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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Were our Founding Fathers Christians or Deists?

IMHO, the short answer is ... Deists. Does it matter? Maybe. I think perhaps those in the Christian religious right would like to believe our nation was founded by people like themselves, belief-wise. I'm not sure that's true, and though I'm a Christian, I'd rather think we had Deists as founders, who planned for a state without a national religion.

But here's a disclaimer - though I have a master's in history, I managed to completely skip almost all American History classes ... the only one that was manditory was taught by a free thinker who let us decide our own course work and give ourselves a grade. We all gave ourselves As and spent the whole semester playing pool.

It will not surprise you that my handicap in the area of American History will not keep me from expressing my thoughts :-) and since this week we celebrate the birthdays of presidents, I thought I'd write about a couple of things that have a common presidential theme ... a post at First Thinga, Was Washington Really a Deist? ... and a movie I recently watched, National Treasure, starring Nicolas Cage.

First of all, what is Deism? Wikipedia says ...

Deism is a religious philosophy and movement that became prominent in England, France, and the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries. Deists typically reject supernatural events (prophecy, miracles) and divine revelation prominent in organized religion ...... Currently (as of 2007) there is an ongoing controversy in the United States over whether or not America was founded as a "Christian nation" based on Judeo-Christian ideals. This has spawned a subsidiary controversy over whether the Founding Fathers were Christians or deists or something in between. Particularly heated is the debate over the beliefs of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, for all of whom the evidence is mixed ...

An example of a Deist take on Christianity would be the Jefferson Bible. In this version of the New Testament written by Thomas Jefferson, the miracles and all references to the Trinity, the resurrection, and to Jesus as God, have been removed.

The First Things article works very hard at trying to make a case against Washington as a Deist. Here's some of the article (see link above) ...

Most historians of the last hundred years have said the Father of Our Nation was a deist (in his excellent recent biography, Joseph Ellis called Washington a “lukewarm Episcopalian and quasi-Deist”) and suggest, along the way, that his virtues were Stoic rather than Christian .... A more sustained investigation into Washington’s God, however, makes all claims that he was a deist highly problematic and finally untenable .....

The evidence on this point comes down to this: When Washington prays and urges the nation (or his army) to pray, does he expect God to care about the fate of the American cause, as distinct from the British cause, since they also pray to the same God? Does he imagine God actually interposing himself in the events of history? Or inspiring a human mind with ideas, or forgiving sins? The most important answer to these questions is found in the prayers that, as general and as president, Washington publicly urged upon the army and the nation ......

he wrote: “I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.” ....

These are the prayers, the non-deistic prayers, which gave General Washington fortitude and hope in the very dark days of more than 230 years ago, in 1776. Now again, we are a nation in great need, under the powerful threat of a murderous worldwide terrorism ....

Wave all the flags you want, I'm unconvinced by the article ... I think he was indeed a Deist. For more on this, read this - Washington Post review - of a number of books on the subject, including David L. Holmes's The Faiths of the Founding Fathers ...

We learn that Benjamin Franklin, for example, believed primarily in a God of reason but had serious doubts about the divinity of Jesus -- though he strongly subscribed to the moral ideas Jesus preached. Jefferson similarly saw Jesus as a "reformer and moral exemplar" and took a pair of scissors to his Bible to cut away all the parts -- miracles and supernatural interventions -- that offended his intellectual sensibilities. ..... Washington's religious affiliation, on the other hand, is notoriously ambiguous. Raised as an Anglican, Washington attended church, sometimes regularly. He served as churchwarden, observed fast days and vigorously promoted religion among the soldiers of the Continental Army. Yet he was never confirmed, avoided communion and during his lingering death never prayed nor asked for a clergyman. When he spoke or wrote of God, he favored words with decidedly deist and Masonic connotations: "Providence," "the Deity" and "the Grand Architect." Holmes concludes that Washington was a deist primarily concerned with morality and order, one who favored religion because of the useful role it played in society ...

