Our “founding fathers”–Christians or what?

Recently I’ve been delving once again into deism, or what is more appropriately called natural religion.  (Deism has come to have connotations of belief in a distant, uninvolved and even uncaring God.  That wasn’t true of all who are lumped together as deists and the real sine qua non of “deism” was belief in natural religion, not a doctrine of God.)  I’ve been re-reading Locke (a precursor), Toland and Tindal (among others).  These men thought they were Christians.  Well, there’s some doubt about what Tindal actually thought, but let’s say they all considered themselves Christians–probably “of a higher order” than those around them.

My mind began to wander and wonder about those who claim publicly that most, if not all, of our republic’s founding fathers were orthodox Christians, if not evangelical Christians.  I’m not going to name any names here, but if you pay close attention to this controversy I think you can figure out some of the people I might be referring to.

There are writers and speakers, conservative evangelicals all (so far as I know), claiming that even Thomas Jefferson was a “real Christian.”  I don’t see them or hear them talking about Benjamin Franklin much.  Maybe they don’t consider him one of our founding fathers.  Or maybe they would say he’s the exception that proves the rule.  In any case, writings and video recordings by these people are being used in numerous home schooling situations.  I have had students who came out of a home schooling situation who thought, on the basis of some of these books and videos, that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and all the others were good Christians by which they meant something similar to what we would today call evangelical.

What I wonder is whether these writers and speakers really believe the things they are saying and writing or whether they are intentionally misleading people.

My uncle, a retired denominational leader, called me to ask me about something he heard one of these writers (who is also a frequent speaker at churches and conferences and even political events) say on a Christian talk show on a Christian television network.  According to my uncle, the man claimed that “Jefferson’s Bible” (The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth) was created by Jefferson to have a handy, abbreviated version of the four gospels to give to Native Americans to evangelize them for the gospel.  He denied that Jefferson “cut up” the New Testament to cut out the supernatural or offensive sayings of Jesus–as “liberals” claim.  My uncle genuinely wanted to know what I, as a church historian/historical theologian, thought about that.

It didn’t take much research to discover that Jefferson himself explained why he created the so-called “Jefferson Bible” (now published by the Unitarian publishing house Beacon Press) in letters to friends, especially John Adams.  In a letter about The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth dated 1813 Jefferson compared the portions of the gospels he cut out and pasted into his book to diamonds separated from dung.  He left no doubt that, while he admired Jesus, he did not agree with everything Jesus said or did.  He ended his book with Jesus’ death and omitted the resurrection.  Most, if not all, of the miracles were also left out.

I reported on Jefferson’s 1813 letter to Adams to my uncle who was shocked and dismayed.  He said to me “I wonder what [he named the man he saw and heard on the Christian television program] would say about that?”  I wonder, too.

There is no doubt that SOME of the founding fathers were orthodox Christians, but to claim that all or even most of them were is simply stretching the truth.

Some of these writers and speakers quote from various proclamations and prayers of founding fathers as if those actually expressed their own personal beliefs.  Anyone who has paid careful attention to even more modern presidents and their religious rhetoric should know that presidents (and other government officials) sometimes sound more religious in public than they really are.  And, yes, like Toland and Tindal, even the most secular of the founding fathers considered themselves Christian in some sense of the word.  But just because they talked about God, the Bible and Jesus in glowing terms hardly justifies claiming them as ones “of us” (evangelical Christians).

My point here is not to get into the details of the religious lives of the founding fathers; that has been done in many volumes.  The problem is that it is increasingly becoming apparent that some of the most popular ones are simply unreliable; they promote a revisionist history that appears to be blatantly dishonest.

Why can’t the founding fathers have been simply good men?  Why do we have to claim they were orthodox, even spiritual Christians to hold them in high esteem?  And why not just pick out the ones who really were orthodox Christians, such as such as apparently Patrick Henry was, and hold them up as “our heroes?”

Sloppy and/or revisionist history is not becoming of any Christian; it pays no real compliments to God or the founding fathers.  In the end, when home school young people get to college (unless they go to one of two or three schools that specialize in promoting revisionist history about the founding fathers) they will be disillusioned and wonder whether anything they were taught was right.  Better to be honest and real and let the chips fall where they may than pretend and then be exposed as a fake scholar who promoted blatant falsehoods.  That only results in broken trust and sometimes lost faith among young people.

  • http://barrybiblicalnotes.com Barry Applewhite

    Thanks for your comments on this subject. It is paradoxical that home schooling is designed to protect children from the lies of the world, yet some use it to tell (unwitting?) lies in alleged support of a Christian worldview.

