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 March 30, 2008, Holmes summarized the basic data on this subject in a lecture delivered at Miami University.


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 United States. This information comprises the heart of Faiths of the Founding Fathers.


The case of George Washington, the first President, is the most fascinating and ambiguous. Washington was born and raised in the Church of England, which was the established church of Virginia. (After the Revolutionary War, the American branch of Anglicanism became known as the Episcopal Church.) Throughout his life he attended church fairly regularly, especially during the periods when he lived in Philadelphia or New York.2 He has been credited with surveying and mapping his home parish in Virginia, and he served as a vestryman-i.e., a member of the vestry, a board of lay leaders-in that parish.


We also know from his actions and public writings that Washington valued the role of religion in promoting morality and order, and that he believed in the existence of a "Divine Providence." As a military officer before the Revolution, he held religious services for his troops when no chaplain was available. During the Revolutionary War, he required his forces to have chaplains, attend Sunday services, and hold services of thanksgiving after victories.


On the other hand, there is evidence that Washington's convictions were not fully Christian. In the 1780s the Episcopal Church obtained bishops, and it became possible for its members to be confirmed. Washington's wife Martha was among the many who took advantage of this opportunity, but Washington himself never sought to be confirmed. Moreover, he was known for never taking communion. If he and his family were at church on one of the four times a year when communion was held, Martha would stay for communion, but he would go home and send a carriage back for her. When Washington was in Philadelphia, a minister chided those from the upper classes of society who set a bad example by walking out on communion services. Not wanting to be a bad example, Washington never again went to Christ Church on a Sunday when communion was held.


Holmes also finds Washington's public writings to be revealing. He notes that references to religion in these writings lack emotion. Washington did not refer to God with words like "Father", "Lord", "Redeemer", or "Savior." Instead, he used impersonal terms with which a Deist would be comfortable, like "Providence", "the Deity", "Supreme Being", "Grand Architect", "Author of all Good", and "Great Ruler of Events". His writings rarely referred to Jesus or Christianity, even when he was writing to Christian congregations.3


Taking all the evidence together, Holmes categorizes Washington as an "Anglican Deist Christian." He observed that this was not an uncommon category in the late eighteenth century, when Deism was the prevailing philosophy among the ruling classes in both Europe and America.


Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe

Holmes described John Adams, the second President, as "a Unitarian Christian influenced by Deism." Adams grew up in the Congregationalist Church, the denomination founded by the New England Puritans that was the established church in the New England colonies. As adults, he and his wife Abigail belonged to the liberal wing of Congregationalism that rejected the deity of Jesus and the Calvinist doctrines of total depravity, unconditional election, and irresistible grace. This segment of the Congregationalists formed a separate Unitarian denomination in 1825, the year before Adams died.


Adams was influenced by Enlightenment thought. He once wrote that God "has given us Reason, to find out the Truth, and the real Design and true End of our existence."4 But his generation of Unitarians, unlike those that came later, maintained a high view of scripture. He believed in a personal God who had carried out the miracles described in the Bible, including the resurrection of Jesus.


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 Deist than Adams. (When the two were opponents in the election campaign of 1800, Adams was seen as the "Christian candidate" in the election.) Jefferson was an intellectual who read the works of Enlightenment thinkers in both English and French. In founding the University of Virginia, he hoped to promote Enlightenment and Deistic thought.


Jefferson was an avid participant in one of the great pastimes of the Enlightenment, the early "quest for the historical Jesus." He compiled an edited version of the Gospels, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, by deleting all "miraculous" content and retaining Jesus' moral teachings, which he greatly admired. Although he rejected a number of traditional Christian doctrines-for example, he ridiculed the Doctrine of the Trinity as "Greek arithmetic"-he did believe in the efficacy of prayer and in life after death. Since he enjoyed listening to sermons, he frequently attended services of the Episcopal Church.


James Madison was the son of an Anglican vestryman. His religious parents sent him to Princeton rather than William and Mary because Princeton was known for its religious orthodoxy. After graduating in 1771, he stayed on an extra year to study Hebrew and ethics. When he returned home to study law, he initially led family worship. However, his beliefs soon moved in the direction of Deism. Holmes characterized Madison as a "moderate Deist." Like Washington, he was never confirmed as an Anglican, even though his wife and mother were.


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 Monroe was the U.S. minister to France, radical Deist Thomas Paine stayed with the Monroe family for two years. Holmes speculated that Paine may have influenced Monroe in the direction of Deism. Monroe was also a member of the Freemasons, an organization that promoted a Deistic worldview.



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 United States was not founded as a "Christian nation," as some today try to claim. On the other hand, the founders generally had a positive attitude toward religion and probably would be dismayed at the extreme lengths to which the American judicial system recently has taken the doctrine of "separation of church and state."


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 Washington to John Jay written in 1789, when Washington was President and lived in New York. Washington asked Jay, a devout Christian, if he could hitch a ride to church because his carriage was in need of repairs.


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."

Issue 24



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