A good book about the religious beliefs of the “founding fathers”

A good book about the religious beliefs of the “founding fathers” May 25, 2012

A person promoting revisionist history here recently declared that no honest person can deny that the U.S.’s founding fathers were Christians. I don’t know anyone who denies they (at least most of them) were formally Christians in the sense of being baptized members of nominally Christian churches. The issue is their real beliefs.

Yesterday I visited the largest Half Price Bookstore in the world–a veritable Costco (if that’s the right analogy) of books. It would take someone many hours to peruse every shelf. Even the “Religion” section is amazingly large.

I saw many copies of this book and bought one for my own library: David L. Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (Oxford, 2006). Holmes is Walter G. Mason Professor of Religious Studies at the College of William and Mary–the alma mater of some of the founding fathers.

(In case you wonder if I read it over night. Well, the fact is that I read it IN Half Price Bookstore months ago and intended to buy it. Just before going to the cashier to purchase it, after reading it, I laid it down outside the restroom. When I came out it was gone! I then could not find any other copies. I figured there would be another copy or copies next time I visited the store and I was right. This time many copies were on an end cap display.)

Here is a gem from the book that rings true with everything I have read and studied (of a scholarly nature) about the founding fathers:

“Deism influenced, in one way or another, most of the political leaders who designed the new American government. Since the founding fathers did not hold identical views on religion, they should not be lumped together. But if census takers trained in Christian theology had set up broad categories in 1790 labeled ‘Atheism,’ ‘Deism and Unitarianism,’ ‘Orthodox Protestantism,’ ‘Orthodox Roman Catholicism,’ and ‘Other,’ and if they had interviewed Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, they would undoubtedly have placed every one of these six founding fathers in some way under the category of ‘Deism and Unitarianism’.” (pp. 50-51)

Holmes doesn’t just assert it; he gives plenty of evidence to support it.

Holmes’ chapter 12 is “A Layperson’s Guide to Distinguishing a Deist from an Orthodox Christian.” Very helpful.

Chapter 13 is “Three Orthodox Christians.” They are: Samuel Adams (after whom the popular beer is named!), Elias Boudinot and John Jay.

Anyone tempted to buy into the current flood of revisionism about the religious beliefs and practices of the founding fathers (I say “current” because, again, nothing under the sun is new) ought to read this book. Together with similar ones (e.g., Frank Lambert’s that I recommended the other day) it absolutely blows away (as in a wind, not an explosion) the whole idea that most of the founding fathers of the American Republic were orthodox Christians.

One noted revisionist has publicly stated (on Christian TV) that Thomas Jefferson created his truncated New Testament (“The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” otherwise known as “Jefferson’s Bible”) as a tool for evangelizing the Native Americans. That is so bogus it boggles the mind. Jefferson explained his reasons for creating it in letters to friends including to John Adams. He explained that he did not agree with much that the apostles wrote and even with much that Jesus taught. But he admired some of Jesus’ teachings and actions.

My response to the commenter here is that no  truly educated person can honestly claim that the majority of the founding fathers were orthodox Christians.

If you live near a Half Price Bookstore, get over there and buy Holmes’ book. Or, just order it from your local bookstore or on line. It’s not dry as dust scholarly stuff. It is written for lay people, not scholars.

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  • J.E. Edwards

    I’m pretty sure I agree with much of your assessment. What is different, is that these men had a different upbringing than most people today. Much of the people in this land of that era had a decent knowledge of the Bible. It was read from and memorized in schools and more people went to church then. Just being brought up in that era would produce a different kind of person and understanding. Whereas, today’s political culture is influenced so differently because there is so little knowledge of the Bible. Most Christians don’t read it regularly. I do think that era of our country does tend to get a little over-romanticized. I don’t want to diminish the character that it did take to do what the founders did. This is just more proof that even unbelievers reflect the image of God and are capable of good. I think there are parts of evangelicalism that have a hard time coming to terms with that. Good post.

  • Messiah College historian John Fea’s new book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction (WJK, 2011) and Richard Hughes’s recent book, Christian America and the Kingdom of God (U of Ill, 2009)–along with Hughes’s 2004 book, Myths Americans Live By–would support Holmes’s argument with further historical and theological perspectives.

  • Brantley Gasaway

    I second Roger’s recommendation of this book–I have used it in my college courses several times. I have also used with success Steven Waldman’s “Founding Faith,” and in the Fall I plan to use John Fea’s recent “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation.”

    All of these books offer nuanced interpretations of the founding fathers and the historical context. Fea’s book is especially helpful in challenging readers to think *historically* and not evaluate the past in our present terms. This “presentism” is one of the many sins of the “noted revisionist” David Barton in all his work, including the recent book on Jefferson. Why not name names, Roger, for Barton’s influence among Christian conservatives is appalling, and we should clearly denounce his poor, politically-driven “scholarship” (and yes, scare quotes are justified here).

