Founding Fathers

Who Do You Say That I Am?

 

jesus who do you sayReligiously Classifying America’s Founding Fathers

Part 3: Christianity Defined

It has been nearly two millennia since Christ walked the Earth, and shockingly there is still much debate over what constitutes the  true doctrines of the religion He established. Over the centuries, literally hundreds of Christian denominations have been formed, with each having produced various Creeds, Catechisms and Confessions all in attempts to cement what should be considered the “true measure” of Christian teaching. Despite the present existence of division in [mostly minor] points of  doctrine and Biblical interpretation, much of which can be considered adiaphora, it should nonetheless still be possible to establish a definition that Biblically reflects the most fundamental beliefs that must be held by those who confess to, and should rightfully be referred to as, being a “Christian.”

As recorded in Acts 11:26, the Greek word “Christianous” (Χριστιανούς), which literally translates to “follower of Christ,” was first used in reference to the “disciples in Antioch.” Most modern dictionaries similarly define the word Christian as identifying “one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ.”[1] For the sake of preserving historical context, the dictionaries of the Colonial and Founding Eras should again be reviewed. However, these sources provide definitions for the term that are nearly just as general. Noah Webster wrote that a Christian is “a believer in the religion of Christ; a professor of his belief in the religion of Christ”and Samuel Johnson, Nathan Bailey and Edward Phillips all gave almost identical definitions.[2]

Understandably, it should be suspected that neither the majority of Christians nor of secularists would be satisfied with such general definitions because none of them explicitly describe what constitutes the “teachings of Jesus Christ.” The first place most would look to for a summary of these teachings would be the various Creeds, Catechisms and Confessions of the several denominations within Christianity. I will disclaim that I personally believe that the three Ecumenical Creeds are pure confessions of the main doctrines of Christianity. However, I should also make some clarifications in regards to both the Nicene and the Athanasian Creeds.

Each of these three creeds builds upon the previous with a noticeable increase in technicality and detail. For example, the oldest creed, the Apostles Creed, built off of the earlier Old Roman Creed, which can arguably be considered an extension of the confession made by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians.[3]  The Apostles Creed is the most simplistic of the three and while the doctrine of the Trinity is quite implicit, the teaching is not explicit in a strict reading of the text. In the next oldest creed, the Nicene Creed, an affirmation of the co-essential divinity of the Son (Jesus) is quite evident.

The Athanasian Creed was established to defend against Arianism and hence explicitly speaks of the Trinity. While I agree that all theological and Christological teaching contained within it is correct doctrine of “the catholic [Christian] faith,” I fear that it reaches too far in several of its so-called “damnation clauses.” The Creed holds that if a man does not “keep whole and undefiled” the Christian faith “without doubt he shall perish everlastingly,” that unless he “thinks of the Trinity ” and believes “faithfully the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he would therefore not “believe faithfully and fully” the Christian faith and thus “cannot be saved.” The closing line of the last full section eerily sounds like works righteousness in stating that “they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.”

While I believe that the Athanasian Creed speaks very correctly about the nature of the Trinity and that such confession is supported by Scripture, I cannot consider its declaration that (paraphrasing) “the Trinity must be believed to be saved” as being explicitly confirmed by the Bible. If the Creed claims to contain nothing but what the faith of Christianity teaches, then such a damnatory statement would have to be undeniably spoken of in Scripture. But the problem with this, as will be explained soon, is that nowhere in the Bible does it say that one must believe in the Trinitarian understanding of the Godhead to receive salvation.  Thus, while I acknowledge the usefulness of all three of these Creeds for the purpose of teaching the true Christian Faith, in this series I will not reference them as measures of salvation, but rather as measures of Christian orthodoxy.

