When 1776 (1972, dir. Peter H. Hunt) was being made, it adopted the standard approach to Christianity that most Hollywood films (and I’m guessing most Broadway plays) used, which was to include a few vague non-Denominational references to God and the Bible, which gave a nod to the cultural importance of religion in American life without actually saying anything that might offend anyone.
So for example, early in the film, John Adams (William Daniels) joking compares the Continental Congress to the Biblical plagues of Egypt and has a sort of conversation with God in which he reveals how frustrated he is at the inability to make progress on key issue of independence. Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva) likewise offers a few witticisms about God. The overall impression the film gives is that the Founding Fathers were much like 20th century Americans in their religious beliefs.
But doing so obscures the reality that a large number of the founding fathers, including Adams, Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, were adherents of an 18th century religious movement known as Deism, which most modern Christians would probably say was not Christianity at all. So since 1776 is still fresh in my mind, I’m going to devote this column to looking at Deism among the Founding Fathers.
To simplify a complex story, Deism was an outgrowth of the Scientific Revolution and its implications for religion. By the end of the 17th century, thanks to Isaac Newton and others, a view of the cosmos was emerging among the scientifically-educated that saw the solar system as a sort of enormous clock, whose internal mechanisms were the laws of physics, such as gravity. At the same time, a growing skepticism about magic and miracles was spreading among intellectuals. This worldview maintained that reason, observation, and science were far better guides to understanding the world than faith and traditional religious belief were.
The Scientific Revolution gave birth to the Enlightenment, which sought to critique and rationalize Western society the way the Scientific Revolution had critiqued views about the physical world, and religion was one of the biggest issues to be critiqued. Enlightenment thinkers argued that much of traditional Christianity was irrational and ‘superstitious’, and they wanted to make Christianity more rational.
If the universe functioned like a clock, operating on impersonal forces that playing out with 100% consistency, what room did that leave for God? The obvious answer was the God was the Celestial Clockmaker, who had created the cosmos and the laws by which it moved and then stepped back to allow His creation to run as he had intended. This Deist God was rational and benevolent, as demonstrated by the fact that He had created the world according to rationally-perceivable principles. But having set his Cosmic Machine in motion, He did not intervene. He did not communicate through Divine Revelation and He did not cause miracles to happen, because doing so would involve temporarily suspending the laws of physics that He had established; in this worldview, miracles would represent God breaking the clock, which Deists felt was irrational.
As Deism developed in the 18th century, it rejected key elements of traditional Christian belief, including the Divine Inspiration of the Bible, the miracle stories of the Old and New Testament (as well as the miracle stories of Catholic saints), and the idea that Jesus was the physical incarnation of God. Humans were understood to be essentially good, if ignorant, and therefore were not sinful and in need of salvation in the traditional sense; the Deist God was too benevolent to condemn people to eternal torment for simple ignorance. If He judged people, it was on the basis of the virtue they demonstrated in their lives.
Unlike most forms of 18th century Christianity, Deism possessed no formal clergy or hierarchy, no doctrines that followers were required to adhere to, and no initiation rituals. Rather, each Deist applied his or her reason to the problem of religion and decided what to believe based on what seemed most rational. So Deists adopted a wide range of attitudes toward religious issues. They did not especially seek to evangelize, and felt a confident sense of the superiority of their beliefs to those of more ignorant Christians; once a person was well-educated, Deists felt that the truth of Deism would simply become obvious.
Deists were all convinced that virtue and religion were important principles. Many of the Founding Fathers were convinced that a republic required virtue and religion to function (whereas monarchy was based on corruption and superstition). But they differed about the degree to which Christianity qualified as a religion rather than a superstition. Many of them felt that Christianity morality was valuable, but that Christian doctrine and teaching needed to be purged of false and superstitious ideas that had crept into it.
One of the challenges Deists had was to find a language to speak about God at a time when the word ‘God’ was assumed to refer to the Triune God of Christianity. So the Deists resorted to a variety of other terms such as “the Supreme Being”, “the Creator”, “the Almighty”, “the God of Nature”, and “the Divine Watchmaker.” To 21st century Americans, these look like references to the Judeo-Christian God, because 19th century Christianity gradually co-opted these terms, but in 18th century writing, these terms generally stood out as signaling a reference to Deism.
Let’s take a look at a few of the Founding Fathers and see what they had to say about religion.
