Religion and the Founders

Tom Shipka

In popular culture there are two sharply contrasting views about religion and the founding fathers. One is that the founders were devout Christians who read the Bible and prayed daily. The other is that they were products of the Enlightenment who abandoned religion for reason and science. So, which view is accurate? Neither! If we could take a snapshot of religion in the colonies in 1770, here is what we would find:

  1. The founders were born into a Christian culture. Nearly all of the 3,000,000 residents of the colonies were Christians, nine of the thirteen colonies had an official state church, and nine of the ten existing colleges were founded by religious groups to train their clergy and lay leaders;
  2. Religious diversity was a fact of life. There were over twenty Christian sects in the colonies with strong differences on issues of faith; (2)
  3. Religious toleration was more the exception than the rule. Rhode Island, founded by Roger Williams, and Pennsylvania, founded by William Penn, were the only colonies that welcomed all stripes of Christians and non-Christians; (3)
  4. Deism, which originated in Europe, had infiltrated colonial culture among the educated class and challenged traditional religion. According to Deists:*Reason, not faith, is the path to knowledge;*The universe was designed by God, a Grand Architect, a First Cause whoimbued it with natural laws and then retreated from it;*If one wishes to know God, one must study God’s complex handiwork, theuniverse;*The Bible is a collection of myths and fables triggered by superstition;*Jesus was an inspiring moral teacher but neither a god nor a savior; and*Contrary to the teachings of Calvin, humans are neither depraved norpredestined;
  5. Nearly all of the founders modified their Christian beliefs to a greater or lesser extent to accommodate Deism. As a result, the religious views of the founders were scattered across a spectrum with traditional Christianity on one end and Deism on the other. The founders fell into three groups – traditional Christians, Christian Deists, and Non-Christian Deists. The majority were Christian Deists; (4) and
  6. Despite their absorption of Deism, all of the founders but Benjamin Franklin attended their ancestral church at least occasionally, most of them never abandoned their ancestral church, and the wives and daughters of most of them remained traditional Christians.Thus, the founders were religious hybrids and their religious views were complex and diverse. Commentators who paint a different picture, according to historian Robert Holmes, “revise history to align the founders’ beliefs with their own.” (5)

Given this broad range of religious views, it is all the more remarkable that the founders reached a consensus on key issues as the new nation emerged. They prized personal liberty; they opposed religious dogmatism, intolerance, and coercion; they valued civic virtue; they opposed compulsory support of churches; they sought to separate government from the churches; and they embraced the doctrines of natural rights, government by consent, limited government, the separation of powers, and majority rule.

  1. I rely here mainly on David L. Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, Oxford University Press, 2006. Holmes is Walter G. Mason Professor of Religious Studies, Emeritus, at the College of William and Mary. Holmes spent 46 years at William and Mary. Among his other books are A Brief History of the Episcopal Church (1993) and The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents: From Truman to Obama (2012). The Faiths… has won praise among historians but has gotten little notice outside of academe.
  2. Among the sects were Anglicans, Calvinists, Congregationalists, Baptists, Dutch Reformed, Quakers, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Mennonites, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, the Brethren, Sandemanians, Antinomians, Arminians, Shakers, Universalists, Antisabbatarians, Socinians, and Ranters.
  3. For example, Maryland imposed severe penalties by law on anyone who denied the divinity of Jesus, the trinity, or the virgin birth.
  4. Traditional Christians included Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, Elias Boudinot, and John Jay. Christian Deists included John Adams, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe. Non-Christian Deists included Tom Paine and Ethan Allen.5. David L. Holmes, The Faiths…, p. 17)
  5. The founders were all deeply influenced by the writings of John Locke (1632-1704), including his Letter Concerning Toleration, First Treatise of Government, and Second Treatise of Government.