In his essay, The Reasonableness of Christianity, John Locke gives what I believe to be the simplest, yet purest and Biblically supported definition of what makes somebody a Christian. As Locke writes in the beginning of his piece, “believing on the Son, is the believing that Jesus was the Messiah… This was the great proposition that was then controverted concerning Jesus of Nazareth, whether He was the Messiah or no? and the assent to that, was that which distinguished the believers from the unbelievers.”[4] Locke evidences this by pointing to the statement of faith made by the Apostle Simon Peter (recorded in Matthew 16:16-18) who, when asked by Jesus, declared Him to be “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” the confession divinely revealed to him by God upon which “Our Savior said He would build His Church.”[5] He continues citing several instances recorded in Scripture of individuals who made this confession of faith. For example, he quotes John 11:26 when Jesus declares that “Whosoever believeth in me shall never die” and Martha’s confession of belief, then asserts that “this answer of hers sheweth what it is to believe in Jesus, so as to have eternal life, viz. to believe that he is the Messiah the Son of God, whose coming was foretold by the prophets.”[6]

At a quick glance, Scripture appears to simply teach that all which is absolutely necessary for Salvation is the confession that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah, the Son of God. Locke cites the later part of a section of well-known verses from John’s Gospel when Jesus declares “He that believeth on the Son hath eternal life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life.”[7] Locke points out that “this was the only Gospel article of faith which was preached to them” and thus were required to believe because as Paul asks in Romans 10:14,”How shall they believe what whereof they have not heard?”[8] In anticipation of a challenging reference to James 2:19, Locke explains that “though the devils [demons] believed, yet they could not be saved by the covenant of grace because they performed not the other condition required in it altogether as necessary to be performed as this of believing: and that is repentance.” As Locke concludes, there is a more to the “covenant of grace” than simply confessing who Jesus is, because together with faith, “repentance is as absolute a condition.”[9]

Throughout his essay, Locke touches on many other points of historical Christian doctrine including [his reasonable understanding of] Original Sin[10] and the Virgin birth[11], both of which Locke firmly believed. Moreover, Locke devotes substantial time towards discussing Christ’s miracles[12] and most importantly His Resurrection[13], repeatedly stating that these were things that a Christian must believe. But when he says “must,” Locke does not always use the word as in the manner of saying that  “one must believe Jesus is the Messiah to be saved,” but at times in a manner of saying that “the evidence is so great and reasonable that one must surely believe it”or “you must be joking.” It is absolutely necessary to recognize this differentiation in order to understand the final points which Locke makes to close his  essay.

As Locke discusses the purpose of the Epistles, he again anticipates a challenge to his arguments:

“If the belief of Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah, together with those concomitant articles of His Resurrection, rule and coming again to judge the world be all the faith required as necessary to justification… if the belief of those many doctrines contained in [the Epistles] be not also necessary to salvation… [could] a Christian…disbelieve, and yet nevertheless be a member of Christ’s Church and one of the faithful?”[14]

In simpler words, could a person really be considered a Christian if they do not believe in every truthful doctrine (such as Christ’s Divinity, all of His miracles, the Trinity, Original Sin, the Virgin birth etc.) contained within Christianity, in particular ones that are discussed in the Epistles without explicit mention in the Gospels?  Could ignorance or even disbelief of certain Biblical truths result in a person not receiving salvation? Locke’s response is deeply profound and spans several pages. The following is his conclusion, quoted at length but condensed:

“There may be truths in the Bible which a good Christian may be wholly ignorant of and so not believe, which, perhaps, some lay great stress on and call fundamental articles… These holy writers, inspired from above, writ nothing but truth and in most places very weighty truths to us now, for the expounding, clearing and confirming of the Christian doctrine… But every sentence of theirs must not be taken up and looked on as a fundamental article to salvation, without an explicit belief whereof nobody could be a member of Christ’s Church here nor be admitted into His eternal kingdom hereafter… God alone can appoint what shall be necessarily believed by every one whom He will justify… But yet a great many of the truths revealed in the Gospel, everyone does and must confess, a man may be ignorant of, nay disbelieve, without danger to his salvation… Though all divine revelation requires the obedience of faith, yet every truth of inspired Scripture is not one of those that by the law of faith is required to be explicitly believed [for] justification. What those [truths] are [that are required for justification], we have seen by what Our Savior and His Apostles proposed to and required in those whom they converted to the faith. Those are fundamentals which…everyone is required actually to assent to them. But any other proposition contained in the Scripture, which God has not thus made a necessary part of the law of faith, a man may be ignorant of without hazarding his salvation by a defect in his faith.[15]

