The Myth We've Been Told About the Faith of Our Founding Fathers

Some ill-informed people have perpetuated the myth that America's Founding Fathers were all evangelical Christians.

I offer the following insights from the excellent book, The Search for Christian America by Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, George M. Marsden. These three men are regarded as three of the finest historians on American religious history. And all three of them are evangelical Christians. Noll is Professor of History at Wheaton College, Hatch is President-Elect and Professor of History at Wake Forest University and former Provost and Director of Graduate Studies in History at Notre Dame, and Marsden is Professor of History at Calvin College.

The Faith of the Founding Fathers
It is difficult for modern Americans to recapture the religious spirit of the country’s great early leaders—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and their colleagues. The difficulty arises because these brilliant leaders, surely the most capable generation of statesmen ever to appear in America, were at once genuinely religious but not specifically Christian. Virtually all these great men had a profound belief in ‘the Supreme Judge of the world’ and in ‘the protection of Divine Providence,’ to use the words of the Declaration of Independence. Yet only a few believed in the orthodox teachings of traditional Christianity—that, for example, Christ’s death atoned for sin, that the Bible was a unique revelation from God, or that the miracles recorded in Scripture actually happened.

There were, to be sure, a few founding fathers who affirmed the cardinal tenets of orthodox Christianity…John Witherspoon…Patrick Henry, an evangelical Anglican… (and) John Jay, co-author of the Federalist Papers, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and like Henry, an Anglican of decidedly evangelical sentiments.

Most of the early leaders, however, did not share the Christian convictions of Henry and Jay.
Thomas Jefferson’s views are perhaps best known…the deity of Christ and his resurrection, the Trinity, the divine authority of Scripture—these were the ‘deliria of crazy imaginations.’
Benjamin Franklin…saw Christ primarily as a moral teacher and true religion as an expression of perfectible human nature.

George Washington was a reserved man who did not express his inward feelings easily on any personal matter, least of all religion…A recent biographer, Marcus Cunliffe, sums the matter up well: "It is true that he was a sound Episcopalian, but his religion, though no doubt perfectly sincere, was a social performance…He was a Christian as a Virginia planter understood the term. He seems never to have taken communion; he stood to pray, instead of kneeling; and he did not invariably go to church on Sundays."

The God of the founding fathers was a benevolent deity, not far removed from the God of the eighteenth-century Deists or nineteenth-century Unitarians…They were not, in any traditional sense, Christian. What historian Daniel Boorstin, now Librarian of Congress, once wrote about Jefferson and his friends applies to most of the founders: they had found in God what they most admired in men. (pp. 72-74)

One of the frequent themes (in the history of the United States) is the declaration of Americans that their nation is like a New Israel. From Puritan New England to the popular Christianity of today rings the refrain that America is to be understood not only in the light of Scripture, but especially through the parts of the Old Testament which describes the Hebrews as God’s special people.

For just as long, however, another heritage, going all the way back to Roger Williams, has questioned the America-as-Israel theme…Many Baptists, especially when concerned about the separation of church and state, have followed Williams in this New Testament emphasis. Anabaptists and most Lutherans in America, preserving older Reformation traditions, also have usually refused to seek political manifestations of the Kingdom. Revivalists from a variety of heritages have urged a simple New Testament message of personal salvation while carefully steering clear of any divisive social-political issues.

Even within the more Calvinistic tradition one important nineteenth-century teaching said that America was more like Babylon that like Israel. This was dispensationalism, which eventually spread widely in twentieth-century fundamentalism and Pentecostalism, which specifically repudiated the idea of ‘Christian’ nations or new Israels.

It is remarkable then that, despite so much in America’s theological heritage which repudiates political programs to establish a biblical nation or New Israel, these ideals persist with such power. Especially notable is the fact that these ideals flourish in some traditions where one might not expect them. So we find Jerry Falwell, a Baptist and a dispensationalist, directly repudiated his earlier view that clergy should stay out of politics. Falwell’s change of heart reflects his adoption of Puritan Old Testament models for understanding Christianity and the nation… America is to be brought back to her Christian heritage through political action. ‘It is time,’ proclaims Jerry Falwell, ‘for Americans to come back to the faith of our fathers, to the Bible of our fathers, and to the biblical principles that our fathers used as a premise for this nation’s establishment.’ Tim LaHaye concurs. Christians, he urges, must ‘vote in pro-moral leaders who will return our country to the biblical base upon which it was founded.’
(pp. 124-126)