    Some people have yet to learn that it is grossly sinful to tell lies in Jesus’ name. God does not want that kind of support!

    Of course, home schooling is similar to the thinking that brought about monasteries. It does not seem to me that retreat from the world has ever been the best plan to resist sin. Jesus said: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).

    -Barry

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Of course, home schooling is similar to the thinking that brought about monasteries. It does not seem to me that retreat from the world has ever been the best plan to resist sin.

      Home schooling was the norm until the last few centuries – even in Jesus’ day. And Prussia (the model for public schooling) designed public schools to break children free from the influence of the parents for service to the state. Today, some of the most popular education theories are to use public schools to socially engineer children (again, away from the designs of the parents) for the good of the larger society as the theorists envision “good”. Taking a few years of Teacher Education courses at Hamline University (St. Paul, MN) did teach me a few things.

      People home school for a variety of reasons – including the reasons that you list. But I’m not about to send my children out to get torn apart by wolves. Jesus sent out adults, not children, and he sent them out to great danger! Go ahead and send out your kids, but don’t paint with so broad a brush as to criticize all home schools for not doing as you do.

      Disclosure: I have worked in both public and private schools as a Secondary teacher as has my wife. We home school our 2 kids.

  • http://danjohnsonsr.com Dan Johnson Sr.

    One need not (and should not!) make false assertions about the faith of individual founding fathers to affirm the impact of the gospel in our history, an important distinction about which I would value your comments, perhaps in a separate post.

    • rogereolson

      Without doubt America, especially the 19th century, was profoundly shaped by Christianity. The second Great Awakening and the social transformations brought about mainly by evangelical Christians stamped evangelical Christianity as America’s religion. Randall Balmer calls it “America’s folk religion” and he means that in a positive way (although he strongly disagrees with some of its popular forms). However, I doubt that any president before Jimmy Carter could actually be called an evangelical Christian. Previous presidents were often men of strong faith in God, but their personal religious lives seemed to lack the revivalist fervor and passion for justice found in Carter. I do think public schools have by and large done a poor job of being fair to Christianity, especially evangelical Protestantism, in classes on American history. But that’s no excuse for bending the truth to make our founding fathers what most of them were not.

  • http://mattroffact.wordpress.com Matt Rickman

    This past July 4th our church (trying to be relevant I’m sure) decided to show a clip of a “historian” during our worship. The opening blurb bemoaned “godless” historians who claimed that the founders of our country were not Christian. As a Christian Evangelical who is working towards becoming a historian, I was infuriated to be called “godless” while I attempted to praise the God I serve. But became even more annoyed as I considered the amazing men and women I have sat under in class, and sought to gain wisdom through their scholarship. To call these amazing Christians “godless” was a needless provocation.
    The clip went on to declare the importance of morality in public life by quoting Washington (adultery), Jefferson and Franklin (name a 7 sin), and Wilson (racism). Meanwhile men like Adams and Madison (who by all accounts were moral men if not “real” Christians) were attacked for expressing concerns about the public displays of Christianity. When my parents asked why the red face, I explained that the above could support the public displays because they did not particularly care about the orthodoxy of the faith expressed; while the more orthodox Adams and Madison had some love for faith and those viewed with dismay this same heterodoxy. In doing so this “historian” had unknowingly (?) broken the first rule of intellectual argument (never let the lack of context become a pretext to proof text).
    What I could not understand was the need to spin this web. What was gained from the comment, and from the attack on those who have devoted their lives to finding the truth wherever it may exist. As Evangelicals I hope we can be better than that.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Better to be honest and real and let the chips fall where they may than pretend and then be exposed as a fake scholar who promoted blatant falsehoods. That only results in broken trust and sometimes lost faith among young people.

    Amen and Amen. This applies at least equally as well to Science – and I have seen this play out disastrously there as well.

    You didn’t mention who to me is the most obvious non-Christian founder: Tom Paine. While none could doubt his commitment to the Revolution, he was equally committed to a philosophy other than Christianity – and enjoyed ridiculing Christianity.

    Even so, these founders were steeped in the ethics and morality of the Bible and crafted our founding documents based on them (and Natural Law) without really promoting the religion. They often speak of a Creator – from whom rights are derived. This is especially important because it sets up government as a caretaker of those rights – and any attempt to deny those rights is an affront to that Creator. Setting these strict limits on government are just one of the many wonderful aspects of our founding documents.

    • rogereolson

      Was Thomas Paine even an American? I thought he was a Brit who supported the American Revolution. In any case, I don’t consider him a founding father. Maybe a better bad example is Ethan Allen whose book Reason: The Only Oracle of Man was a full frontal attack on Christianity.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        They were all British before the Revolution! But you’re correct, Paine did not arrive in the colonies until just before the war.

