Missouri's 7th District, U.S. House of Representatives




Congressional Issues 2012
Were the Founding Fathers "Deists," "Freethinkers," and "Infidels?"

“The Founding Fathers & Deism”
Letter to the Editor

      I notice that your newspaper has an ongoing debate concerning the religious nature of the Founding Fathers. A recent letter claimed that most of the Founding Fathers were deists, and pointed to Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, Hamilton, and Madison as proof. After making this charge, the writer acknowledged the “voluminous writings”" of the Founders, but it appears that she has not read those writings herself. However, this is no surprise since the U. S. Department of Education claims that only 5 percent of high schools graduates know how to examine primary source documentation.
      Interestingly, the claims in this recent letter to the editor are characteristic of similar claims appearing in hundreds of letters to the editor across the nation. The standard assertion is that the Founders were deists. Deists? What is a deist? In dictionaries like Webster's, Funk & Wagnalls, Century, and others, the terms “deist,” “agnostic,” and “atheist” appear as synonyms. Therefore, the range of a deist spans from those who believe there is no God, to those who believe in a distant, impersonal creator of the universe, to those who believe there is no way to know if God exists. Do the Founders fit any of these definitions?
      None of the notable Founders fit this description. Thomas Paine, in his discourse on “The Study of God,” forcefully asserts that it is “the error of schools” to teach sciences without “reference to the Being who is author of them: for all the principles of science are of Divine origin.” He laments that “the evil that has resulted from the error of the schools in teaching [science without God] has been that of generating in the pupils a species of atheism.” Paine not only believed in God, he believed in a reality beyond the visible world.
      In Benjamin Franklin's 1749 plan of education for public schools in Pennsylvania, he insisted that schools teach “the necessity of a public religion . . . and the excellency of the Christian religion above all others, ancient or modern.” Consider also the fact that Franklin proposed a Biblical inscription for the Seal of the United States; that he chose a New Testament verse for the motto of the Philadelphia Hospital; that he was one of the chief voices behind the establishment of a paid chaplain in Congress; and that when in 1787 when Franklin helped found the college which bore his name, it was dedicated as “a nursery of religion and learning” built “on Christ, the Corner-Stone.” Franklin certainly doesn't fit the definition of a deist.
      Nor does George Washington. He was an open promoter of Christianity. For example, in his speech on May 12, 1779, he claimed that what children needed to learn “above all” was the “religion of Jesus Christ,” and that to learn this would make them “greater and happier than they already are”; on May 2, 1778, he charged his soldiers at Valley Forge that “To the distinguished character of patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian”; and when he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the military on June 8, 1783, he reminded the nation that “without a humble imitation” of “the Divine Author of our blessed religion” we “can never hope to be a happy nation.” Washington's own adopted daughter declared of Washington that you might as well question his patriotism as to question his Christianity.
      Alexander Hamilton was certainly no deist. For example, Hamilton began work with the Rev. James Bayard to form the Christian Constitutional Society to help spread over the world the two things which Hamilton said made America great: (1) Christianity, and (2) a Constitution formed under Christianity. Only Hamilton's death two months later thwarted his plan of starting a missionary society to promote Christian government. And at the time he did face his death in his duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton met and prayed with the Rev. Mason and Bishop Moore, wherein he reaffirmed to him his readiness to face God should he die, having declared to them “a lively faith in God's mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of the death of Christ.” At that time, he also partook of Holy Communion with Bishop Moore.
      The reader, as do many others, claimed that Jefferson omitted all miraculous events of Jesus from his “Bible.” Rarely do those who make this claim let Jefferson speak for himself. Jefferson's own words explain that his intent for that book was not for it to be a “Bible,” but rather for it to be a primer for the Indians on the teachings of Christ (which is why Jefferson titled that work, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”). What Jefferson did was to take the “red letter” portions of the New Testament and publish these teachings in order to introduce the Indians to Christian morality. And as President of the United States, Jefferson signed a treaty with the Kaskaskia tribe wherein he provided—at the government's expense—Christian missionaries to the Indians. In fact, Jefferson himself declared, “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” While many might question this claim, the fact remains that Jefferson called himself a Christian, not a deist.
      James Madison trained for ministry with the Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon, and Madison's writings are replete with declarations of his faith in God and in Christ. In fact, for proof of this, one only need read his letter to Attorney General Bradford wherein Madison laments that public officials are not bold enough about their Christian faith in public and that public officials should be “fervent advocates in the cause of Christ.” And while Madison did allude to a “wall of separation,” today's writers frequently refuse to allow Madison to provide his own definition of that “wall.” According to Madison, the purpose of that “wall” was only to prevent Congress from passing a national law to establish a national religion.
      None of the Founders mentioned fit the definition of a deist. And as is typical with those who make this claim, they name only a handful of Founders and then generalize the rest. This in itself is a mistake, for there are over two hundred Founders (fifty-five at the Constitutional Convention, ninety who framed the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights, and fifty-six who signed the Declaration) and any generalization of the Founders as deists is completely inaccurate.
      The reason that such critics never mention any other Founders is evident. For example, consider what must be explained away if the following signers of the Constitution were to be mentioned: Charles Pinckney and John Langdon—founders of the American Bible Society; James McHenry—founder of the Baltimore Bible Society; Rufus King—helped found a Bible society for Anglicans; Abraham Baldwin—a chaplain in the Revolution and considered the youngest theologian in America; Roger Sherman, William Samuel Johnson, John Dickinson, and Jacob Broom—also theological writers; James Wilson and William Patterson—placed on the Supreme Court by President George Washington, they had prayer over juries in the U. S. Supreme Court room; and the list could go on. And this does not even include the huge number of thoroughly evangelical Christians who signed the Declaration or who helped frame the Bill of Rights.
      Any portrayal of any handful of Founders as deists is inaccurate. (If this group had really wanted some irreligious Founders, they should have chosen Henry Dearborne, Charles Lee, or Ethan Allen). Perhaps critics should spend more time reading the writings of the Founders to discover their religious beliefs for themselves rather than making such sweeping accusations which are so easily disproven.