    [Full disclosure: Holmes was my undergraduate advisor at the College of William & Mary.]

  • Chuck Conti

    Good article, Roger. I thought John Adams (or at least John Quincy) was not a Deist, but I’m probably confusing them with Sam. The really important question, however, is : Where is this largest Half-Price Books in the world? God bless you! Chuck.

    • rogereolson

      It’s in Dallas, Texas on Northwest Highway just east of Highway 75 north of downtown.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Sounds like a great antidote to revisionism for this important, specific area. Related in theme, but more general, and applicable to all countries is Greg Boyd’s, “The Myth of a Christian Nation”.

  • Joe Canner

    Another related myth about our nation’s founding is that the general population were predominantly Christian church-goers. Sociologist Bradley Wright, in Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told (Bethany House, 2010), shows that in the late 1700s less than half of Americans (I don’t remember the exact figure, but it was between 25% and 40%) were affiliated with a church. This is not to say that the rest were atheists or even non-Christians, just that the Christianity of those inhabiting this nation around the time of its founding was not as fervent as it is often made out to be.

  • Rob

    By founding fathers do we mean the big names like Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Alexander, Franklin, Paine, Henry? Or just all the people involved in the Declaration of Independence and Constitutional Convention? I think it probably makes a big difference which group we are talking about.

    • Rob

      The reason, I should say, is that when the church affiliation of all the signers of the Declaration of Independence is taken into account, over 50% were Episcopal (and that meant orthodox Christian back then!) and almost 20% Presbyterian (orthodox, despite being Calvinists). Also a good showing of Congregationalists and Unitarians (not so orthodox).

      As far as Deism goes, if someone was like TJ and denied God’s historical interaction with Israel and humanity full stop–clearly heretical. But I would be afraid of inferring too much about someone’s Christian faith from their personal affirmation of Deism. I would want to know what they thought about Jesus. The reason is that the 17th and 18th centuries were periods of intense speculation and confusion about the nature of causation and God’s role in the world. The crisis began when Galileo’s claims about the motion of planets was accepted and the old physics had to be replaced.
      So we get Descartes, Malebranche, Leibniz, and Newton all coming up with new theories in physics–and diverse understandings of God’s causal interaction with the world: occasionalism, concurrentism, pre-established harmony, etc. Even after Newton’s theory of physics won out, speculation about how God acts in the world continued and even increased now that it was agreed that it had to occur in a manner consistent with Newton’s physics. The point that I want to emphasize is that *everyone* not just skeptics like Hume, but pious men like Samuel Clarke, John Locke, Bishop Berkeley, and Presbyter Reid were part of this project of developing an understanding of God’s interaction with a world understood to operate according to the mechanical principles discovered by Newton. They came up with stuff that was crazy, stuff that didn’t work, stuff that is hard to square with orthodoxy–all kinds of stuff.
      So for anyone who affirmed Deism in the 18th century, I am not sure that his stance represents a move aimed at denying God’s involvement with the world rather than an attempt at understanding how God CAN interact with Newton’s world (many deist forerunners thought that miracles were programmed into the plan.) I think such a move probably fails, but I don’t want to conclude from that that the person who held it denied that God interacted with the world unless I know he did, like in the case of TJ. Look, Leibniz denied God’s “interaction” with the world yet he also has God intimately involved with everything that happens in the world. Do we want to say he was impious because he had a strange theory? What about Berkeley?

      • rogereolson

        The main issue isn’t God’s interaction. It is Jesus. What did they believe about Jesus? Just being a member of an Episcopal Church hardly determined that. I think the claim that many of the founding fathers were deists has to do with their being influenced by Toland and Tindal. You can see those influences in their letters especially. In public they spoke often and warmly about “Providence” (God), but their actual theology was more in line with the Unitarianism that was budding then. If all the revisionists were saying is that these founding fathers believed in God (or a god), there would be no controversy. The issue, as understand it, is whether they were orthodox in their Christology.

        • Rob

          Sure, being a member of an orthodox denomination like Presbyterian or Episcopal church does not in and of itself entail that the member held orthodox views–but it is definitely evidence for that claim. If Joe has attended an Assembly of God church for many years then I have evidence (not infallible) that he believes in the gifts of the spirit. I am not saying that membership in orthodox churches provide conclusive evidence, but it is evidence nonetheless and in absence of further evidence to the contrary it makes the claim that they were Christians perfectly acceptable. Now of course if their personal letters reveal that they were not orthodox–fine, but do we have such letters showing that any significant proportion of the signers or Constitutional delegates were like that?