Although Paine is not generally included in the vague grouping of Founding Fathers (which is often defined as those who signed either the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, or the Constitution), he was certainly one of the most influential figures of the Revolutionary War era (and he is at least mentioned in passing in 1776). His Common Sense was extremely important in helping to rally support for the Revolution (arguably more so than the Declaration of Independence). Indeed John Adams on more than one occasion claimed that Paine was the man who won the American Revolution.
Paine was perhaps the most aggressively anti-Christian Deist of all. He rejected the idea that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and that his death was the means of salvation as little more than “fabulous inventions” (using the word ‘fabulous’ in its sense of being like a fable). As Paine lays it out in his On the Religion of Deism and Christianity Compared,
“Every person, of whatever religious denomination he may be, is a DEIST in the first article of his Creed. Deism, from the Latin word Deus, “God”, is the belief of a God, and this belief is the first article of every man’s creed.
“It is on this article, universally consented to by all mankind, that the Deist builds his church, and here he rests. Whenever we step aside from this article, by mixing it with articles of human invention, we wander into a labyrinth of uncertainty and fable, and become exposed to every kind of imposition by pretenders to revelation…
“But when the divine gift of reason begins to expand itself in the mind and calls man to reflection, he then reads and contemplates God and His works, and not in the books pretending to be revelation. The creation is the Bible of the true believer in God. Everything in this vast volume inspires him with sublime ideas of the Creator. The little and paltry, and often obscene, tales of the Bible sink into wretchedness when put in comparison with this mighty work.
“The Deist needs none of those tricks and shows called miracles to confirm his faith, for what can be a greater miracle than the creation itself, and his own existence?
“There is a happiness in Deism, when rightly understood, that is not to be found in any other system of religion. All other systems have something in them that either shock our reason, or are repugnant to it, and man, if he thinks at all, must stifle his reason in order to force himself to believe them….”
He then proceeds to attack the story of the Virgin Birth and to accuse the Catholic Church of having invented most of the traditional doctrines of Christianity as a way to delude people into supporting the clergy. So for Paine, as for most Deists, the existence of a Supreme Being was an immediately obvious and therefore rational belief, based on the existence of the universe, but he felt that reason could not go any further than that, and therefore that Christianity was irrational nonsense.
(Paine, incidentally, was not the only vehemently anti-Christian Deist among the Revolutionary generation. Ethan Allen was once prosecuted for blasphemy for his advocacy for Deism. He reportedly stopped his own wedding ceremony to clarify that the “laws of God” were those of the god of nature, and not the god of any organized religion.)
As a young man, Franklin read a series of lectures that intended to refute Deism, but found himself far more convinced by the Deist position as it was laid out in the text, and so became a Deist. When he became a printer, one of the first texts he published, in 1728, was his Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion In Two Parts, in which he lays out his religious beliefs.
“I Believe there is one Supreme most perfect Being, Author and Father of the Gods themselves. For I believe that Man is not the most perfect Being but One, rather that as there are many Degrees of Beings his Inferiors, so there are many Degrees of Beings superior to him…”
In other words, Franklin is declaring himself a polytheist here. The Supreme Being has created many lesser gods beneath Him. As Franklin goes on, he explains how the universe contains a vast number of solar systems and planets, and therefore the Supreme Being cannot be interested in the worship of the insignificant inhabitants of one small planet. But human instinct gives him a drive to worship something, and therefore he concludes that each solar system must have its own god, who is worshipped by the inhabitants of that solar system. In other words, the Judeo-Christian God is not the Supreme Being, but only the god of this particular solar system.
In later years, Franklin seems to have backed away somewhat from this surprising polytheism (or at least stopped telling people about it). In 1790, not long before his death, Franklin was asked by the president of Yale College to write a statement of belief.
“Here is my Creed…I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. 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 … As for Jesus of Nazareth … I think the system of Morals and Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw … but I have … some Doubts to his Divinity; though’ it is a Question I do not dogmatism upon, having never studied it, and think it is needless to busy myself with it now, where I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.”
In positioning Jesus’ moral teaching as the best ever produced by humanity, Franklin was expressing a very common Deist position. Jesus was a wise teacher, but not divine. Franklin maintained that Christianity was an excellent moral system for those who were not educated, but that as one became educated, one would realize that many elements of Christianity were improbable and therefore Deism was sort of a superior, rationalized Christianity.