David Barton - Jan. 2001

(For more on this topic see: Thomas Paine Criticizes the Current Public School Science Curriculum, Franklin’s Appeal for Prayer at the Constitutional Convention, Was George Washington a Christian?, The Founders and Public Religious Expression, & James Madison and Religion in Public)

Supporters of the "separation of church and state" like to tell us that the Founding Fathers were all "unitarians" and "deists." What are the facts?

If "deism" is the belief in a "Clockmaker God" who winds up the creation and lets it run according to impersonal "natural law," never getting involved, never answering human prayer, never changing what man has done in a direct and supernatural way, then it can be confidently asserted that not a single Signer of the Constitution was a deist. It would be difficult to name a single Founding Father who did not believe that God answered the prayers of every single legislature of every single state and granted America independence and secured her unalienable rights. E-mail me if you can name one single Signer of the Constitution who denied that God miraculously intervened in human history to create the United States of America. 

Let's study the facts a little more carefully:

Thomas Paine and the Age of Reason

Deism and "Infidelity"

The Nature of "Unitarianism" in the days of the Founders

Benjamin Franklin's Denial of Deism in the Constitutional Convention

Ethan Allen was a Deist

Thomas Paine and the Age of Reason

Thomas Paine is sometimes grouped with the Founding Fathers. Your daily newspaper might reinforce this view with editorials like this:

Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Paine and most of our other patriarchs were at best deists, believing in the unmoved mover of Aristotle, but not the God of the Old and New Testaments.[1]

It would be difficult to name a single one of the Founding Fathers who approved of Paine's Age of Reason, his famous tract attacking religion in general and evangelical Christianity in particular. Even less-than-evangelicals like Benjamin Franklin and the "Unitarians" all denounced Paine's book. 

