Were the Founding Fathers Deists?


Tom Paine

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.

Read the entire piece here.  HT: Jonathan Rowe

David Barton Can’t Let Go Of This John Adams Quote

This appeared on Barton’s Facebook page today:

Barton Quote

Sounds pretty good if your a Christian nationalist.  But let’s take a deeper look at this quote.

I have excerpted the pertinent parts of the letter below.  Warren Throckmorton, who wrote about this letter yesterday on his blog, has highlighted those passages that Barton quotes in the above meme.

Who composed that army of fine young fellows that was then before my eyes? There were among them Roman Catholics, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants, and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists, and Protestants “qui ne croyent rien.”* Very few, however, of several of these species; nevertheless, all educated in the general principles of Christianity, and the general principles of English and American liberty.

Could my answer be understood by any candid reader or hearer, to recommend to all the others the general principles, institutions, or systems of education of the Roman Catholics, or those of the Quakers, or those of the Presbyterians, or those of the Methodists, or those of the Moravians, or those of the Universalists, or those of the Philosophers? No. 

The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young men could unite, and these principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united, and the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united, and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence. 

Now I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system. I could, therefore, safely say, consistently with all my then and present information, that I believed they would never make discoveries in contradiction to these general principles. In favor of these general principles, in philosophy, religion, and government, I could fill sheets of quotations from Frederic of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Rousseau, and Voltaire, as well as Newton and Locke; not to mention thousands of divines and philosophers of inferior fame.

A few comments:

  1. This is a letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson dated 28 June 1813. I do not own this document. I read it at Founders Online, a National Archives database of the writings of the Founding Fathers.  Don’t be fooled by David Barton when he tells you that he has some special insight into the nation’s founding because he owns original documents.  Most of what he owns is accessible to anyone via this database. I found the document in less than a minute.  You can too.  I encourage you to match Barton’s selective use of quotes with the actual documents in the database.
  2. Barton is always complaining that so-called “liberal” historians use ellipses to leave out parts of documents that mention God or religion.  Notice the quote in the above meme.  Then read the actual letter.  It seems to me that the material left out by Barton’s ellipses goes a long way toward helping us understand what John Adams really meant here.  It looks like “liberal” historians are not the only ones who have this problem.
  3.  In the first paragraph, Adams is describing the religious affiliations of the men present at the Continental Congress.  Notice that the list includes “deists” and “atheists” along with more traditional Christian denominations.
  4.  In the second and third paragraphs, Adams notes that the group who met in Philadelphia was so religiously diverse that the only ideas holding them together were the “general principles of Christianity.”  What does he mean by this phrase?  It is hard to tell at first glance.  But if there were indeed “deists” and “atheists” in the room, these “general principles” must have been understood by Adams as a system of belief that was far less orthodox than the Christianity of the ancient creeds.  An “atheist” might be able to find common ground around a Christian moral code (say, for example, the Sermon on the Mount), but could not affirm the existence of God. A “deist” would have rejected the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and, in some cases, God’s providence in human affairs, but he could certainly unite behind a moral code based on the teachings of Jesus. (I titled my chapter on the highly unorthodox Thomas Jefferson, “Thomas Jefferson: Follower of Jesus”). So let’s return to our original question.  What did Adams mean when he said the Continental Congress was held together by “the general principles of Christianity?” If we take the beliefs of the “atheists” and the “deists” (and, I might add, the “universalists, “Socinians,” and “Preistleyans”)  seriously, the “general principles of Christianity” was a phrase Adams used to describe a very vague moral code that all of these men–the orthodox and the unorthodox–could affirm.
  5. The third paragraph also affirms that these men were united by the “general principles of English and American liberty.”  This tells us that in addition to some very basic moral principles compatible with the ethical teachings of Christianity, the founders shared a common belief in liberty.  This should not surprise anyone.  A belief in liberty was part of their English heritage.  No English heritage of liberty, no American Revolution.  As I tell my classes, the English taught the colonists how to rebel.
  6. The fourth paragraph tells us that Adams believes that these “general principles” of Christianity and liberty could be easily affirmed by a host of secular writers, including Hume and Voltaire, two of the Enlightenment’s staunchest critics of organized Christianity. These “general principles of Christianity” must have been pretty watered-down if Hume and Voltaire could affirm them.  Again, the reference here is to a vague morality, not the particular teachings of orthodox Christianity.

