Were the Founders Religious? Was America Founded to Be Secular?

Did the Founding Fathers want American society to be religious or secular? Joshua Charles, author of Liberty’s Secrets, explains.

What did the Founding Fathers believe about religion? Were they Christians, or just deists? Did they believe in secularism, or did they want Americans to be religious? Joshua Charles, New York Times bestselling author and researcher at the Museum of the Bible, explains.


UPDATED w/ Combined Posts


A Facebook friend posts a lot of stuff from the Left. And while I could spend all day refuting in similar fashion much of it (like the below), this topic caught my eye. Here is the FB graphic she posted on her wall:

So, let’s deal with these in order, shall we?

THOMAS JEFFERSON

This is the headline at THE JEFFERSON MONTICELLO site: “Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man (Spurious Quotation)” — spurious indeed. They follow this with the fuller quote:

This comment on Christianity is a somewhat paraphrased excerpt from the following letter written by Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley:

“this was the real ground of all the attacks on you: those who live by mystery & charlatanerie, fearing you would render them useless by simplifying the Christian philosophy, the most sublime & benevolent, but most perverted system that ever shone on man, endeavored to crush your well earnt, & well deserved fame.” – Jefferson to Priestley, March 21, 18011 (entire letter)

There are other useful links at MONTICELLO’S link to this topic. Even CHECK YOUR FACT has this regarding the Jefferson quote:

Verdict: False

There is no evidence that Jefferson ever said or wrote this. His estate at Monticello includes the saying on its list of “spurious quotations.”

Fact Check:

The quote has been frequently attributed to Jefferson on social media, appearing in numerous memes and posts on Facebook.

However, the Daily Caller found no record of Jefferson ever saying or writing this expression. A search of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson returned no results matching the alleged saying. It doesn’t appear in a collection of his quotes and letters either.

His estate at Monticello also includes the statement on its list of “spurious quotations.” The first known appearance in print dates back to 1996, according to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation…..

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

The fuller quote reads… and note, many say this about their youth as well. I say similar things — as I stayed out of the church as a youth when I could.

  • “I have found Christian dogma unintelligible. Early in life I absented myself from Christian assemblies.”

Later in life however, Franklin (and I would say myself) wrestled with religious matters well, and came out on the theistic end of life. Here, for example, is a letter from Benjamin Franklin to the “atheist” Thomas Paine:

TO THOMAS PAINE.
[Date uncertain.]

DEAR SIR,

I have read your manuscript with some attention. By the argument it contains against a particular Providence, though you allow a general Providence, you strike at the foundations of all religion. For without the belief of a Providence, that takes cognizance of, guards, and guides, and may favor particular persons, there is no motive to worship a Deity, to fear his displeasure, or to pray for his protection. I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you seem to desire it. At present I shall only give you my opinion, that, though your reasonings are subtile and may prevail with some readers, you will not succeed so as to change the general sentiments of mankind on that subject, and the consequence of printing this piece will be, a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others. He that spits against the wind, spits in his own face.

But, were you to succeed, do you imagine any good would be done by it? You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life, without the assistance afforded by religion; you having a clear perception of the advantages of virtue, and the disadvantages of vice, and possessing a strength of resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common temptations. But think how great a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security. And perhaps you are indebted to her originally, that is, to your religious education, for the habits of virtue upon which you now justly value yourself. You might easily display your excellent talents of reasoning upon a less hazardous subject, and thereby obtain a rank with our most distinguished authors. For among us it is not necessary, as among the Hottentots, that a youth, to be raised into the company of men, should prove his manhood by beating his mother.

I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person; whereby you will save yourself a great deal of mortification by the enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a good deal of regret and repentance. If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it. I intend this letter itself as a proof of my friendship, and therefore add no professions to it; but subscribe simply yours,

B. Franklin

Other interesting items of Mr. Franklin’s faith in God can be found here: Benjamin Franklin Was Not A Secularist

I start out this upload with a call into the show this week… after a little back-n-forth it ends. BUT, I include a bit of the show Dennis Prager speaks about during the call. That is from late February. A great topic covered well. Here is the creed spoken of:

✦ I believe in one God, the creator of the universe.
✦ That he governs by his providence.
✦ That he ought to be worshipped.
✦ That the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children.
✦ That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this.

For a very good discussion of the influence of the Calvinistic tradition on the thinking of Benjamin, see:

  • John Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), 191-213.

JOHN ADAMS

The fuller quote from Adam’s sheds some light on Calvinism’ influence on the founders. The quote was taken out of context from a letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 19 April 1817 (entire letter):

  • Twenty times, in the course of my late Reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, “This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it”!!! But in this exclamati[on] I Should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without Religion this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite Company, I mean Hell. So far from believing in the total and universal depravity on human Nature; I believe there is no Individual totally depraved. 

A slightly more English friendly version is this:

“Twenty times, in the course of my late reading, have I been on the point of breaking out, ‘this would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it!!!’ But in this exclamation, I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in public company – I mean hell.” (Charles Francis Adams [ed.], The Works of John Adams, 10 vols. [Boston, 1856], X, p. 254.)

