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.
The belief, based solely on reason, in a God who created the universe and then abandoned it, assuming no control over life, exerting no influence on natural phenomena, and giving no supernatural revelation.
Do you believe what Thomas Jefferson said about himself when he said, "I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus."
Many atheists, deists and Christians alike think they know Jefferson better than he knew himself.
Thanks and may the Lord over us all bless you for posting this article..
Sophistry. What this writer did was IGNORE the dictionary definition of deism, which follows:
Main Entry: de·ism
Pronunciation: 'dE-"i-z&m, 'dA-
Usage: often capitalized
: a movement or system of thought advocating natural religion, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century denying the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe
The Deists were not atheists at all--which is the theme around this article is built. It is suspect from the third paragraph on as a result.
Deists did not deny the existence of a Creator. In fact, they believed in God as the watchmaker, creating the universe but only occasionally intervening to amend the natural laws He penned.
From http://www.rain.org/homeschool/history/religious-history/religion-us-history-deists.html, the first link appearing you look up "Deism."
The term "Deism" originally referred to a belief in one deity, as contrasted with the belief in no God (Atheism) and belief in many Gods (Polytheism). During the later 17th century, "Deism" began to refer to forms of radical Christianity - belief systems that rejected miracles, revelation, and the inerrancy of the Bible. Currently, Deism is no longer associated with Christianity or any other established religion. Then, as now, Deism is not a religious movement in the conventional sense of the world. There is no Deistic network of places of worship, a priesthood or hierarchy of authority.
Deism was greatly influential among politicians, scientists and philosophers during the later 17th century and 18 century, in England, France Germany and the United States.
Early Deism was a logical outgrowth of the great advances in astronomy, physics, and chemistry that had been made by Bacon, Copernicus, Galileo, etc.
It was a small leap from rational study of nature to the application of the same techniques in religion.
Early Deists believed that the Bible contained important truths, but they rejected the concept that it was divinely inspired or inerrant.
They were leaders in the study of the Bible as a historical (rather than an inspired, revealed) document.
Lord Herbert of Cherbury (d. 1648) was one of the earliest proponents of Deism in England. In his book "De Veritate," (1624), he described the "Five Articles" of English Deists: belief in the existence of a single supreme God
humanity's duty to revere God
linkage of worship with practical morality
God will forgive us if we repent and abandon our sins
good works will be rewarded (and punishment for evil) both in life and after death
Other English Deists were Anthony Collins (1676-1729), Matthew Tindal (1657-1733). J.J. Rousseau (1712-1778) and F.M.A. de Voltaire (1694-1778) were its leaders in France.
Many of the leaders of the French and American revolutions followed this belief system, including John Quincy Adams, Ethan Allen, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison Thomas Paine, and George Washington.
Deists played a major role in creating the principle of separation of church and state, and the religious freedom clauses of the 1st Amendment of the Constitution.
But here is an opposing view that some of those named above may be named a bit too hastily (http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel02.html):
"Deism" is a loosely used term that describes the views of certain English and continental thinkers. These views attracted a following in Europe toward the latter part of the seventeenth century and gained a small but influential number of adherents in America in the late eighteenth century. Deism stressed morality and rejected the orthodox Christian view of the divinity of Christ, often viewing him as nothing more than a "sublime" teacher of morality. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams are usually considered the leading American deists. There is no doubt that they subscribed to the deist credo that all religious claims were to be subjected to the scrutiny of reason. "Call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion," Jefferson advised. Other founders of the American republic, including George Washington, are frequently identified as deists, although the evidence supporting such judgments is often thin. Deists in the United States never amounted to more than a small percentage of an evangelical population.
Nonetheless, the question is, why is there such a haste to deny that any of these men were Deists? Deism is essentially dead as an organized religion, not least because it was dead as an organized religion to begin with. But this outright lying about what is accepted as truth by most historians (that "notable Founders" Jefferson and Adams were believers in this sect)--why? There are plenty of fundamentally religious forebears to choose from without making them up! Is it so galling to find that there were founders who were not only NOT fundamentalist but were rational Christian thinkers!?!?
I feel like I'm reading the Christian version of an activist homo site, but while they go back in time to point out homos, this goes back in time to debunk Deists.
Why do so many people feel like they have to have dead allies to have a good cause? There weren't many who believed Jesus was the Son of God before He walked the Earth, but it didn't stop the disciples from believing in Him. And millions of anti-Semites walked the Earth before Hitler rose to power.
Just having allies doesn't make you right. However, having made them up does make you wrong.
