Religion of the Founders Were the Founders of the United States “Deists” or True Christians?

EDITORIAL

Rev. Dan Prout, Sierra Ministries International

From time to time discussion returns to the question of the religion of the Founders of the nation. Frequently it is said they were Deists, not orthodox Christians. The intent of this article is to bring historical evidence to the matter.

First, a definition of modern Deism is incumbent. Deism holds that the world and the natural order were created by a divine being known in English by the word “God”. The Creator set the Earth and the universe on their natural courses, letting the processes and patterns of Nature work throughout time. Deists believe God is not engaged in human affairs thus it makes no sense to pray for God’s aid or intervention. In contrast to Christianity, Deism does not acknowledge Jesus Christ is God’s Son sent into the world to redeem mankind from sin. Some branches of Deism believe there is no life after death but some do. These primary tenets of Deism are in oppositional contrast to biblical Christianity.

 

Historian William Federer points out the definition of Deism migrated in meaning in the late 1700s. The Founders proclaimed independence from Britain in 1776 but it was not until 1788 that the United States Constitution was ratified and became the Law of the Land. Federer says prior to the French Revolution, 1789-1794, Deism referred to generic, orthodox Christianity, a grouping of central doctrines common to all Christian denominations. The non-Christian definition of Deism (above) came into modern understanding sometime after the French Revolution. 

So, it is proper to refer to many of the Founders as Deists if one uses the definition of the term to speak of their Christian faith generically, omitting denominational distinctives of lesser doctrines. It is incorrect, however, to call Founders Deists if one means they did not believe in a personal God who engages directly and actively in contemporaneous human life.

Since we cannot interview our Founders, we can only learn of their personal faith by what they did and wrote. Of the 55 men who constructed the United States’ Constitution, all but one were members of orthodox Christian congregations. As M. E. Bradford notes, 29 were Anglicans, 16 to 18 were Calvinists (predominately Presbyterians), two Methodists, two Lutherans, and two Roman Catholics.

About George Washington’s Christian faith, we know a great deal. He and Martha were members of their local Episcopal (known as Anglican prior to the War) congregation where they attended. George served on the Vestry for more than 20 years. From his handwritten prayer book, we find “O most glorious God, in Jesus Christ… I acknowledge and confess my guilt… I have called upon Thee for pardon and forgiveness of sins. …direct me to the true object, Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life…” When the Continental Congress met prior to the War, the Congress called the people of the colonies to prayer and fasting on June 1, 1774, a call drafted by Thomas Jefferson. Washington’s entry in his diary that day says he “went to church and fasted all day”.

Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are often highlighted as being deists. Franklin, according to his own writing, believed in the moral teachings of Jesus but doubted his divine nature. It is likely, therefore, that he did not see Christ as Savior, but God is the judge of that matter. To his credit, however, it was he who called the Constitutional Convention to prayer, and thereafter they prayed together at the opening of each session. Franklin’s insistence on prayer – seeking God’s help in their work – stands in opposition to Deism’s understanding of an inactive, uncaring, uninvolved deity.

In addressing God, it is clear Franklin had a personal relationship with the Father. He wrote, “Thou art my Friend, my Father, and my Benefactor. Praised be Thy Name, O God, forever. Amen.” And, “That I may be preserved from atheism and infidelity, impiety and profaneness, and in my addresses to Thee carefully avoid irreverence and ostentation, formality and odious hypocrisy.  Help me, O Father.” Also, “Let me not fail, then, to praise my God continually for it is His due and it is all I can return for His many favors and great goodness to me; …Amen.

Thomas Jefferson is revered as one of our nation’s finest minds and also often described as a deist. He attended Christ Church in Philadelphia along with Washington, Robert Morris, Alexander Hamilton, Francis Hopkins, and Betsy Ross. Regarding Christianity he wrote in 1803, “My views…are…very different from the anti-christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruption of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the precepts of Jesus himself.” And in 1808, in reference to his booklet personally assembling the words of Jesus only, “..it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian…a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” He gave $50, a large sum in that day, to the Bible Society of Virginia for the purpose of seeing that every household had a Bible. His comments demonstrate commitment to the core beliefs of Christianity and one can only infer the nature of his personal relationship with Christ. “…If nothing had ever been added to what flowed from His lips, the whole world would this day be Christian…” Given Jefferson was writing in years after the French Revolution, it makes sense that he may have been responding to a charge of him being a deist in view of the emerging new, non-Christian definition of that term.

Space does not allow for comment on the Christian faith of primary figures John Adams, James Madison, Gouverneur Morris (his name, not a title), Roger Sherman, Alexander Hamilton, George Mason, and scores of others, both men and women. It is helpful to remember the generations leading up to the Revolutionary Era were schooled daily in the Bible, being required to memorize verses and to know by heart the 100 Questions and Answers of the New England Primer Catechism (a literary term meaning question and answer format) which taught the truths of the Christian faith.

Let the reader take from this very brief article the knowledge that most of those of the Founders’ generation were more closely participating in orthodox Christianity than in the modern non-Christian definition of Deism. Let us be glad for the Faith of our Fathers and the liberty they gave to us in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, especially freedom to worship.


The Rev. Dan H. Prout is president of Sierra Ministries, a Christian teaching and training organization. He is the founder of Pray Nevada County and one of the founding organizers of the state-wide coalition Pray California.  Dan serves with North State Pastors Regional Team, a trans-denominational fellowship promoting prayer and unity in the Body of Christ. Dan is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary.  http://www.sierraministries.org/

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Citizens Journal.


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Bruce

Excellent article. Thank you for explaining the terminology in context.

Bruce Braden

In an 1819 letter footnote to William Short, Jefferson specifies the corruptions of Christianity that he did not believe as belonging to Jesus:
the immaculate conception, the virgin birth, his deification, his resurrection, his miraculous powers, the Trinity, atonement, regeneration, the Eucharist,, election. Also see my book, Ye Will say I am No Christian: The Thomas Jefferson/John Adams Correspondence on Religion, Morals, and Values