No Higher Source than the Consent of the People

Almighty God hath created the mind free,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1779. “All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens … are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion.”[1] Expressing a related sentiment six years later, James Madison declared that it was “the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”[2] Both statements, if taken at face value and out of context, could be interpreted as evincing the devout Christian faith of two seminal founders: the author of the Declaration of Independence and the “Father of the Constitution.” But that would be wrong.

Herein lies the dilemma (or trap) when people make claims about the religiosity of the leading members of the founding generation. They cull sentiments from the available writings—many being statements made for public consumption—to construct what is inevitably an incomplete picture. They then extract those religiously sounding statements and phrases to “fit” a particular Founder into a modern definition or category of Christian (or skeptic), usually assuming that there is an agreed upon definition of what it meant to be a Christian then, or what it means today.

Members of the founding generation existed within a culture imbued with manifestations of Christianity. Absent the small number of Catholics and Jews, all remaining Americans had been raised within the Protestant tradition (chiefly Calvinist). Christianity mediated many aspects of a person’s daily life (customs, holidays, public events) and his life-milestones (birth, marriage, death), affecting even those people who were non-communicate with a church. The most commonly available book—and the first book any household would possess—was the Bible. Its passages and stories—such as Moses leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt—were familiar to most people and its language informed public discourse. If a public orator—either clergy or politician—employed an analogy or metaphor, the likely source was from the Bible, as it would be understood by most people.[3]

The ubiquity of religious trappings during the founding period may lead one to conclude, as Professor Hall does, that Christian ideas significantly influenced the thinking of the founders in ways that impacted the founding documents. The first premise is obviously true, but it tells us little. To a man (and they were men), the founders were religiously literate; at the time, religious works constituted a substantial part of the curriculum at Madison’s Princeton (Presbyterian), Jefferson’s William and Mary (Anglican), and John Adams’s Harvard (Congregational). The personal writings and correspondence of Jefferson and Adams (Madison somewhat less) indicate that they thought a lot about religious matters (though not always deferentially).[4] That religion influenced the founders’ thinking, or that they used common religious terms in their writings, indicates little about their personal devotion or the degree to which they intended to incorporate Christian principles into the organs of government they helped create.[5]

The incidence of religious language and discourse among leaders of the founding generation more likely tells us something different. As public figures, they understood the power of religious rhetoric to motivate and inspire people. That public speakers used those familiar idioms is unsurprising—everyone did it, including that “filthy little atheist” Tom Paine, as Theodore Roosevelt called him.[6] One must not lose sight of the significant challenges—with the high likelihood of failure—that the founders faced in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Both political and religious figures purposefully drew on Biblical types to legitimize their revolutionary and governing efforts. Political and religious leaders sought to score symbolic points by identifying America’s successes with divine providence; another favorite was to analogize Britain and King George to Egypt and pharaoh and the colonists to the Children of Israel (with George Washington as Moses, leading them to the promised land). This purposeful use of religious imagery served an important political purpose of anointing the struggle with a transcendent purpose. In light of the extraordinary times and the commonality of religious discourse, it would have been remarkable if the founders had not employed biblical terminology in their public statements.[7]

An undue focus on the religious upbringing of leading Founders, or on the religious discourse during the Founding, also undervalues the significance of Enlightenment rationalism and secular Whig political ideas on the founding generation. By the second half of the century, both strains of thought were significantly impacting the emerging ideas about revolution and republicanism.[8] The writings of figures such as John Locke, Baron Montesquieu, Hugo Grotius, and David Hume not only influenced the thinking of political leaders, they were adapted and integrated into the thought of clergy.[9] A review of the sermons of the period confirms that even orthodox clergy saw little conflict between contrasting ideologies and generously used Enlightenment discourse in their writings and addresses.[10] It is impossible to discount the influence of rational thought on the founding generation, including on the common people who read the political pamphlets and broadsheets that circulated during that era. Possibly the question should be recast from “How Christian were the founders?” to “How rationalist were the religious leaders of the founding period?”[11]

For these reasons, asking whether the founders were deists or conventional Christians asks the wrong question. It sets up a false binary inquiry, as if everyone fit into one category or the other. Few leading founders were true deists, and only Benjamin Franklin accepted that label.[12] But many accepted deistic ideas that challenged conventional Christianity, including denial of miracles, substitutional atonement, the resurrection, and the virgin birth—while maintaining affiliations with established churches.[13] But more significant than their actual beliefs, the founders established a new government based on secular rational principles. Locke, Montesquieu, and Hume were their reference points, not Moses or Calvin. While the drafters did not create a “Godless Constitution” in the sense of being hostile to religion,[14] the lack of any religious acknowledgement—the standard practice up until that time—demonstrates a conscious decision to base the authority for republican government on the consent of the people, not on any higher source. That broke with the prevailing practice, and its significance cannot be understated.[15]


[1] Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1779).

[2] Memorial and Remonstrance (1785).

[3] Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Noll, The Bible in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982); Daniel L. Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 25.

[4] See generally, The Adams-Jefferson Letters, ed., Lester J. Cappon (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959).

[5] Steven K. Green, Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 130-153.

[6] Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, rev’d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 270.

[7] Ruth H. Bloch, Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought, 1756-1800 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Nathan O. Hatch, The Sacred Cause of Liberty (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977).

[8] Also influential were ideas based on classical republicanism and Scottish “common-sense” rationalism.

[9] See Catherine A. Brekus, “The Evangelical Encounter with the Enlightenment,” in Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism, ed., Heath W. Carter and Laura Rominger Porter (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 19-43

[10] See the various works reprinted in Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991); American Political Writing during the Founding Era 1760-1805, eds. Charles S. Hyneman and Donald S. Lutz (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1983).

[11] Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967), 27-54; Bernard Bailyn, Pamphlets of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965).

[12] Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, in Norman Cousins, “In God We Trust,” The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers (New York: Harper & Bros., 1958), 24; Thomas S. Kidd, Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 27-28.

[13] Green, Inventing a Christian America, 130-153.

[14] Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1996).

[15] Green, Inventing a Christian America, 178-179.

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.