And the Washington Post article says this of the book that the First Things article's authors wrote (Was Washginton a Deist?) ...

This tract, which is openly hostile toward deism and the "so-called Enlightenment," obviously wants Washington's God to be the same as the authors' God. While that might make for an effective polemic, it makes for less than convincing history. It's too bad, because the authors raise some interesting points about the limits of Washington's deism, and they make it clear that this is a subject worthy of further scrutiny. That scrutiny would be better done by scholars less determined to find the results that will most please them.

The far more intriguing issue for me is not whether the FFs were Deists, but the connection between them and Freemasonry, as explored in the movie National Treasure. Oh, I know the movie is all exageration - a sort of secular Da Vinci Code - but many of the FFs were indeed Masons and this not only fits with Deism but leads us in a fun direction :-) So here's a little about the movie from Beliefnet - Just What Are the Facts About 'National Treasure'? ...

- tombs of Knights Templar

"National Treasure" has been the top-grossing movie in America for the last two weekends, even though it was largely panned by reviewers. But movie-goers are apparently drawn to the plot line, which goes like this: An order of European Knights, called the Knights Templar, amassed a huge amount of treasure originating in the Temple of Solomon. Their treasure is rumored to contain artifacts of spiritual significance retrieved by the order during the Crusades, including the genealogies of David and Jesus and documents that trace their descendants to French royalty.

According to the movie, Freemasons--the descendants of the Templars--brought that treasure to colonial America, then concealed it in a super-secret location in New York City to protect it from the British, leaving clues about its location on the back of the Declaration of Independence and other places in the original colonies.

We looked into some of the claims of the movie in an attempt to separate fact from fiction ....

Read the rest of the article for some fun factoids on the history behind the movie and its questionable (but so cool!) insinuations about our founding fathers.

- Nicolas Cage on the run with the Declaration of Independence

BTW, in reading up on this stuff, I found that Washington was seriously into cricket, even playing it at Valley Forge, ... :-)


Blogger cowboyangel said...

Yes, but was Washington in the Priory of Sion? You don't make that clear.

A Masters in History! Nice. I envy you.

7:26 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Actually a masters isn't good for much ... can't teach at university or even high school. And it really puts a damper on trying to get jobs like burger flipping.

This is one of those worlds colliding kind of things ... the founding fathers and the Priory of Sion, in league, and for God's knows what diabolical purpose :-)

7:58 PM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

If you got a Masters of Library Science, you could be an academic librarian. They like Masters degrees.

9:39 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Fascinating topic. One thing we know for sure is that they were ALL anti-papist, and suspicious of authoritatian Anglican tendencies. Franklin was anti-Calvinist on top of that. I once read an interesting book called Faith and Freddom by Benjamin Hart, arguing that most of the founding fathers were Christians. I'm more convinced, however, that John Locke's philosphy and enlightenment ideals had a lot more to do with the drafting of the Declaration and the Constitution than religion did. Still, I've always held onto the following quotes I ran across once:

We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

John Adams, Address to the Military, October 11, 1798

All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of 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?"

Benjamin Franklin, To Colleagues at the Constitutional Convention

How many observe Christ's birth-day! How few, his precepts! O! 'tis easier to keep Holidays than Commandments.

Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's Almanack, 1743

That wise Men have in all Ages thought Government necessary for the Good of Mankind; and, that wise Governments have always thought Religion necessary for the well ordering and well-being of Society, and accordingly have been ever careful to encourage and protect the Ministers of it, paying them the highest publick Honours, that their Doctrines might thereby meet with the greater Respect among the common People.

Benjamin Franklin, On that Odd Letter of the Drum, April 1730

I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.

George Washington, circular letter of farewell to the Army, June 8, 1783

No country upon earth ever had it more in its power to attain these blessings than United America. Wondrously strange, then, and much to be regretted indeed would it be, were we to neglect the means and to depart from the road which Providence has pointed us to so plainly; I cannot believe it will ever come to pass.

