Politics & Policy

Faith of Our Fathers

The religion of our Founders

George Will is a very civilized man, and Brooke Allen, by all accounts from our friends, is a courteous and highly cultivated woman. Between them, they have generated another round of argument about the religion of the American Founders. We hope soon to have the pleasure of reading Allen’s new book, Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers, having only read her article in The Nation. What both writers say about the religion of six Founders (Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, and Washington) is within the bounds of 20th-century conventional wisdom.

#ad#Just the same, the 18th century was so very much more religious than our own that historians of the last hundred years, far more secular in education, have developed a project of their own, which is (to appropriate George Will’s words) “an intellectual hijacking” itself — one every bit “as audacious as the attempt to present America’s principal Founders as devout [read “evangelical”] Christians.” They want to show that these six principals were “skeptics,” at best Deists, certainly not real Christians, and that they privately held quite different religious views from those they displayed in public.

One problem with this hijacking is that each of these key terms — “Deist,” “not Christian,” and “skeptic” — is equivocal. Each is susceptible to several different definitions and even connotations. For instance, how could any Christian grow in understanding her faith, if she were not first puzzled, skeptical, inquisitive, about how to understand certain articles of the creed, texts in Scripture, or statements of doctrine? Skepticism is quite healthy, since it pushes the mind to deeper and deeper philosophical and theological levels.

In the late 18th century, the evangelical movement was just gathering strength but not yet as characteristic of American religion as it later became. Many of its preachers found Catholics, Episcopalians, and many other denominations hardly “Christian” at all. Reciprocally, many Episcopalians found the evangelists to be “enthusiasts,” a term they did not intend as praise. “What exactly is a Christian?” therefore, was then as now a contested term. Who decides? And by what criteria?

Moreover, in every age of Christian history there have been Christians of vastly different temperaments, philosophical styles, and theological preferences. Christianity is a faith a mile wide, so that an infant can wade in it, and many miles deep, so that the strongest of creatures can scarcely plumb it. Long before George Washington, the Stoics were favorites of many early church writers, and Stoic teachings dominate motifs in many Roman churches, libraries, and palaces. The Stoic Christian is a quite familiar type.

Besides, there are many facts that make one skeptical about secular conventional wisdom. One fact is the scene at Hamilton’s deathbed, as he begged Bishop Moore for the Holy Eucharist, and the bishop at first refused, since Hamilton’s wounds had come from dueling (a practice not blessed by the church). Then the next day, moved by Hamilton’s continued pleading, the bishop brought the Eucharist to the dying man, affording him much consolation.

Another stubborn fact is Washington’s insistence, ever since he had been a 24-year-old major leading an expedition of rough youngsters to the defense of the western frontier, that the government should supply outstanding chaplains to lead the men in public prayer and in moral teaching. Again, in his General Orders to the Continental Army on July 2, 1776 (when Independence was first voted on) and on July 9 (when printed copies were available to be read to his troops, drawn up in rank), Washington first entered the phrase “under God” into America’s public language — where, it is believed, Lincoln first saw it, and made it his own.

Still another fact that makes us skeptical of the conventional wisdom is this text (and many others like it) from Washington: “To the distinguished Character of Patriot, it should be our highest Glory to add the more distinguished Character of Christian. The signal Instances of providential Goodness which we have experienced and which have now almost crowned our labours with complete Success, demand from us in a peculiar manner the warmest returns of Gratitude and Piety to the Supreme Author of all Good.”


Some of the Founders were uncertain about the divinity of Jesus and how to think of it–as Christians have always been since the beginning (not only in individual hearts, but also in great public debates and Councils of the Church). That Jesus Christ is both God and man is central to Christian faith; and yet how to understand that is not easy. Here is a letter to the President of Yale from Benjamin Franklin, undoubtedly one of the three or four least orthodox Christians among the top one hundred Founders:

I believe in one God, creator of the universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshiped. That the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them.

As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals, and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England some doubts as to his divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.

How many professors at American universities today are so certain that they will meet Jesus Christ after death, to see the evidence for themselves?

One of the two authors of this reflection has written about these matters in some detail in On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding, and both of us together have published Washington’s God (written at the request of James Rees, the executive director of Mount Vernon — which just this week is inaugurating its dignified and moving new Museum and Education Center). We don’t mean to repeat here all the distinctions and signal facts pointed out in those inquiries. In light of what we did discover, however, we are skeptical about the secular conventional wisdom.

As the greatest of all American historians, Gordon Wood, has been pointing out very forcefully in recent months, he has not found a single atheist during the Founding period (not even Tom Paine), and certainly not among the Founders. Second, he finds even the least religious of the Founders considerably more religious than the average professor at American universities today. Ours is a far, far more secular age, our leaders and our people are far more ignorant of religious ideas. Third, he finds that Jefferson–the Founder most attended to today–was an outlier among the Founders.

Wood has also argued that George Washington, while not being by any means an enthusiast or an evangelical in the modern sense, was probably one of the more religious of the Founders (and certainly of Allen’s top six). Further, Wood points out that Washington’s frequent expressions of gratitude for the “signal interpositions” of Divine Providence (interpositions that Washington had personally experienced) make it impossible to call him a Deist in the conventional sense (that is, anti-Christian). If by Deism you mean a belief in a watchmaker God who has no intimate concern for human individuals or individual nations, a God for whom interpositions in history are out of the question, Deism is contrary to Judaism and to Christianity — and to the public (and private) convictions of George Washington.

