Monday, May 08, 2006

The Founding Fathers Were Not Christians

On this blog and in Darwinian Conservatism, I have argued that Darwin and the evolutionary science that he founded supports religious belief, at least insofar as religion helps to reinforce the moral sense inherent in human nature. Moreover, Darwin acknowledges that the ultimate origin of life is mysterious in such a way that one cannot reject the idea of God as First Cause of life.

But for many American Christian conservatives, this is not enough. They insist that nothing less than orthodox Christian piety can support the traditional morality defended by conservatives.

One manifestation of this thought is the current obsession about the religious beliefs of the American Founding Fathers. Recently, there have been a half dozen or more books on the religious beliefs of the Founders--those who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution--to determine whether they were orthodox Christians. Many Christian conservatives want to argue that the Founders were good Christians who saw Christian beliefs as essential for the moral and political health of the nation.

To me this ignores the obvious fact that the American Founders were not orthodox Christians but Deists. In other words, they were open to talking about how the "Almighty" created the universe, including human beings, and how this "Almighty" enforced a moral law in the universe. But they did not believe that God intervened in human affairs in answer to prayers. Nor did they believe in the divinity of Jesus as the incarnation of God. They spoke often about how important religion might be for reinforcing healthy morality. But they were not inclined to believe in the salvational power of Jesus or the efficacy of prayer for changing events.

Consider just the most obvious evidence. The Declaration of Independence refers to God as Creator and Lawgiver. But there are no references to Jesus or Christianity. The Constitution of the United States makes no references to Jesus or God, except for dating the document "in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth." The only reference to "religion" is the clause declaring that "no religious test" shall be required for any public office (Article 6). In the Ratification Debates, this "no religious test" clause was criticized by some Christians as an anti-Christian provision.

The most revealing evidence comes from a notorious episode in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia. On June 28th, the delegates appeared to be deadlocked in their debates because of the opposing interests of large States and small States. Benjamin Franklin rose to propose that the Convention invite some local minister to attend and offer daily prayers to invoke the aid of God. "If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without God's notice, is it probable that an empire without his aid?" According to a popular legend, the Convention accepted Franklin's proposal, and from the moment that they had these prayers, the deadlock was broken by God's providential intervention. This story has been repeated by many American ministers as evidence that the American Constitution was divinely inspired. 

I first heard this story as a child when it was part of a sermon at the First Baptist Church of Wills Point, Texas.  But years later, as a college student in a class on the American Founding, I was shocked when I looked at James Madison's notes for the Convention as edited by Max Farrand in the Yale University Press edition (particularly 1:450-52, 3:470-73, 3:499, 3:531), and I saw that this story was false. Franklin did make his proposal for daily prayer at the Convention. But the response was silence.  Finally, Alexander Hamilton offered a quip about how they did not need "foreign aid." The motion was dropped.

This is not the action of good Christians. It is the action of men who respected religious belief, but who did not believe that God would answer their prayers and intervene to promote their political success. Since the meetings of the Convention were kept secret, they were not concerned about public appearances. If the meetings had been open to the public, they surely would have felt compelled to accept Franklin's motion.

The American Founders were conservatives with a realistic view of human nature, who designed a Constitution based on their view that the concentration of power was dangerous, and therefore that the best government was a limited government of separated powers with checks and balances. Moreover, they believed in the importance of family life and private property in securing individual liberty and moral order. They also believed that religion could provide support for such principles. In all of this, they conformed to what I have called "Darwiniana conservatism."

But none of this requires a pious belief in orthodox Christianity. Anyone who wants to turn the American Founders into good Christians must deny the most obvious facts about their words and deeds.


Martin Clarke said...

I don't think it's accurate to say "the founding fathers were deists."

John Witherspoon was a signer of the declaration and a minister and president of Princeton. He taught almost ten percent of the founders. (See Ellis Sandoz' book)

Charles Carrol of Carrolton was a devout Catholic. Benjamin Rush was an Evangelical. John Jay was a Christian. Alexander Hamilton was a Christian during at least parts of his life (beginning and end).

Roger Sherman of Connecticut was the only founder to sign all four founding documents of the nation. He was a Congregational theologian whose tombstone says:

"He ever adorned
the profession of Christianity
which he made in youth;
and distinguished through life
for public usefulness,
died in the prospect of a blessed immortality. "

Larry Arnhart said...

Martin Clarke:

Actually, your comment about Roger Sherman is particularly pertinent. I was mistaken in saying that Franklin's proposal for daily prayer at the Convention was not seconded. According to Madison's notes, Sherman seconded the motion.

But isn't it remarkable that there was so little support for this motion? Why did they adjourn without even voting on it? Franklin added a note on his speech that "The Convention, except three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary." Why was this?

Martin Clarke said...

I don't profess to be an expert on the American founders or their religion, so I can't give an answer.

I have read a fair amount of the religion of some of the founders and I don't see the evidence that they were all (or at least 90%) Deists as you indicate.

