomas Jefferson in 1858, asserted that personal religious devotion was an integral aspect of Jefferson’s life, rather than being merely a distant ethical respect or admiration of Christianity for fostering public decency. Jefferson recalled his mother teaching him prayers and usually reflected on the Bible for an hour before going to sleep. When his daughter died, Jefferson was found carrying the Bible for consolation and as he lay dying, he uttered the biblical words, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” Further, although Jefferson protested civil religious observance such as in holidays, he believed the national seal should contain a profession of Christian faith.

    In William D. Gould’s article “The Religious Opinions of Thomas Jefferson,” published in 1933, he notes that Jefferson’s close friends were struck by his religious spirit, remarking that he never insulted others’ religions or used profanity. He repeats the account of early biographer Henry S. Randall, of a time Jefferson met a minister in a Virginia tavern and after discussing religion, he said that he thought Jefferson was another minister and that, “I tell you that was neither an atheist nor irreligious man—one of juster sentiments I never met with.” Gould goes on to say that Jefferson was not a deist but a Unitarian. Rather than believing in a distant Creator God, Jefferson believed in prayer, especially as he aged, and he identified with the Unitarian doctrine of one God, rejecting the Trinity. Unlike the more practical Washington, Jefferson was an avid student of the Bible and was often seen reading it. The historiography of Jefferson’s religious beliefs reveals that in their readiness to emphasize his doctrinal unorthodoxy and contempt for the priesthood, historians have neglected to record the deep private Christian-influenced spirituality and firm faith in Divine Providence displayed by Jefferson. Although a deist or Unitarian, such trust in God’s abiding plan for the United States and involvement in its affairs was not a traditional deist view and shows that Jefferson was not nearly as irreligious as some have claimed.

    Now that we have examined the historiography of the religion of the private General Washington and the maverick intellectual Jefferson, we turn to the faith of John Adams. Adams’ religious background was different than the other two of the first three presidents. He was raised as a Congregationalist and later became a Unitarian. Adams, like Washington and Jefferson, believed in a personal God and a guiding Providence. Unlike those two deists, however, Adams believed in the resurrection of Christ and in the afterlife. This was a major departure from Washington’s and Jefferson’s views. They believed that God was directing the fortune of the United States and that Christ was a great moral teacher, although Jefferson was more adamant and outspoken than Washington in his rejection of Christ’s divinity.

    However, in Washington’s case through revealing silence and in Jefferson’s case by direct rejection, they denied belief in the miracles of Christ, Christ’s identity as the Savior and in Christ’s miraculous bodily resurrection. Contrastingly, Adams was quite orthodox in his acceptance of these fundamental Christian doctrines concerning Jesus Christ’s identity and role but rejected the notion of the Trinity and of Calvinistic theories such as unconditional election. In Anson D. Morse’s “The Politics of John Adams” in 1899, he quotes Adams as saying, “It was not religion alone, as is commonly supposed; but it was a love of universal liberty, and a hatred, a dread, a horror of the infernal confederacy before described [the Stuarts], that projected, conducted and accomplished the settlement of America. It was a resolution formed by a sensible people—I mean the Puritans—almost in despair [. . .].” Clearly Adams did not believe that America was founded only on Christianity but he also showed admiration for the Puritans, the biblical literalists and Trinitarians whose personal beliefs were so far removed from Adams’ own.

    Unfortunately, there have been few books written about Adams’ personal religious beliefs, in comparison to those on Washington and Jefferson. However, in Bruce Braden’s “Ye Will Say I Am No Christian” in 2006, he presents the correspondence of Adams and Jefferson on religion. In a letter recorded within, Adams writes,

    “Now, my friend, can prophecies or miracles convince you or me, that infinite benevolence, wisdom and power, created and preserves for a time, innumerable millions, to make them miserable forever for his own glory? [. . .] Pardon me, my Maker, for these awful questions. My answer to them is always ready. I believe no such things! My adoration of the Author of the Universe is too profound and too sincere.”

    In Catherine Drinker Bowen’s John Adams and the American Revolution in 1949, insight is given into Adams’ childhood experience with religion. Bowen wrote,

    “If he was familiar with the things of earth, young John Adams was on astonishingly familiar terms also with the things of heaven and hell. Not only on Sundays and sermon days were John and his brothers instructed in religion. Morning, noon and night, on weekdays and holidays they were fed with the very milk of the Word.”

    She goes on to recount the Calvinistic tendencies of Adams’ father and the disdain for Catholicism and to a lesser degree Anglicanism, which was passed on to Adams. It is evident that biographies of Adams are largely silent on the matter of his religion, perhaps seeing him as more of a Christian or as less of a deist than Washington or Jefferson. In comparison to those two, the historiography of Adams and religion is one of silence. Now that we have examined the three earliest presidents, we turn to Benjamin Franklin, the most influential of the founding fathers not to become president. In Alfred Owen Aldridge’s Benjamin Franklin and Nature’s God in 1967, he wrote,

    “The paradox in Franklin’s religious life is that he completely disbelieved Christianity; yet he was attracted by it as a system of worship, and he enjoyed the company of clergymen of all faiths. [. . .] Intellectually he had little more faith in orthodox doctrine than in witchcraft or astrology; yet he sympathized with the church as a social institution and supported it so loyally that many sectarians identified him with their causes.”