On the other side, it is quite certain that few among the Founders, if any, were in the current sense of the term “evangelicals.” From the stern sons of New England and the staid Quakers of Philadelphia to the gentlemen farmers of the South, most disliked enthusiasm. Even the devout tended to understate their faith.

Among the 89 signers of the Declaration and/or the Constitution, nearly a dozen had studied theology, were ordained ministers, were preachers though not ordained, were chaplains to a militia unit, or were officers of national Bible societies and the like. Historians of the last hundred years have been remiss in their study of the religion of the Founders. We urgently need good studies of all of them, if we wish to have a fairer idea of “the faith of the Founders.” Let us suggest, for starters, studies about the depth of the Christian faith of Roger Sherman; Samuel Huntington; William Williams; the Carroll cousins Charles, Daniel, and John; Hugh Williamson; Robert Treat Paine; William Paca; John Dickinson; Rufus King; William Livingston; John Hancock; Benjamin Rush; Patrick Henry; James Wilson; and George Mason.

Evidence does suggest that Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and James Monroe may have been the least religious of the top 100 Founders. James Madison is harder to be exact about, without a very close study, because many of the motives for his initial resistance, as president, to pay for chaplains for the military, or to issue thanksgiving proclamations, were themselves religious. He feared that government would corrupt religion. Madison had gone back for an extra year of study at Princeton under the Reverend John Witherspoon, one of the greatest defenders of religious and civil liberty in that generation. Because of Madison’s early support for their religious liberty, the Baptists of his congressional district were his most numerous and devoted bloc of supporters. As is well known, Madison at first resisted the idea of amending the Constitution. But these Baptists gave him their votes on the promise that he would get the First Amendment, at least that amendment, into the Constitution. Although reluctant, Madison complied. Yet other evidence suggests that Madison may also, by the end, have been rather estranged from the religion of most Virginians.

As the driving intellectual force behind the new Massachusetts Constitution, John Adams insisted upon the mandatory teaching of the Protestant religion in all the schools of the Commonwealth, at government expense where necessary. This is no infringement on religious conscience, he argued; you don’t have to believe in religion. But if you want the good habits and sound morals that come from religion, you must pay for its presence in the schools.

Beyond that, one must consider the full implications of Allen’s fundamental thesis, as stated by Will: This tiny minority of six expressed a very different set of beliefs privately from those they showed in public. The usual term for that species of action is hypocrisy. Its ingredients are a lack of candor, if not outright dishonesty, and an exceedingly low sense of honor. One has only to express this implication to grasp either its moral repulsiveness or its implausibility. For George Washington, it is out of the question.


We are also skeptical on three other points of the conventional wisdom concerning the religious philosophy in play during the Founding period.

First, one must recognize that it is not the “top” six who ratified the Constitution of the United States, but rather “We the people of the United States.” We the people who fought and died in the War of Independence. We the people who count ourselves a religious people, with the manifest and self-evident duties that any conscious creature owes to its Creator. To understand the religion of the Founding, one must also understand the faiths of the American people.

Second, an underlying vision allowed the Founding generation, ordinary citizens as well as intellectuals, to grasp why “rights” are self-evident. George Mason articulated that vision in this way. It is self-evident that any conscious creature owes immense gratitude to the Creator who summoned him up out of nothingness. But if conscious creatures owe duties to their Creator, then they must have the right to fulfill these duties. Moreover, these rights are so super-eminent that no mere man should dare to step between the individual conscience and God. God is “spirit and truth,” and he wishes to be worshiped in spirit and truth, without obstruction by states, civil society, family, or friends. Moreover, this God, though he could have done otherwise, made us free, and desires us to come to him with free consciences.

A little reflection on the premises of Mason’s argument (and the later arguments of Jefferson and Madison) shows that the only sort of God of whom it is valid, is a God who at all times sees into the human heart, respects individual reason, and wills the liberty of individual conscience. This is not the God about whom we learn from all the world religions, but it is the God revealed in Judaism and Christianity.

Third, we need to point out that — and this is a fact rarely acknowledged by the conventional wisdom — one of the beauties of this Jewish-Christian conception is its self-abnegating nature. It is intended to be applied to all human individuals, far beyond the ranks of Jews and Christians: to Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, etc. Another beauty of the Jewish-Christian conception of God is the diamond of a Biblical text, buried deep in the instinctive consciousness of the Founding generation: “Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Contrary to the expectations of those who boast that ours is a godless Constitution, therefore not Christian, such a text made it attractive to ratify a Constitution devoted to the Limited Powers of Government. A political Constitution is one of the things that put limits on Caesar, but nonetheless it is a properly secular matter — it “belongs to Caesar,” so to speak. It does not need to make any explicit mention of God (although a few indirect allusions thereto are not out of place). The Declaration of Independence mentions God four times, in an adequately Jewish and Christian way: Author of the laws of nature and of human existence, Creator who endows human beings with rights, Supreme Judge of consciences, and the Providence in which this nation has placed its firm reliance.

In sum, the most astonishing thing to say about the religion of the Founders is how little it has been studied during the past hundred years, and how cavalierly and unsympathetically — most often by historians who paint their own portrait while painting in pale colors the faith of their fathers. As a nation of countless students, writers, and professors, surely we can do better than that.

 – Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. With his daughter Jana, he is author of Washington’s God.

<em>Moral Minority, by </em>Brooke Allen



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