How Religious Were America's Founders?
Authors coming from a conservative religious perspective believe that the Founders were highly religious and that the religious convictions of these men have been underestimated or deliberately ignored. This view is supported by a large and powerful group of Evangelicals who make up about a third of America's population. President Bush--who famously said God had called him to run for President in 2000 and whose inner circle is deeply religious--is a member of this group.
Conversely, many liberal academics are equally fearful that the Religious Right is creating an inaccurate and distorted view of the Founders to promote their current political agenda. This group includes authors like Garry Wills, Esther Kaplan, Frank Lambert, David Holmes and a host of others.
The purpose of this essay is to carefully examine all of the available data on this topic as dispassionately as possible in order to determine, in so far as that is possible given the sensitivity of this subject and the fact that many Founders deliberately disguised their unorthodox views to avoid criticism, the mature religious views of the most important Founders. This is best begun by looking at them one by one roughly in order of their importance.
Washington was clearly a "child of the Enlightenment" and as such was not a particularly religious person. According to his major biographer, Douglass Southall Freeman, there is "no evidence [Washington] expressed personal belief in any credal religion. Nor was he particularly ardent in what little faith he had. He was not religious as a youth, unlike Madison and Hamilton, and never used the name of Jesus in any of his massive correspondence. Nor did he ever quote scripture, or mention Jesus Christ in any public statement as President. But Washington did believe in Providence and thought compelled support for the religion of one's choice was not incompatible with liberty.
Washington was baptized as an infant and raised in the Episcopal Church of Virginia, and by the standards for elite Virginians of his day he was "religiously active" according to David Holmes in his excellent book, The Faiths of the Founders. What this means is that our first president read service for his soldiers when no chaplain was available, observed fast days prescribed for the English army, and served as a vestryman and church warden and occasionally said grace at table. He stood, rather than kneeled, for public prayer in church and was never confirmed in his faith nor did he take Holy Communion.
Like most of the other Founders, Washington firmly believed in "the Hand of Providence." Accordingly, he believed that God had intervened on America's side in the Revolution. Washington's recorded appearances at church were rare; when he did attend he went to a variety of religious denominations, including Catholic churches, suggesting that he thought religious was necessary for public morality, but that activity in a single church was not important. Later in his life Washington had a pew in Christ Church, Alexandria, but generally spent his Sundays devoted to correspondence. Nor did he give much to charity. Virtue, rather than living in accord with God's commandments, was perceived among America's elite as politeness, sociability, honor, service, and disinterestedness in. Washington's day, and our first President was a model of that code of ethics. In short, religion to Washington was not much more than a belief in Providence as a support for public morality. Many historians have labeled him a "moderate Deist."
Instead of being a religious person, Washington had the code of a "gentleman." Restraint, temperance, fortitude, dignity, and independence--the values of classical antiquity--were his core ideals. His beliefs and actions were not based on hope for rewards or fear of punishments in an afterlife, but on the esteem and of wise men here on earth. Honor, not faith, was his north star. Given a choice of whether to conform to an established church or stand for individual freedom, Washington would clearly have chosen the latter. He simply had no interest in theology. In short, Washington was a good man, but not a particularly a religious man.
Like Washington, Franklin was clearly outside the Christian tradition virtually all of his life. An establishment of religion made no sense to him; he was a Deist and not a church-goer. Being from Pennsylvania, where there was no establishment, made it easier for Franklin to live out his life when he was in America. He died before the First Amendment was ratified, but had he lived, he surely would have supported it.
Raised as a Congregationalist, Franklin was never an active member in any church as an adult. Rather, he was a patron of the Enlightenment with a deep dislike for religious enthusiasm. Basically, this means that Franklin instinctively doubted tradition and was inclined toward anti-clericalism. He celebrated the classics, stressed reason over revelation, believed in natural law, and had a deep distaste of religious excess. Franklin, above all other Americans then, exemplified the importance of science. His scientific world view embodied a rational perspective free from superstition. The "pursuit of happiness" outlined in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence was his goal in life, not submission and obedience to a particular creed.
In 1790 Franklin told Ezra Stiles, President of Yale, that he believe in "one God, Creator of the Universe." God governed this universe by his Providence. As such he ought to be worshiped and the worship most acceptable to Him was in doing good to others. He went on to say that he believed in an afterlife, that the Christian system of morals were the best ever created, but that he had "some doubts as to the divinity of Jesus." Franklin contributed to a variety of sects and never publicly opposed their doctrines.