Because your link doesn't work. Why would you post something like this without verifying what Barton so approves of here? Any idiot can look on the web and find that deism has very little to do with atheism (aside from the fact that both normally believe that coming to religious beliefs is the result of a logical process). In fact, deism might well be the thinking man's counteratheism. But you'd never know it from this tripe.
The battle is over. Now it's time to divvy up the spoils and argue over who's armies were decisive in the battle so their leaders can lay claim to positions of influence in the King's court. Perceived pedigree confers legitimacy.
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, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its author never said nor saw. They have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man, of which the great reformer of the vicious ethics and deism of the Jews, were he to return on earth, would not recognize one feature.
So far as I can make out what he's saying is that he (Jefferson) is a true Christian and that the theologians and expounders of orthodox Christian dogma are not. It's a bit confusing what he means by the "vicious ethics and deism of the Jews," but I don't think one can use this quote to maintain that Jefferson was an orthodox Christian. And that's the problem: what some considered to be "true Christianity" might be very different from Christian orthodoxy as understood by the churches.
In some of the delightful conversations with you, in the evenings of 1798-99, and which served as an anodyne to the afflictions of the crisis through which our country was then laboring, the Christian religion was sometimes our topic; and I then promised you, that one day or other, I would give you my views of it. They are the result of a life of inquiry & reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. 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; & believing he never claimed any other.
Note the last few words, which indicate that Jefferson's idea of Christ and Christianity was very different from the orthodoxy of the churches.
I don't think anyone can argue that most of the founders were deists. Then as now, self-proclaimed freethinkers were a minority. But the atmosphere of 18th century philosophy and religion were quite different from that of the 16th or 19th century. There was a strong enlightenment component to both religious faith and secular thought in the late 1700s(though defining what enlightenment means in this context could be tricky), and certain key founders had more deism or freethinking in their thought than the average American of the day. Just where Christianity began and ended was much less clear for Washington or Jefferson, Adams or Madison than it would have been for an earlier or later generation. An ethical or cultural Christianity didn't always extend to complete acceptance of orthodox dogma for some of the most prominent of our Founders.
Both sides in this controversy want to claim the Founders or Framers as being wholly in their corner. Learning to recognize that they weren't all wholly orthodox or wholly atheist can be the beginning of wisdom in this question.
I think it wise to remember the position an role the Church of England played in the politics of the time, and to consider how much of Jefferson's (and other's) remarks about religion were directed to the Church.
Most Protestants do consider "true Christianity" to be something different from "orthodoxy as understood by the churches."
I once saw a list of the signers of the Constitution and their religious affiliations. It might have been on FR, and if anyone knows of it, I hope they will find it because I didn't copy it when I had a chance.
Anyway, virtually all belonged to what we now would call Mainline Protestant communions. Presbyterians, a Lutheran or two, Congregationalists and Anglicans; one or two Catholic and one Jewish patriot.
No question that "the faith of our fathers" informed this nation from its birth.
Better put on your asbestos undies, Credo. That kinda sentiment around here will certainly get you fried. I've certainly taken my share of roasts when I expressed something similar and backed it up with quotes.
Seems a lot of people don't realize that the exact modern day definition of something in a modern day dictionary may not really have any relevance to the concepts and thought that were used by the Founding Fathers in their time. Certainly the term Deist has taken on some connotations over the last 225 years. I'm not sure that they even used that term much to describe themselves.
Their views of Christian and God may have less in common with the current evangelical interpretation than many might think. It is notable to understand that having just escaped from the state-established religions of Europe, only 7% of the people in the 13 colonies belonged to a church when the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Now I have to point out that not "belonging to a church" is not the same as "not believing in God (or Christ)". But the colonists, and yes the signers of the Declaration, were not enamored of the structured religions, priesthood and orthodoxy that had been forced upon them. In fact, Jefferson said in writing to Levi Lincoln in 1802, "The advocate of religious freedom is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from [the clergy]". I suspect that today this still holds valid for the evangelical zealots, not just the clergy.
I believe that Jefferson, and the other founders, were more against the coercion and structured orthodoxy of what they referred to as "Christianity", rather than the underlying tenets of "correct morality" and "loving benevolence", which they openly embraced. Calling themselves "Christians" seemed to refer to those good qualities and not to the structure of the then current orthodox religion itself.
With the unfortunate lack of literacy as currently evidenced by the inability to correctly spell and use proper grammar by a large amount of the population, it is understandable that many cannot read the somewhat antiquated language used by the founders in their day and put themselves in their shoes to try to understand what they felt about such a contentious subject as religion.
