The Righter Report

Were the Founding Fathers Deists?

Were the Founding Fathers Deists, and why does it matter?

by Pete Righter

One might be surprised at how many people today believe the mantra that the founding fathers were deists, in spite of the historical evidence to the contrary.   What’s not surprising in our culture today is that very few people have done their due-diligence on the subject to the point where (1) they understand what deism is, and (2) why it’s important that we understand its influence – or lack thereof – in the founding of our nation.

First, what is Deism?

Deism, the religious attitude typical of the Enlightenment, especially in France and England, holds that the existence of God can be only proved based on the application of reason and the world can be discovered through observation experience and reasoning. A Deist is defined as “One who believes in the existence of a God or Supreme Being but denies revealed religion, basing his belief on the light of nature and reason.” Deism was often synonymous with so-called natural religion because its principles are drawn from nature and human reasoning. In contrast to Deism there are many cultural or revealed religions, such as Judaism, Trinitarian Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and others, which believe in supernatural intervention of God in the world; while Deism denies any supernatural intervention and emphasizes that the world is operated by natural laws of the Supreme Being. – Wikipedia, “Deism in England and France in the 18th century.”

“Deism has come to denote the theological belief that God created the universe according to scientific laws, but does not interfere in its daily operation.”  – The New World Encyclopedia

 Deism: “[From Latin Deus, God Deity] The doctrine or creed of a Deist.” “One who believes in the existence of a God or supreme being, but denies revealed religion, basing his belief on the light of nature and reason.” – Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary, 1941.

Deism is not a religion, but a religious philosophy. It advances the theory that God exists, that He created the universe, but does not intervene in the affairs of humankind. – ushistory.com.

Deism, as it came to be known in Colonial America, was largely advanced by the French philosopher and historian Voltaire, who believed during the “Enlightenment” that God was little more than a watchmaker who wound up the universe and then sat back and did not further involve himself in the affairs of men and nations.  This movement, if you will, was part and parcel of an effort to de-Christianize French society and replace Christianity with rationalism and pagan philosophies.  The movement was critical of traditional institutions and essentially sought to discard long-revered moral principles and beliefs.

 Based on the definitions above and elsewhere, the two principle beliefs of Deism were:

 1. Although God created the universe, he did not intervene in the affairs of men and nations.  He did not guide men into the founding of nations, or do miracles, or answer prayer, or provide providential protection to his followers.

2. God did not give divine / revealed revelation to man (i.e. the Bible, prophecy, etc.)

 I think one would be hard pressed to find many our founding fathers who fit those descriptions.

Why is all this important?

Today we have a “progressive” movement in America which seeks to expunge or minimize any mention of God, along with his moral values and teachings, from the public square and from American’s traditional Godly heritage.  Their thinking is if they can eliminate the Judeo-Christian God and his influence from America’s historical writings and from the public square, it will be easier to promote their godless agenda into American life.  And if there has to be a god, then it will be one who has no moral agenda and one who will not interfere in the affairs of men and nations – i.e. the god of deism.

The dangers in that kind of thinking are obvious:  First, it’s historical revisionism.  And second, it negates the providence and moral foundations of God in our American culture and historical foundations.

How widespread was deism among America’s Founding Fathers?

Dr. M. E. Bradford of the University of Dallas conducted a study of the Founding Founders to look at this question (whether the Founding Fathers were deists or Christians). He discovered the Founders were members of denominations as follows: twenty-eight Episcopalians, eight Presbyterians, seven Congregationalists, two Lutherans, two Dutch Reformed, two Methodists, two Roman Catholics, and three deists. – Reference: M. E. Bradford, A Worthy Company: Brief Lives of the Framers of the United States Constitution (Marlborough, NH: Plymouth Rock Foundation, 1982), iv–v.

 That’s correct – only three deists.

I think if one is skeptical of what was just presented then all one needs to do is perform a comprehensive study of quotations from the founders, keeping in mind the two main principles of deism:  no divine revelation to man and no influence or interaction in the affairs of men and nations.  A good reference source for study is the book in the photograph at the top of this article – “America’s God and Country” – Encyclopedia of Quotations, by William J. Federer. All quotations are referenced.

With this in mind let’s take a look at four of the Founding Fathers most often claimed to be deists by the progressive movement.

 Benjamin Franklin

In his younger years, Franklin was influenced by the writings of Robert Boyle, a 17th Century natural philosopher, chemist, physicist, and inventor.  As a defender of the Christian faith, Boyle made a series of arguments against deism, but it was the arguments of deists in Boyle’s writings which appeared to have made a more lasting impression with Franklin, and for a time Franklin embraced deism.  These influences did not have a lasting effect on Franklin, though, and by the time of the American Revolution, Franklin had done a “180” and was a firm believer in the divine revelation and providence of the Biblical God.