  • Taken from They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, & Misleading Attributions, by Paul F. Boller, Jr. & John George, p. 3.

Adam’s was using the quote as a hyperbolic analogy to make a larger point. The opposite point as displayed in the meme. And the point was the depravity of mankind in a VERY Calvinistic structure. Here, as a way to drive the point home that this topic — that is, religious influences on the founding of America — is a topic I have for seminary studied well. Here is a bibliography of books used for a class. Books that sit on my shelves, I will highlight one in particular I recommend:

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Atkinson, James. The Great Light: Luther and the Reformation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006).

Barton, David. America’s Godly Heritage (Aledo, TX: Wallbuilders Press, 1993).

___________. Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution, & Religion, 3rd ed. (Aledo, TX: Wallbuilders Press, 2000).

Belloc, Hilaire. The Protestant Reformation (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1928).

___________. Characters of the Reformation: Historical Portraits of 23 Men and Women and Their Place in the Great Religious Revolution of the 16th Century (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1936).

Berman, Harold J. Law and Revolution II: The Impact of the Protestant Reformations on the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

_____________. Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983).

Eidsmoe, John. Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1987).

Esolen, Anthony. The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2008).

Estep, William R. Renaissance and Reformation (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986).

Evans, M. Stanton. The Theme is Freedom: Religion, Politics, and the American Tradition (Washington, DC: Regnery, 1994).

George, Timothy. Theology of the Reformers (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1988).

Hannah, John D. Charts of Reformation and Enlightenment Church History (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2004).

Hillerbrand, Hans J. The Reformation: A Narrative History Related by Contemporary Observances and Participants (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1964).

___________. How the Reformation Happened (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1968).

Hoffecker, W. Andrew. Revolutions in Worldviews: Understanding the Flow of Western Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2007).

House, Wayne H. Charts of Christian Theology & Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992).

_____________. Charts on Systematic Theology ( Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2006).

Lowenthal, David. No Liberty for License: the Forgotten Logic of the First Amendment (Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing, 1997).

MacCullouch, Diarmaid. The Reformation: A History (New York, NY: Penguin, 2004).

Marshall, Paul. God and the Constitution: Christianity and American Politics (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).

McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1999).

______________, ed. The Christian Theology Reader (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1995).

Nichols, Stephen J. The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007).

Noll, Mark A. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York, NY: Oxford University Press).

Olberman, Heiko A. The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992).

Parker, G.W.H. The Morning Star: Wycliffe and the Dawn of the Reformation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006).

Pelikan, Jaroslav, Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700), vol. 4 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

Sandoz, Ellis, ed. Political Sermons of the American Founding Era: 1730-1805 (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1991).

Sharansky, Natan. Defending Identity: It’s Indispensible Role In Protecting Democracy (New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2008).

Skinner, Quentin. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: The Age of Reformation, vol. 2 (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1978).

_____________. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: The Renaissance, vol. 1 (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

_____________. Liberty Before Liberalism (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Spellman, W.M. John Locke and the Problem of Depravity (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Stark, Rodney. The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (, New York, NY: Random House, 2006).

            _____________. For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton university Press, 2004)

Tomkins, Stephen. A Short History of Christianity (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005).

Walton, Robert C. Chronological and Background Charts of Church History: Revised and Expanded (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2005).

Witte, John Jr. Religion and American Constitutional Experiment (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2005).

___________. The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

___________., and Frank s. Alexander, eds. Christianity and Law: An Introduction (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

___________. From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition (Louisville, KY: WJK, 1997)

___________. God’s Joust, God’s Justice: Law and Religion in the Western Tradition (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006).

___________. Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Woods, Thomas J. Jr. The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2004).

Later in life, Adams wrote:

  • “I love and revere the memories of Huss, Wickliff, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melancton, and all the other Reformers, how muchsoever I may differ from them all in many theological metaphysical & philosophical points. As you justly observe, without their great exertions & severe sufferings, the USA had never existed.” — John Adams to F. C. Schaeffer, November 25, 1821, in James Hutson, ed., The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 15–16.

GEORGE WASHINGTON

The quote by our first official President does not even hint at secular thought? The entire letter in fact does not. An excellent site recording the non-secular events surrounding the Constitution, also note the following — to use just one example from the many via Is the Constitution a “Secular Document?”

After being sworn in, George Washington delivered his “Inaugural Address” to a joint session of Congress. In it Washington declared:

[I]t would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves . . . .  In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency; and . . . can not be compared with the means by which most governments have been established without some return of pious gratitude, along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage.

[W]e ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained….

    • Messages and Papers of the PresidentsGeorge Washington, Richardson, ed., vol. 1, p.44-45

Following his address, the Annals of Congress reported that:

The President, the Vice-President, the Senate, and House of Representatives, &c., then proceeded to St. Paul’s Chapel, where Divine service was performed by the chaplain of Congress.

These people obviously didn’t get the memo about the Constitution creating a secular government…..

More on Washington can be found HERE.