I tend to think that many of the "big names" (Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and maybe Washington) were non-traditional believers, but if you look at "second tier" types such as those I mentioned, their beliefs were probably more representative of the public at large. For example, I could have mentioned Patrick Henry.

M.E. Bradford wrote a book some years ago called A Worthy Company in which he found that most founders professed Christianity and were members of orthodox churches. Of course, membership is a nebulous thing.

Jonathan said...

-- But they did not believe that God intervened in human affairs in answer to prayers. --

I would argue that these Founders did believe in a God who intervened, but not one who broke the laws of nature and science while doing so.

Look at Ben Franklin's quotation which you referenced. Isn't he talking about a God who intervenes?

I tend to agree with everything else you say: These Founders clearly weren't orthodox Christians, but rather Enlightenment influenced theological Unitarians who put their faith in man's Reason over Biblical Revelation. But their writings are replete with references to a warm, intervening Providence, as opposed to a cold distant Watchmaker.

Did you happen to read Gregg Frazer's article that was posted on Claremont's website a little while back?

Jonathan said...

-- M.E. Bradford wrote a book some years ago called A Worthy Company in which he found that most founders professed Christianity and were members of orthodox churches. --

And that includes Thomas Jefferson who was not just a member, but like Washington, a vestryman in the Episcopalian Church. That in itself demonstrates the flaw in Bradford's categorization method. Many church members, especially many Virginia Anglicans, didn't believe in their church's creeds and tended toward Deism and Unitarianism in their personal faith.

Bill Chinaski said...

"Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear."
—Thomas Jefferson, letter, 1787

andy holland said...

Fortunately, God does not require a majority to act. 'Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.' If there were three or four Christians who prayed, that was enough for the deadlock to end.

God can be found scientifically - the three wise men were scientists who found the Incarnate Word following an anomalous star (who appears to this very day).

If you want to find God quickly, seek out a believer who is mentally retarded and talk to them for a long time about God.

The devil cannot touch humility; if you humble yourself intellectually, you will find God quickly "intellectually" and be utterly amazed.

Rob Watson said...

You are so wrong, Larry. I can prove it just by citing Thomas Jefferson. I don't know what books you tend to read, but the book I'm citing from is over 800 pages, including bibliography, of over 2,000 statesmen and what they believed about God, religion, and politics. Nearly all of them profess Catholic or creedal Christianity.

Larry Arnhart said...

Rob Watson,

In your account of Jefferson's religious beliefs, you ignore some simple facts. Jefferson denied the divinity of Jesus. Jefferson's Bible eliminates from the Gospels all supernatural references.

How can someone who denies the divinity and miracles of Jesus be a Christian?

Rob Watson said...

Can you show me from this online copy of Jefferson's Bible where you think he denies the divinity of Jesus? Or denying the divinity of Jesus was his intent upon producing the book?

I just don't see it myself. All I see was that he wished to make "a wee little book" of notes for his personal use and not for wide publication. He meant it to be composed of just the sayings of Jesus, in multiple languages, so he could focus only on those particular sayings separate and apart from the interpretations of his teachings which the disciples gave. He was not, to my reading of it, trying to reinvent the Bible or to usurp the authority of the Bible with his own gospel of Jesus. And, he was certainly not opposed to the teaching that Jesus was divine.

Larry Arnhart said...

Rob Watson,

Notice the opening verses of Jefferson's Bible. He very carefully deletes the biblical references to the virgin birth--that Mary's conception was by the Holy Spirit--and to the visitation by the angel Gabriel. He also deletes the references to the birth of Jesus as a fulfillment of prophecy.

Can you point out to me any verse in Jefferson's Bible where he affirms the divinity of Jesus?

Rob Watson said...

In critiquing manuscript, it is important to get the whole picture. You can't limit yourself to a reading of only the main content of a manuscript. If it's available, you also have to consider the history, background, circumstances, and the author's intents. In reading the preface, I don't get the impression that he excluded the virgin birth of Christ because he didn't believe it.

Note in the Introduction, Mr. Ainsworth R. Spofford, the Librarian of Congress at the time of its official, Congressional printing, says:

"...Texts were cut by him out of printed copies of Greek, Latin, French and English Testaments and pasted in this book of blank pages...His original idea was to have the life and teachings of the Saviour, told in similar excerpts [as opposed to "in total completeness"], prepared for the Indians, thinking this simple form would suit them best."

Also: "Extracted from the account of his life and doctrines as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Being an abridgment of the New Testament for the use of the Indians, unembarassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehensions."

Of further note, Jefferson himself did not refer to his manuscript (not really a manuscript, but more of a Biblical scrapbook) as a "Bible". In fact, he took great pains to not have his name associated with it for fear of the very discussion we're having today...that somehow he may have been seen as re-interpreting or re-writing the Bible.