In the end, if we look at the parts of the letter Barton does not mention in his meme we would get a very different view of the role of Christianity in the American founding than the Christian nationalist message he wants to convey to his Facebook followers.  This is cherry-picking at its finest.

(Thanks to Warren Throckmorton for the inspiration to write this post).

Ben Franklin’s Faith

FranklinIf you are following our #ChristianAmerica? tweetstorm this weekend @johnfea1 ( a tweet every 30 minutes!), you know that we have not said much yet about Ben Franklin. Stay tuned. We will have a lot to say about him tomorrow.

In the meantime, check out Thomas Kidd‘s recent piece at The Washington Post: “How Benjamin Franklin, a deist, became the founding father of a unique kind of American faith.”

Here is a taste:

Franklin adhered to a religion that we might call doctrineless, moralized Christianity. This kind of faith suggests that what we believe about God is not as important as living a life of love and significance. Franklin grew up in a devout Puritan family in colonial Boston, but by his teen years the bookish boy began to doubt key aspects of his parents’ Calvinist faith. Abandoning Christianity altogether, however, was not a realistic option for someone as immersed as Franklin in the Bible’s precepts and the habits of faith.

Although Franklin did at times toy with some radical anti-Christian beliefs, he settled on the conviction that Christianity was useful because of the way it fostered virtue. Franklin wearied of how colonial Americans incessantly fought about theological minutiae. But he still believed that Christianity represented a preeminent resource for benevolence and charity, qualities he considered essential to any worthwhile religion.

Read the rest here.

Kidd has just published a religious biography of Franklin.  Some of you may recall his recent visit to The Author’s Corner to discuss it.

The Faith of Bernie Sanders

In case you missed it, last night Anderson Cooper of CNN asked Bernie Sanders about his religious faith.  Here is Bernie’s answer:

Here is what I tweeted last night in response to Cooper’s question and Sanders’s answer:

Click here to see Bernie’s faith on display after someone passed out at one of his rallies:

Over at The New Republic, writer Elizabeth Bruenig described Sanders’s religious beliefs as “moralistic therapeutic deism, a phrase coined by sociologist Christian Smith to describe the religious sensibilities of American teenagers.  Here is a taste of her post:

Moralistic therapeutic deism is a fairly new sociological term used to describe the spiritual sensibilities of people who believe that there’s a god, sort of, and that the point of this nebulous supernatural force is to encourage people to better themselves morally and get along with others. Sometimes there are vaguely karmic leanings, like the idea that good people have good afterlives, but it’s more of a category of spiritual notions than any well-defined set of commitments or beliefs. 

It’s a more common persuasion than one might expect, and it seems to fit Bernie’s spiritual feelings pretty well.

I think it is fair, and not too problematic, to say that Ben Franklin’s religious beliefs were something akin to moralistic therapeutic deism.  Sanders comes pretty close to this as well. Deists, however, at least believe in a creator God.  I am not sure Sanders does.

