by Doug Ward
APRIL, 2008-An American presidential election campaign is now in full swing. As is typical in these campaigns, the religious views of the candidates are being closely scrutinized. Most recently the Black Liberation Theology of Jeremiah Wright, Senator Barack Obama's longtime pastor, has been a hot topic of discussion. Since Wright's preaching is heavily laced with wild conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism, the Senator's opponents have had much to say on this topic.
Americans have long been keenly interested in the religious beliefs of their leaders, past and present. In recent years, in fact, there has been much controversy over the beliefs of the nation's founding fathers. As part of the ongoing "culture wars," evangelical writers have tended to portray the founders as fellow believers, while those of a more secular bent have generally emphasized their skepticism.
One scholar who has carefully
studied the religions of the founders is David L. Holmes,
Professor of Religious Studies at the College of William and Mary, the alma
mater of early U.S. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. In his book The
Faiths of the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press, 2006), Holmes gives a clear and succinct account of the beliefs
of a number of early American leaders, including the first five Presidents. On
The Enlightenment and Deism
Professor Holmes prefaced his remarks with a quotation from a twentieth-century writer, L.P. Hartley: "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." This quotation is a reminder, he said, that we should evaluate the beliefs of the founding fathers in the context of their own times. In particular, since they were educated in the eighteenth century, these men were influenced by the philosophies of the Enlightenment Period.
Holmes explained that Enlightenment thought distrusted received tradition and proclaimed that the power of human reason was sufficient to determine the truth. Applied to the realm of religion, Enlightenment principles produced a school of thought called Deism. Deists were skeptical about the miracles recorded in the Bible and traditional Christian doctrines like the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the Second Coming. They were not atheists, however. Deists believed that one could derive from nature the existence of a First Cause that created the universe and set its laws in motion. Deists also tended to emphasize the value of a virtuous life and often believed in life after death. Deism, Holmes said, might be roughly described as "golf course religion"-the view that one could worship the Creator just as well on the golf course as in a pew.
Deism encouraged the use of individual reason and was not an organized movement, so it took in a wide spectrum of views. On one end of the spectrum were those, like Thomas Paine, who opposed traditional religion. Paine castigated Christianity and belittled the Bible in a two-volume work called The Age of Reason (1794-95). A Deist like Paine, in the words of nineteenth-century American L.W. Gibson, "denies the God of Israel, and believes in the God of nature."1 However, there were also many Deists who accepted varying amounts of Christian teaching and occupied pews and even pulpits in European and American churches. In the American colonies, Deism was considered to be cutting-edge thought at colleges like Harvard and William and Mary. As a result, the founding fathers were all exposed to Deist thought, and many were influenced by it to one degree or another.
George Washington and Religion
After providing some background on Deism, Holmes described what is known about the religions of the first five Presidents of the
The case of George Washington, the first President, is the
most fascinating and ambiguous.
We also know from his actions and public writings that
On the other hand, there is evidence that
Holmes also finds
Taking all the evidence together, Holmes categorizes
Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe
Holmes described John Adams, the second President, as "a Unitarian Christian influenced by Deism."
Adams, who once called himself "a church-going animal," often went to church twice on Sundays. As President, he used explicitly Christian language in his thanksgiving proclamations, including phrases like "Redeemer of the World", "the Great Mediator and Advocate", and "the grace of His Holy Spirit."
Thomas Jefferson was also a Unitarian but much more of a
James Madison was the son of an Anglican vestryman. His
religious parents sent him to
Although James Monroe was a nominal Episcopalian all his life, he seems to have had little interest in religion. Only a handful of books in his library dealt with the subject of religion, and some of those were apparently presentation copies. His public writings make a few mentions of a guiding providence but say nothing explicitly Christian. His private correspondence also has little to say about religion, even at times in life when one would tend to mention religious convictions-e.g., after the death of a loved one, or in offering advice to a young person.
In the 1790s, when
Although none of the first five Presidents would be considered an orthodox Christian, some of the other founding fathers certainly were, including Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, early advocates of the Revolution; Elias Boudinot, a President of the Continental Congress and Director of the U.S. Mint who later was the first President of the American Bible Society; and John Jay, a diplomat, Supreme Court Justice and Governor of New York who succeeded Boudinot as President of the American Bible Society. It is also the case that the majority of the wives and daughters of the founders were orthodox Christians.5
Holmes concluded his lecture by encouraging his audience
again to understand the founding fathers in the context of their own times. The
data suggest that it is not appropriate to try to shoehorn the founders into
some of today's categories. On one hand, the
One principle that the founders shared as part of their Enlightenment worldview was the importance of religious freedom. The first five Presidents were all champions of this precious freedom. In a nation that has always been a haven for a great diversity of religious thought and practice, this remains one of the greatest legacies of the founding fathers.
1Quoted in Faiths of the Founding Fathers, p. 40.
2We have one note from
3Faiths of the Founding Fathers, p. 65.
4Quoted in Faiths of the Founding Fathers, p. 78.
5One reason that few women were Deists, Holmes has speculated, is that women in that day were constantly faced with bereavement. (In particular, a significant proportion of their children died in infancy.) Little comfort is provided in prayer to a distant "First Cause."
File translated from
On 06 Apr 2008, 14:07.