"After telling his correspondent that he was very cautious about not having the syllabus, which he had prepared, get out in connection with his name, being unwilling to draw on himself "a swarm of insects, whose buzz is more disquieting than their bite, I made for, my own satisfaction, an extract from the Evangelists of the text of His morals, selecting those only whose style and spirit proved them genuine, and his own....It was too hastily done, however, being the work of one or two evenings only, while I lived at Washington, overwhelmed with other business, and it is my intention to go over it again at more leisure..."

Vanderkemp, to whom he wrote the foregoing, wanted to publish what Jefferson had done to-date at that time. Jefferson agreed to it, but with one condition: "...that no possibility shall be admitted of my name being even intimated with the publication." In other words, he was being modest and prudent in not letting on to his "authorship" of this Biblical scrapbook and didn't want others thinking it was to be considered a new and authoritative version of the Bible. If he had intended such, no doubt he would have made it known.

Larry Arnhart said...

The purpose of Jefferson's Bible is suggested by his letter to Joseph Priestly of April 9, 1803. Jefferson indicated that he wanted to formulate his "view of the Christian system" as compatible with pagan philosophy. To do that, he would present Jesus as having "endeavored to bring them [the Jews] to the principles of a pure deism."

The "principles of pure deism" are not enough for orthodox Christianity. But they are enough for Unitarians. In fact, the Unitarians embrace Jefferson's Bible as one of their favorite texts.

Rob Watson said...

Before discussing further, I'd like to know what definition of "deism" you have in mind. There are some differences between what deism is understood to be from today's perspective on history vs. when Thomas Jefferson was alive.

Even a cursory search of "define: deism" in Google turns up a number of contradictory definitions, or at least, variations on that theme. I'm interested in knowing which variation (or combination thereof) you're referencing by your use of the word "Deist".

Larry Arnhart said...

Deists like Jefferson believe in "Nature's God" rather than the God of the Bible.

"Nature's God" can be inferred by natural reason as the First Cause. By contrast, the God of the Bible can be known only by supernatural revelation. Jefferson never says that the Bible is the revealed word of God. Instead, he looks to the Bible as, at best, a manifestation of a natural religion of reason. The Unitarians carry on that tradition of thought.

Timothy Bjorkman said...


I love the intelligent discussion that your blog has inspired.

Although I tend to agree with Mr. Watson's arguments, I do notice one thing - he still has not answered where Jefferson acknowledges the divinity of Jesus Christ.

This topic of the Founding Fathers being Catholic / Christian is very interesting to me. With that said, the text that I've found so far leaves Mr. Watson as the only person to option Jefferson as a Christian; all other text seemed to point that he is at least CLEARLY a deist if not completely against Christianity. One quote would even go as far as to have Jefferson referencing Judeo-Christian beliefs in the same breath as crap. He said, "... the fabric of inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills."

Please, Larry and Rob, continue this conversation - I am very interested to see where it leads. This topic is of great interest to me, but I am in no manner at liberty to contribute an "educated" rebuttal to either of you; your dialogue will prove to be one contributing factor to my education on this subject.

With Blessings - that come from God the creator ;-) and Father of Christ Jesus ;-),
-Tim Bjorkman

Larry Arnhart said...

Notice that Rob Watson has not commented on the primary evidence I presented in my post--the lack of interest in Franklin's proposal for prayer at the Constitutional Convention.

Here we see the men who wrote the Constitution showing no interest at all in praying to God for help in their work. Apparently, they didn't even want to take the time to discuss this.

Since this all happened in secret, it's a remarkable piece of evidence that the framers of the Constitution were not Christians.

It's amazing that in all of the discussion of the religious beliefs of the founders, there is no attention given to this incident.

Timothy Bjorkman said...

It's even worth mentioning that as deists, or whatever they claimed to be, they did not request prayer to any God, whether it be a Christian's God, a deist's "Almighty" / "All-knowing", or a Freemason's "Supreme Architect." If they did believe in A God, just not a Christian God, I would think that they'd still like prayer to happen. Of course I'd suppose that notion would hinge on whether or not one believes that deists believe that their Almighty is a God of intervention or merely of creation, who retires into eternal observation of said creation.

I would still submit that there were many Christians among the many men there. John Adams was one openly Christian man, Patrick Henry was another, and although this is sure to cause debate, George Washington has many personal papers , letters, and the testimony of his step-daughter that would lead one to believe that he too had a relationship with a Judeo-Christian God. His acknowledgment of Jesus Christ was not infrequent. It did grow more obscure less specific as time passed though.

Alexander Hamilton: "I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am a sinner. I look to Him for mercy; pray for me." Also, would seem to be a Christian...

Mr. Watson, I'm dying to hear your two cents!


Rob Watson said...

gathering thoughts and notes on this still while trying to get through a crisis at work and 12 people coming to Thanksgiving. promise i will post.

Rob Watson said...

as luck would have it, fell on ice and injured rotator cuff. can't type a lot these days. still bookmarking this conversation for another time.

Anonymous said...

A subtle way to avoid the question is, in itself, a response...