The following summarizes the “fundamentals” that Locke determined are explicitly declared in Scripture, which exhibit the most basic and purest essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Belief in these “necessary fundamentals” is what makes a person a Christian and guarantees their salvation:

“[God] promised a deliverer whom in His good time He sent; and then declared to all mankind that whoever would believe in Him to be the Saviour promised and take Him now raised from the dead and constituted the Lord and Judge of all men, to be their King and Ruler, should be saved. This is a plain, intelligible proposition…these are articles that the labouring and illiterate man may comprehend… Had God intended that none but the learned scribe, the disputer or wise of this world should be Christians or be saved, thus religion should have been prepared for them… but men of that expectation… the apostle tells us (1 Cor. 1) are rather shut out from the simplicity of the Gospel to make way for those poor, ignorant, illiterate who heard and believed the promises of a deliverer, and believed Jesus to be Him; who could conceive a man dead and made alive again and believe that He should, at the end of the world, come again and pass sentence on all men according to their deeds.”[16]

It is this confession of faith, that 1.) Jesus is the Messiah who 2.) was crucified for mans redemption who 3.) rose from the dead and 4.) would return to judge the world and gather His believers unto eternal salvation, by which each of the Founders analyzed in this series will be measured. Should a Founder be proven to meet this standard of belief and be considered a Christian, the three Ecumenical Creeds will then be used to measure the level to which their beliefs aligned with historic, Biblical Christian orthodoxy.

Finally, it should be remembered that while the goal of this investigation is to classify the Founders on the basis of their professions of faith, by no means should any conclusions presented here be taken as affirmations or condemnations of the state of any individual’s salvation. As men, we can only judge our neighbor by his words and actions. It is God alone, the only one Lawgiver and Judge (Js 4:12), who sees the hearts of men (Jer 17:10, 1 Sam 16:7) and who determines eternal judgement (Ps 75:7).

Previous In This Series: Deism Defined           |       Up Next In This Series: TBD

Notes:

  1. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2013); Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus (Cambridge University Press, 2013); Merriam-Webster Dictionary (Merriam-Webster Inc., 2014); Random House Dictionary (Random House, Inc. 2013)
  2. Noah Webster,American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) online; Samuel Johnson and John Walker, A Dictionary of the English Language (London: William Pickering, Chauncey Lane; George Cowie & Co. Poultry, 1775)  p.190 online; Nathan Bailey, An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (London: 1726) p.222, onlineEdward Phillips, The New World of English Words (London: 1720) p. 210, online
  3. “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 (ESV) online
  4. John Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity, edited by I.T. Ramsey (California: Stanford University Press, 1958) p. 32
  5. Ibid. p.33
  6. Ibid.
  7. John 3:26 (ESV), Also see verses 16-19 online
  8. The Reasonableness of Christianity, p.44
  9. Ibid. See 1 John 1:9, Luke 13:3, Acts 3:19, Acts 2:38
  10. Quoting Scripture, Locke argues that by Adam’s Fall (the “original sin”), death entered the world and that “by reason of his [Adam’s] transgression, all men are mortal and come to die.”[1 Corinthians 15:22, Romans 5:12] This was the “stain of sin”, the result of the Fall, that all men would be born in a state of mortality, and that “everyone’s sin is charged upon himself only.” [Deuteronomy 24:16, Galatians 6:5] Ibid. pp.25-31
  11. “God nevertheless, out of His infinite mercy, willing to bestow eternal life on mortal mend, sends Jesus Christ into the world; who being conceived in the womb of a virgin (that had not known man) by the immediate power of God, was properly the Son of God.” Ibid. p.45
  12. “To convince men of this, He did His miracles and their assent to, or not assenting to this made them to be, or not to be, of His Church; believers or not believers.”Ibid. p.33; “The evidence of Our Saviour’s mission from Heaven is so great, in the multitude of miracles He did before all sorts of people, that what he delivered cannot but be received as the oracles of God.” Ibid. p.57; “He was sent by God; His miracles shew it and the authority of God in His precepts cannot be questioned.” Ibid. pp.63-64
  13. “And therefore those who believed Him to be the Messiah must believe that He was risen from the dead; And those who believed Him to be risen from the dead could not doubt His being the Messiah.” Ibid. p. 34
  14. Ibid. p.71
  15. Ibid. pp.71-77
  16. Ibid. p.75
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The Electoral College: Back To School