          • rogereolson

            There were many signers of the DOI and members of the first congresses (Continental and early U.S.). I doubt that we know very much about the personal theologies of most of them. The debate surrounds the outrageous claims being made by some revisionists (past and present) about especially Washington, Jefferson and Adams. To a lesser extent about Madison and Monroe–all leading founding fathers who became presidents. For a long time there has been the impression among the populace that they were orthodox, pious Christians. (I don’t know anybody who would say that about Franklin.) The problem is that in their letters and speeches these early presidents used God-talk and said very complimentary things about the Bible and Jesus. People misunderstand these statements as implying (if not proving) that they were evangelical Christians (“like us”). However, especially in private correspondence, they said things that prove they did not hold what we would call “high Christologies.” In the later 1700s and early 1800s it was possible for members of Episcopal churches (as today) to be free thinkers with regard to doctrine. The books recommended here (by me and by commenters) detail these statements. The situation (of personal belief) is least clear with regard to Monroe; he rarely spoke or wrote about his personal theological beliefs, so he can be claimed by both (all) sides. The others, on the other hand, were ambiguous. But Jefferson is the real battleground. Outrageous things are being claimed about him–trying to make him out to have been orthodox. That is simply wrong and it has been proven.

    • rogereolson

      We’re talking about the claim being made by some conservative writers and speakers that those “big names” among the founding fathers (Paine wasn’t a founding father but a writer who influenced them) were Christians in the orthodox, even evangelical sense. To the best of my knowledge nobody doubts Patrick Henry’s Christian faith. The issue is whether, and to what extent, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Madison et al. were Christians. So, yes, mainly the framers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution–the leaders who set up and established the republic.

      • Rob

        I think it is safe to say that Jefferson and Franklin were definitely not in any sense orthodox Christians. I don’t know about the other big names. Inasmuch as people are trying to make those guys all out to be Evangelicals they are revisionists, but I have seen plenty of revisionists on the other side who make far more outrageous claims. Usually something not much better than “Jefferson was not a Christian, therefore . . . ” and you fill in the blank with some outrageous claim about none of the founding fathers being Christian or something. I have heard this from graduate students and faculty in universities.

        • rogereolson

          Yes, there are revisionists on both sides. I have no doubt that all of the founding fathers (Paine I don’t include in that category) were theists of some kind strongly influenced by Christianity.

  • Joshua

    David Barton, founder of Wall Builders is one such revisionist. As a matter of fact, unless I’m mistaken he is the one you mentioned who said that Jefferson’s Bible was intended for the purpose of evangelizing the Native Americans (or some other truncated explanation). He has shared his views on The Daily Show, With Jon Stewart, as well as Glen Beck. He is probably the most influential revisionist in American politics and the church. It’s so strange how many are willing to accept this belief unchallenged.

  • Dan Johnson Sr.

    Some of the Founding Fathers may not have qualified for membership in the local Baptist church. What is more important is the fact–undeniable–that the Christian faith influenced our history. Our roots reflect a Christian orientation. Again, the assertion is undenieable and worthy of further study.

    • rogereolson

      Few scholars would dispute that. However, the issue is to what extent the “Christianity” of the founding fathers was orthodox and to what extent it was similar to that of Toland and Tindal.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    “Orthodox Christian”: what exactly would that be? Perhaps one who believes that God has consigned most of humanity to suffer eternal conscious torture, e.g., Calvinist? Perhaps one who believes in a ‘second work of grace,’ e.g., Pentecostal? Maybe one of those who believes that the Virgin Mary is co-redeemer with Christ, e.g., Catholic? Or, how about one who is proud to distinguish himself/herself from all other Christians by claiming to have been “born again” e.g., Evangelical? All of the above demand to be recognized as being truly “Orthodox.”

    • rogereolson

      “Orthodox Christian” generally refers to Nicene Christianity–a high Christology (Jesus is truly God and truly human) and the Trinity (God is three persons with one nature). Beyond that “orthodox” generally qualifies a certain tradition or denomination (e.g., “orthodox Presbyterian” or “orthodox Pentecostal”). When I make the sometimes necessary judgment that a person was not an orthodox Christian I usually mean that his or her Christology was defective compared with the Christology of the church fathers and reformers. That’s how I was taught in Bible college! 🙂

  • Mark

    The U.S. Constitution is a well devised document, but it isn’t holy writ as some far right apologists have stated. The framers of the Constitution were highly pragmatic individuals — if they weren’t they may not have been able to work with each other. They did not practice the secondary separation some of the most vocal proponents of revisionist theory practice in their interactions with people who are not of like belief. Their working together despite their diverse opinions is what really made America. And perceived differences may have been greater at the birth of our Nation than they are presently .