Like most American aristocrats and landowners, George Washington maintained a regular affiliation with a denominational church, in this case the Anglican Church that dominated Virginia. He took religion quite seriously, requiring his soldiers to attend Sunday worship services, ordering Thanksgiving ceremonies after military victories, and praying privately on a regular basis. But he also deviated notably from normal Anglican worship. He was never Confirmed in the Anglican Church, refused to kneel during prayer (as was standard at the time), and left Sunday services after the sermon but before Communion was celebrated. He was so conspicuous in doing this that he was once rebuked by a minister for it. (That said, Washington was hardly alone in leaving before Communion; it was in fact a very common practice in the 18th century.)
Do I need to label this one?
Washington’s letters and speeches are conspicuous for their preference of Deist over Christian terminology. Rather than terms like “Father”, “Lord”, “Savior” or “Redeemer”, all of which obviously signal Christianity, Washington shows a marked preference for more Deist phrases like “Providence”, “the Deity”, “the Supreme Being”, “the Grand Architect”, “the Author of all Good”, and “the Great Ruler of Events.” He does this even when writing to Christian congregations and clergy. He never mentions Jesus in personal writings, and only rarely in public speeches.
So although there is no slum-dunk proof of Washington’s personal beliefs, the evidence strongly points to him being a Deist at heart, despite his regular Anglican worship.
In contrast, there is little uncertainty about John Adams’ beliefs. He was a Unitarian, meaning that he did not believe in the Trinity but rather held that God was One. Unitarianism was essentially Christian Deism. Some Unitarians held that “Jesus was from above,” meaning that he was a divine or semi-divine messenger from God (but not actually God), while others maintained that “Jesus was from below,” meaning that God had chosen and elevated Jesus to semi-divinity because of his exemplary way of life and morality. Adams was solidly aligned with the From Below camp.
Unitarianism was an outgrowth of New England Congregationalism, and was therefore geographically restricted to that region of the country, just as Anglicanism was dominant in Virginia. As a young man, Adams attended a seminary and planned to enter the ministry, but changed his views when a theological controversy about whether humans were inherently sinful and depraved wracked Congregationalism. If being Christian requires a belief in the Triune divinity and the redemptive death of Jesus, Unitarians do not qualify. They were certainly not traditional Christians by 21st century American standards.
Although he did not believe in a Triune God or the full divinity of Jesus, Adams did believe in a personal God, the resurrection of Jesus, and the afterlife, and he rebuked Paine for his attack on Christianity. But he rejected the idea that humans were inherently sinful and in need of salvation, as well as the notion of predestination and the inerrancy of the Bible. He was a regular church-goer when he could attend a Unitarian church (often attending twice on Sundays).
For Adams, the study of nature was an important tool for understanding God and His will. In that sense, he was as thorough-going a Deist as Franklin was, as was his wife Abigail. The Bible and nature were both equally valid sources of knowledge about God.
In his public writings and speeches, Adams prefers phrases such as “the Redeemer of the World”, “the Great Mediator and Advocate”, and “the grace of His Holy Spirit”, all of which were acceptable to Unitarians as not contradicting the Unity of God and non-divinity of Jesus. Thus Adams’ Deism had much more room in it for Jesus than, say Franklin or Washington’s Deism.
Unitarianism, incidentally, still survives today, often combined with Universalism, originally so named for its belief that all Christians will be saved. Unitarian/Universalism has come a long way from Adams’ day, but it’s the most commonly-encountered form of Deism today.
Unlike Washington and Adams, Jefferson could read French, and was therefore more influenced by the more radical French school of Deism than by the more moderate English brand that shaped Adams. He was raised Anglican and attended Anglican services, but was very aware that his own personal beliefs were well outside Anglican orthodoxy; when he wrote about his beliefs to friends, he asked them not to repeat the information to others because he worried about the reaction. He also attended Baptist, Presbyterian, and other denominational services on occasion.
Like many Deists, Jefferson sought to restore the pure teachings of Jesus by purging them from the irrational elements that he felt had crept in. Because he did not believe in miracles or the supernatural, he literally took a pair of scissors and went through the New Testament, cutting out all the miracle stories and ending the Gospels with the Crucifixion. His edition omits all the rest of the New Testament except an expurgated Book of Acts and the Letter to the Hebrews. He had a particular dislike for the Book of Revelation, whose author he considered a raving madman.
As he said in one letter, Jesus was “no imposter himself, but a great Reformer of the Hebrew code of religion…It is not be understood that I agree with him in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance towards forgiveness of sins, I require a counter-poise of good works to redeem it…” In this letter, Jefferson essentially puts himself on the same plane as Jesus, positioning both of them as moral thinkers who can debate key principles of religion.
