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.
I don't think Barton ever called Tom Paine a Christian, just the opposite.
Perhaps you are hopelessly ill informed. Several of the states did not disestablish until well into the 19th Century. These aren't fantasies friend, they are facts. I would suggest you widen your horizons to include readings by other than those with an axe to grind about religion because it is evident that you have been Goebbelized.
The Congregational Church was the established church in Connecticut before 1818. Throughout the eighteenth century all residents of each town were required to attend Sunday services and to pay taxes to support the local Congregational Church, unless a certificate was signed by an officer of a dissenting church (such as a Baptist, Episcopal, or Quaker) stating that a certain resident regularly attended and supported that church. In May 1791, a statute was passed requiring the certificates to be signed by two civil officers or a justice of the peace rather than by the officer of the dissenting church. Since the civil officers were Congregationalists, the effect of this new law was to harass the dissenters in their attempts to avoid supporting the established church. This caused a great uproar, and five months later the law was repealed and a new law was passed allowing the dissenter himself to sign the certificate but requiring him to file it with the established church. This caused a new uproar, for the dissenting churches had no way of determining who was supposed to support them except by complaining to the established churches. Nevertheless the certificate law was not changed and continued to outrage dissenters as they picked up supporters in the early nineteenth century.
Until 1814, the Episcopalians, wealthier and more influential than the other dissenters, were not particularly upset with the existing order. About 10% of the state was Episcopalian, and the Federalist majority was generally solicitous of their needs. For example, the laws were amended in the 1790s to accommodate Episcopal fasts and feasts, a problem since Episcopal fast days occasionally occurred on Congregational feast days, and vice versa.
From 1804 to 1812, the Episcopalians unsuccessfully attempted to convince the General Assembly to charter Cheshire Academy as an Episcopal college; these rebuffs did not convince the Episcopalians to desert the Federalist cause, but in 1814 the General Assembly completely alienated the Episcopalians by the manner in which a new bank was chartered. The new bank, The Phoenix Bank of Hartford, was charted and $60,000 paid to the state. Since Episcopalians were involved in the new bank, half of the payment to the state was supposed to be appropriated to the Episcopal church. What actually happened was that the General Assembly appropriated $20,000 to Yale College (a Congregational institution) and kept the rest in the state treasury. After 1814 most Episcopalians voted for the Republicans.
While the Episcopalian change of heart was hardly for an ennobling reason, the final push for disestablishment was highly principled. By the 1810s an established church in the United States was an anachronism. It never existed in Rhode Island and was abolished elsewhere by the 1780s. When the War of 1812 ended unexpectedly in late 1814, the U.S. Treasury was left with a large sum of money to return to the states. Connecticut eventually received $145,000, and the Federalist General Assembly in October 1816 decided to distribute it as follows: 1/3 to the Congregationalists, 1/7 to Yale (also Congregationalist), 1/7 to the Episcopalians, 1/8 to the Baptists, 1/12 to the Methodists, and the balance to the state treasury.
This Act provoked outrage from all the dissenters, who nobly accused the General Assembly of trying to bribe them to perpetuate enforced support of religion, and of ignoring the minor sects, such as the Quakers. They also complained, somewhat less nobly, that the percentage split favored the Congregationalists. As a result of this legislation the Republicans allied with the dissenters to form the Toleration Ticket for the Spring 1816 elections. Oliver Wolcott ran for Governor and Jonathan Ingersoll, a prominent Episcopalian, ran for Lieutenant Governor. Wolcott narrowly lost, but Ingersoll won, as the Republicans received virtually the entire vote of the dissenters. In the Spring 1817 election, this was sufficient for Wolcott to defeat the Federalist candidate for the first time in Connecticut history. The margin of victory was a mere 600 votes. The next Spring Governor Wolcott called for a constitutional convention, one of whose lasting achievements was the disestablishment of the Congregational Church. - LINK
The struggle for religious freedom and disestablishment in Massachusetts is equally interesting and of greater duration than the events in Connecticut. Beginning in 1631, the General Court decreed that unless one were a Congregationalist, he could not vote or be in politics. This decree was one of the major factors of Roger Williams' banishment to Rhode Island. In 1638, the General Court ordered a tax on all who did not voluntarily contribute to the Congregationalist minister's support. In 1672, the General Assembly ordered banishment for "broaching and maintaining damnable heresies," which essentially constituted anything contrary to the teachings of the established church. Although toleration was extended to all Protestant Christians in 1691, it did not extend to Roman Catholics.