As I have written here before, we may see another Election of 1800 

Thomas Kidd on Arthur Sherr’s Thomas Jefferson

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Recently Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture published an article by Arthur Sherr entitled “Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians: Christianity, Atheistic Morality, and the Afterlife.” The blog editors asked several historians to comment on the article.  John Ragosta commented here and the latest response comes from Baylor’s Thomas Kidd.  Here is a taste:
Barton’s The Jefferson Lies strained credulity by its selective use of evidence, leading Thomas Nelson publishers to pull the book from circulation in 2012. Scherr’s article respects standard historical practices in its use of evidence, and his analysis highlights many important aspects of Jefferson’s faith (or lack thereof). But as with other polemical views on Jefferson’s beliefs, Scherr’s thesis – that Jefferson considered himself no kind of Christian, not even a radically liberal one – outruns the nuances of the evidence.
And here:
Scherr’s article pits Jefferson against the “historians,” and it is quite an impressive roster of “scholarly adherents” whom Scherr regards as standing implicitly with the Religious Right in its co-opting of Jefferson. Thomas Buckley, Andrew Burstein, Peter Onuf, the late Edwin Gaustad, and others all seem to be part of those serving the interests of the Christian Right by “fecklessly attempt[ing] to depict [Jefferson] as a man of devout Christian faith.”
The worst offender, for Scherr, is Daniel Dreisbach. But I see little evidence in Scherr’s article that any of these historians, including Dreisbach, have tried to paint Jefferson (a la Barton) as a person of orthodox, Trinitarian faith. Instead, they have tried to account for Jefferson’s occasional comfort with government entanglement with religion, his fascination with the historical (though non-divine) Jesus of Nazareth, and his political alliance with many evangelicals, especially Baptists.
I covered many conservative and Christian historians’ rejection of Barton for the evangelical periodical WORLD Magazine in 2012. For one of those articles, I interviewed Dreisbach, who told me that he had a “‘very hard time’ accepting the notion,” advanced by Barton, “that Jefferson was ever an orthodox Christian, or that Jefferson ever embraced Christianity’s ‘transcendent claims.’” According to Scherr, Dreisbach is “closer to Barton than Barton’s opponents.” But in fact, across the ideological and faith spectrum Barton found virtually no scholarly supporters for The Jefferson Lies.

Deism and Providence

One of my favorite parts about traveling around the country speaking on Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction are the questions I receive from those attending my lectures and talks.  Since I know this is a very controversial issue, I always try to leave a little extra time for questions and debate.

Having said that, I should also note that I have now been challenged several times–a question by a very bright scientist at a meeting of atheists and a question by a theology professor at a Chautauqua lecture come immediately to mind–concerning my understanding of eighteenth-century deism.

I make a strong case in the book that “deism” and the 18th- century idea of “providence” were ideologically incompatible.  It is thus unfair to tag most of the founding fathers with the label “deist” because nearly all of them believed in the providence.  Let me explain further:

A deist believes that God does not intervene in his created world.  The deist God does not answer prayer or perform miracles.  Such divine intervention into human life cannot be explained by reason and is thus little more than superstition.

The providential God, however, is constantly ordering his creation according to his will.  The providential God is an active god that does indeed answer the prayers of his people and perform miracles.  This God sustains the world through his omnipotence.

Those who have challenged me on this point believe that I have made too great a distinction between deism and providentialism in the intellectual world of the eighteenth century.  In other words, someone could be a “deist” and still believe that God, at times, intervened in the lives of his creation. 

At one level, this is little more than a debate over semantics and labels.  There are many people who come to my talks who insist on using the label “deist” to describe the founders, even if they did believe in an active God.  I have a hunch that such insistence is driven more by politics than history, but I digress…

But on another level, these questions have forced me to think a bit more about the compatibility of deism and providentialism.  I need to do a bit more reading.  As I argued in The Way of Improvement Leads Home, Christianity and the Enlightenment were almost inseparable in 18th century America. As a result, I am sure I could find people who claimed to be deists but still believed in some form of providence.  I need to dig a bit deeper, but I think Tom Paine (pictured above) might fit into this category.  So stay tuned.

In the meantime, I would encourage you, especially if you are a teacher, to check out Darren Staloff’s essay on deism and the founding at the Divining America section of the National Humanities Center’s Teacher Serve website. It is a very helpful overview of this topic and Staloff provides some useful suggestions for teaching religion and the founding. Though Staloff does not answer my question (and the questions of those who attend my lectures) about whether or not a deist can believe in some form of providence, he does offer one of the better short and accessible treatments of deism I have seen.  It is worth a look.

HT:  Jason Pappas at American Creation.