Franklin read deistic books and liked deistic ideas. Religion was to him instrumental--necessary for society at large to keep the vulgar in line and to be used for utilitarian purposes. The churches were aids to rectitude, not the means to salvation. A good example of how Franklin used religion was his suggestion for holding a prayer when the Convention was deadlocked. One calls on God when in a tight spot, hoping to break a logjam. The idea for holding a prayer was, as is well-known, rejected. Rather than praying, the Founders adjourned for the day.
Isaac Kramnick writes: "If America was the embodiment and the natural home of the Enlightenment, according to Europe's advance thinkers, then the American who best personified the Enlightenment idea was Benjamin Franklin.
All Jefferson scholars agree that Jefferson was not a believer in Christianity in any ordinary sense. Like most of the Founders, Jefferson believed in an overriding Providence that guided the affairs of the United States. But he valued intellectual and religious freedom far more than Christian dogmatism, and strongly believed that government had no authority to mandate religious conformity. One of Jefferson's three most important achievements, in his view, was his Act to Establish Religious Freedom (1786) which largely disestablished the Episcopal Church in Virginia and was one of the major sources for the eventual separation of church and state in America. The other two were the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia.
Most writers have concluded that Jefferson was a Deist or a Unitarian. Several comment on the fact that Jefferson excised all supernatural references from the Gospels and created his own deistic Bible. He rarely discussed religion and then only among "reasonable" company according to Dumas Malone, his chief biographer. He believed in a "creator," and an afterlife, but not in the divinity of Jesus, the trinity (which he called "abracadabra"), original sin, or the atonement. Happiness was the end of life, Jefferson thought, and that can be attained without the need of any religious sacraments. Strongly anti-clerical his whole life, Jefferson believed that priests had corrupted the scriptures for their own selfish purposes. He read and re-read Priestly's History of the Corruptions of Christianity, one of the few books upon which he rested his faith. Nevertheless, he contributed generously to several local churches and attended religious services in the House of Representatives when he was President. This was largely to counter his opponents charges that he was an "atheist." Jefferson always felt that a moral person would "never be questioned at the gates of heaven" as to the dogmas he mayor may not have believed in. Jefferson also had high regard for Locke, Hume, Bolingbroke, and Montesquieu as representatives of the Enlightenment, which was central to his religious views. This, of course, included Hume's famous rejection of all Christian or religious miracles.
Jefferson's famous call for "a wall of separation" between church and state was not influential in his day and was a deviation from "disestablishment", the core value of that day and a genuine constitutional norm. Philip Hamburger's Separation of Church and State virtually demolished the idea that separation was then the primary view of the Founders. Most of the Founders, if not all of them, assumed republican government depended on a religious citizenry, and that some forum of religion-without a preference for anyone faith-was necessary to achieve this end. In other words, religion is the foundation of morals and morality is essential for a successful republic. Jefferson rejected this view. He thought that all people had an innate sense of right and wrong and hence organized religion was unnecessary, even harmful. Separation of church and state took a long time to develop, arising more in the 19th century than in the 18th as a reaction to increasing Catholic immigration which was much feared by Protestants. It was an evolutionary development; not an achievement of the Founders. In this Jefferson was way ahead of his time, and much closer to ours in his religious sentiments and his desire for a high wall of separation. In 1785 Jefferson advocated freedom from religion; most of his colleagues argued for freedom of religion. But since most Americans were not church members during the era of the founding of America, Jefferson's views--even though largely private--would have then and certainly eventually did have a special resonance.
As a youth Madison may have had some interest in religion but the evidence is skimpy. Certainly religion was not of any significance in Madison's mature life and there is no evidence Madison ever joined a church. As the years progressed whatever interest Madison did have in religion seemed to have vanished, and his sympathies passed from some interest in Unitarianism to outright skepticism. He also held religious enthusiasm in low regard and had little respect for the Anglican Church in Virginia. After about 1776, Madison seems to have had no personal interest in religion whatsoever, or at least he was very private about what interests he did have. There is almost no evidence that he was a practicing Christian in his mature years. I say "almost" because he did occasionally attend services in the House of Representatives after he became President. But one suspects there could have been more than one reason for these visits, especially since his friend Jefferson did so as well when he was President. Hutson speculates that Madison perhaps "thought with the wise and acted with the vulgar." Madison's fondness for the works of Voltaire lends support for this view.