To many the system by which we choose the President of the United States seems confusing, overly-complex, old-fashioned and even unfair. I will be the first to admit that the current Electoral system is not perfect, but the republican (not the political party) principles behind it are. A simple National Popular Vote compromises those principles and thus I will never support that format. However, that doesn’t mean I’m not open to an amendment putting new, better ideas into practice. Although, by new ideas, I actually mean reviving “old ideas” posed and supported by the likes of Madison and Jefferson only decades after the Constitution was ratified.

“I am aware that some of these objections might be mitigated, if not removed; but not I suspect in a degree, to render the proposed modification of the Executive Department, an eligible substitute for the one existing. At the same time I am duly sensible of the evils incident to the existing one, and that a solid improvement of it is a desideratum that ought to be welcomed by all enlightened patriots.”
– James Madison to James Hillhouse, 17 May 1830

“On the subject of an election by a general ticket, or by districts, most persons here seem to have made up their minds.  All agree that an election by districts would be best, if it could be general…”
– Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 12 January 1800

What Madison and Jefferson were referring to was the process by which the individual states should choose their electors (aka, their electoral votes). The Constitution was never specific in that regard but instead let the state legislatures decide for themselves. Hence why, for example, Nebraska and Maine can split their electoral votes.

Even though various states have used various modes of electoral appointment over the years, currently (since the end of the Civil War) all states except for NE/ME appoint electoral votes via a statewide, winner-take-all “popular vote” (in 1800 language, “general ticket”).  That’s not the format many of the prominent Founders favored, but it unfortunately became a part of the American system due to political competitiveness. As Jefferson added “while ten States choose either by their legislatures or by a general ticket, it is folly and worse than folly for the other six not to do it,” i.e. everybody’s doing it!

So what Madison, Jefferson and the others suggested was a district system where a state’s Electors (electoral votes) were appointed through the winning of Congressional districts within each state.

“I agree entirely with you in thinking that the election of Presidential Electors by districts… The district mode was mostly, if not exclusively in view when the Constitution was framed and adopted…A constitutional establishment of that mode will doubtless aid in reconciling the smaller States to the other change which they will regard as a concession on their part. The States when voting for President by general tickets or by their Legislatures, are a string of beads; when they make their elections by districts, some of these differing in sentiment from others, and sympathizing with that of districts in other States, they are so knit together as to break the force of those geographical and other noxious parties which might render the repulsive too strong for the cohesive tendencies within the Political System.”
– James Madison to George Hay, 23 August 1823

In another letter, Madison again warns of some of the problems with “general tickets” (popular vote):

“If the election be referred immediately to the people, however, they may be liable to an excess of excitement on particular occasions. They will on ordinary occasions and where the Candidates are least known feel too little; yielding too much to the consideration, that in a question depending on Millions of votes, individual ones, are not worth the trouble of giving them. There would be great encouragement therefore for active partizans to push up their favorites to the Upper places on the list, and by that means force a choice between candidates, to either of whom, others lower on the list, would be preferred. Experience gives sufficient warning of such results.”
– James Madison to Robert Taylor, 30 January 1826

Hence, why he favored the district model:

“An election by Districts, instead of general tickets, & State Legislatures, and an avoidance of a decision by the House of Representatives voting by States, would certainly be changes much for the better…”
– James Madison to Robert Taylor, 30 January 1826

While many of the formally educated and armchair political scientists who presently advocate changing the electoral system would like to consider themselves modern geniuses, at least two of the most intelligent Founding Founders saw room for improvement to the system centuries ago. Not only did they quickly identify the previously unforeseen problem caused by a combination of democracy, factious competition and exploitation, but they just as quickly provided quite the fair and logical remedy. Following the advice of these two Founders would help perfect the electoral system, and thus further protect and promote the republican principles enshrined in the Constitution.