Here then is the "historical error": It is historically inaccurate and anachronistic to confuse, and virtually to equate, the thinking of the Declaration of Independence with a biblical world view, or with Reformation thinking, or with the idea of a Christian nation. In other words it is wrong to call for a return to "Christian America" on two counts: First, for theological reasons--because since the time of Christ there is no such thing as God's chosen nation; second, for historical reasons, as we have seen--because it is historically incorrect to regard the founding of America and the formulation of the founding documents as being Christian in their origins. Yet this error is one of the most powerful ideas of our day. (p. 130)

Does it really matter if people hold to this mistaken view that America is, or was, or could become a truly Christian nation? Yes, it does matter. It matters because, if we are going to respond effectively to relativistic secularism, then we need to base our response upon reality rather than error. This is not to deny the positive influence that Christianity has indeed had upon the American way of life. Rather, it is to take it all the more seriously so that we may respond to it all the more effectively. (p. 131)


Byron said...

Yeah, I think that these guys are probably right; I doubt that many of those guys were "evangelical Christians", though I'm sure a few were. I think that the real deal is that the Founding Fathers generally DID operate off a shared moral consensus that was Judeo-Christian in origin. I think that we have generally operated that way as a nation for the better part of our history, prior to the Donahuization of America ("WHOSE morality, Reverend?"). Before maybe the 60's--a truly awful decade (except that I was born then), the term "morality" had a generally-agreed-upon definition. Getting back to the "religion of our Founding Fathers" might not be all it's cracked up to be; getting back to a shared moral consensus, such as was espoused by most all of them, would be a good thing.

Here's a website with some of their quotes:


Anonymous said...

"Because of the religious beliefs of the founding fathers, shouldn't the United States be considered a Christian nation?"

Based upon the writings of several important founding fathers, it is clear that they never intended the US to be a Christian nation. Here are some quotes; there are more in a companion document, and the archives at ftp.mantis.co.uk contain still more.

"What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not."
[James Madison, "A Memorial and Remonstrance", 1785.]

"I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved -- the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!"
[John Adams, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson.]

"History I believe furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance, of which their political as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purpose."
[Thomas Jefferson to Baron von Humboldt, 1813.]

"I cannot conceive otherwise than that He, the Infinite Father, expects or requires no worship or praise from us, but that He is even infinitely above it."
[Benjamin Franklin, from "Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion", Nov. 20, 1728.]

Bob Robinson said...

Quotes pulled out of context do not prove the point. We have examples here from Byron and "Anonymous"--both of which seem to "prove" one side or the other.
I think it better to read the insightful analysis of those who are experts in history (like Noll, Hatch, and Marsden) who are not easily swayed by quips and quotes.

caucazhin said...

This countries foundations are just as much if not more influenced by The Enlightenment, Freemasonry and Deism than “Christianity”.Deists and freemasons are obsessed with the ten commandments and earning their way to heaven and that all religions can lead to God through good moral conduct and "REASON". To them their really can't be anything supernatural like a spiritual rebirth or the resurrection.Many of our founder where either deistic freemasons or Unitarians.Both ultimately deny the power and authority of Christ when you get right down to it,although they love his moral teaching.Check these pages.


So I suppose the question is whether the gOD of "Reason",deism,freemasonry,"TheGreat Architect of The Universe" as they call him is really the same God you and I worship??Its also fascinating that swearing an oath in court or of office started with the inauguration of our first president a freemason.
This is a masonic ritual not a Christian one.

It is interesting that Christ tells us not to swear upon anything much less an Old or a New Testament.
This all came out of freemasonic rituals.Anyone who does their homework will find this so.

MATTHEW 5:33-37)”Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you,((Swear not at all)) neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne, Nor by the earth, for it is his footstool, neither by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King, Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black, But let your communication be, Yea, yea, Nay, nay, for(((whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.)))
JAMES 5:12
Above all, my brothers, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned.

For anyone who might be interested these free videos and many more on the subject they are well worth watching.




Anonymous said...

OF course they weren't CHristians. They were a bunch of New World Order- oriented FREEMASONS; which explains all thier occult symboligy all around Washington.

Anonymous said...

The taking out of context, elipsing whole parts of sentences, using parts of qoutes from different times, different documents (like personal letters0, and different people is called "text proofing." It is a clever and dishonest way of using the Founders to prove they all agreed with our present ideas. Dad

Bob Robinson said...

It is actually called "proof-texting," something that those of us trained in biblical exegesis and interpretation are taught NOT to do. My professor of New Testament, D.A. Carson used to say, "A text without its context is a pretext for a prooftext."