The Founder’s Faith 1

What was the religious faith of America’s founding fathers?

Thomas Jefferson

It’s a question almost guaranteed to stir up a hornet’s of controversy.

The answer seems to depend upon who is being asked the question and what is the evidence that supports their opinion.

The argument in its most simplistic form breaks down like this:

Some will steadfastly argue that the majority of the key founding fathers held to an orthodox Christian faith, while others will argue that the key founders were deists.

I’ve been watching the debate from a far. Honestly, I’ve never had a vested interest in either point of view, although I am a conservative evangelical Christian.

What brought this all to my recent interest was the discrediting of David Barton’s latest book, The Jefferson Lies. Barton was charged with poor scholarship by fellow evangelicals and his publisher pulled the book even though it had risen to best seller status. (I think the publisher should have vetted the book’s scholarship prior to publishing but it speaks well of them to put profit after popularity.)

In any event the whole brouhaha gained my attention since I’ve seen Barton on television and seen him quoted frequently over the years. For the record I have not read The Jefferson Lies and am simply reporting the brouhaha.

Recently though, my wife and I celebrated our 38th anniversary in Virginia. My wife’s one “must do” request was to visit Monticello, Jefferson’s home. I figured it was a good time to visit since we’ve never been there and I thought it might be a good place to start a little research. I’ve always leaned toward the opinion that Jefferson was a card-carrying deist based mostly on his famous Jefferson Bible which removed all supernatural references.

So, off we went and there I discovered a magnificent book store (book geeks beware visiting Monticello) and found a nifty little volume to guide me through the controversy.

The book I decided on is The Faiths of the Founding Fathers by David L. Holmes. Here is the book’s description as recorded on Amazon.

Book Description

Publication Date: May 1, 2006

Faiths of the Founding Fathers, by David L. Holmes

It is not uncommon to hear Christians argue that America was founded as a Christian nation. But how true is this claim?
In this compact book, David L. Holmes offers a clear, concise and illuminating look at the spiritual beliefs of our founding fathers. He begins with an informative account of the religious culture of the late colonial era, surveying the religious groups in each colony. In particular, he sheds light on the various forms of Deism that flourished in America, highlighting the profound influence this intellectual movement had on the founding generation. Holmes then examines the individual beliefs of a variety of men and women who loom large in our national history. He finds that some, like Martha Washington, Samuel Adams, John Jay, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson’s daughters, held orthodox Christian views. But many of the most influential figures, including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John and Abigail Adams, Jefferson, James and Dolley Madison, and James Monroe, were believers of a different stripe. Respectful of Christianity, they admired the ethics of Jesus, and believed that religion could play a beneficial role in society. But they tended to deny the divinity of Christ, and a few seem to have been agnostic about the very existence of God. Although the founding fathers were religious men, Holmes shows that it was a faith quite unlike the Christianity of today’s evangelicals. Holmes concludes by examining the role of religion in the lives of the presidents since World War II and by reflecting on the evangelical resurgence that helped fuel the reelection of George W. Bush. An intriguing look at a neglected aspect of our history, the book will appeal to American history buffs as well as to anyone concerned about the role of religion in American culture.

Having read the book I’d say that’s a pretty good summary.

John Adams

What interests me is not Mr. Holmes’ conclusions as much as the process and tests he used to come to his conclusions as mentioned in the above summary.

Mr. Holmes has applied a four-fold process or test of orthodoxy to key founders to help a regular guy like me to figure it all out.

I thus found his arguments compelling even though, I changed my mind about two key founders.

So, I intend to write about Mr. Holmes book in summary form over a number of posts-sort of like what I’d do if I were leading a discussion group at my church on the subject.

In the next installment I’ll start to define some key terms that Holmes uses.

To be continued…

4 comments on “The Founder’s Faith 1

  1. Bruce,
    Old Bill’s persuation is that this country was established by a superior rationality that created all things in the universe. Further, the US was ordained for “His” purpose.

    There is scant ground for the denial that the European people who were to inhabit this land form sea to shining sea professed a common belief in a supernatural, superintending and benevolent entity. Callng upon that deity for divine guidance, protection and beneficence was a common practice. The English word “God” generally referred to the deity of the “Holy Bible”, and the teachings of the man, “Jesus” were widely recognized.

    The expressions of that common thread were many and varied. That belief crossed the Atlantic under the labels of Quakers, Puritans, Anabaptists, Catholics, Presbyterians and Masonic teachings among others. Yes, even deists, although today’s definition thereof would not accurately apply to the writings and speeches of those who may have been wearing that tag…….Like a high school football coach, game time had arrived and God took the field with the available talent.

    Methinks that perhaps Christians sometimes attach too much spiritual perfection to the individuals who did lay the foundation of our country. This has allowed the enemy to attack the chinks in their armor and erect straw men which are subsequently struck down with glee.

    One thing is certain, the world has never claimed that the people who founded this country were Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists or of any general spiritual persuation other than Christian.

    Finally, as for the current “revelations” and attacks on the founders beliefs, here is a fact……..If George Washington were running for POTUS today and delivered what was his inaugural address as the acceptance speech at his party’s national convention, he would be immediately and repeatedly assailed as wearing his religion on his sleeve, a fringe right wing radical and obviously a member of that hateful tea party group.

    Sorry about the length of this thing….just read your post and got wound up.

    • Thanks for the comment Bill. It is the kind of thing to get one wound up. I’ve tended to leave the subject alone until recently. What caught my eye this time was the methodology Holmes used to make his assessments. I think your thumbnail analysis here is fairly spot on especially when we come to realize the “norms” of the political\theological environment of their time is not quite the same as our contemporary environment. Your example of Washington makes the point since he is claimed by both camps (deist and orthodox Christian) with some justification imo. Nevertheless, he would not be tolerated today by the radical left. I always enjoy your feedback. Stay tuned for more installments as I work through the quagmire.

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