  • Founding Faith by Steven Waldman (Wheaton, I believe) is another interesting read on the subject.

  • Matt

    This is an older book, but highly rated on amazon.com with the few that have rated it (not that this is a conclusive measurement that it is beyond refute):
    I have read this book. You look at the reviews and it is applauded for it’s first hand accounts. In my mind, that is the most critical element missing from most modern books covering this subject. Certainly, they may contain some first hand quotes, but this book is about 75% first hand accounts from the words of our Founding Fathers from speeches, letters, and other literature they penned that covered most of their lives. The author is very fair, and takes very few if any liberalities with a reference he mentions. He makes every attempt to be true to what was really said by the founder he happens to be covering, and consider it in the context of the time. To really get at the true thoughts and beliefs of these men, you really need to dig far deeper into their writings than just a few statements here and there that may have been taken out of context. Here are some great points made by the book:
    1. When making any judgement on the beliefs of the Founding Fathers, look at who they read. What writers did they value most, and what beliefs did those writers espouse? Where were they educated, and what was the school they went to teaching them at the time? For example, a fair number of these men attended the College of New Jersey (Princeton University), and it was under the leadership of John Witherspoon at the time. Witherspoon could be characterized as a devout evangelical Christian. Many of the key faculty of the college were also ministers, so those who attended the school received training strongly influenced by Christian orthodoxy.
    2. Men like Jefferson and Franklin had views that evolved over time. As younger men, they were more deistic in their views, but as time passed, and they got older and more experienced in life, they moved much more toward Christian orthodoxy (with neither actually making the final step of belief in the divinity of Christ, so far as we know). Jefferson’s primary objection with orthodoxy was Trinitarian views of the main denominations of his time. He simply could not reconcile “God in Three Persons”. This defied all reason and logic (showing his Deistic leanings), however, he found the teachings of Christ, and the church prior to the early church counsels to be the most pure and perfect teaching of any creed on earth. (He believed the early church counsels corrupted the purer faith, and introduced fallacies such as the concept of the Trinity, which is a word you won’t find in your Bible.) Jefferson also feared God, and certainly believed he was interested in the affairs of men, and he believed that men were capable of being corrupted by evil (ideas that do not follow strict Deism). Franklin had similar views, though he apparently was less pronounced on objections to the Trinity in particular. Both men were regular contributors and attenders of their local congregation.
    3. Some men like Madison were largely silent on their views of Christianity during much of their public lives, but early in the life of Madision, his early writings mentioned a strong belief in Christ. His family was devout, and raised him as such. The book makes a good point that absence of a difinitive position on Christian Orthodoxy in public life should not be viewed as an automatic denial of the Christian religion. Nor should it be a confirmation of atheism or deism. Where a man is silent in his writings, perhaps we should be silent in our conclusions unless some further, more concrete evidence comes to light (which is doubtful since we’ve had more than 2 centuries to find such material.)

    Beyond this book, I have personally read David McCullough’s work on John Adams. I found no evidence from McCullough’s exhaustive volume that led me to believe that Adams ever rejected Christian Orthodoxy. And George Washington was known by those who served under him as a devout man. I don’t see any glaring evidence to suggest that Washington had rejected orthodoxy in favor of pure Deism. I like what someone said earlier in these posts…which is that you really have to understand the revolutionary generation in the context of the time they lived in. This includes the fact that they did live in the age of enlightment, in which greater thinkers were indeed grappling with the likes of Descartes, Malebranche, Leibniz, Newton, Hume, Samuel Clarke, John Locke, Bishop Berkeley, etc., etc…and many others. Additionally, you have to remember that the “Great Awakening” had occurred about a generation prior to the revolutionary movement. And finally, you have to remember that many of the founders were direct descendants of the Puritans, so religion, and Christianity in particular, was an inextricable component of society. Certainly, some of these men only had sporadic attendence at a given church, but like any of us, during busy times (like being President, or participating in the formulation of a new country) regular church attendance is not always easy to maintain.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t know of anyone who denies any of this. The issue under debate is whether the main founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson (because of David Barton’s tendency to portray him as an evangelical Christian), were “real Christians.” Most evangelicals (the people most interested in and involved in this debate currently) think “real Christian” means “one of us” or at least “one like us”–orthodox in doctrine (deity of Christ, belief in the supernatural, Trinity, inspiration of all of Scripture, etc.) and truly converted from the heart to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. By those standards few of the founding fathers were “real Christians.” Nobody that I know is claiming any of them, including Franklin and Jefferson, were philosophes or skeptics of the stripe of Thomas Paine or Ethan Allen. All you’ve done here is confirm what we all know. The question is, was there more to these men’s faith than a sort of vague belief in God, a moralistic deism that admired Jesus for his moral teachings? The evidence is slim for it.