Jefferson rejected any concept of salvation and might best be understood as an extreme From Below Unitarian, for whom Jesus was nothing more than a great moral teacher. Consequently, during the Election of 1800, when Jefferson was running against Adams, Adams’ supporters depicted Adams as a traditional Christian who would defend the Church against an atheistic Jefferson who wanted to outlaw the Bible. Both depictions are unfair and false.
In this context, it’s worth noticing that the Declaration of Independence, written primarily by Jefferson and then revised by Franklin and Adams, signals its Deism in its most famous passage. “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.” The use of “their Creator”, as well as the reference in the first paragraph to “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” are, in 18th century terms, a very clear indication that Jefferson, Adams and Franklin are not speaking of the Christian Triune God but the Deist one. (And in fact, “their Creator” was not in Jeferson’s original draft of the text at all, using rather the phrase “that equal creation”. Where exactly that change came in and which of them made it is unclear.) But changes in the way we use those terms today make the document seem to be a Christian one because of that ‘Creator’.
Madison and After
1776 doesn’t include any of the later presidents, but it’s worth saying a few words about them. James and Dolley Madison were only sporadic church-goers, and James was reticent to speak about his religious beliefs, to the point of opposing even religious proclamations as president. Several men who discussed religion with him came away with a sense that he was not a traditional Christian but perhaps a Deist; as one Episcopal bishop commented, their conversation “left the impression on my mind that his creed was not strictly regulated by the Bible.” His personal correspondence tends to favor Deist phrases over Christian ones, even when writing to clergy and his general views on religion (for example, what was acceptable behavior on Sundays) would likewise seem to point to a more Deist-influenced belief system than a traditional Christian one.
James Monroe and his wife Elizabeth were Episcopalians, and raised their daughters in that denomination. His public writings favor Deist phrases like “the Divine Author” and “the Almighty”. His private correspondence makes almost no mention of religion at all, except one early letter to a sick friend, in which he writes “The blessed influence of heaven is, I hope, on you; beware of heresy: danger, ruin, and perpetual misery await it.” He was also a Freemason (like Franklin and Washington and possibly Madison); Masons were required to believe in a god and the afterlife, but tended to be Deists. So the evidence for Monroe is mixed, and a case could be made for either traditional Anglicanism/Episcopalianism or Deism. But religion doesn’t seem to have interested him very much at all.
John Quincy Adams began life as a Trinitarian, but converted to Unitarianism as he grew older. Late in life, he wrote “I reverence God as my creator. As creator of the world. I reverence him with holy fear. I venerate Jesus Christ as my redeemer; and, as far as I can understand, the redeemer of the world. But this belief is dark and dubious.” So he seems to have been uncertain exactly what he thought about the divinity and redemptive function of Jesus.
John Quincy Adams
Subsequent presidents were more traditionally Christian. Jackson was a Presbyterian, Van Buren a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, William Henry Harrison an Episcopalian, and so on. Fillmore and Taft were Unitarians, the closest any later president has come to not being a Christian, with one very important exception.
Scholars have had a great deal of trouble pinning down Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs, and in recent years most scholars seem to lean toward viewing him as a Deist. His parents were Baptists, but he never joined any church and was sometimes scornful of Christian revivalists, although he did occasionally attend services of various denominations. He is known to have enjoyed reading Deist writings such as Paine’s works. While some ministers who knew him insisted that he believed in a personal savior, close personal friends insisted that he did not. During his run for the House of Representatives, he had to issue a document saying he “never denied the truths of the Scriptures”, a statement so tepid that it probably did not persuade any of his opponents. As president, there were certainly spiritual elements to his speeches and writings, and there is a certain Christian flavor to them. For example when a minister said that he hoped the Lord was on the Union side, Lincoln responded “I am not at all concerned about that….But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.” His Second Inaugural Address refers to God in some 14 times in the space of 2 paragraphs, using both the Deist “the Almighty” and the more Christian-sounding “Living God” and “the Lord”. So the evidence for Lincoln’s beliefs is decidedly vague.
Lincoln is the only president who never formally belonged to any denomination, and if that is our metric for Christianity, he would be unique in being the only non-Christian president. But as I’ve shown, when you assess the more nuanced question of personal belief, most of the early presidents show signs of being Deists rather than traditional Christians, and a case can be made that Andrew Jackson was America’s first truly Christian president.
Want to Know More?
David Holmes’ The Faiths of the Founding Fathers is an excellent look at the religious beliefs of the first five individual presidents (and their wives). I strongly recommend it as an introduction to the issues.