Patriot News Op-Ed: How Religious Were the Founding Fathers?

One of my Patheos columns was recently picked up by the Harrisburg Patriot-News.  While I don’t put a whole lot of stock in the comments I receive on op-ed pieces, I do think the comments on this particular piece illustrate two things:

1.  There is a lot of misinformation out there on the subject of religion and the founders.

2.  It is hard to make a nuanced argument about this topic in 800 words.

Get the full argument here.

This Week’s Patheos Column: The Founding Fathers Were Not Deists

“The founding fathers were deists.”

I have probably heard this statement affirmed just as much as I have heard claims that the founders were Christians. It is one of the many pieces of ammunition used by the opponents of the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. If the founders were indeed deists, the argument goes, they could not have founded a uniquely Christian republic.

In actuality, there were a lot more founders who were Christians than deists. And of those founders who did not identify with the doctrines of historic Christianity, few could be called deists.

Read the rest here.

God and the Declaration of Independence

Here are some more thoughts on the Declaration of Independence , many of which will appear in one form or another in my book manuscript, “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Primer.” (If all goes well, it should be available in January 2o11).

What should we make of the references to God in the Declaration?

As I have written before ,the Declaration of Independence was never meant to be a formal statement of American values, of universal human rights, or of the relationship between God and American independence. Yet by the nineteenth century it had certainly become all of these things.

Unlike the United States Constitution, the Declaration makes reference to God. There are four of them. A close examination of these references tell us something about the religious world view of its writers.

The first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence begins:

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws and Nature and Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind required that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Here Jefferson is affirming that the idea of independence is grounded in natural law and the God who gave us that law. “Nature’s God” was a term used often by eighteenth-century deists. These deists believed that God created the world, instilled it with natural laws of science, morality, and politics, and did not interfere with it any further. Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration, was not a deist. He believed that God sustained the universe and, at times, even intervened in human affairs. But Jefferson’s choice of the phrase “Nature’s God” is so vague that it would have been accepted by nearly all of the colonists. Deists, free-thinkers, and Enlightenment liberals (such as Jefferson) would have no problem affirming the idea that natural rights come from God. Eighteenth-century Christians might have preferred a more explicitly Christian reference to God, but they too could affirm this belief.

The next reference to God in the Declaration of Independence occurs in the second paragraph: “

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Actually, the reference to the idea that self-evident truths are “endowed by their Creator” was not part of Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration. It was added later by Benjamin Franklin, a member of the writing committee. Jefferson’s original wording was: “that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable.” Franklin’s change to the text makes it clear that he and the Continental Congress wanted to affirm the belief that the unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” came from God. Yet, like Jefferson’s use of the phrase “Nature’s God” in the first paragraph, Franklin never elaborates any further on the attributes of this “Creator.” Once again, this vague reference to God could have been embraced not only be Christians, but by deists, Unitarians, and freethinkers as well.

References to God do not appear again in the Declaration until the final paragraph. Here we find the phrase:

We…appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name and Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.

Once again, these words were not included in Jefferson’s original draft, but added during the discussion of the document on the floor of the Second Continental Congress. Unlike the references to “Nature’s God” and the “Creator,” the phrase “Supreme Judge of the World” is a bit more specific. Unlike the vague God of the first two paragraphs, the use of the words “Supreme Judge of the World” suggests that the God to whom the Congress appealed will one day judge humankind. The judgment of God is an important dimension of Christian theology. But one could reject some of the other central tenets of orthodox Christianity (such as the deity of Christ or his resurrection from the dead) and still believe that God would judge humans in the next life based upon their behavior in this one. Indeed, nearly all of the signers of the Declaration believed in a God who judges humankind, either in this world or the next.

