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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Were the Founding Fathers of America Christians?

There is a popular belief among many in the United States that our country is a Christian nation and that the founding Fathers were all Christians. With the rise of the religious right in the 1980's and now the Tea Party, this view continues to grow. How does this belief correspond with the facts? An excellent book has been written by David L. Holmes, Professor of Religious Studies at William and Mary, entitled: The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (Oxford Press, 2006). He discusses the religious environment of 18th century America and the influence of British deism. He has entire chapters on the religious views of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, as well as others. His conclusion is that the founding fathers could be grouped as follows:

Non-Christian Deists: Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen.

Deistic Christians/Unitarians: Ben Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe.

Orthodox Christians: Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, John Jay, Elias Boudinot, John Witherspoon.

The difference in the Non-Christian Deists and the Deistic Christians/Unitarians is that the latter believed that many of the teachings of Jesus were worthy of emulation. They gave Jesus a special place in their theology although not the place of God as in orthodox Christianity. Confusion often arises because most of the Founding Fathers mentioned "God," or "the Creator," or "Providence" in their speeches and writings. Yes, they believed in a divine being; they were not atheists (there were very few public atheists at this time).  However, the fact that they mention God does not mean that they are orthodox Christians either.


  1. It's strange that when it comes to the Founding Fathers, any reference to God seems to prove they were Christian. But the same evangelical who lowers the bar for these men has much more precise standards for what constitutes a Christian today. He would never assume a relative or co-worker is a true Christian simply because of a passing reference to a creator.

  2. It doesn't matter what people find out about the founding fathers or anyone else writes about them. As far as the American Taliban is concerned, they are all bible thumping xtians in their mold. They will continue to practice the mental dissonance that they have gotten so good at as of late.

  3. "American Taliban"? The Taliban contains cold-blooded murderers and homicidal maniacs who want to destroy the west. Do you really want to draw a comparison between the Taliban and a group of Americans, simply because their politics bug you?

    Demonizing opponents is an awfully cheap substitute for refuting them.

  4. While there are certainly some within evangelical circles who would love to claim all of the founding fathers as practicing the same orthodox Christianity they do today, the majority, I am sure, do not. A plain reading of history, and one trip to the fathers' places of origin (Washington DC, Monticello, Boston, Mt. Vernon, etc.), and it's clear that not all of them were orthodox Christians.

    The real question is "What does it matter?" So what if they weren't all orthodox Christians! Whether all of the founding fathers were orthodox Christians or not does not erase the influence of Christian ethics and morals on their thinking, and subsequently, on the founding documents of our nation. Ken is right, most of them believed in a god. For some it was the Christian God, for some their view of God was influenced by Free Masonry, Deism, or Unitarianism. Read what they wrote. When they spoke of God they most often did so with Christian nuances and in Christianized terms. Whether one was a deist, unitarian, or "orthodox;" in that day they would have considered themselves Christian in the most generic sense. (Not unlike the difference between Jew, Muslim, and Christian in Jerusalem today. If you're not Jewish or Muslim then you're "Christian.") My point being, America was not founded as a religiously pluralistic nation. The original colonies, and the later founding fathers, knew nothing, of a non-Christian religious system being accepted in their society. Their Bible-influenced thinking permeates the heart and soul of our founding documents.

    What's equally heinous as those who want to pervert history to say that all of the founding fathers held to the same type of orthodox Christianity seen in modern days? Those who would pervert history for the purpose of removing all traces of biblical and Christian influence in our nation's founding. It cannot be done. A plain reading of our original documents does not allow for it.

    Ken would undoubtedly disagree with the author of this work because he is an evangelical Christian, but I recommend "Christianity and Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers" by John Eidsmoe. While Eidsmoe is an evangelical, he does not present a pie in the sky version of the fathers. I found his work honest and forthright about their beliefs. He also discusses the religious climate of the colonies at that time including Calvinism, Puritanism, deism, free masonry (which was more influential on several of the fathers than even deism), and science. He also includes a good chapter evaluating the biblical/Christian influence on our constitution.

  5. David,

    My point was that there was a great deal of antipathy towards Christianity by many of the founders. Yes, they spoke of God but most of them were not talking about the God of the Bible but the God of nature. Natural law had a far greater influence on the founding documents than did biblical law. The point that I was attempting to refute is that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and must therefore be restored to its biblical roots, which is what the religious right holds.

    I read Eidsmoe's book years ago and don't remember a lot about it except that he seems to think that covenantal postmillennialism had a heavy influence on the Constitution. The book was being heavily promoted at the time by the Christian Reconstructionists. He was a regular speaker with that crowd. Here is a review of the book, you might find revealing. If this is the only book, you read on the Founding Fathers, then your view of history will be skewed.

  6. Old.

    This has all been addressed ad naesueum years ago by Greg Boyd et al. He's a Christian btw.

  7. Sorry - "ad nauseum".

  8. Thanks for providing the link to the book review. It offered a good counterpoint to DW Smiths post.

  9. The founding fathers were following the bible and realizing that established churches and governments were not following the Bible, even Jefferson read it till the end of his life and stated toward the end of his career to end controversy, that he was most definitely Christian. They wanted more Christ-Like action and teaching, not less, but they wanted it separate from government unlike anything seen before. They were anti-catholic church and church of england and the governments they were tied to under the guise of Christianity, yet not following the Bible, which the founders all subscribed to, though they had (especially Jefferson), radical (anti-establishment) interpretations of the Bible.

  10. Oh, I forgot to state something first. I disagree with the religious right (protestant evangelicals) on many things, like prayer in school, and establishing religion in other ways. Why do I (being a religious minority myself, a non-traditional Christian (not orthidox, catholic, or protestant)) want to hear a strange sounding prayer. Prayer is best taught and practiced in the home(before and after school). I would do away with all tax exemptions because I believe they have violated the anti-establishment clause, even though my denomination now enjoys a favored status, it was persecuted by the government in the past. There is still some beaurocrat deciding who get's favored status and who does not; it's disgusting. Maybe one has to be a member of a religious minority before one has my point of view. This is coming from a person who believe's the country could benefit from more bible following and prayer.