  • JohnD

    In our founding days “Christian” had a broad definition. We were suffused with Christian morals and if one generally subscribed to that outlook, one was said to be “a Christian gentleman” or some such. It is in this regard that the majority of founders would have seen themselves. Most would have attended church out of regular habit, too. However, issues within modern evangelicalism were not on their minds. They were too busy figuring out how to set up a government. But as a basis of morality and society, they would have agreed that we ought to be a “Christian” nation in the sense described above. Absolutely no question about that.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t disagree. That’s why I said it is a mistake to represent them as evangelical or orthodox Christians.

  • Craig Wright

    In the concern of being honest and not wanting to contribute to the disillusionment of our young people we should point out at that even Patrick Henry owned slaves. “Would anyone believe that I am the master of slaves of my own purchase! I am drawn along by the inconvenience of living without them…”

  • http://badpenniesturnup.blogspot.com/ Lonnie

    All anyone need do is visit Monticello, Jefferson’s estate. They keep an exact replica of Jefferson’s version of the gospels. The curators will tell you, without any hesitation, Jefferson cut out the miraculous or anything pointing to Christ’s deity.

    Jefferson was not a Christian by any real standard of measure. He has been kidnapped and forced into service, much the same way the LGBT Community drag dead historical figures, out of the closets of their imaginations. Some thing we need Jefferson to be a believer.

    If certain Christians are willing to bend the truth of historical figures to their purposes, what other ways are these people fixing things?

  • gingoro

    Roger this is not an on topic post but something that I happened across:
    “Just today on the Dividing Line I commented on Roger Olson’s new book, Against Calvinism. In the book, Olson makes it very clear that even if he were to be convinced that God has revealed that He does exist, and act, as Calvinists say He does, he would not worship such a God. Such an attitude is the very essence of humanistic religion.”

    http://aomin.org/aoblog/index.php?itemid=4848
    Just FYI Dave W

    • rogereolson

      Again, I would ask that person to tell me if they would worship God (god) if it were revealed to them that the God they have been worshiping is really Satan in disguise. Of course, they would refuse to answer, but I can’t believe they would say so. Is that humanistic religion? I think objections such as theirs are based on real misunderstandings of my point.

  • http://sentimentsassuch.wordpress.com Brendan P. Burnett

    Historical criticism at its best: a claim researched, rebuttal presented and a practical application applied. I love it.

  • http://judahslion.blogspot.com/ Rick Frueh

    Whether or not the “founding fathers” were believers is moot, since the salient argument centers on the nature of the government they created. The name of Christ appears nowhere, and although, as you assert, certain awakenings had an impact upon communities in America, over the years the fallen nation called America has had a profound and devastating impact upon the visible church.

    And much of the church has left the gospel and now champions some moral crusade that yearns for “days gone by”, but it is almost void of the redemptive message to which we have been called. The misguided and nonfactual spiritual nostalgia concerning America has led to much idolatry, nationalistic prejudice, self righteousness, and a tortured view of a God who leans American, and in these current days, Republican.

    The melding of America with evangelicalism including the idolization of its founders has done serious violence to the purity of God’s gospel and our overarching view of the Risen Christ.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    I was surprised to learn that George Washington (who owned slaves like all the other wealthy,Virginia landowners) was also involved with the tracking, capturing, and returning of fugitive slaves and indentured servants (another name for slaves). The whole time of 1600 to nearly 1800 in England, the Colonies, Ireland, Africa, and Barbados was unspeakably evil in terms of its human trafficking. While there are a number of books about this subject, I learned what I learned from this one.

  • Phil Miller

    I just finished reading Head and Heart: American Christianities by Garry Wills, and it discusses these questions in some detail. Most of the founders weren’t trinitarian Christians by any stretch of the imagination. They were Deists and Unitarians (Unitarian doesn’t mean the same thing now as it did then, necessarily). When people try to portray them as Evangelicals it is simply out of ignorance or dishonesty. I think it’s probably more of the former for the typical lay-person, but I think for many Evangelical apologists it seems it’s unfortunately the latter.

    If the founding fathers were united by a common religion, or perhaps better said, a common philosophy, it was that of the Enlightenment. America’s founding documents are all based squarely in Enlightenment thought. Because of this, religion and politics play roles in American society that make the dynamics of these forces completely different than they were in European nations. There was never anything like a national church in the US, even though some Christians wanted one at the time. Separation of church and state is actually one major factor that has allowed religion to flourish in America.

