I had a discussion the other day with an individual who claimed that the founding fathers were a mix of “atheists, agnostics, deists, and Christian”. He was trying to give the impression that there were a great majority of atheists, agnostics and especially deists. One of the sources he provided was the website “Our Founding Fathers Were Not Christians” (doesn’t exist anymore as of 9/13/2018) which on its face is complete nonsense. However, the site does correctly observe the fact that that “None of the Founding Fathers were atheists”; interesting.
So now we have dismissed with the atheist argument and most likely the agnostic argument and are left with a ‘deist to Christian ratio’. The Constitution does not mention God and the Declaration of Independence is written, at the very least, from a deist standpoint.
I do not have the time to analyze all of the quotations from the website “Our Founding Fathers Were Not Christian” but I will provide one example to show how they twist the facts. John Adams was a devout Christian throughout his life and though he seemed, like Jefferson, frustrated with many of the creeds and interpolations of men into the Gospel of Christ, at least Adams kept his faith in Christ.
This statement from John Adams was provided to make a point: “This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it.” John Adams did, in fact, say this, and Jesus Christ did, in fact, say that “I am Christ; and shall deceive many.” Yes, I got that directly from the King James Bible and it is not a misquotation. BUT, let’s view the entire quotations in their context.
First, let’s clear the name of Christ, here’s the entire quotation:
For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many. (Mark 13:6)
Ah, context makes all the difference! Now let’s take a look at the entire Adams quote:
Twenty times, in the course of my late reading, have I been on the point of breaking out, ‘this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!!’ But in this exclamation, I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in public company—I mean hell.
But it isn’t just this one website and others that twist the quotes of founding fathers out of context, many well-meaning Christians will commit the sin of bearing false witness in the name of promoting faith. A quick search around the web will reveal several bogus and out of context quotations from historical figures to give validation to their positions. Quoting from individuals only works if the people actually said and believed the things attributed to them! I personally try to do my due diligence and if any of these false quotations have worked their way into my articles, please let me know and I will correct the errors.
Some of these quotes we find are actually quite correct in their principles and teachings but people seem to think that ideas must be attached to some authoritative historical figure in order to be valid. Hugh Nibley, a prominent church scholar once said:
What on earth have a man’s name, degree, academic position, and, of all things, opinions, to do with whether a thing is true or not? – “New Look at the Pearl of Great Price” (January 1968): 22
What’s wrong with just stating the quote is by “Anonymous” like we do with so many other wonderful truths where the author is unknown. Some anonymous individual once said:
Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car. [link]
See, now there is a wonderful truth that I couldn’t agree more with, but I don’t need Thomas Jefferson’s name attached to the end of the quote to make it any more valid, it stands on its own. There’s a wonderful, and I think, truthful statement that is attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville but there’s just one problem: there’s no evidence he ever said it.
America is great because she is good. and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.
Whether de Tocqueville said it or not doesn’t invalidate the statement, the fact is that someone did say it but attributing it to someone that didn’t is wrong. Instead, let’s just throw “anonymous” behind it and let it stand on its own.
Religious affiliations of the founders
False quotations aside, I’d like to get to the main point of this article which addresses the religiosity of the founding fathers.
According to Adherents.com which focuses on statistical data relating to many religions around the world, nearly all of the signers of the Articles of Confederation, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were Protestants with Charles Carroll, Daniel Carroll, and Thomas Fitzsimons being the 3 Catholics among the groups mentioned. The breakdown of religious affiliation is as follows:
- Episcopalian/Anglican – 88 -54.7%
- Presbyterian – 30 – 18.6%
- Congregationalist – 27 – 16.8%
- Quaker – 7 – 4.3%
- Dutch Reformed/German Reformed – 6 – 3.7%
- Lutheran – 5 – 3.1%
- Catholic – 3 – 1.9%
- Huguenot – 3 – 1.9%
- Unitarian – 3 – 1.9%
- Methodist – 2 – 1.2%
- Calvinist – 1 – 0.6%
Mentioning religious affiliation is one thing, but ascertaining how deeply the individuals were committed to the tenets of their faith is another. Other than what we can observe in their writings, we may never know what they truly, deeply believed. From what I have read, it seems pretty well established that Benjamin Franklin was probably the most “diest” of the founders with perhaps Jefferson following in a close second. Jefferson appeared to believe that the Bible and the churches of his day bore evidence of uninspired meddling.
The whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills. – Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, January 24, 1814
Despite this fact, he longed to see a restoration of the ancient Christian faith:
The religion-builders have so distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus, so muffled them in mysticisms, fancies and falsehoods, have caricatured them into forms so monstrous and inconceivable, as to shock reasonable thinkers. . . Happy in the prospect of a restoration of primitive Christianity, I must leave to younger athletes to encounter and lop off the false branches which have been engrafted into it by the mythologists of the middle and modern ages. – In H.A. Washington, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 7, pp. 210, 257
Jefferson also noted the superiority of the moral teachings of Jesus Christ.
[Jesus’] biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man; outlines which it is lamentable He did not live to fill up. [link]
Ten years before his death he wrote:
I, too, have made a wee-little book from the same materials, which I call the Philosophy of Jesus; it is a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book, and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the Gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its author never said nor saw. They have compounded from the heathen mysteries a System beyond the comprehension of man, of which the great reformer of the vicious ethics and deism of the Jews, were he to return on earth, would not recognize one feature. [link]
Jefferson did not appear to believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, even though he was a proponent of his moral teachings. It is very hard to tell because, at least from my perspective, he seemed all over the map when it came to his religious ideology but I see a consistent belief in God and the Bible from his personal letters.
Even though we might not ever know the true beliefs of all of the founders, I think there are two facts that stand:
- Despite their convictions to Christianity all of the founding fathers were religious men.
- It was overwhelmingly the influence of Christianity that provided the moral framework of the founding fathers.
Some people feel so hesitant to say that there was any strong Christian influence in the founding of our nation. I do not believe that those who make such claims really understand the teachings of Christ. Christian morals and Christian doctrines were things that Jefferson made a distinction in. He had a problem with many Christian doctrines, but he saw the morals as superior.
Even though deists and Christians alike held to Christian morals they did not want to see government involvement in religion. Jon Butler, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at Yale University noted:
…The principal Founding Fathers–Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin–were in fact deeply suspicious of a European pattern of governmental involvement in religion. They were deeply concerned about an involvement in religion because they saw government as corrupting religion. [link]
The founders did not want to create a nation where the government could have power over the minds of men in relation to their religious beliefs. This would be in accord with the core tenet of the Christian faith explained by the apostle Paul:
For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. (Romans 13:9)
Christianity and most other religions have some kind of belief that expresses the “Golden Rule”. I think that these sentiments were at the core of what inspired these men, who could have created any kind of government they desired, to create a government where all would be free from the oppression of the state to worship and live according to the rights that they were endowed with by their Creator. Loving your neighbor as yourself does not involve violating freedom and agency by mandating that everyone believes the same way that you do.
I have seen a lot of meddling with quotations from our founders both by those who have the agenda of trying to show that they were not religious and even Christians who seek to paint a portrait of the founders that simply isn’t accurate.
That said I think we can all observe that the founding of this nation was not done by atheistic men. We owe a lot to a group of religious men, all with backgrounds in the morals and principles of Christianity that were dominant at the time, that formulated a system of government based on God-given, not state-given, rights and thus changed the world.