Before Paine published his Age of Reason, he sent a manuscript copy to Benjamin Franklin, seeking his thoughts. Notice Franklin's strong and succinct reply, and keep in mind that those on all sides of the religion question would concede Franklin to be one of the least religious Founders:

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 . . . 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 into the wind, spits in his own face. But were you to succeed, do you imagine any good would be done by it? . . . [T]hink 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 . . . . I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person . . . . If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be without it? I intend this letter itself as proof of my friendship.[2]

Samuel Adams was not quite as cordial as Franklin:

[W]hen I heard you had turned your mind to a defence of infidelity, I felt myself much astonished and more grieved that you had attempted a measure so injurious to the feelings and so repugnant to the true interest of so great a part of the citizens of the United States. The people of New England, if you will allow me to use a Scripture phrase, are fast returning to their first love. Will you excite among them the spirit of angry controversy at a time when they are hastening to amity and peace? I am told that some of our newspapers have announced your intention to publish an additional pamphlet upon the principles of your Age of Reason. Do you think your pen, or the pen of any other man, can unchristianize the mass of our citizens, or have you hopes of converting a few of them to assist you in so bad a cause?[3]

John Adams certainly spoke harshly of such anti-Christian propaganda:

The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue equity and humanity, let the Blackguard [scoundrel, rogue] Paine say what he will.[4]

Far from opposing "the God of the Old and New Testaments," Adams defended the Bible as the basis for government in a Christian nation:

Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited! Every member would be obliged in conscience, to temperance, frugality, and industry; to justice, kindness, and charity towards his fellow men; and to piety, love, and reverence toward Almighty God.... What a Eutopia, what a Paradise would this region be." [5]

This was, in fact, the basis for the system of government in America, as Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson on June 28, 1813:

The general principles, on which the Fathers achieved independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite....And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all these Sects were United: . . . Now I will avow, that I then believe, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System. [6]

  • Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote to his friend and signer of the Constitution John Dickenson that Paine's Age of Reason was "absurd and impious."[7]
  • Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration, described Paine's work as "blasphemous writings against the Christian religion."[8]
  • John Witherspoon, signer of the Declaration and mentor to many other Founders, said that Paine was "ignorant of human nature as well as an enemy to the Christian faith."[9]
  • John Quincy Adams declared that "Mr. Paine has departed altogether from the principles of the Revolution." [10]

Elias Boudinot, President of Congress, even published the Age of Revelation -- a full-length rebuttal to Paine's work. In a letter to his daughter, Susan, Boudinot described his motivations for writing that rebuttal:

I confess that I was much mortified to find the whole force of this vain man's genius and art pointed at the youth of America. . . . This awful consequence created some alarm in my mind lest at any future day, you, my beloved child, might take up this plausible address of infidelity; and for want of an answer at hand to his subtle insinuations might suffer even a doubt of the truth, as it is in Jesus, to penetrate your mind. . . . I therefore determined . . . to put my thoughts on the subject of this pamphlet on paper for your edification and information, when I shall be no more. I chose to confine myself to the leading and essential facts of the Gospel which are contradicted or attempted to be turned into ridicule by this writer. I have endeavored to detect his falsehoods and misrepresentations and to show his extreme ignorance of the Divine Scriptures which he makes the subject of his animadversions -- not knowing that "they are the power of God unto salvation, to every one that believeth [Romans 1:16]."[11]

Patrick Henry, too, wrote a refutation of Paine's work which he described as "the puny efforts of Paine." However, after reading Bishop Richard Watson's Apology for the Bible written against Paine, Henry deemed that work sufficient and decided not to publish his reply.[12]

When William Paterson, signer of the Constitution and a Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, learned that some Americans seemed to agree with Paine's work, he thundered:

Infatuated Americans, why renounce your country, your religion, and your God? Oh shame, where is thy blush? Is this the way to continue independent, and to render the 4th of July immortal in memory and song?[13]

Zephaniah Swift, author of America's first law book, warned:

[W]e cannot sufficiently reprobate the beliefs of Thomas Paine in his attack on Christianity by publishing his Age of Reason . . . . He has the impudence and effrontery [shameless boldness] to address to the citizens of the United States of America a paltry performance which is intended to shake their faith in the religion of their fathers . . . . No language can describe the wickedness of the man who will attempt to subvert a religion which is a source of comfort and consolation to its votaries [devout worshipers] merely for the purpose of eradicating all sentiments of religion.[14]

John Jay, co-author of the Federalist Papers and the original Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was comforted by the fact that Christianity would prevail despite Paine's attack:

