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…
“[The] significance of the Enlightenment and Deism for the birth of the American republic, and especially the relationship between church and state within it, can hardly be overstated.” —Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America
“Most of the American founders embraced some form of Deism, not historically orthodox Christianity.”—Richard Hughes, Myths America Lives By
“Deistic beliefs played a central role in the framing of the American republic…. [The] founding generation viewed religion, and particularly religion’s relation to government, through an Enlightenment lens that was deeply skeptical of orthodox Christianity.” —Geoffrey R. Stone, “The World of the Framers: A Christian Nation?”
“The Founding Fathers were…skeptical men of the Enlightenment who questioned each and every received idea they had been taught.” —Brooke Allen, Moral Minority
“Many of America’s ‘Founding Fathers’ were not Christians in any orthodox sense.” —Steven J. Keillor, This Rebellious House: American History and the Truth of Christianity[i]
The faith of America’s Founders has been a source of controversy since the nation’s inception. It has become increasingly popular to assert that they were deists who desired to build a wall of separation between church and state. This characterization is bad history, and it can lead to bad constitutional law. In this essay, I show there is little reason to believe that America’s Founders were deists. In a following one, I will demonstrate that there is no reason to think that they embraced the sort of separation of church and state advocated by groups such as the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
In the eighteenth-century, deism referred to an intellectual movement associated with the Enlightenment that emphasized the role of reason in discerning religious truth. Deists rejected such traditional Christian doctrines as the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, the Atonement, the Resurrection, the Trinity, the divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, and miracles. For our purposes, this last point is critical: unlike most Christians, deists did not think that God intervenes in the affairs of men and nations.
Scholars and popular authors regularly assert that the Founders were deists. They support these claims by describing the religious views of some combination of the following men: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton, and Ethan Allen. They sometimes reach beyond this select fraternity to include another Founder or two, and almost inevitably they concede that not all Founders were as enlightened as the ones they profile. They leave the distinct impression, however, that most Founders, and certainly the important ones, were deists.
Ethan Allen and Tom Paine
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.
Six Other Suspects
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.
But Wait a Minute…
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.
But even if the Founders discussed above were all clearly deists, what would that say about the founding generation? Consider for a moment the background and experiences of these men. Washington, Jefferson, and Madison were wealthy Anglican plantation owners. Hamilton was born and raised in the British West Indies, and Paine was born and raised in England. In an era when few people traveled internationally, Jefferson and Adams spent significant time in Europe, and Franklin lived most of the last thirty-five years of his life in Britain and France. Needless to say, these men are not representative of late-eighteenth-century Americans.
When one turns from these few select Founders to the broader constellation of men and women who played significant roles in winning American independence and creating America’s constitutional order, the proposition that the Founders were deists becomes impossible to maintain. I have helped edit three books that collectively profile the religious views of thirty different Founders. These volumes reveal that most of the Founders usually called deists were not actually deists, and that most of the others—including influential Founders such as Roger Sherman, Charles Carroll, Oliver Ellsworth, Patrick Henry, Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, Samuel Adams, John Dickinson, John Jay, and many others—were orthodox Christians.[ii]
Why Does It Matter?
Anyone interested in an accurate account of the American founding cannot afford to ignore the important influence the Christian faith had on many civic leaders. Consider just a few examples.
If the Founders agreed on anything, it was that humans were sinful. To paraphrase Madison, “men are not angels.” Accordingly, they took great care to build a constitutional order that included limited government, the separation of powers, and checks and balances.
They understood as well that all humans were created in the image of God. As such, we are capable of rational self-government. This conviction also contributed to putting one of the gravest evils in early America, chattel slavery, on the road to extinction.
Finally, and many other examples could be given, their understanding of “liberty” was profoundly influenced by Christian morality. In the words of James Wilson, signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution and an early Supreme Court justice, “law without liberty is tyranny, but liberty without law is licentiousness.” As Wilson makes clear in his law lectures, the “law” in the second half of the quotation refers to God’s moral law. The Founders were not moral relativists.
These views are not distinctly Christian, but if one hopes to understand the American founding, it is critical to recognize that most Founders were profoundly influenced by orthodox Christian theology.[iii]
Republished with gracious permission from the Intercollegiate Review (Fall 2017).
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[i] Citation information for each of these quotations, and for many similar assertions, may be found in the introduction to The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, ed. Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall, and Jeffry H. Morrison (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009).
[ii] See, for instance, The Founders on God and Government, ed. Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall, and Jeffry H. Morrison (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004); The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life; and Faith and the Founders of the American Republic, ed. Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
[iii] For further discussion, see my essay “Did America Have a Christian Founding?” (Heritage Foundation, June 2011).