 

For more reading:

James Madison to George Hay, 23 August 1823

James Madison to Robert Taylor, 30 January 1826

James Madison to James Hillhouse, 17 May 1830

Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 12 January 1800

Wallbuilders Article on the Electoral College

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Deism – You Keep Using That Word

DeismReligiously Classifying America’s Founding Fathers

Part 2: Deism Defined

It would be impossible to determine the validity of the claims cited in the previous introduction to this series, without first establishing what the actual definition of the term”deism” constitutes. Most modern dictionaries similarly define deism as being something along the lines of:

“A religious belief holding that God created the universe and established rationally comprehensible moral and natural laws but does not intervene in human affairs through miracles or supernatural revelation”[1]

“The belief in a single God who does not act to influence events, and whose existence has no connection with religions, religious buildings, or religious books, etc.”[2]

“A movement or system of thought advocating natural religion, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century denying the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe.” [3]

“Belief in the existence of a God on the evidence of reason and nature only, with rejection of supernatural revelation (distinguished from theism ). Belief in a God who created the world but has since remained indifferent to it.”[4]

Historian and professor Jon Butler has, for example,described deism as having “masqueraded as religion but was thoroughly irreligious” arguing that “Deists admitted the justice of religious claims, but they made religion irrelevant to contemporary life. The deists’ god was dead.”[5] Fellow historian and professor Gregg L. Frazer gives a slightly more accurate definition, referring to deism as “the primary expression of natural religion in the eighteenth century…a belief system on its own and a critique of Christianity” and that its essence was “the effective absence of God and the denial of any written revelation.”[6]  

Flaws in Frazer’s definition force him to have to create his own term, Theistic Rationalism,  to classify the more unorthodox Founders (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton). Frazer refuses to consider any of these individuals to be, in even the slightest sense, Christians.  But he runs into a significant problem because by his definition, these men couldn’t be considered deists. If Frazer would have applied the more historically and practically correct definition, then he’d have struggled less. The various problems with Frazer’s means of classification and terminology will likely be addressed throughout this series, but for an excellent analysis of Frazer, see The Founders and the Myth of Theistic Rationalism by Bill Fortenberry.[7]

The most accurate approach to understanding the ideas intended to be communicated by a historical figure is to look at the definitions of the words used according to their historical context. Given how frequently the meanings and connotations of words change, a modern dictionary is not always a reliable source.  The earliest confirmed occurrence of an entry for the word “deism”in an English dictionary can be found in Edward Phillip’s  The New World of English Words. First published in 1658, the third-edition from 1720 defines deism as “the belief of those who only acknowledge one God, without distinction of persons.”[8]

In the 1726 edition of his An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (first published in 1721 with the final 30th edition published in 1802), fellow English lexicographer Nathan Bailey defined deism as:

“the Belief of those who, denying all revealed Religion, acknowledge only the Natural. viz the Existence of one God, his Providence, Virtue and Vice, the Immortality of the Soul. and Rewards and Punishments after Death.”[9]

Previous to his death in 1742, Bailey also published a second, but less popular, volume in 1727 closely titled  The Universal Etymological English Dictionary that contained additional words not contained in the first. In his initial volume and its later revisions, Bailey gave a simple definition for “deists” as  being “those who adhere to Deism.” However, in this second volume, which was intended to be more technical, he provided a subtly different but more enlightening definition for the word “deists”:

“a sect among the Christians of most or all denominations, who believe there is one God, a Providence, the immortality of the soul, virtue and vice, rewards and punishments: but reject revelation, and believe no more than what natural light discovers to them, and believe no other article of the Christian religion or any other.”[10]

Bailey’s second definition indicates that, during that time period, deists were considered as being a sub-classification within Christianity. These early definitions are nearly synonymous with the later terms non-Trinitarian and Unitarian which both came into more popular usage during the mid-late 18th Century in attempts to lump together the various sects of Christians who rejected the Athanasian Creed. Essentially, within the religion of Christianity, the first sub-classification would be into Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians (or Unitarians). Each of these two categories contained sects that eventually branched out further, for example the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant churches being the three main Trinitarian groups and the Arians and Socinians being the two main Unitarian groups.

As evidenced by Samuel Johnston’s A Dictionary of the English Language, the definition for deism had already starting shedding most of its inherent Christian influence by 1755. In his best-selling dictionary of the 18th Century, Johnston gave a simplified definition for deism, referring to it as being “the opinion of those that only acknowledge one God, without the reception of revealed religion.”[11]  This lack of descriptiveness in this definition might help explain why so many were incorrectly deists during the Enlightenment.

It would not be until the closing years of the Founding Era that a dictionary would again provide a more accurate definition for deism. Founder Noah Webster, in his 1828 work, the first edition of what would become the most popular line of American-English dictionaries in history, defined deism as being:

“The belief or system of religious opinions of those who acknowledge the existence of one God, but deny revelation: or deism is the belief in natural religion only, or those truths, in doctrine and practice, which man is to discover by the light of reason, independent and exclusive of any revelation from God. Hence deism implies infidelity or a disbelief in the divine origin of the [Christian] Scriptures.”[12]

Webster also made sure to differentiate between deism, theism and atheism writing that :

“[Theism is] the belief or acknowledgment of the existence of a God, as opposed to atheism. Theism differs from deism, for although deism implies a belief in the existence of a God, yet it signifies in modern usage a denial of revelation, which theism does not.” [13]

These definitions from Webster are the ones that should be considered the most historically and practically correct for what the word deism entails, as distinguished from theism (for our purposes, Christianity) and atheism. Though the word deism quickly lost its Christian roots, equally interchangeable words eventually came into usage that accurately describe what deism originally was intended to identify. Thus when henceforth referenced, the terms non-Trinitarian and Unitarian should and will be considered as being classifications within Christianity, albeit with doctrinal distinctions being addressed.

By using these correct definitions, this series will reasonable demonstrate that while not every American Founding Father can be classified as an orthodox Christian, none but an extremely small minority can be considered as adherents of deism.

Previous In This Series: Introduction           |       Up Next In This Series: Christianity Defined

Notes:

  1. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2013)
  2. Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus (Cambridge University Press, 2013)
  3. Merriam-Webster Dictionary (Merriam-Webster Inc., 2014)
  4. Random House Dictionary (Random House, Inc. 2013)
  5. Jon Butler, Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, edited by Richard D. Brown (Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2000) “Was There a Revolutionary Millennium?” p.333
  6. Gregg L. Frazer, The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, edited by Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall and Jeffry H. Morrison (Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 2009) “Alexander Hamilton, Theistic Rationalist”, p. 105
  7. Bill Fortenberry, The Founders and the Myth of Theistic Rationalism (Increasing Learning) online
  8. Edward Phillips, The New World of English Words (London: 1720) p. 210, online
  9. Nathan Bailey, An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (London: 1726) p.222, online
  10. Nathan Bailey, The Universal Etymological English Dictionary (London: 1731) p.227 online
  11. Samuel Johnson and John Walker, A Dictionary of the English Language (London: William Pickering, Chauncey Lane; George Cowie & Co. Poultry, 1775)  p.190 online
  12. Noah Webster,American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) online
  13. Ibid. entry for “theism” online
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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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Jefferson’s Notes – Query XVII

Thomas JeffersonWhile it is impossible to physically break the leg of a man who has been dead for nearly 200 years, it is still possible to fracture the foundations, or legs, that support his religious and philosophical belief system. It is the height of intellectual dishonesty and cowardice to misrepresent the deceased, whose only defense against such attacks are the very words being used against them.

