The Faith of the Founders

Yesterday was our second day of student presentations in my “Religion and the American Founding” seminar. The focus was the religious faith of three so-called “Founding Fathers.” Our presenters were Dillon Keeks, Amanda Delessio, and Marty Zimmerman.

Dillon discussed the religious views of Thomas Jefferson. He concluded that Jefferson was a “full-blown Deist.” Dillon described the way Jefferson was mesmerized, inspired, and sometimes tortured by traditional religion, but in the end he was ultimately influenced by the Enlightenment thinking of the era. He ended his presentation with a discussion of the so-called “Jefferson Bible.”

Amanda focused her attention on Benjamin Franklin and specifically the 1790 exchange of letters between him and Yale president Ezra Stiles. In his response to a letter from Stiles, Franklin offered perhaps his most complete statement of his religious faith. He affirmed the existence of God, the need to love one’s neighbors, and a belief in the afterlife. Amanda argued, quite convincingly I might add, that Franklin wrestled with religion his entire life, but in the end was probably a Deist with certain Christian tendencies.

Marty’s paper was titled “Benjamin Rush: Evangelical in Word and Deed.” He argued that Rush was an orthodox Christian in both words and actions. Marty broke down his religious thought into five categories: post-millennialism, Arminianism, a high regard for the Bible, universalism, and republicanism. Rush had a pretty traditional conversion experience and was a strong advocate of Christian republicanism through his support of voluntary societies. During the Q&A we debated over whether or not Rush’s belief in universalism made him an “orthodox Christian.”

Monday’s panel will focus on the religious dimensions of the American Revolution.