The last reference to God in the Declaration:

And for the support of this Declaration with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

The God of the Declaration of Independence is not only the author of natural rights and the judge of the world, but He also governs the world by His “Providence.” The term “providence,” as it was used in the eighteenth-century, was usually used to describe an active God who sustains the world through His sovereign power. This is not the distant God of the deist, but a God who is always active in ordering His creation. He performs miracles and answers prayers. By referencing “Providence,” the members of Congress were affirming their belief that God would watch over them and protect them in this time of uncertainty, trial, and war. Whether they embraced all of the tenets of orthodox Christianity or not, most of the signers could affirm a belief in the providence of God.

In the end, some may be disappointed with the way in which Jefferson, his committee, and the Second Continental Congress did not produce a Declaration of Independence that was overtly Christian. The Declaration never mentions Jesus Christ, does not quote the New Testament, and fails to move beyond vague descriptions of God.

While we would be hard pressed to describe the Declaration as a uniquely “Christian” document, it certainly does reflects the theistic world view prevalent in the eighteenth-century British-American colonies.

Warner to Lecture on the "Evangelical Public Sphere"

I just received word of this lecture series. It might interest some of our readers in the Philadelphia area:

Rosenbach Lectures for 2009: Michael Warner, Yale University”

The Evangelical Public Sphere

Lecture Dates: March 23, 25, and 26, 2009
Time and location: 5:30PM, Rosenwald Gallery, 6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library
More information: (215) 898-7088;

Monday, March 23, 2009:”Printing and Preaching: What is a Sermon?”

Wednesday, March 25, 2009: “Between Freethought and Evangelicalism: Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin”

Thursday, March 26, 2009:”Evangelical Publics and Christian Nationalism in the Late Eighteenth Century”

Michael Warner is Seymour H. Knox Professor of English and Professor of American Studies at Yale University. His recent publications include The Portable Walt Whitman (2003), Publics and Counterpublics (2002), The Trouble with Normal (1999), and American Sermons (1999).

I have not read some of Warner’ latest work, but I heartily recommend his The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990).

While looking at Warner’s Yale website, I also came across an essay on his pentecostal childhood that might also be of interest to the readers of this blog.

More on Religion and the Barbary Pirates

Tonight I am preparing for a class discussion of chapter four of Frank Lambert’s The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World. In my previous post, I commented on Lambert’s economic (as opposed to religious or “holy war”) interpretation of American diplomacy with the Barbary States. Yet Lambert does not ignore the fact that religion was a factor–albeit a minor one–informing U.S. foreign policy in these Islamic states.

In chapter four, entitled “Cultural Construction,” Lambert makes two arguments that I found interesting and worthy of further exploration.

First, he argues, that some Western thinkers believed that tyranny existed in the Barbary States because Islam “promoted a submissive citizenry, resigned to accept whatever occurred as the will of Allah.” Referencing the French thinker Abbe Constantin-Francois Chasseboeuf de Volney’s Travels Through Egypt and Syria (reprinted in New York in 1798), Lambert writes: “Like Calvinism Abbe Volney argued, Islam taught predestination, the idea that one’s life was foreordained by an omniscient deity and that faithful individuals must accept their fate” (pp.115-116).

The similarities between Calvinism and Islam on predestination is worth mentioning. But it also worth mentioning that North African Muslims may have been more committed to their religious fatalism than American Calvinists, who also utilized their religion to promote liberty and revolution. (I would expect Lambert to agree with me here). Whatever the case, most Americans saw “Christianity as a religion of liberty and Islam as a religion of subjugation.” (p.115)

Speaking of Christianity, particularly Protestantism, as a religion of liberty, I wish Lambert would have made a bit more of the similarities between anti-Islam and anti-Catholicism in the early republic. Once again, Thomas Kidd, in American Christians and Islam , seems to make more of this connection. He quotes Congregational minister Thomas Wells Bray who described Catholics and Muslims as the “the two grand deceivers of mankind, and implacable enemies of Christ.” (p.29).

Finally, I am interested in knowing more about Joel Barlow’s role in the Treaty of Tripoli. What role did his Enlightened/liberal religion play in the Treaty’s religion clause? Mark Noll, in America’s God, suggests in a footnote that Barlow’s deism may have had something to do with the decision to declare that the government of the United States is not a Christian nation.