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Faith of the Founders
Analyzing the religious convictions of the Founding Fathers through examination of Steven Waldman's excellent work "Founding Faith."
All quotations are taken from Steven Waldman’s “Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America.” Page numbers for citations are provided.
The founding fathers, those individuals to whom we owe high esteem for the creation of our nation, felt highly compelled to secure for this generation, and for future generations yet to come, freedoms and liberties which to them were inherent and inalienable. Of these several rights, no higher importance was placed than on the freedom of conscience and religious liberty. On this precept, they were almost all in favor, though their definition of religious liberty and their reasons for supporting it vary greatly.
To understand these differences, the journeys of the individual founding fathers must first be put forward and analyzed. It must be understood that each person arose from different circumstances and arrived at their conclusions on the matter of religious liberty by living their own lives, exercising their own liberties, and pursuing their own happiness.
In this analytic review of Steven Waldman’s Founding Faith, four of the founding fathers will be analyzed and discussed. First to be presented will be that figure spawned from the old America of congregationalism who bridged a path to the new America of religious liberty, the “Puritan New Ager” (p. 18) Benjamin Franklin. Next to be discussed will be the Southerners raised in the Anglican faith, George Washington, and the “radical pluralist” (p. 94) James Madison. The final figure to be discussed will be the “pious infidel” (p. 72) Thomas Jefferson.
Benjamin Franklin was baptized into the Puritan faith at Boston’s South Church. If Mr. Franklin had directed his own life, he may have chosen a more appropriate beginning for his saga. It can be stated rather bluntly that Benjamin Franklin did not admire his Puritan ancestors. In perhaps only one way did Franklin respect his predecessors. Waldman states that, “In his attitudes toward the Puritans, Franklin was like a child who both respects the integrity and hates the narrow-mindedness of his stodgy parents.” (p. 18)
Franklin admired integrity and morality, and he saw those attributes in the Puritans and tipped his hat ever so slightly in acknowledgment of that accomplishment. However, Franklin’s admiration of morality led him to stray from the dogmas of Puritan Calvinism, which he came to reject entirely.
“He [Jesus] preferred the doers of the word, to the mere hearers” (p. 20), Franklin declares, challenging Calvin’s assertion that faith alone is mighty to save. Yet Franklin goes further into what Puritans, and even some modern-day evangelicals, would call heresy by declaring that “Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain the End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means.” (p. 20)
Benjamin Franklin grew to dislike the Puritan clergy for their sometimes blatant hypocrisy, which he despised at any level. He once said, “It is the obligation of all good citizens to criticize hypocritical clergy.” (p. 19) It is no surprise that Franklin withdrew from personal involvement in organized religion based upon his experiences and his philosophies.
But Benjamin Franklin was no deist. He believed in a benevolent God who intervened in the affairs of mankind. He is cited in the text as saying, “He [God] is not above caring for us, being pleas’d with our Praise, and offended when we slight Him, or neglect his Glory” (p. 20) and also, “I should be happy to have so wise, good and powerful a Being my Friend.” (p. 19)
These attitudes led Benjamin Franklin to develop the belief that religion, or at least some form of belief, is necessary for promoting moral and virtuous behavior in a society, without which a republic would die. However, if promoted through the governmental arm, this process is merely a farce and will have no true effect on the substance of the populace.
Benjamin Franklin personally experienced the hand of providence manifested through George Whitefield, an independent minister and instigator of the First Great Awakening. The colonies “had imported the idea that an official ‘established’ church was an absolute necessity for promoting religion” (p. 31), but here was this charismatic preacher marching through the countryside promoting more enthusiasm for righteous living than state-sponsored religion had in decades.
Franklin himself declared, “It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants.” (p. 29) For this reason, Benjamin Franklin gladly promoted the preaching of George Whitefield, even though he disagreed with some of the fine points of his ideology.
It is the same reason why Benjamin Franklin believed so strongly in religious liberty because religion, like anything good in human nature, works best when allowed to grow from the soil and reach to the sky. Government involvement can only pervert the natural beauty and the natural betterment of society.
George Washington lived the classic Anglican lifestyle, albeit less enthusiastically than some would have desired. He was “Raised in an Anglican family” (p. 57), was “Married in an Anglican church” (p. 57), and attended meetings throughout his life. However, as stated in the text, James Madison observed, “Washington was spiritual but not interested in the theological particulars of the Christian faith.” (p. 59).
Washington’s day-to-day traditional displays of Christian piety may have been found wanting if his whole life did not stand as a monument of faith. His mother once told him, “Go, George, fulfill the high destinies which Heaven appears to have intended for you.” (Waldman, 57)
From this and other experiences, George Washington felt he was on a life mission from God. Whether he was or not, his life’s mission stood accomplished, if not in the eyes of God and angels, then most certainly in the eyes of his countrymen.
His miraculous ability to remain above harm in conflict seemed to confirm Washington’s feelings. As he once stated, “By all powerful dispensations of Providence, I have been protected beyond all human probability or expectation.’” (p. 60) This belief in divine intervention and the hand of providence extended to the creation of the new nation for which Washington fought for. He has commented that the “Singular interposition of Providence in our feeble condition were such, as could scarcely escape the attention of the most unobserving.” (p. 60)
So dedicated was Washington to his mission of forging a new nation in liberty that he looked to all circumstances that would prove the most advantageous for accomplishment. As the General of the first national organization, the Continental Army, he was quick to recognize the necessity of tolerance. As Waldman states, “Bigotry, in his view, was impractical.” (p. 63)
Washington believed in freedom and fought for every ounce that could be gained while maintaining a just society. He fought and toiled until at last he could proclaim as the leader of a new free nation, “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasion their effectual support.” (p. 164)
James Madison was also born into the Anglican faith, but while he was more subdued in religious declarations than George Washington, his logical approach led to more pondering upon religious precepts and far more involvement in the fight for the specific right of religious liberty than Washington.