“But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” [1]

Taken from his Notes on the State of Virginia – Query XVII (1782), this single quote from Thomas Jefferson, when considered in its context, provides a good summary and illustration of his perspective towards what most modern scholars now refer to as the sociopolitical doctrine of the “Separation of Church and State.”[2] Unfortunately, this particular quote is often lifted from its context and misconstrued to imply that not only was Jefferson himself indifferent or even hostile towards public religion, but that he also believed all civil government should embrace such a policy towards religion.

Since the US Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board (1947), this misinterpretation of Jefferson’s views has helped prop up and maintain a government policy of what has been termed religious neutrality or religious pluralism, a policy that not only breaks from the original intent of Jefferson  but also and more severely from the majority of the Founders as a collective. More pertaining to this focus of this piece, this misinterpretation has sadly helped convince many historians, lawmakers, judges, educators, religious leaders and laymen alike, both during his lifetime and in the present, that Jefferson was not in any sense, a Christian, but rather that he was “impious,” an “atheist,” a “deist,” or an “infidel.”[3]

Simply including the immediately preceding sentence would assist in properly understanding the point Jefferson makes by his “picks my pocket… breaks my leg” comment. After declaring that man is only answerable to God for their religious beliefs, Jefferson concludes that “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.” To illustrate this point, Jefferson is essentially saying that it would not physically hurt him if his neighbor held  a different religious belief than he held. Yet, if his neighbor stole from him or physically harmed  him, then Jefferson had actually been injured. Therefore, government could only legislate on actions that cause demonstrable physical injury and not on beliefs or words that merely caused differences of opinions.

In no way do the two sentences in question imply any sense of indifference of or hostility towards religion by Jefferson, personally. Nor do they indicate that Jefferson felt that government must never engage in religious preferentialism or  accommodationism. Cherry-picking and taking these two quotes out of context to assert anything else than their plain meaning is pure revisionism. Even worse, doing so presents a distraction from and undermines the actual points that Jefferson was trying to make.

Query XVII presents Jefferson’s  observations of how “different religions” were, in the past and at the time, received in the state of Virginia. Jefferson first briefly traces the development of Virginia’s religious history, explaining how the initial Anglican English settlers in Virginia held the dominant powers of “making, administering and executing the laws” and thus “shewed…intolerance” towards other Christian denominations. Various laws were enacted that regulated religious beliefs and more importantly, actions and inactions. If violated, offenders might face fines, imprisonment and possibly execution. Some of these early laws, particularly directed towards the Quakers, consisted of punishing individuals for “unlawful assembling [to worship]”, refusing to “have their children baptized” and not paying a tax to the official State religious establishment (first the Church of England, then the American Anglican Church) to support its clergy.

Jefferson states that, at his time of writing, although most of the the previously mentioned “acts of [the British] parliament“and other “statutory oppressions in religion” had been “wiped away,” there still remained oppressive laws “imposed by the [Virginian] common law” and the post-Revolution Virginia Assembly. Heresy, as defined by the Anglican ecclesiastical judges, was still considered a “capital offense, punishable by burning” according to the common law, and thus because the state Assembly passed legislation that gave the general [civil] court jurisdiction over common law, it was still a crime enforceable by the civil government.

Anyone who denied “the being of a God,or the Trinity” or asserted that “there are more gods than one,” or who denied “the Christian religion to be true, or the Scriptures to be of divine authority” could be imprisoned and/or lose their eligibility to hold any type of public office or employment, sue or give testimony in court, claim an inheritance and even lose guardianship of their own children. These acts were, according to Jefferson, a form of “religious slavery” maintained by the “coercion of the laws.”