Both of Madison's major 20th century biographers call Madison a "Deist." But unlike his friend Jefferson, Madison was not hostile to revealed religion per se. He did however believe strongly that an established religion was deleterious to society, a view he famously elaborated in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785). In this document he wrote that established religious organizations cause "pride and indolence in the Clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution." They have erected "spiritual tyranny" and have upheld the "thrones of political tyranny"; and "in no instance have they been seen as the guardian of the liberties of the people." Established churches differ only in degree from the Inquisition, Madison wrote, and are the first step toward intolerance. Establishments destroy the moderation and harmony in society and have produced "torrents of blood" in the old world in a vain attempt to extinguish religious discord. They also discourage those who wish to become more religious. Finally, Madison believed that freedom of conscience was a "gift of Nature" and was beyond the power of government to regulate in any manner. Such beliefs led Madison to advocate a "complete" or "perfect separation" of church and state, including no fast days, chaplains, or any other federal OR state support for religion. Based largely on Madison's "Remonstrance" the Virginia legislature effectively disestablished the Anglican Church in that state by a vote of 67 to 20.
Of all of the Founders, Madison wanted the wall of separation to be the highest and the most formidable barrier between church and state. His biggest disappointment in the ratification process of the First Amendment was that the First Amendment did not also apply to the states. It was not until after World War II that the U.S. was able to achieve that goal, although state establishments actually ended in 1833. Indeed, to this day we are not even close to a "perfect separation."
Adams was certainly a religious man, but not an orthodox Christian. David McCullough, in his enormously popular biography of John Adams, says Adams was a "devout Christian," but there are only five brief references to Adams' religion in his 751 page biography. These refer to his reluctance to travel on the Sabbath, his baptism, the connection between religion and morality, and that Adams visited several Christian churches as he moved around the nation's capital.
Adams began his life as a Congregationalist with Calvinist inclinations, but early in his illustrious career he became a Unitarian. Like most of his countrymen he believed in divine Providence, including the notion that the American Revolution was the result of a divine plan. Adams rejected the Calvinist ideas of election, predestination, man's total depravity, and the Trinity. He also rejected the divinity of Jesus, and was always suspicious of any religious enthusiasm or anyone who claimed to be a prophet. This, to my mind, would take him out of the category of a "devout Christian." Adams further believed that religion gave order, dignity, and purpose to man's life, and that Calvinism had served his ancestors well in a hostile New England environment. He was always assessing the state of his soul and worrying about his vanity, and in that struggle doubted the doctrines of original sin, election, and limited atonement.
Adams was much influenced by Locke's idea that religion should be reasonable and, again like Locke, tried to exclude all superstition from his own religion. Nevertheless, Adams did believe in prayer and in an afterlife. Like Jefferson, Adams tried to reduce his religion to its "primitive simplicity' and thought clergymen were "dangerous." Like Washington, Adams thought creeds were not very important and denied all human authority over him in matters of faith. Adams was never quite a Deist, but he was a firm believer in natural religion. In short, John Adams was much more concerned with his personal virtue than he was with his religious orthodoxy.
Adams eventually came to believe in the complete separation of church and state. In 1812 he declared that "nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with religion." As President, however, he did proclaim two national fasts, but later came to believe that is what cost him the election of 1800. Many Americans, he felt, feared he wanted to establish a national religion. Earlier in his career Adams had thought an established religion was as natural as the solar system The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 was largely Adams' handiwork, and it proclaimed the "duty of all men" to worship the "Supreme Being," that happiness depended on piety, religion, and morality, and that the state was to support Protestant teachers of the citizens own religion or denomination. Although the Massachusetts Constitution compelled support of the Protestant religion it did protect the free exercise of other religions. These constitutional provisions were based on Adams' firm belief that religion was "essential" to morals and that any government required a moral people. To Adams anyone who was not religious was a "rascal." Presumably that included Thomas Jefferson.
One suspects that the very close friendship between Jefferson and Adams-except for the period between the 1790s and 1812--and the extensive correspondence between them later in their lives reflected generally compatible views on religion, once their political differences were put aside. Their mature religious views were clearly more similar than different, despite the very great differences in background, personality, and political outlook.