James Madison can be described as a religious enlightenment thinker. The text states that “Madison’s primary teacher as a child…taught Horace, Justinian, Demosthenes, and Ovid—New Testament and geography, geometry, Latin, Greek, and science.” (p. 94)
Madison grew to be a man of profound logic and intellect and yet still felt compelled to attend an evangelical Christian college whose “Curriculum melded evangelicalism and science, scripture and the classics.” (p. 96)
Through his experiences, Madison maintained far more optimism concerning organized religion and the clergy than his fellow founding fathers, for as Waldman states, “Nowhere in his writings do we find the generalized hostility to clergy that we see with Adams, Jefferson, or Franklin.” (p. 98) And though Madison never embraced evangelism himself, “He did retain a tremendous amount of respect for them and their calling” (p. 97). He would be a defender of the minority Baptists in his home state of Virginia for most of his life.
Through the experiences of defending the Baptists, Madison perhaps gained his greatest insights into the need for religious liberty. He has said that “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind, and unfits it for every noble enterprise, every expanded prospect.’” (p. 106) He found the idea that religion needed the help of government to survive and expand preposterous and heretical.
If religion is true, and is of God, then can man really be so assuming as to believe that that which is divine can be ruled and promoted by the councils of man? The councils of heaven alone have the authority to rule over that domain, and has not God granted us our agency and freedoms to choose for ourselves with little, if any, compulsive forces?
If God, then, does not compel us directly to obey his laws, what right does man have to compel in areas that have no consequences on others? Madison believed that if religion is true, it will survive and perpetuate on its own merits and “That it was nearly impossible for government to help religion without simultaneously harming it.” (p. 176)
At last is Thomas Jefferson, the man who is a heretic to the Christians and a Christian to the heretics. Though perhaps some evangelicals would argue with him, he himself declared, “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” (p. 77)
So, was he a Christian? Did he openly accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior and recognize the divinity of Jesus Christ? No, he did not. So, perhaps some would say that he is not a Christian. But Thomas Jefferson once said, “I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.” (p. 77)
While most Christians, who look to Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God, may be disappointed that Thomas Jefferson is not fully in their ranks, caution should be followed not to fall prey to the trickery wiles of human nature. How many self-proclaimed Christians, who have claimed to have taken upon themselves the name of Christ, fall short of the glory of God and have failed to live up to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth? The same teachings that Thomas Jefferson himself extolled.
For Jefferson said that Jesus “Pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head.” Who is the more Christian, those that draw near to God with their lips, or those whose hearts are imbued with the doctrines of heaven—those who judge not, lest they be judged?
Whether Thomas Jefferson was Christian or not, he was most certainly not a deist. He believed in a God who intervened in human affairs. When Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, he told a friend, “It proves that we have a god in heaven. That he is just, and not careless of what passes in the world.” (p. 82)
Jefferson also supported organized religion, and although he did not agree with fine points of doctrine, he still attended church. The text states, “Conservative minister D. James Kennedy…noted that Jefferson attended church regularly, gave donations to ten different churches, and…allowed for some government support of religion.” (p. 79) Jefferson once miscalculated in predicting that “Eventually everyone would be a Unitarian” (p. 200) but maintained respect for organized religion despite his obvious disdain for “priest craft.”
Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs were individualistic and contrary to many established religious doctrines of the time. Waldman states that “He resented being considered a heretic, because he believed that his approach to God and Jesus was more faithful to both of them.” (p. 85)
Jefferson supported religious liberty and freedom of conscience not just because these rights were inalienable but because “Thomas Jefferson was a heretic, and wanted to live in a nation that tolerated men like him.” (p. 73)
Jefferson’s formula was simple and straightforward—“Jefferson believed that a secret to religious freedom was destroying the concept of heresy, the crime of expressing unauthorized religious thought.” (p. 73) Jefferson believed that within every man was a piece of the divine. If this is so, how can he find his spiritual path if compelled to stay within the bounds of dictated dogma?
For Jefferson, the fight was more than just religious liberty; it was true freedom of conscience. The government has no inalienable rights to supersede those of mankind. A man can be judged only for actions invariably affecting others and cannot be condemned for thoughts and words.
It can be seen that while the founding fathers agreed upon many of the principles that define our nation, their journeys to embracing those principles were as varied and different as the journeys that continue to lead new partakers of American liberties to our nation today.
Whether one believes that separation of church and state protects churches from government or the government from churches, whether one believes that freedom of conscience allows for the divine advancement of inspired religion or allows for the individual to develop his own beliefs unfettered by state-sponsored religion, whether one believes that they are on a singular divine mission to better the human experience or that they are on an individual journey to become more personally virtuous, the glory of America is that we have the freedom to believe what we want, and to speak it out loud and clear for all to hear.
Justin Stapley received his Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Utah Valley University, with emphases in Political Philosophy and Public Law, American History, and Constitutional Studies. He is the Founding and Executive Director of the Freemen Foundation as well as Editor in Chief of the Freemen News-Letter. @JustinWStapley