The remaining second half of Query XVII consists of Jefferson asserting two main arguments:

  1. religious rights, or the “rights of conscience,” are man’s natural rights, answerable only to God.
  2. it is not only ineffective but also immoral to try to force people to come to recognize truth.

Jefferson’s key argument is that constraint will never make a “a truer man”, nor will it ever “cure them” of their errors in religious belief. He asserts that “Reason and free inquiry” will  help “support the true religion” by allowing man to test “every false religion” and determine which is correct because “truth can stand by itself.” Jefferson then attributes the introduction of Christianity to the Roman Empire’s eventual permitting of religious toleration, and determines that without the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on free inquiry, “the corruptions of Christianity” would have never been exposed and corrected.

Another related quote from this Query that is also typically misconstrued, is when Jefferson talks about the “millions of innocent men, women and children… [who had] been burnt, tortured, fined [and] imprisoned” since the introduction of Christianity. Yet Jefferson does not claim that Christianity caused such oppressions, but rather that such oppressions were caused by “fallible men” who were “governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons” and who used coercion in attempts to “produce uniformity.” Jefferson makes the logical point that it would be impracticable to, by use of coercion, force the “999 wandering sects [false religions]” to be “fathered into the field of truth [of the one true religion].”

By Jefferson’s reasoning, the only way to achieve a uniformity in the true religion [which he would profess to be uncorrupted Christianity] was through “reason and persuasion” which could only exist when “free inquiry [is] indulged.”Jefferson ends this Query by pointing to those states which embraced full religious freedom as being examples where religion is supported and flourishes, and finally warns of a future where “rulers will become corrupt [and] people careless.” Thus because neither the “spirit of the people” nor the government was reliable to protect against “tyrannical laws [against religious conscience],”the “time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis” was while most American rulers were “honest [and] united.”

When the two Jefferson quotations discussed in this piece are properly considered in their context, they reveal a strikingly different message than what is typically asserted by many amateur and even some professional scholars and educators. Those who intentionally misrepresent these words of Jefferson for the sole purpose of supporting their own preconceived opinions and agendas, do a significant injustice to his principles and his arguments. It is quite disrespectful and intellectually dishonest to break the legs of a dead man by attempting to tarnish his reputation or, by misconstruing his words, substitute “falsehood and deception for truthful evidence and fair argument.”[4]

*As a disclaimer, I personally tend to find Jefferson’s view in this particular case to be somewhat unreasonable and overly idealistic. I may perhaps, better elaborate on this in the future.*

Notes:

  1. Thomas Jefferson, The Sacred Rights of Conscience, edited by Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc. 2009), “Notes on the State of Virginia – 1782”, Query XII, pp.290-293
  2. Whether or not Jefferson’s views are the most correct or reasonable is beside the purpose of this piece as it neither attempts to argue for nor against his views. Recommended reading on this matter: William Linn, The Sacred Rights of Conscience, edited by Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc. 2009) “Serious Considerations on the Election of a President”, pp. 486-489; James H. Hutson’s Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, (Washington: Library of Congress, 1998); Michael W. McConnell, Obligations of Citizenship and Demands of Faith, edited by Nancy L. Rosenblum (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000) “Believers as Equal Citizens”, pp. 96-97.
  3. See: David J. Voelker, The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, edited by Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall and Jeffry H, Morrison (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), “Thomas Paine’s Civil Religion of Reason”, pp. 172-173; Michael Zuckerman, The Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson 1743-1790, edited by Paul Leicster Ford (Originally Published- New York: GP Putnum’s Sons, 1914. Republished – Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005) Introduction, pp. xxii-xxiii; Jim Walker, Thomas Jefferson on Christianity and Religion, NoBeliefs.com; Christopher Hitchens, Hitches vs. Blair: The Munk Debate on Religion, edited by Rudyard Griffiths (Toronto: House of Anasasi Press Inc., 2011), p. 34; Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1997) pp. 94
  4. Abraham Lincoln, Address at Cooper Institute – 27 February 1860, Teaching American History, accessible at: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/documents/address-at-cooper-institute/
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