Hamilton had no formal church affiliation although he was somewhat religious as a student at King's College (now Columbia University). Hutson incorrectly states that Hamilton was a "member of the Episcopal Church." More likely he meant that Hamilton was an "adherent". At most Hamilton was a nominal, non-participating adherent of that church. By the time of the American Revolution, Hamilton was a skeptic regarding organized religion and apparently completely indifferent towards religion generally, a position he retained until just before his death, despite his wife's deep religiosity. His wife Eliza firmly believed in religious instruction for their children and Hamilton did not object when she rented a pew at Trinity Church in New York City. But he did not attend regularly or take communion. Ron Chernow, author of the best biography of Hamilton to date, writes that "Like Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson, Hamilton had probably fallen under the sway of deism, which sought to substitute reason for revelation and dropped the notion of an active God who intervened in human affairs. At the same time he never doubted God's existence, embracing Christianity as a system of morality and cosmic justice.
Later in life Hamilton became more religious and following his famous duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton asked to receive the last rites from the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Bishop refused him because Hamilton had been shot in a duel and was not a regular church-goer. Hamilton also sought communion from the Scotch Presbyterian Church and was similarly refused. The Episcopal Bishop later relented and Hamilton received communion just before he died.
When he was alive Hamilton once advocated a national day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer, which he believed could be politically useful in influencing public opinion against the French in 1797. He also believed at the same time that "morality must fail without religion. Hamilton also believed that God had created a "law of nature" binding on all men at all times, much like the Providential Deists, and that all rights come from God, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. But he famously opposed Franklin's suggestion to have a prayer at the Philadelphia Convention, thinking that would signal a stalemate in the proceedings.
The key ingredient here is a belief in free inquiry and separation of church and state. Perhaps the best way to get to the heart of these beliefs is to determine their degree of Christian orthodoxy as opposed to their inclinations towards deism-with its emphasis on rationalism, freedom of inquiry, individuality, toleration, and hostility towards dogma. It is striking how many of these second-echelon Founders were influenced by deism, and as a consequence favored some form of separation between religion and politics.
Gouverneur Morris, the most frequent speaker in the Convention and the man who penned the final draft of the Constitution, was strongly opposed to the union of church and state. There is no evidence he believed in, belonged to, or attended any church. The most witty and engaging of the Convention goers, Morris also had the most salacious reputation. He was also the most anti-slavery advocate. He was a man of, "astounding intellect, enviable discernment, prodigious learning and immense intellect."
James Wilson, who spoke more times than anyone except Gouverneur Morris, was a Deist. Wilson was the dominant figure in the Pennsylvania ratifying convention, holding the floor for days. Wilson became America's foremost legal scholar and helped to move the country from a jurisprudence based on authority of rules to one based on the consent of the people. One of the best educated men in America, Wilson studied at St. Andrews, Scotland, and, like Tom Paine, was inclined to follow where reason lead. Wilson also thought natural law had a "deistic origin" rather than a religious basis.
George Mason of Virginia was also a frequent speaker (136 times) at the Convention and was "largely responsible for the proposal of a bill of rights by the First Congress of the United States. He joined Madison in his call for the disestablishment of the Anglican religion in Virginia and the separation of the church and state in the United States. He also famously refused to sign the Constitution at the Convention because, among other things, it did not include a bill of rights. Mason was a Man of the Enlightenment and, like Wilson, showed no interest in religion. In fact, there is not a single reference to religion in all three volumes of his papers.
As one moves down the list of major Founders to less significant participants, commitment to separation of church and state appears to decline. It seems that the greater the prestige, the less religious the Founders were. Nathan Gorham who came from one of the most religious of states, Massachusetts, did not play any recorded role in the battle for disestablishment. He showed no commitment to natural rights theory and played no role in politics after 1788. Oliver Ellsworth favored the established church in Connecticut and was generally suspicious of change. Roger Sherman of the same state was the second oldest man at the Convention (after Franklin) and was a lay theologian. John Adams describes him as "an old Puritan. He at first opposed a bill of rights, thought of his state as "a closed society," and had little tolerance for different views, either politically or religiously. Sherman believed in both the "threatenings and the promises" of the Gospel, a characteristic of Puritanism. On the other hand, John Dickenson, from that same state, was anti-clerical and therefore an exception to the idea that the less prominent one was the more religious one tended to be. Finally, John Rutledge of South Carolina appeared to be at least a nominal Episcopalian, and there is no evidence he favored disestablishment.
