Deists, Orthodox Believers, and the American Founding

The faiths of the founding fathers is one of the most controversial historical topics in America today. Whatever the founders did, the thinking goes, is a guide for what we should do. Should faith influence on American politics? Or should we embrace a secular public sphere and make religion a private matter? Scholars and polemicists have taken a range of positions on these provocative issues. Mark David Hall makes a strong case here, and in his many books and articles, that faith played a powerful shaping role in the American founding, even if not every founding father was an orthodox Christian.

I am inclined to agree with Hall’s essay, but some perplexing questions remain unresolved. One of the most confusing issues regarding the founding fathers, as Hall notes, is how many of them were “deists.” Ben Franklin said he was a deist (or at least he was as a young man) in his Autobiography, so there was at least one of them! But the debate about deism runs into conceptual dead ends, partly because our classic definition of a deist doesn’t serve us well historically. The textbook meaning of a deist, as Hall notes, is a person who believes theoretically in God as creator but not in God’s providential role in human history. If we stick with that definition, then there were almost no deists in Revolutionary America, save perhaps for radical skeptics like Ethan Allen and Tom Paine. Even Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams, whom we can categorize as Unitarians (i.e. those who deny God’s Trinitarian nature), believed in God’s providential interventions in history, including in the American Revolution.

The problem is that people in eighteenth-century Anglo-America did not always use our textbook definition of a deist. Deist could mean a person who denied God’s providence, but it could mean other things as well. Sometimes it referred to a person who was critical of Reformed theology and its emphasis on humankind’s lack of free will. Or someone who did not believe that the whole Bible was the Word of God. Sometimes “deism” meant monotheism. Sometimes the use of deism had no skeptical connotations at all, such as when it was used as an antonym for “atheism.” Franklin and others rarely unpacked all those variant meanings, but it would have surprised few people in Revolutionary America to find that a “deist” also believed in God’s providence. Among the various “Enlightenments” of the era, the French Enlightenment tended to be the most radically skeptical, even producing some atheists. Advocates of the British-American Enlightenment, scholars now understand, were mostly friendly to theism, if not Christianity per se. Often British Enlightenment thinkers had a reformist agenda for institutional Christianity, such as disestablishing the official state churches, ending tests of faith for elected officials, or repudiating Reformed or Calvinist doctrines such as predestination.

Another reason that the founders’ faiths are elusive is that even the “deistic” founders, such as Jefferson and Franklin, knew the Bible and quoted it liberally. As Hall notes, George Washington, typically quiet about his own faith, loved to quote Micah’s peaceful image of the vine and the fig tree. This is a reference that might go over the heads of even many committed Christians today. As I showed in my book Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father, the bookish Franklin grew up in a Puritan home in Boston, and he had internalized much of the King James Bible by an early age. When you put together founders like Franklin and John Adams, they sometimes spoke in a veritable code language from the Bible, such as when Franklin complained to Adams in Paris that he was “quite sick of my Gibeonite office.” He did not need to explain further: the Gibeonites were the “hewers of wood and drawers of water” from the Book of Joshua. Franklin was tired of drawing “water”—French loans—for the United States.

Even Thomas Jefferson (the subject of my current book project) spoke and wrote constantly in biblical language. He and Franklin proposed that the national seal should be an image from the Book of Exodus. In Jefferson’s second inaugural address, he told Americans that “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] who has covered our infancy with his providence.” Was this just rhetorical posturing? Sure, but what presidential speech doesn’t entail posturing? Jefferson likely believed what he was saying. Similarly, Jefferson really believed that God had created all men equal and given them their inalienable rights. (What he meant by “all men” is hugely controversial.) That belief was arguably the most important theistic assumption undergirding the American founding.

Our debates over the personal faiths of a small group of Founders commonly fail to notice that the Founders changed their views over time, too. People like Jefferson and Franklin said a lot about religion and Christianity. No one quote can capture all their beliefs across their long lives. Franklin was definitely trending back toward his parents’ traditional faith (although he never got all the way back) when he made his almost solitary proposal for prayer at the Constitutional Convention. Jefferson similarly went through a radically skeptical phase as a young man. Then during his presidency Jefferson came to consider himself a Christian, at least of an ethical, Unitarian sort. In early adulthood Jefferson had become convinced that Christianity was too irrational to believe. But friends and mentors such as the English scientist and Unitarian pastor Joseph Priestley convinced him otherwise. Jefferson accepted Jesus’s moral teachings as the essence of Christian belief, and he set aside what he regarded as absurd theological abstractions such as the Trinity. This Christian commitment, as Jefferson understood it, helps explain why he composed not one but two Jefferson “Bibles,” or extracts from the Gospels. He was fascinated with Jesus and with the New Testament, and he even read the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint) for edification.

Instead of trying to cram them into today’s partisan molds, we should simply let the founding fathers be who they were as religious thinkers of their time. They’re not carbon copies of public figures in America today, either on the left or right. In Franklin and Jefferson, we find providentialist deists and Bible-quoting skeptics. Understood in their context, their beliefs might offend both Moral Majority–style Christians and hardcore secularists. But they did operate in a world that assumed basic theistic principles, such as equality by creation. They reflexively carried those principles into America’s republican experiment.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

Response Essays

  • Brooke Allen argues that while the American founders thought virtue was essential to good government, there were other ideals of virtue besides those of religion. She suggests that the idea of civic virtue did much of the work, in the founders’ minds, that was supposed to preserve the republic. She adds that while a large majority of Americans were Calvinists at the time of the founding, the founders owed more of their political thought to Montesquieu than they ever did to Calvin.

  • Faith played a strong role in the American founding, says Prof. Thomas Kidd. But it may not be the role we expect. “Deism” meant several different things at the time, and it’s not always clear what the founders meant when they used the term to describe themselves. And even religious freethinkers in the 18th century would be thoroughly versed in the Bible; this was a mark of education, but not necessarily of orthodoxy.

  • Prof. Steven Green argues that the founders were trying to create a government based on consent, and not on any theory of divine right. The document was not “godless,” because the founders were not godless men themselves. They were concerned, however, that consent remain at the forefront, and so they avoided the language—common at the time—that would have asserted a divine institution.