George Washington, letter to Benjamin Lincoln, June 29, 1788

No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People 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.

George Washington, First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789

The blessed Religion revealed in the word of God will remain an eternal and awful monument to prove that the best Institution may be abused by human depravity; and that they may even, in some instances be made subservient to the vilest purposes. Should, hereafter, those incited by the lust of power and prompted by the Supineness or venality of their Constituents, overleap the known barriers of this Constitution and violate the unalienable rights of humanity: it will only serve to shew, that no compact among men (however provident in its construction and sacred in its ratification) can be pronounced everlasting an inviolable, and if I may so express myself, that no Wall of words, that no mound of parchm[en]t can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.

George Washington, fragments of the Draft First Inaugural Address, April 1789

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.

George Washington, First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789

There exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we 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.

George Washington, First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789

12:26 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


great quotations! I think they were ethical guys who believed in God, and I can't actually think of a better philosophical bent than theirs was in creating a constitution. But I'm not sure they were Christians, as I understnad that word ... believing Jesus was God, was resurrected, etc. I don't mean that as a criticism, but as an observation.

1:30 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

You're probably right for the most part. I think Madison, for example, was a pretty conventional Christian, but Jefferson famously wrote that version of the New Testament where he whittled down all of Jesus' sayings to get rid of all the "supernatural" stuff.

1:56 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Yeah, the Jefferson Bible ... he edited out all my favorite parts! :-)

That might be an intersting blog post - what exactly does it take to be a "christian"? I know both a catholic and a quaker who don't think Jesus was resurrected or did the miracles, but see him as just a prophet - both think of themselves as christians. I guess I'm more of a supernaturalist :-)

2:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The historian Joseph Ellis is writing all of this week about the Founders at the Encyclopaedia Britannica blog. His post tomorrow will be about their religion. Money quote:
“If there is a clear legacy bequeathed by the founders, it is the insistence that religion was a private matter in which the state should not interfere.
“In recent decades Christian advocacy groups, prompted by motives that have been questioned by some, have felt a powerful urge to enlist the Founding Fathers in their respective congregations. But recovering the spiritual convictions of the Founders, in all their messy integrity, is not an easy task. Once again, diversity is the dominant pattern. Franklin and Jefferson were deists, Washington harbored a pantheistic sense of providential destiny, John Adams began a Congregationalist and ended a Unitarian, Hamilton was a lukewarm Anglican for most of his life but embraced a more actively Christian posture after his son died in a duel.”
The rest will be up tomorrow morning at

12:47 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Thanks for the link ... I'll check it out :-)

1:35 PM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

Good string of quotes, Jeff.

Of course, We're talking about the "Founding Fathers" of 13 colonies in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States. The development of the rest of the country proceeded along different lines - very different lines at times. Ain't no British colony religion in Texas, cause there weren't no British colony, period. When you talk religion there, you're talking about Catholicism for the first 300 years. That also holds true (for the most part) in the lands from Spanish Florida to Spanish California, with some French-Catholic territories mixed in for good measure. While the Christian or Christian-Deist beliefs of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, etc. have certainly had their impact on places like Texas and California, so too have many other factors, including native American beliefs. (If one believes in the spiritual world, I don't see how one can discount thousands of years of spiritual history in an area.)

In any case, I don't believe the Christianity of George Washington is the same thing as that of many current Christians. Different times, different backgrounds, different zeitgeists. I've always thought the attempt of the Religious Right to co-opt the "Founding Fathers" (especially ridiculous in the case of Jefferson) was - in part at least - a reaction to the cultural shifts of the 1960s. "We want our white daddies to protect us!" All those uppity blacks and Mexicans and Jews and women and Hippies and Injuns and Asians and radicals made some good folk nervous.

3:53 PM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

Crystal, have you read much about Freemasonry among the Founding Fathers? I know Ben Franklin was a Grand Master, and Washington was pretty involved. Paul Revere was a Mason. John Hancock. I forget who else.