There are many quotes of the founders which seem to be directly opposites in regards to the subject of "Christianity". Reading their words and trying to understand them in the context of their society, history, education and morality, without trying to impute to them something which is not there is difficult. We all bring ourselves to whatever we do. But seizing upon a word, and looking it up in a modern dictionary, and then claiming that to prove a previously decided upon belief is just an exercise is self-aggrandizement, as Mr. Barton may be an example.
Reading the words of the Founding Fathers and trying to realize what these great men were doing and thinking constantly brings tears to my eyes. I couldn't care less which god or God or object they believed in. I am just in awe of what they did and what they accomplished, whether in the name of Deism, Atheism or Christianity. It was simply mind boggling in its scope and alteration of the history of the world.
"I have examined all the known superstitions of the word, and I do not find in our particular superstition of Christianity one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology. Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned. What has been the effect of this coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites; to support roguery and error all over the earth."
--Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Short
"The truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words."
Many other of the Founders and leaders of our country have evidenced similar sentiments, yet still felt that they were "Christians" because they held to the underlying beliefs of "correct morality" and "loving benevolence", and eschewed the orthodoxy and piousness of the "clergy" and their proponents.
"I concur with you strictly in your opinion of the comparative merits of atheism and demonism, and really see nothing but the latter in the being worshipped by many who think themselves Christians."
--Thomas Jefferson, letter to Richard Price, 1789
Jefferson himself did not disparage the teachings of Jesus, just those who had perverted them.
"Christianity...(has become) the most perverted system that ever shone on man. ...Rogueries, absurdities and untruths were perpetrated upon the teachings of Jesus by a large band of dupes and importers led by Paul, the first great corrupter of the teaching of Jesus."
--Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Short, 1820
As said, others of the time seemed to share Jefferson's opinion of Christianity:
"The divinity of Jesus is made a convenient cover for absurdity. Nowhere in the Gospels do we find a precept for Creeds, Confessions, Oaths, Doctrines, and whole carloads of other foolish trumpery that we find in Christianity."
"The study of theology, as it stands in the Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authority; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion."
Apparently ol' Tom had some of your ilk in mind when he said:
"The Bible is a book that has been read more and examined less than any book that ever existed."
Evidently Ben Franklin shared some of the distaste for the orthodoxy - not the scriptures- when he wrote to his father in 1738: "I think vital religion has always suffered when orthodoxy is more regarded than virtue. The scriptures assure me that at the last day we shall not be examined on what we thought but what we did."
And then again when he observed: "Lighthouses are more helpful than churches."
Mr Lincoln got into the same train of thought when he wrote: "The Bible is not my book, and Christianity is not my religion. I could never give assent to the long, complicated statements of Christian dogma." Again, I think he was talking more about the orthodoxy and structure of the church at that time rather than the underlying principles of Jesus.
"My husband is not a Christian but is a religious man, I think."
--Mary Todd Lincoln
But again, I am reminded of the old saying about teaching pigs to dance. As old Ben so aptly put it:
"Indeed, when religious people quarrel about religion, or hungry people quarrel about victuals, it looks as if they had not much of either among them."
I don't know why you have such a problem understanding that.
Protestants churches all disagree with each other. All of them think they are right, and all the other churches are wrong. All of them think they have the correct interpretation of scripture.
It may serve your militant atheist agenda to cast doubt on the piety of this nation's Founders, but the fact that they dismissed Christian religious practices which conflicted with their own dogmas only shows the strength of their religious persuasion and their desire to practice "true Christianity."
Jefferson and Paine were in and out but probably could be called deists.
But that leaves a helluva lot of founders who feared the Lord. When in doubt, find out if they prayed for divine intervention, if so, they weren't deists.
The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Where, say some, is the king of America? I'll tell you, friend, He reigns above.
Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be placed on the Divine Law, the Word of God; let a crown be placed thereon. - Thomas Paine, COMMON SENSE
"I would give worlds, if I had them, if The Age of Reason had never been published. O Christ, help! Stay with me! It is hell to be left alone." - Thomas Paine, on his deathbed
Thomas Paine's last words were: "I die in perfect composure and resignation to the will of my Creator, God."
I don't have a bit of trouble understanding that. It was exactly what I was pointing out. Duh!
It may serve your militant atheist agenda...
Since you obviously know nothing about my religious beliefs...
...to cast doubt on the piety of this nation's Founders... and you seem to be unable to read the written word and correctly ascertain what was being said. I was not casting any doubt on their piety. Just the contrary, I was trying to 'splain it to you. Is English not your primary language?
Guess all I can do is fall back on the teaching pigs to dance concept... it just wastes my time and only annoys the pig.
Take an English comprehension course!