Analyzing the Religious Beliefs of the American Founding Fathers

When any American analyzes deism, it is impossible not to read and appreciate the works of the greatest deist author in the US and of the 18th century, Thomas Paine whose influence in early American Revolutionary society is self-evident. In reading his influential works, one cannot help but be curious about the extent to which the man who influenced so many Revolutionary period founding fathers towards independence with his Common Sense, might have influenced the founding fathers and early Presidents towards deism with his book The Age of Reason. In America today, we are generally led to believe that our founding fathers were conservative Christians like their Pilgrim forefathers. However, the scholarly texts on the religious tendencies of these six founding fathers and the words and actions attributed to these men seem to clearly indicate that not only were these men influenced extensively by deism, their religious beliefs and tendencies seemed to almost unwittingly form the beginning of the Religious Deism, something that almost 250 years later is only now coming to the surface.

All Americans, independent of party affiliation, appreciate the unique challenges of our founding fathers and the incredibly unique and visionary American government and political system that emerged and that still exists without significant modifications almost 250 years hence. The relatively insignificant and uninspired American Presidential leadership in the 19th century with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, and the current red and blue political divisions in the United States make the efforts and visions of these American Revolutionary leaders seem that much more extraordinary. One could or should describe the dedication and respect that these men had for America and its development as truly remarkable in history and especially evident in today´s less than constructive political environment.

Alfred North Whitehead, one of the 20th century's greatest mathematicians and also a renowned philosopher, agreed with this suggestion when he said: “I know of only 2 occasions in history when the people in power did what needed to be done about as well as you can imagine it being possible. One was the framing of your American Constitution. They were able statesmen; they had access to a body of good ideas; they incorporated these general principles into their instrument without trying to particularize too explicitly how they should be put into effect; and they were men of immense practical experience themselves. The other was in Rome and it undoubtedly saved civilization for, roughly 400 years. It was the work of Augustus and the set around him.” (Alf, P. 157).

Nonetheless, these men were not superhuman, and their personal ambitions as well as their vices and weaknesses are relatively well documented. While these six men did not see eye to eye about all aspects of the development of the new American state and in many cases had significant disagreements, there is a certain commitment that they had to their country despite their political differences, and a certain goodness and greatness that emanated from them all. And few Americans would deny that we have had a greater set of minds or a greater period of political and government development than we did during the first 50 years following the American Revolution, beginning with our Declaration of Independence and ending roughly with the end of the Presidential administration of James Monroe.

Americans with few reservations, strongly respect and admire these six men for what they believed about the future for America and how they devoted their lives to executing that vision, many doing so at the expense of their personal fortunes and reputations. Perhaps only in the area of slavery would and should Americans argue that some of these men and the society of their time let down the American public. Religious Deists believe that if the integrity and vision of these men were and are at the highest levels of American societal and political development, it is natural and appropriate that we should be equally interested in these men´s religious beliefs and convictions. And, if these men had religious deist beliefs, America should come to know about them and not allow secular or revealed religious factions to wrongly lay claim to the religious and theological positions and beliefs of these visionary, freethinking founding fathers.

While conservative Christians have insisted that our founding fathers were traditional if not Conservative Christians, these declarations, like those of Conservative Christians about their beliefs, seem to be based in wishful thinking and apologetics rather than truth. Considering the influence of Deism during the second half of the 18th century and the influence of Thomas Paine on American Revolutionary society, it is natural to assume that the founding fathers were at least partially influenced by deism. It is also natural to assume that their religion and theology could have been and would have been influenced more by deism than traditional Christian beliefs. And, the three most scholarly works on the subject seem to substantiate this assertion.

Alf J. Mapp Jr., in his book The Faiths of our Fathers, confirmed this assertion about the founding father tug of war between American secular and revealed religious factions and how neither group had a legitimate claim. Greg Frazier, in his article about Maps assertions, said: “one part…. of his argument is correct: both the secular Left and the Christian Right are wrong to claim most of the founders for their respective “teams””. (“Founding Creed”, Claremont Institute, January 11, 2005)

Mapp went on to say that Franklin Steiner, in The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents, “concluded one by one that virtually all of the great (founding fathers) were freethinkers”, where by “freethinkers”, he was alluding to their deist tendencies. (ALF, P. 67)

David Holmes, in his book The Faiths of our Founding Fathers, probably the best or at least the most thorough and scholarly of the three authors in dealing with the deist leanings of the founding fathers, addressed the issue even more directly when he said “….. Deism influenced, in one way or another, most of the political leaders who designed the new American government.” (Holmes P. 50)

If one reads serious academic analysis of the religion and theology of the American founding fathers, specifically the six most important American Revolutionary leaders mentioned above, what one finds is astonishing and confirms that not only did these incredible men have deistic tendencies, they held some undeniably Religious Deist beliefs.

