Skip to comments.The Founding Fathers and Deism
Posted on 11/08/2004 11:41:14 AM PST by Conservative Coulter Fan
(We receive numerous requests from across the country to answer various editorials and letters-to-the-editor. The subject is usually the religious persuasions of the Founding Fathers, and the standard assertion is that they were all deists. The following is but one of many possible replies to such accusations.)
I notice that your newspaper has an ongoing debate concerning the religious nature of the Founding Fathers. A recent letter claimed that most of the Founding Fathers were deists, and pointed to Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, Hamilton, and Madison as proof. After making this charge, the writer acknowledged the "voluminous writings" of the Founders, but it appears that she has not read those writings herself. However, this is no surprise since the U. S. Department of Education claims that only 5 percent of high schools graduates know how to examine primary source documentation.
Interestingly, the claims in this recent letter to the editor are characteristic of similar claims appearing in hundreds of letters to the editor across the nation. The standard assertion is that the Founders were deists. Deists? What is a deist? 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. Thomas Paine, in his discourse on "The Study of God," forcefully asserts that it is "the error of schools" to teach sciences without "reference to the Being who is author of them: for all the principles of science are of Divine origin." He laments that "the evil that has resulted from the error of the schools in teaching [science without God] has been that of generating in the pupils a species of atheism." Paine not only believed in God, he believed in a reality beyond the visible world.
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"; and when he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the military on June 8, 1783, he reminded the nation that "without a humble imitation" of "the Divine Author of our blessed religion" we "can never hope to be a happy nation." Washington's own adopted daughter declared of Washington that you might as well question his patriotism as to question his Christianity.
Alexander Hamilton was certainly no deist. For example, Hamilton began work with the Rev. James Bayard to form the Christian Constitutional Society to help spread over the world the two things which Hamilton said made America great: (1) Christianity, and (2) a Constitution formed under Christianity. Only Hamilton's death two months later thwarted his plan of starting a missionary society to promote Christian government. And at the time he did face his death in his duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton met and prayed with the Rev. Mason and Bishop Moore, wherein he reaffirmed to him his readiness to face God should he die, having declared to them "a lively faith in God's mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of the death of Christ." At that time, he also partook of Holy Communion with Bishop Moore.
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 providedat the government's expenseChristian 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.
None of the Founders mentioned fit the definition of a deist. And as is typical with those who make this claim, they name only a handful of Founders and then generalize the rest. This in itself is a mistake, for there are over two hundred Founders (fifty-five at the Constitutional Convention, ninety who framed the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights, and fifty-six who signed the Declaration) and any generalization of the Founders as deists is completely inaccurate.
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 Langdonfounders of the American Bible Society; James McHenryfounder of the Baltimore Bible Society; Rufus Kinghelped found a Bible society for Anglicans; Abraham Baldwina chaplain in the Revolution and considered the youngest theologian in America; Roger Sherman, William Samuel Johnson, John Dickinson, and Jacob Broomalso theological writers; James Wilson and William Pattersonplaced 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.
Awesome. So it is a Christian nation, indeed. Thanks. : )
Most atheists are not intellectual giants, but come to their condition by way of moral dwarfism instead.
Dear David Barton, the term "deist" is code for Ancient Free and Accepted Masonry. A majority of the founding fathers were masons. The 18th century enlightenment was driven by those who saw the "light" of freemasonry; the architects of the bloody French revolution derived their inspiration from the "light of Masonry. This fact is repeated on the majority of Masonic web sites and in publications.
The term "deist' also delineated the relevance of Christ in the order of things for the Elightenment crowd. Take the Christ out of Christianitiy and you have the Enlightened secular Europe that is now flushing itself down the toilet of Islamic Jihad.
Funny, My dictionary, and everything I heve ever read previously defines a "Deist" as one who has a firm, reasoned belief in God.
Deist - From Deity which is synonymous with GOD.
IMHO, this article, while interesting and may add some impetus to the argument of the USA being "A Christian Nation" , is based on a highly flawed premise.
I had always understood a deist to be one who believes that God is the Creator and is watching the Great Drama of Humanity unfold (and judging us according to the roles we choose to play), but does not actively intervene in the activities of humanity.
In other words, one who believes that he isn't entitled to use the excuse "It was God's will" every time something untoward happens to him.
We are talking popular usage versus the dictionary here.
From my knowledge, a deist is one who believes in a god (any god--could be Christ or Allah). It seems to be a general term for someone who believes in a higher power.
You swung and missed.
This is one reason that Americans should study the Enlightenment. It is in their bones. It has defined part of what they have dreamed of, what they aim to become. Separated geographically from most of the aristocrats against whom they were rebelling, their revolution was to be far less corrosive--and at first less influential--than that in France.
The History of the Deist Enlightenment is the history of America. http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~brians/hum_303/enlightenment.html
Bump for your opinion...
I think David Barton is guilty of selective reading.
I have studied Paine's writings in depth. Especially the
New Age of Reason, parts 1 and 2, wherein Paine roundly
blasts christianity, and does in fact and in word declare
himself a deist.
I usually believe what a person says about himself.
For example, in an 1831 letter to Willam Short, Jefferson wrote
"Abstracting what is really his [Jesus] from the rubbish in which it is buried [the New Testament], easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers [Matthew, Mark, Luke, John], and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill ... The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent moralist [!] and the rescuing it form the imputation of imposture, which has resulted form artificial systems, [these artificial systems Jefferson footnotes as "the immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, ... the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c."] invented by ultra-Christian sects, unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by him, is a most desirable object, and one to which Priestly [father of Unitarianism] has successfully devoted his labors and learning."
Mr. Barton and his ilk, however sincere, produce and perpetuate myths founded on sloppy scholarship which yield careless (if not slanted) assertions.
As Christians we are obliged to speak the truth in all circumstances. The Cause of Christ is not helped when overzealous conservative writers seek to "return the nation to its biblical foundation" by doing what they so often charge liberals with -- rewriting history. The facts are what they are. The words and deeds of the leading men of the American revolution are readily accessible to any one who will take the time to search them out.
Well, 5 whole posts before started insulting non-believers.
As you stated Legend, this premise is RIDICULOUS. The similarities between deists and atheists are comparable to those between GWB and Michael Moore.