On June 28, 1787, after much gridlock in the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin spoke the following:

“In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the Divine Protection. — Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance.

I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that “except the Lord build they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall be become a reproach and a bye word down to future age. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest.

I therefore beg leave to move — that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that service.”

It’s pretty obvious that Franklin believed in a God who did involve himself in the affairs of men and nations, and Franklin also alludes to the New Testament as “Sacred Writings,” which also reveal God’s revelation to man.   Franklin was no deist.

George Washington

He (Washington) was an open promoter of Christianity. For example, in his speech on May 12, 1779, he claimed that what children needed to learn “above all” was the “religion of Jesus Christ,” and that to learn this would make them “greater and happier than they already are”; on May 2, 1778, he charged his soldiers at Valley Forge that “To the distinguished character of patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian”; and when he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the military on June 8, 1783, he reminded the nation that “without a humble imitation” of “the Divine Author of our blessed religion” we “can never hope to be a happy nation.” Washington’s own adopted daughter declared of Washington that you might as well question his patriotism as to question his Christianity. (David Barton, Wallbuilders.com)

In addition, the inscription on Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon is this:

WITHIN THIS ENCLOSURE REST THE REMAINS OF GENL. GEORGE WASHINGTON.” Over the door of the inner tomb is inscribed: “I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE.”

Thomas Jefferson

 Thomas Jefferson was hardly speaking from a strict deist standpoint when he said:

“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?  That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?  Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; and that His justice cannot sleep forever.”  (Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781)

Now, why should Jefferson tremble for his country if God does not involve himself in the affairs of men and nations?

And then there’s this:

“I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all  the necessities and comforts of life.” (Monday, March 4, 1805, in his 2nd Inaugural Address)

Another oblique reference to the Bible.  Remember, a strict deist was one who believed God was like a watchmaker, who wound up the universe and thereafter did not involve himself in the affairs of men and nations.  Jefferson obviously believed otherwise.

James Madison

James Madison trained for ministry with the Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon, and Madison’s writings are replete with declarations of his faith in God and in Christ. In fact, for proof of this, one only need read his letter to Attorney General Bradford wherein Madison laments that public officials are not bold enough about their Christian faith in public and that public officials should be “fervent advocates in the cause of Christ.” And while Madison did allude to a “wall of separation,” contemporary writers frequently refuse to allow Madison to provide his own definition of that “wall.” According to Madison, the purpose of that “wall” was only to prevent Congress from passing a national law to establish a national religion.  (David Barton, Wallbuilders.com)

Miscellaneous Quotations

Concerning the outcome of the American Revolution, John Quincy Adams noted, “The highest glory won from the American Revolution was this: it connected, in one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity.”

In a letter to Thomas Jefferson dated June 28, 1813, John Adams wrote: “The general principles on which the (founding) fathers achieved independence were…the general principles of Christianity.”

Founding father Noah Webster proclaimed much the same message when he said, “The religion which has introduced civil liberty is the religion of Christ and His Apostles…This is genuine Christianity and to this we owe our free constitutions of government.”

Time after time, the founding fathers declared similar beliefs. From the archives of Patrick Henry’s personal notes (handwritten on the back of his copy of the “Stamp Act Resolutions,” made public after his death) we read:

“Whether this (new government) will prove a blessing or a curse will depend upon the use our people make of the blessings which a gracious God hath bestowed on us. If they are wise they will be great and happy. If they are of a contrary character, they will be miserable. Righteousness alone can exalt them as a nation.”

https://righterreport.com/2011/07/16/the-moral-foundations-of-america-2/

Concluding Remarks:  And so it goes, from one Founding Father to the next.  The most frequent and most  dominate influence among the founders was the Bible (divine revelation to man) which was referenced in some 34% of the founding father’s quotations.  The vast majority of the founders believed in an active God who not only gave divine revelation to man, but who was also providential in the affairs of men and nations.

References: 

America’s God and Country” – Encyclopedia of Quotations, by William J. Federer.  All quotations are referenced.

“The Founding Fathers on Jesus, Christianity, and the Bible. David Barton. May 2008. http://www.wallbuilders.com/libissuesarticles.asp?id=8755

– The Righter Report

 

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June 15, 2014 - Posted by | America, Human Interest, Opinion, Theology, Theology Articles | , , , , ,

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