What did America’s three founding presidents believe about religion?

What did America’s three founding presidents believe about religion? June 9, 2018


Here’s one for July 4th:  What were the religious beliefs of the three founding presidents of the United States, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson?


The Fourth of July, 1826, the 50th anniversary of American independence, was the date when both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died. What were the odds?!  The two served on the five-man Continental Congress committee responsible for the Declaration of Independence, and Adams, who recognized Jefferson’s golden pen, ensured that his younger colleague would be the author.

The immortal prose had a distinctively religious flavor, with non-sectarian affirmation of peoples’ unalienable human rights that were “endowed by their Creator,” citation of the laws bestowed by “nature’s God,” appeal to “the Supreme Judge of the world,” and with “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence” during the improbable and risky rebellion against mighty Britain.

These two Founders coincided otherwise in life, as in death. Adams was the nation’s first vice president and Jefferson its first secretary of state in the administration of the first president, George Washington. Adams was then elected president in 1796 with runner-up Jefferson as his vice president. After the nasty 1800 campaign, during which Jefferson was assailed as a religious infidel, he turned the tables and defeated the incumbent Adams.

Adams was so furious he even boycotted Jefferson’s inauguration. Though these allies of independence had become fierce rivals, they reconciled later in life and exchanged fascinating letters that enrich the recent book “Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson” (Penguin) by prize-winning Brown University historian Gordon S. Wood.

The two presidents represented poles of politics and personality. The headstrong Adams was a pro-British slavery opponent from mercantile Massachusetts who was happily married for 54 years. The reflective Jefferson was a pro-France slave-owner from Virginia’s plantation culture and a widower for 44 years.

The Founders over-all, Adams and Jefferson included, championed religious liberty but were not the united force for Christian nationhood sometimes portrayed, although devoutly orthodox believers were in the mix. Examples include Anglican (“Episcopalian” after independence) John Jay, the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Presbyterian John Witherspoon, president of what we know as Princeton University and the only clergyman to sign the Declaration. Among later framers of the U.S. Constitution, only Benjamin Franklin lacked Christian affiliation.

Congregationalist Adams was a faithful churchgoer. Jefferson, raised Anglican, had turned skeptical toward church and clergy by his college years. Both men rejected Jesus’ divinity and downplayed the biblical miracles, a mindset formalized in the Unitarian denomination the year before they died. Jefferson incorrectly predicted this would become America’s dominant faith, not anticipating the popular staying power of the Second Great Awakening, evangelical enthusiasms along the frontier, or the later mass immigration of Catholics.

Jefferson’s thought was strongly affected by Joseph Priestley, the great chemist and rationalist clergyman whose Jesus was a great moral teacher distorted by the early Christian church. Accordingly, Jefferson  crafted his own idiosyncratic New Testament, snipping out the miracles with scissors. He told a friend his bowdlerized scriptures proved “I am a real Christian” and not an infidel.

In Wood’s summation, Jefferson “was about as secular-minded on religious matters as 18th Century America allowed,” had “little or no emotional commitment” to any faith, and mocked organized religion when among friends. Yet he’d be no snug fit with today’s secularists. He was fascinated by faith, attended public worship as president, and believed in the “deist” movement’s Supreme Being who created the universe but was a distant rather than omnipresent reality.

Adams, by contrast, had no Jeffersonian hostility toward churches or doctrines he disbelieved, and respected fellow citizens’ piety of whatever type (“all Religions have Something good in them”). He believed devoutly that the “solid, unchangeable and eternal foundation of Religion” was ingrained in human nature and, like other Founders, was convinced that only a religious populace could sustain the social order and moral fiber necessary for the young democratic experiment to succeed.

What of Washington? Opinion is more divided.

Though he was an Anglican and vestry member in his parish, Wood typified historians’ consensus in this from 2002: He was “a frequent churchgoer, but he scarcely referred to God as anything but ‘the Great Disposer of events,’ and in all his voluminous papers he never mentioned Jesus Christ.”

Actually, he did so once, advocating “the religion of Jesus Christ” in a 1779 speech to chiefs of the Delaware tribe. That nugget is reported by the late Catholic lay theologian Michael Novak and daughter Jana in “Washington’s God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of Our Country” (Basic Books, 2006). They consider Wood’s view of Washington mistaken but “understandable” due to the “conflicting evidence.”

Though Washington invoked “Almighty God,” he was more likely to use impersonal designations, especially “Providence.” The Novaks scoured his utterances to catalog 100 descriptions he used for the Deity, from “Ruler of the Universe” to “Allwise Dispensor of human blessings” to “Omnipotent Being” to “Author of All Good.”

His most significant religious sentence, echoing Adams, came in the revered 1796 Farewell Address: “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in the exclusion of religious principle.”

The Novaks contend that Washington chose carefully non-sectarian public words to unify the vulnerable young nation. For example, he sent significant and warm messages to Jewish synagogues in six cities, and extended to American Catholics his wish that they would be “animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity.” They also said personal reticence was typical for his strain of Anglicanism, in contrast with enthusiastic professions among the rising evangelicals.

In summary, the Novaks contended that “the preponderance of evidence falls fairly heavily on the side of Washington’s bona fides as a Christian” and not a “deist.” Another assessment is interesting because it came from a Unitarian, Harvard’s President Jared Sparks, editor of the initial 12-volume collection of Washington’s writings:

“He believed in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity as usually taught in the [Anglican] Church, according to his understanding of them, but without a particle of intolerance or disrespect for the faith and modes of worship adopted by Christians of other denominations.” Likewise, in that summer of 1776 a Congressional committee of Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin chose this motto for their new nation: “E Pluribus Unum.”

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