Quotes from & about Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Franklin

The next section of this website contains a very extensive listing of quotes from the above mentioned six founding fathers and from authors who have written about their religious and theological beliefs and activities. We believe that these quotes together demonstrate this leaning towards if not adherence with current Religious Deism. Without a doubt, finding the similarities between their beliefs and those of Religious Deism has made our personal commitment to the truths of Religious Deism, which we believe are self-evident without the need of any such subjective support, that much stronger, convincing and more comprehensive.

However, to understand these quotes in the right light, one must consider the following conditions and situations in America during the last half of the 18th century.

  1. Prior to the American Revolution, the American colonies were influenced by the Puritan, pro-Calvinist, Great Awakening. The majority of the colonies had state Churches that were not only obligatory for all colonial citizens but were also supported financially and legislatively and protected by colonial governments. These state churches were, for obvious reasons, in favor of the direct union of Church & State. According to David Holmes over 80% of colonial Christians were openly anti-religious tolerance and believed in Calvinist predestination, in which salvation comes exclusively from God and that the actions of man were considered to be irrelevant to their afterlife destiny. Ironically, while the Pilgrims and other colonial religious groups came to America in search of religious freedom and to be free from religious intolerance, these religious groups effectively imposed these same restrictions on anyone in their colonies not of their religion. Only the colonies of Pennsylvania and Rhode Island had anything at all close to tolerance of other non-state Christian religions and none of the colonies protected the religious freedoms of non-Christian religions like deism. According to Holmes: “Genuine religious freedom did not come to the US until the late 1780s. And when it did come, it emerged from the religion of the founding fathers.”
  2. With established Christian state churches throughout the colonies, formal affiliation and participation was not only obligatory it was social and political suicide to challenge the colonial state religion. As a result of these societal pressures and the lack of formal organization, and despite the strong presence of deist philosophy in America at the time, no colonialists openly claimed deism as their theology or religion. Nonetheless, for these reasons, identifying the real religious and theological beliefs of these six founding fathers is hardly black and white, and requires considerable analysis and context. Holmes reaffirms this assertion: “Most of the founding fathers of the US were members of Christian Churches. Yet widespread disagreement exists about their beliefs.” (Holmes, P. 134)
  3. In order to properly determine the theological and religious beliefs of our founding fathers, Holmes very rationally insists that one most look past their formal religious affiliations. He goes on to say: “An examination of history cannot capture the inner faith of any man. But in the case of the founders of the US, readers can use these four indicators – church attendance, approach to sacraments or ordinances, level of activity, and religious language – to locate the founders on the religious spectrum with some confidence.” (Holmes, P. 140). The below quotes deal with exactly these four issues or criteria, summarized below in three groups plus a fourth group concerning prayer that we have added.
    1. Actions concerning their religion – To a lesser extent their declared religion, to some extent if they belonged to a Church parish, to a greater extent if they held leadership positions (vestrymen roles) and if the frequency of their attendance at regular religious services (Sunday and Holy days).
    2. Christian Church/Religious Activity - Frequency of receiving communion, receiving Confirmation once bishops were available to perform the act (in general and its relationship to being able to continue to receive communion), but not baptism or baptism of children which were societally driven actions.
    3. Religious/Christian language – Usage of Christian and non-Christian language in their written and spoken religious comments, how they described or referred to God and providence, whether they emphasized God rather than Jesus and/or the Trinity.
    4. Prayer – If they prayed to some extent, whether they prayed to Jesus vs to God, the way in which they alluded to prayer and its direct or indirect (providence) effects.

With this context and understanding, we invite you to review the words of and quotes from and about America’s most important Revolutionary leaders and first five Presidents (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe) and the immortal Benjamin Franklin.

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