When one turns to those who refused to sign the Constitution or opposed its ratification (people like Mason, Gerry, Martin, Randolph, Yates, Lansing; and Patrick Henry) opposition to disestablishment is even more evident. Gerry, a sober Puritan, was determined to protect the established religion of his state against the "excesses of democracy." He was one of the most "provincial of the Founders and no friend of separation of church and state. Luther Martin came from a family of evangelical Protestants and all his life supported Maryland's social and religious establishment. Not only his ideas, but also his dress was old fashioned. More significantly, he favored religious tests for political office and would have prohibited absolutely non-believers from serving in any public office. Governor Randolph of Virginia did favor a bill of rights, but not to separate church and state. He wanted a Bill of Rights to limit the powers of the federal government.
By way of summary, it seems fair to me to say that looking at the most respected and the most vocal of the Founders one can conclude the following: They were for the most part as concerned with religious tyranny and they were with political tyranny; those who were the best educated and most traveled tended to be the least religious; those most concerned with free inquiry were the least orthodox; and almost to a man they were suspicious of religious enthusiasm.
Those who were most steeped in the values of the Enlightenment-and that clearly included most of the most influential Founders--were those most suspicious of the value of organized religion. The leaders of the effort to disestablish religion read the Bible critically, attended church irregularly, if at all, seldom if ever took communion, and were generally suspicious of the clergy. Among all of the Founders the elite leaders were the most hostile to religious tests to hold office. They looked to nature rather than theology for knowledge; to themselves rather than tradition; and wanted to establish a "new order of the ages" rather than preserving a repressive religious theocracy. To them, state sponsored religion not only fostered sectarianism, but also encouraged intolerance and persecution and restricted freedom of thought and speech.
To be really free and to achieve the ends they were seeking, religious oaths and churches established by law simply had to go into the dustbin of history, if not at the state level at least at the federal level. Madison would have ended established churches at the state level as well but the Senate refused to go this far.
If there was a single, all encompassing value which motivated the Founders it was a profound respect for the Lockean value of rational inquiry. They set out to create an age of reason, not an age of faith. History, not theology, was their primary guide. Bacon, Newton, and Locke were their Trinity; and rational inquiry, rather than revelation from on high, their north star. Not one of the Big Six believed in the divinity of Jesus Christ, but all of them believed in Providence or Nature's God. It was in this sense-as believers in a divinely created universe and a purposeful God-that the Founders could be called religious.
The impact of these philosophers was much different in the United States. In the wake of the European Enlightenment, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Paine and a host of others set about evicting religion from the public sphere. They wanted an America free from political and religious tyranny. Like Descartes they instinctively doubted tradition and subjected religious claims to reason and experience. Nor did they accept the notion that religion was necessary for people to behave morally. Like Hume, Smith, and others, they thought morality is better rooted in sympathy for others or, as with Jefferson, was innate in human beings themselves. Their efforts were embodied in the First Amendment free exercise and no establishment clause. They succeeded in prohibiting an establishment religion at the national level, where it did not in fact exist, but not at the state level, where it did. But these state establishments could not maintain themselves because there was too much diversity. America and all were one by 1833. Thus Madison eventually got his most cherished desire, it took several more decades to reach that goal. It took even longer for Jefferson's "wall of separation" metaphor to be officially recognized. That came in 1878 when the Supreme Court included it as the basis for prohibiting the religiously motivated practice of polygamy in Reynolds v. United States, and in 1947 in Everson v. Board of Education where the Court cited it in reference to the Establishment Clause.
For several decades now Americans have generally accepted the idea of separation of church and state as part of the Constitution and one of the most cherished ideals in our history. Not everyone agrees with Jefferson's "wall of separation" metaphor, and some the Religious Right would like to see it lowered, giving aid to religion generally, but the idea itself is certainly mainstream. How high that wall should be is a matter of emerging public values extensive discussion, as it should be. But that we should have a separation between church and state, not just denominational neutrality, is no longer in serious dispute. The fundamental issue of whether religion needs the help of the state to prosper or whether the rights of conscience thrive best left alone--a view that Christian evangelicals as well as Deists subscribe to--is now one of America's founding principles.
--James L. Clayton