Faiths of our fathers
Most people take it for granted the founding fathers were Christians and, therefore, this country was established exclusively on Christian values. Historian David Holmes states most of the founders were Protestants and the majority were raised in one of three faiths: Anglicanism (the Church of England), Presbyterianism and Congregationalism.
In addition to their Christian backgrounds, most, if not all, of the founders were aware of, and many significantly influenced by Deism — an Age of Enlightenment religious-philosophical perspective popular at the time. Unlike Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Deism is not a revealed faith — revealed in the sense that believers adhere to doctrines and teachings disclosed to their founders by God. Deists accept the existence of a supreme being based on humankind’s understanding of the laws of nature. For Deists, these natural laws presuppose a grand designer — a supreme being.
A distinction is often made between “cold” Deism, wherein God created the universe and then stepped away, so to speak, allowing this creation to change or evolve on its own, and “warm” Deism, wherein a supreme being intervenes in and guides earthly events.
David Holmes argues that many of the founders were Christian Deists (CD), including the first three presidents: George Washington (1732-1799), John Adams (1735-1826) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). However, these men did not share identical CD beliefs and could be placed at different points on a Christianity-Deism spectrum.
It’s more difficult to reach a complete understanding of Washington’s religious beliefs as he did not write or speak as much about his faith as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Much of what we know about Washington’s religious perspective comes from the writings of his contemporaries who knew (or thought they knew) how and what he believed. Their interpretation of Washington’s religious views are not always in agreement.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Washington, historian Ron Chernow states the nation’s first president was raised in a household “steeped in piety.” At age 30, Washington became a church vestryman, a position he would hold for almost three decades. While some take this extended service as a sign of Washington’s commitment to the Anglican faith, other observers note that anyone with political ambitions in colonial Virginia had to be a member of the Anglican Church, and George Washington was an ambitious man.
Washington’s church attendance was irregular for much of his life and more frequent during his years as president. Chernow states he recited prayers standing instead of kneeling and, according to some reports, never took communion. A contrary view is offered by Revolutionary War General Robert Porterfield who wrote that upon delivering a message to Washington, “he found him on his knees, engaged in morning prayer.” Alexander Hamilton reported that prayer during the war years was Washington’s “daily habit.”
Bishop William White of Pennsylvania, who served as Washington’s pastor during his presidency, stated, “I do not believe that any degree of recollection will bring to my mind any fact which would prove General Washington to have been a believer in Christian revelation.” If White is correct, this lends credence to the position our first president was significantly influenced by Deism. Chernow states that nowhere did Washington “directly affirm the divinity of Jesus Christ.” When referring to God, he routinely spoke of “providence” the “author of our being,” “destiny” or simply “heaven.”
Chernow notes that having survived numerous close calls on battlefields, Washington believed his life had been spared for some greater purpose, and he expressed gratitude to providence, “which has shielded me in the various changes and chances through which I have passed from my youth to the present moment.” This sentiment is in line with “warm” Deism — a supreme being intervening in the course of human affairs.
According to Chernow, Washington issued numerous “eloquent” statements on religious tolerance in an era not particularly known for sympathetic views of non-Christian faiths. This tolerance, Chernow notes, even embraced atheism. When he was hiring carpenters and bricklayers at Mount Vernon, Washington stated that “if they are good workmen, they could be Mohametans, Jews or Christians of any sect, or they may be atheists.”
If John Adams was a CD as David Holmes posits, he was closer to Christianity than Deism. A descendant of early Puritan settlers, Adams was a Congregationalist-Unitarian stating that Christianity was the “Religion of Wisdom, Virtue, Equity and Humanity …” The Harvard-educated Adams was, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, “both a devout Christian, and an independent thinker.”
In his book “Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson,” the esteemed colonial America historian Gordon S. Wood states that Adams came to deny “the divinity of Jesus and the miracles of the Bible,” and, like Washington and Jefferson, believed in complete religious freedom. While in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress (Sept. 5 to Oct. 26, 1774), Adams would attend two or three services every Sunday — Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Quaker, German Morovian and Roman Catholic — to experience different forms of religious devotion.
Wood argues that in line with the majority of founders, Adams believed “religion was essential for the maintenance of order and morality in society.” Order and morality were especially important for the new republic these individuals were attempting to establish.
Whereas Washington and Adams found much to be admired in Christianity, Thomas Jefferson was, as Wood notes, “hostile to organized religion” and “orthodox Christianity,” considering the latter an “engine for enslaving humanity.” Jefferson rejected the divinity of Jesus and considered the Trinity “mere Abracadabra” foisted on people by priests. For Jefferson, Jesus was “an extraordinary man,” one of the great moral thinkers in human history, but he was not divine.
For Jefferson the New Testament was replete with “untruth, charlatanism and imposture.” He considered the Book of Revelation “merely the ravings of a maniac.” In his reading of the Bible, Jefferson concluded that Jesus never claimed to be God and, while president, began piecing together his own version of the Bible, omitting the virgin birth of Jesus, miracles attributed to Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus. Upon its completion, Jefferson told a friend this “wee little book” was “proof that I am a real Christian, this is to say, a disciple of Jesus.” No doubt with a touch of humor, Jefferson stated that he was a Christian “sect by myself, as far as I know.”
Like Washington and Adams, Thomas Jefferson was tolerant of religious diversity, stating “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god.” Whereas Adams believed that religion was the foundation of societal morality and virtue, Jefferson was indifferent to the social significance of religion, writing in 1786 that “our civil rights have no more dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics and geometry.”
Our first three presidents considered themselves Christians, although their interpretation of this faith — the denial of the divinity of Jesus, for example — was not orthodox and likely influenced by Deism. Could these men be elected president today? Or would they (especially Jefferson) be ruthlessly attacked and vilified as heretics?
George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.
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