Jefferson was not.

I see in WorldCat that there are some books from the early 1900s about Franklin and Washington and freemasonry. I might try to get one through Inter-Library Loan.

5:30 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


I'm kind of interested in freemasons partly because my grandmother and her sister were in the Eastern Star and Daughters of the Nile - women's masonic groups.

But mostly it's the legendary (but unsubstantuated) story .... that the knights templar discovered a fortune under Solomon's temple, that their order was supressed by the King of France and the Pope so their treasure could be stolen. But the treasure wasn't found. The order was really supressed and many knights, including their grand master, were burnt at the stake.

Supposedly, the surviving knights became anti-catholic (doubtful), and for safety changed into the freemasons (highly doubtful), and transfered their treasure to the US, with the founding fathers being among them.

It really is like the Da Vinci Code in the weaving of truth and fiction. One novel with some of these elements is Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

11:36 PM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

Interesting about your family and their connections with the women's Masonic groups. As for the Templars and their story, I suggest reading some of the newer scholarly books on the subject, especially Peter Partner's The Murdered Magicians: The Templarsand their Myth ($6.41 used from Barnes & Noble). The first half of the book is an excellent short history of the Templars. In the second half, Partner traces the origins and evolution of the various myths that have sprung up around the Templars, and he gives a good introduction to the various Masonic groups, how they got started, merged, moved around, etc. If you want to belive there's a connection between the Templars and the Freemasons, this isn't the book for you. He gives pretty strong evidence that the Masonic groups simply used the vague story and scant physical evidence of the Templars to further their own agendas, which were a mix of political goals and simple charlatanism. It's a short, easy read, but well worth it. Another book, considered by most scholars to be the best current overall history of the Templars is Malcom Barber's The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple ($8.93 used from B&N), published by Cambridge University Press. This is longer and slower-going than Partner's book, but it covers a lot of ground. There are so many sensationalized books on the Templars, that I found these simple, scholarly histories to be most welcome. I'm curious about the Templars, but I'm not one who believes in the legends. What's interesting to me, though, is how fascinating and strange some of the more thoroughly researched history is. Don't really need the Da Vinci Code to make their story intriguiing.

I do think that the Freemasonry of Washington, Franklin, etc. is interesting from at least a historical perspective. How did it affect their thinking, writing and politics? How deeply were they involved? If Franklin was the Grand Master of Philadelphia, that means he was pretty high up.

Ironically, on one hand, many Chrisitans consider Freemasonry to be the occult, while on the other hand, they try to claim these "Founding Fathers" as being predecessors of the Religious Right. My feeling is that they probably try to skip over or downplay their involvement in Masonic groups for that reason. that's why I'm interested in some of the books from the 19th century and early 20th century that talk about their involvement.

6:43 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Thanks for the links, William :-)

I do not believe the legends about the templars becoming the masons - I'd agree with the writer of the first book you mentioned. I think freemasonry is somewhat non-christian and anti-catholic, so the templars would probably be spinning in their graves to learn they were considered their originators :-)

10:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Madison wasn't any more of a "conventional Christian" than Jefferson.

As I noted in a recent post discussing Ellis' post, Madison, Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Adams, and Hamilton, more or less possessed the same religious creed.

2:13 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Thanks for your comment. I read your blurb/book review at First Things ...

And any work that seeks to portray that particular group as traditional orthodox Christians invariably distorts their views by offering remarks taken out of context and even some outright fabrications.

... sounds like we agree on this issue :-)

3:18 PM  
Blogger downyourtube said...

Theres a map hidden on the one dollar bill. It leads to the real National Treasure. I found it and made a video of it. The video is called 412C and you can find it on YouTube. Just search for the screen name called "downyourtube"- its mine and then look for the video called 412C.
This isn't a joke. I really did find our National Treasure. Please come see.

4:39 AM  

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