I have long been of the opinion that the evidence of the truth of Christianity requires only to be carefully examined to produce conviction in candid minds, and I think they who undertake that task will derived advantages. . . . As to The Age of Reason, it never appeared to me to have been written from a disinterested love of truth or of mankind.[15]

Many other similar writings could be cited, but these are sufficient to show that Paine's views were strongly rejected even by the least religious Founders. In fact, Paine's views caused such vehement public opposition that -- as Franklin predicted -- he spent his last years in New York as "an outcast" in "social ostracism" and was buried in a farm field because no American cemetery would accept his remains.[16]

Yet, even Thomas Paine cannot be called an atheist, for in the same work wherein he so strongly attacked Christianity, Paine also declared:

I believe in one God . . . and I hope for happiness beyond this life.[17]

The Founding Fathers simply were not atheists -- not even one of them. As Franklin had earlier explained to his European hosts while in France:

[B]ad examples to youth are more rare in America, which must be comfortable consideration to parents. To this may be truly added, that serious religion, under its various denominations, is not only tolerated, but respected and practiced. Atheism is unknown there; infidelity rare and secret; so that persons may live to a great age in that country, without having their piety shocked by meeting with either an atheist or an infidel.[18]

While members of the Supreme Court have held that government cannot show "respect" for religion, Franklin says the opposite.

[See David Barton, Original Intent, 130-34 for words in blue.]

Deism and Infidelity

As has been shown elsewhere, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that references to God (which permeate our history and government) do not refer to the God of the Bible. Our national motto ("In God We Trust"), the Pledge of Allegiance ("One nation, under God"), and oaths in our courtrooms ("So help me, God") have been declared by the Supreme Court to have "no theological meaning." They are examples of "ceremonial deism."

In a syndicated article, Steven Morris claimed,

The early presidents and patriots were generally deists or Unitarians, believing in some form of impersonal Providence but rejecting the divinity of Jesus and the relevance of the Bible.[19]

But the Founders were not "deists." Franklin called himself a "deist," but used the word in a sense quite different from the way most Americans think of that term today.

Russell Kirk describes deism in the following terms:

Throughout Europe and even America, the disillusionment that followed upon the end of the Wars of Religion had brought some toleration with it—but also apathy or indifference of spirit. Scientific and metaphysical speculation, late in the seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth, had weakened Christian belief among many of the educated. Christian churches often seemed dull and smug, and many clergymen were content to collect their stipends but not eager to perform their duties. In much of Europe, a confused popular resentment against established churches began to stir; quite as serious was the contempt for Christianity that grew among not a few members of the upper classes. Anti-Christian feeling was one of the forces that would explode in Paris in 1789, and thereafter would sweep across other European nations. Men must believe in something more than themselves; and if the Christian churches seemed whited sepulchres, men would seek another form of faith. So it was that during the first half of the eighteenth century, in England and America, the mode of thought called Deism made inroads upon the Christianity of the Apostles' Creed. 

Deism was neither a Christian schism nor a systematic philosophy, but rather a way of looking at the human condition; the men called Deists differed among themselves on many points. (Thomas Paine often was called an atheist, but is more accurately described as a rather radical Deist.) Deism was an outgrowth of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scientific speculation. The Deists professed belief in a single Supreme Being, but rejected a large part of Christian doctrine. Follow Nature, said the Deists (as the Stoics had said before them), not Revelation: all things must be tested by rational private judgment. The Deists relied especially upon mathematical approaches to reality, influenced in this by the thought of Sir Isaac Newton. For the Christian, the object of life was to know God and enjoy Him forever; for the Deist, the object of life was private happiness. For the Deists, the Supreme Being indeed was the creator of the universe, but He did not interfere with the functioning of His creation. The Deists denied that Old and New Testaments were divinely inspired; they doubted the reality of miracles; they held that Jesus of Nazareth was not the Redeemer, but a grand moral teacher merely. Thoroughly rationalistic, the Deists discarded all elements of mystery in religion, trying to reduce Christian teaching to a few simple truths. They, and the Unitarians who arose about the same time, declared that man was good by nature, not corrupt; they hoped to liberate mankind from superstition and fear.

