The religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers is one of the most widely misunderstood characteristics of early America’s leaders. Today, they are usually declared to have been either deists or Christians, but in actuality, most of them were neither.
Although the vast majority of the 55 members of the Constitutional Convention were affiliated with the major Christian churches of their day (and would have probably have considered themselves Christian), the number of them that fully accepted the major tenets of the Christian faith is uncertain. A careful reading of many of the Founders’ public and private communications demonstrates they had the following in common: (1) belief in a personal God, (2) familiarity with the Bible, and (3) belief in prayer. But acknowledgement of Christ as their personal Savior and acceptance of the other commonly held Christian beliefs is less manifest.
Many secularists today claim that instead of being Christians, the Founders were deists. But there is even less support for mere deism than there is for Christianity. Deists believe in the existence of a creator God, but do not believe He intervenes in human affairs. Contrary to believing in an indifferent Creator, most of the Founders took the position of the Theist—that prayer is important because God intervenes in the affairs of mankind. Even a casual reading of the writings of Founders such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams demonstrates this.
It is true that a few of the Founders (such as Thomas Paine) were deists, and that some of the Founders (such as Alexander Hamilton) were Christians. But the majority of the Founders were somewhere in between. Their beliefs were, in fact, in line with something that is becoming increasingly described as theistic rationalism.
According to scholar Gregg L. Frazer, theistic rationalists “believed in a powerful, rational, and benevolent creator God who established laws by which the universe functioned. Their God was a unitary personal God who was present and active and who intervened in human affairs. Consequently, they believed that prayers were heard and effectual. They believed that the main factor in serving God was living a good and moral life, [and] … morality was central to the value of religion.” Most of the Founding Fathers read, referred to, and/or believed in (to varying degrees), the Bible. Instead of accepting the entire Bible as divinely inspired, however, many believed that “reason” was the ultimate standard for determining which parts of the Bible was legitimate revelation from God.
Theistic rationalism is a belief system, not a religion. As mentioned previously, most of the Founders were associated with and/or attended Christian churches. But the Founders were a product of not only Christianity, but also the political ideologies of the Enlightenment. They read scripture, but they also read the philosophies of John Locke, Voltaire, and Montesquieu. As Frazer says in his book The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders, theistic rationalism was “a belief system for the educated elite.” Educated elite describes not only founders such as Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, but also many of the Revolutionary Era’s preachers and seminary professors.
Personally, I would have had a hard time believing these conclusions if I had not researched the religious beliefs of the Founders for my upcoming book The Founding Fathers: Quotes, Quips, and Speeches, (to be published by Sourcebooks in May of 2013). I examined a great deal of biographical material and writings of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Henry, Paine, Madison, Franklin, and others. Being a Christian, I had hoped to demonstrate that they were not deists, which—with the exception of Thomas Paine—was easily done. But I had also hoped to find evidence that they were truly Christian—a conclusion that proved elusive. The internet has many quotes that would lead one to believe that the Founders were Christian, but after thorough examination I found that most of those quotes are not among the Founders’ original papers or traceable further back than the late 1800’s—long after the Founders had died.
For most of America’s Founding Founders, their religious writings support two primary positions: (1) The God of the Bible governs the affairs of mankind, and (2) each person should have the freedom to worship Him as he or she sees fit. Although these beliefs are more than deism, they are not, by themselves, sufficient for Christianity. Theistic rationalism is a reasonable description of the Founders' beliefs.