    Aldridge argues that Franklin was not a Christian but believed sincerely in the church’s positive moral effect on society and the virtue of doing good to others, which is supported by Christianity. He comments further on Franklin’s ability to identify with people and be perceived as a kindred spirit, saying, “As John Adams remarked in great disgust, ‘The Catholics thought him almost a Catholic. The Church of England claimed him as one of them. The Presbyterians thought him half a Presbyterian, and the Friends believed him a wet Quaker.’” Although Franklin did not attain the office of president, being an old man when it was established, there is more written on Franklin’s religion than on Adams’. There are several histories of Franklin’s religious beliefs from both the 20th century and late 19th century. In James Madison Stifler’s The Religion of Benjamin Franklin in 1925, he wrote, “[Franklin] certainly was not a pagan, and with equal assurance he was not an orthodox Christian in his own time.” He continues, “[Franklin’s] very struggles over Deism and Theism and his various encounters with preachers, churches, and evangelists, some of which we shall consider, never beclouded his fixed confidence in God. On the contrary, they bespeak a deep feeling for the existence and reality of the Deity and his meaning in man’s life.”

    On the contrary, in D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature in 1933, around the same time as Stifler’s appraisal, Lawrence wrote that Franklin had reduced God to a utilitarian bookkeeper who merely recorded good deeds and encouraged material prosperity. In Kerry S. Walters’ Benjamin Franklin and His Gods in 1999, Walters quotes and critiques Lawrence’s view, saying it is unfounded. In Franklin’s view, he wrote, “God is the supreme servant of men who want to get on, to produce. Providence. The provider. The heavenly storekeeper. The everlasting Wanamaker. And this is all the God the grandsons of the Pilgrim Fathers had left. Aloft on a pillar of dollars.” A more extensive historiography of Franklin’s religion is found in Melvin H. Buxbaum’s Critical Essays on Benjamin Franklin in 1987. Already in 1826, Leonard Woods commented on what he considered the pitiful state of Franklin biography, saying that the consensus view was too simplistic. Parson Weems of Washington biography infamy one again shows up in the historiography of Franklin. Weems published his biography of Franklin in 1818, and not surprisingly depicted him as a pious Christian, at least by the end of his life. Weems wrote that Franklin kept a picture of Christ on the cross close to him on his deathbed. This false story was repeated by Charles Hulbert in 1820 and other authors such as Freeman Hunt, John Nicholas Norton and William Makepeace Thayer continued to characterize Franklin as a devout Christian through the 19th century and after. Buxbaum writes that other biographers are less insistent on Franklin’s piety but have still Christianized him more than the facts warrant, such as E.A. and G.L. Duyckinck in 1866, Thomas Hughes in 1879, John Torrey Morse in 1889 and James Parton in 1882.

    Others throughout the 19th century took the opposite view of Franklin, judging him as a worldly and irreligious man, including Joseph Dennie in 1801, Rev. Hugh M’Neile in 1841 and Brander Matthews in 1896. However, in the 20th century the prevailing view of Franklin’s faith had changed, either affirming his Christianity or considering him as religious if unorthodox. Thus as with the other founders we have examined, the interpretation of Franklin’s religious opinions has fluctuated widely through the years. Through this historiographical examination of several of the American founding fathers individually and collectively, there is no tidy answer to the question of what their religion was. We have seen that men as similar in their practicality as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin and as similar in intellectual curiosity as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson each had their own idiosyncratic beliefs on the subject of religious faith and doctrine. While there will likely never be a definitive conclusion to the perpetual debate concerning what the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution thought about God and God’s role in American government and society, it can be confidently declared that none of these men were atheists but none of them endorsed theocracy.

    The statesmen who forged an independent democratic nation out of thirteen British colonies were wise enough to understand that although the United States was and is composed mostly of Christians or at least theists supportive of Judeo-Christian values, the greatness of our national religion is that each citizen is free to pursue truth in religion by following his own conscience and intellect. In America the philosophy has traditionally been that prohibiting the establishment of an official religion is primarily to prevent the government from encroaching on people’s right to practice religion however their conscience directs them, rather than to proscribe any vestige of religious expression in government. Nonetheless, government is expected to affirm general and strongly held religious sentiments in symbolic manner, such as the motto “In God We Trust,” rather than through legislative or legal pronouncement, such as declaring Christianity the national religion. This fine line of separation between church and state, as the father of the Constitution James Madison expressed it, is the elegance and the power of the American tradition of civil religion and religious tolerance.

    Adams, Jasper. “The Relation of Christianity to Civil Government in the United States.” In Religion and Politics in the Early Republic, edited by Daniel L. Dreisbach. Kentucky: University Press, 1996.

    Aldridge, Alfred Owen. Benjamin Franklin and Nature’s God. Duke: University Press, 1967.
    Boller, Jr., Paul F. George Washington and Religion. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963.

    Braden, Bruce, ed. “Ye Will Say I Am No Christian.” New York: Prometheus Books, 2006.

    Buxbaum, Melvin H. Critical Essays on Benjamin Franklin. Boston: G.K. Hall and Co., 1987.

    Dreisbach, Daniel L. Religion and Politics in the Early Republic. Kentucky: University Press, 1996.

    Gould, William D. “The Religious Opinions of Thomas Jefferson.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review
    20 (1933): 197.

    Holmes, David L. The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. Oxford: University Press, 2006.

    Morse, Anson D. “The Politics of John Adams.” The American Historical Review 4 (1899): 295.

    Sanford, Charles B. The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson. Virginia: University Press, 1984.

    Stifler, James Madison. The Religion of Benjamin Franklin. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1925.

    Waldman, Steven. Founding Faith. New York: Random House, 2008.

    Walters, Kerry S. Benjamin Franklin and His Gods. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
    Weems, Mason L. The Life of Washington. Edited by Marcus Cunliffe. Harvard: University Press, 1962.

    Wilson, Woodrow. George Washington. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1963.

  2. #2
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    Re: Historiography of the religious beliefs of the American founders (edited).

    trust in God’s abiding plan for the United States
    What exactly is "God's abiding plan for the United States?
    each citizen is free to pursue truth in religion by following his own conscience and intellect
    But are we free to reject religion outright?



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