  • Theophile

    Hi Roger,
    The thing always missing from these “founding father” religious articles is mention of William Penn. Although Penn wasn’t a “founding father” his life and writings had more influence shaping our countries values, than (arguably) any one individual signer of the constitution.
    The right to free speech:…William Penn.( to read the Bible in public)
    The right to assemble:….William Penn.(to hear the Bible read in public)
    The right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers:…William Penn.(to not be accused, judged, and sentenced by gov. authority,( for reading the Bible to an assembly)
    If You haven’t read Foxes book of Martyrs:
    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22400/22400-h/22400-h.htm
    Then You probably haven’t a clue what a founding father was referring to when he used words like “Christian”, “Religion”, or “the church”, even though those words are used with such certainty, (although misguided) today.
    Why did George W cross the Delaware on Christmas eve? Because all those Pagan Brits would be drunk celebrating Pagan Tammuz/Christmas, and they were.

  • Reader, R. George Bailey

    Most of them were Free Masons, which is modern Unitarianism mixed with Gnosticism and is totally incompatible with true orthodox and Orthodox Christianity. Thus they could not have been Christians. A Free Mason can not be a real Christian. It is an oxymoron. To think otherwise is pure delusion. Franklin was also a fornicator who left many descendants in France to this day. Jefferson has black descendants from at least one slave. Washington may have had a conversion experience before his death, but evangelicals would hardly recognize it. It has been said by some historians that he was Baptised Catholic shortly before his death.
    Evangelicals need to get of it with revisionist history and face the real problem of Free Masonry in their on Churches.

  • rogereolson

    Yes, of course, there are exceptions and I should have made that clearer. My observations are based on almost 30 years of teaching in three Christian universities.

  • http://georgepwood.com George P. Wood

    Roger:

    I’m interviewing John Fea–author of “Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?”–on Tuesday, November 29, at 2:00 p.m. on MinistryDirect.com/live. The interview is live, so you and your readers can ask John questions about this crucial period in the nation’s history. John is critical of Christian nationalists who see God’s providential hand in American history, but he also is critical of secularists who overlook religious elements in the Founding Era. As should be true of all good historical scholarship, John’s conclusions are nuanced and complex. I reviewed his book here: http://georgepwood.com/2011/09/08/was-american-founded-as-a-christian-nation-yes-no-and-both/.

    George

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for the heads up on that, George. I’ll tune in if possible.

  • http://judahslion.blogspot.com/ Rick Frueh

    BTW – Most of the Calvinists I know are patriotic Americans. But how can they reconcile:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…

    with their theology of Total Depravity?

    • Tim Reisdorf

      It’s easy to reconcile. People are depraved completely. Yet, they were given dignity by their creator. This dignity consists, in part, of the rights mentioned above. To deprive them of their rights is to cross God who has given them these rights to all people. In society, they may lose those rights by acting badly (stealing, murder, etc).

      Do you imagine that depraved people have no rights in society given by God?

  • michael

    Roger,

    what happened to my comments about this thread?

    • rogereolson

      I’m not sure. I’ve been having some problems moderating the discussion here. Some comments I approve don’t show up. Or maybe I’m just so sleepy I press the wrong buttons sometimes. Could well be the latter. I have over 100 messages in the last 25-36 hours and I’ve been very busy with other things as well.

  • James T

    I am not a historian so I may be naive in asking this question, and it might be an unrelated question to the topic, but I’ve always wondered about the justness of the Rev. War. Jesus said to render on to Caesar what is Caesar’s which I think meant, minimally, taxes. If grounds for the Rev. War was taxation without representation, wouldn’t that make it unjust?–if King George wanted to tax us into the stone age, wasn’t that his prerogative?

    • http://judahslion.blogspot.com/ Rick Frueh

      The Revolutionary War was unchristian and against the teachings of the New Testament.

  • Bob Brown

    Christians didn’t start the Revolution. Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Franklin were Deists/Masons who wanted to be free to pursue free thought and free living. They were in essence universalists who did not consider founding America as a “Christian Nation”.

    The proof is found in the Treaty of Tripoli where our founding fathers wrote this, “As the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion…”

    America is a republic not a theocracy.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t want this to provoke a war of words, so let me add that the picture of the founding fathers is not that clear. One can point to absolutely contradictory statements among them about the role of religion (or belief in God, the truth status of the Bible, etc.) in their vision of what the United States should be.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      There were many Christians that were instigators of the Revolutionary War. Whether they should have done that is another point, but they certainly wanted to be free from the British – to live their lives free of what they considered “foreign domination”.


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