From about the turn of the Eighteenth Century up until the time of the Revolutionary War, non-established religious sects succeeded in some of their efforts to chip away at the wall of church establishment. However, by 1776, according to General Court decree, anyone choosing to settle a town along the frontier had to build a Congregational church and support its minister. Thus, Baptists and nonconformist settlers often had to build two churches and support two ministers. This only contributed to the great strife between Congregationalists and nonconformists.
Although the Congregational Church was still highly favored, changes in attitude were apparent. In 1779, the town of Pittsfield sent a Congregational minister and a Baptist minister to the constitutional convention. In 1780, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress adopted the following constitution and Declaration of Rights. The Declaration of Rights was largely the work of John Adams. It is highly possible, from the contents of clause II, that Adams was influenced by the Virginia Declaration. Although this Declaration of Rights is a rather conservative document, it was a big step for Massachusetts, who had struggled for more than a century to obtain religious freedom. It was not until 1831 that the Massachusetts state legislature voted in favor of disestablishment. In 1833, the third article of the 1780 Declaration of Rights was finally replaced. The new article promoted religious freedom and prohibited any form of establishment. LINK
Paine later published his Age of Reason, which infuriated many of the Founding Fathers. John Adams wrote, The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity, let the Blackguard Paine say what he will. Samuel Adams wrote Paine a stiff rebuke, telling him, [W]hen I heard you had turned your mind to a defence of infidelity, I felt myself much astonished and more grieved that you had attempted a measure so injurious to the feelings and so repugnant to the true interest of so great a part of the citizens of the United States.
Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration, wrote to his friend and signer of the Constitution John Dickinson that Paine's Age of Reason was absurd and impious; Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration, described Paine's work as blasphemous writings against the Christian religion; John Witherspoon said that Paine was ignorant of human nature as well as an enemy to the Christian faith; John Quincy Adams declared that Mr. Paine has departed altogether from the principles of the Revolution"; and Elias Boudinot, President of Congress, even published the Age of Revelationa full-length rebuttal to Paine's work. Patrick Henry, too, wrote a refutation of Paine's work which he described as the puny efforts of Paine.
When William Paterson, signer of the Constitution and a Justice on the U. S. Supreme Court, learned that some Americans seemed to agree with Paine's work, he thundered, Infatuated Americans, why renounce your country, your religion, and your God? Zephaniah Swift, author of America's first law book, noted, He has the impudence and effrontery to address to the citizens of the United States of America a paltry performance which is intended to shake their faith in the religion of their fathers. John Jay, an author of the Federalist Papers and the original Chief-Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court, was comforted by the fact that Christianity would prevail despite Paine's attack,I have long been of the opinion that the evidence of the truth of Christianity requires only to be carefully examined to produce conviction in candid minds. In fact, Paine's views caused such vehement public opposition that he spent his last years in New York as an outcast in social ostracism and was buried in a farm field because no American cemetery would accept his remains.
Amen and ping!
I concur. I'll also note that the author of this article is a pseudo-historian snake oil salesman and a flaming bigot who uses his pseudo-histories and religion for political gain. Barton is not exactly the most credible or trustworthy source by any measure.
Yes. He does that often. Barton is (unfortunately) the Vice Chairman of the Republican Party of Texas and most of his history is very selective and very biased toward whatever political point he is trying to argue at the moment
I learned this in grade school in the early 50's. I am constantly amazed at the left's denial that this is a christian nation and their endless use of the phrase, "Separation of Church and State" as though it is part of the Constitution.
He doesn't answer email - I know that from first hand experience. David Barton is also our Republican Party Vice Chairman in Texas (and a rather lousy one at that - he's in it for self promotion and to sell his videos, not getting our candidates elected). Whenever there's an internal party election going on he pulls out his self-purported "Founding Fathers" expertise and twists a bunch of out of context quotes together to portray his favored candidate as the "candidate of the founders vision" or some such nonsense. Anybody who opposes him similarly gets labelled "anti democratic" and opposed to the "Founding Fathers." I've sent out challenges to the content of his letters several times including to that address and they never respond to anything. He has no public address at the Republican Party website either.
He was more like a French revolutionist which this country rejected.
3) Thomas Paines belief? OK. He said...there remains nothing of Genesis but an anonymous book of stories, fables, and traditionary or invented absurdities, or of downright lies. [Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason] Hardly one to quote on the deep religious conviction of the Founders.
4) Sure none of the founders fit the STRAWMAN definition of Deist put forward; however Franklin said in his own autobiography that he was a thorough Deist.