If I had a dime for every time I heard this….
Over at the blog of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, political scientist Mark David Hall argues that the reports of founding father deism are largely exaggerated. I made a similar argument in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.
Here is a taste of Hall’s piece:
Given the numerous, powerful, and clear claims that that the Founders were deists, it is striking that there are few instances of civic leaders in the era openly embracing deism or rejecting orthodox Christian doctrines. In 1784, Ethan Allen published Reason: The Only Oracle of Man, the first American book advocating deism. The book sold fewer than two hundred copies, and after its publication Allen played no role in American politics.
A decade later, Thomas Paine published a defense of deism entitled The Age of Reason, but he was born and raised in England and lived only twenty of his seventy-seven years in America, so one can reasonably ask if he should be counted as an American Founder. Paine wrote and published his volumes in Europe, and when he returned to America in 1802 he was vilified because of them. These cases suggest that whatever attraction deism had among a few elites, expounding such views in public was quite imprudent.
We know from private letters and diaries that Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams rejected basic Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and the Incarnation. However, with a few minor exceptions they came to regret, they kept their heterodox views far from the public’s eye.
George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton are regularly referenced as Founders who embraced deism. Yet to my knowledge no writer has ever produced a public or private letter, journal entry, or text showing that these men rejected orthodox Christianity or embraced deism.
Before proceeding, we should note that if deism includes the idea that “God set the world in motion and then abstained from human affairs,” then one could argue that not one of these men was a deist, as all of them spoke or wrote about God’s intervention in the affairs of men and nations. Washington, for instance, referred to “Providence” at least 270 times in his writings. It is likely that Allen and Paine referred to God’s intervention in human affairs merely for rhetorical purposes, but there are good reasons to believe that even Founders who rejected some tenets of orthodox Christianity, such as Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson, continued to believe in miracles.
By my count, then, there are exactly two Founders—Allen and Paine—whom we may confidently label “deists.” And one of the two is arguably not an American Founder.