The Founders – Christians or Deists?

Religiously Classifying America’s Founding Fathers

Part 1: An Introduction

One of the most historically damaging and intellectually dishonest historical narratives promoted in the modern era is the claim that most or all of the American Founding fathers were adherents of deism. This introduction will be the first in a multi-part series of articles intended to help restore the factual historical narrative surrounding the religiosity of various individual American Founding Fathers.

There is a two-part cause behind this popularly accepted but factually incorrect narrative: 1.) the theological illiteracy of many modern observers, which often helps lead to 2.) the failure to define and properly use religious terminology.

It would prove very difficult for a sports-broadcaster to provide insightful commentary on a baseball game if they had never played or even watched the sport. It would be even worse if the broadcaster spent the majority of his career providing commentary for amateur figure-skating competitions. Regardless of whether or not the observer personally adheres to the religion of Christianity, they should at the least know the very basic doctrines of the religion if they are to analyze its place throughout American History.

Over the past century and aside from those few who specialize in the study of religion in the Founding Era, not many scholars or laymen (non-Christians and Christians alike) have seemed to display a solid command of the historical development of Christianity  in America. This should seem a bit unexpected, considering that the religion was the most popularly held in the United States in the Founding Era and remains as such today. Moreover, even less seem to understand the religious nature of deism during the time period commonly referred to as the Enlightenment. [1]

An insufficient knowledge of the basics of Christianity and the development of religious thought in the Western World during the 16th-18th Centuries tends to lead observers to use improper terminology when trying to communicate their analyses. While so many use the term deism, very few know what the term actually means in its historic context. When an observer does not possess a firm comprehension of the actual differences between Christianity and deism, they will struggle with correctly applying the terms. Herein lies the most problematic cause of the popular claim that most, if not all, of the Founders were deists.

Whether coming from the pen of a Christian or non-Christian, the following comments from some well-known historians, best-selling authors, professors and amateur writers/bloggers should help provide just a small sample of the extent to which this false narrative has seeped into the minds of the American populace:

“It is true that many of the distinguished political leaders of the Revolution were not very emotionally religious. At best, they only passively believed in organized Christianity, and at worst they scorned and ridiculed it. Most were deists or lukewarm churchgoers and scornful of religious emotion and enthusiasm.”[2]

“The Founding Fathers were at most deists… [and] were a very thin veneer on their society.”[3]

“The early presidents and patriots were generally deists or Unitarians, believing in some form of impersonal Providence but rejecting the divinity of Jesus and the relevance of the Bible.”[4]

“The primary leaders of the so-called founding fathers of our nation were not Bible-believing Christians; they were deists. Deism was a philosophical belief that was widely accepted by the colonial intelligentsia at the time of the American Revolution.” [5]

“…the Founding Fathers were on the whole deists who had a very abstract conception of God, whose view of God was not a God who acted in the world today and manipulated events in a way that actually changed the course of human history.” [6]

“[The Founders] were Deists who did not believe the Bible was true. They were Freethinkers who relied on their reason, not their faith.” [7]

The next two articles in this series will separately look at how the terms “deism” and “Christianity” have been defined in the past and how they should be defined when classifying the Founders. The remainder of this series will feature several articles, each of which being devoted to determining how to religiously classify either a single individual or set of individuals from amongst the extensive group of Founding Fathers. When analyzing each Founder, two questions will be asked: 1.) was this Founder a deist? 2.) if not a deist, to what level of theistic Christian orthodoxy did they hold?

Up Next In This Series: Deism – You Keep Using That Word

Notes:

  1. See for example: Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America; Geoffrey R. Stone, The World of the Framers: A Christian Nation?; Steven Waldman, Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America; Richard T. Hughes, Myths America Lives By; Steven J. Keillor, This Rebellious House: American History and the Truth of Christianity; David L. Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers; Brooke Allen, Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers; Chris Rodda, Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History; Isaac Kramnick, The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State; Chris Pinto, The Hidden Faith of the Founding Fathers
  2. Gordon S. Wood, The American Revolution. (New York: The Modern Library, 2002) p.129
  3. Gordon S. Wood,”The Radical Revolution,” American Heritage (December 1992 issue) p.52
  4. Steven Morris, “America’s Unchristian Beginnings,” The Los Angeles Times (August 3, 1995) p.B-9
  5. Tim Ferrell, “The Christian Nation Myth,” The Secular Web (Infidels Inc., 1999) online
  6. Jon Butler, “An Interview with Jon Butler … Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”(Interviewed by Rick Shenkman) online
  7. Ken Harding, “Our Founding Fathers Were Not Christians” (BibleTrash.com) online
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Categories: Articles, Founding Fathers | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “The Founders – Christians or Deists?

  1. Very interesting. Thank you so much for addressing this topic and truthfully explaining it.

  2. Pingback: Deism – You Keep Using That Word | American Christocrat

  3. Pingback: Who Do You Say That I Am? | American Christocrat

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