Kirk, The Roots of American Order, pp.337-38

Ben Franklin, by this account, was no deist. He believed that God directly -- if not "miraculously" -- intervened in the "natural" functioning of the universe. See his remarks at the Constitutional Convention.

What is important to see is the negative connotation in the word "deist." Noah Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language shows how "deism" came to be equated with "infidelity":

DE'ISM, n. [Fr. deisme; Sp. deismo; It. id; from L. deus, God.]
The doctrine or creed of a deist; the belief or system of religious opinions of those who acknowledge the existence of one God, but deny revelation:
or deism is the belief in natural religion only, or those truths, in doctrine and practice, which man is to discover by the light of reason, independent and exclusive of any revelation from God.
Hence deism implies infidelity or a disbelief in the divine origin of the scriptures.

Webster then quotes Patrick Henry, from Wirt's Sketches, to the effect that "deism . . . is but another name for vice and depravity. . . . " A "deist," thus, is

one who believes in the existence of a God, but denies revealed religion:
one who professes no form of religion, but follows the light of nature and reason, as his only guides in doctrine and practice;
a freethinker.

Freethinkers and infidels were under severe legal restrictions in the years immediately following the ratification of the Constitution. There is little evidence that the Founding Fathers intended to minimize those restrictions. Black's Law Dictionary defines an "infidel" as

One who does not believe in the existence of a God who will reward or punish in this world or that which is to come. Hale v. Everett, 53 N.H. 54, 16 Am.Rep. 82. One who professes no religion that can bind his conscience to speak the truth. 1 Greenl. Ev. § 368. One who does not recognize the inspiration or obligation of the Holy Scriptures, or generally recognized features of the Christian religion. Gibson v. Ins. Co., 37 N.Y. 580.

It is clear that the legal restriction most in view in this definition is the qualification to take a solemn oath. An "infidel" was deemed unable to take an oath. An oath witnessed to the existence of a God Who would judge falsehood. Every oath was thus a "test oath."

Thomas Jefferson, by this definition, was not an "infidel." 

The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man:

1. That there is one only God, and He all perfect.
2. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments.
3. That to love God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself, is the sum of religion.…

Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian.

—To Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse. (1822) The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Edited by Albert Ellery Bergh. 20 vols. Washington: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1907. (Memorial Edition) vol. 15, p. 383. 

I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus—very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its Author never said nor saw. They have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man, of which the great Reformer of the vicious ethics and deism of the Jews, were He to return on earth, would not recognize one feature.

—To Charles Thomson. Bergh 14:385. (1816.)

In 1844, a case came before the U.S. Supreme Court [Vidal v. Girard's Executors, 43 U.S. 126 (1844)] in which a Frenchman, suspected of being a "deist" or "infidel," wanted to build a school quite different from most -- one in which the teachers would not be clergymen. His will left millions of dollars to the City of Philadelphia to build a school in which "no ecclesiastic, missionary, or minister of any sect whatsoever" should be allowed in. He stipulated that "only the purest principles of morality" should be taught, by which he obviously meant Secular Humanism/No Bible.

(I say this is "obvious" because of the opprobrium with which the atheistic French Revolution was viewed in America. Both the City of Philadelphia and Girard's heirs suspected that by this provision he wanted to exclude the Bible from the school and to prohibit Christianity from being taught.)

Both the City of Philadelphia and Girard's heirs conceded that an atheistic school such as this would be repugnant to the Christian law of this country. This is one of the arguments raised before the Supreme Court by Daniel Webster:

[T]he plan of education proposed is anti-Christian and therefore repugnant to the law.

His reasoning before the US Supreme Court was based on Biblical authority:

Both in the Old and New Testaments its importance [viz., the religious instruction of youth] is recognized. In the Old it is said, "Thou shalt diligently teach them to thy children," and in the New, "Suffer little children to come unto me and forbid them not . . . ." No fault can be found with Girard for wishing a marble college to bear his name for ever, but it is not valuable unless it has a fragrance of Christianity about it.

One has to exercise a little historiographic wisdom here. What kind of world was it back then the a man of Daniel Webster's stature (called "the Defender of the Constitution") could rise before the US Supreme Court and cite Bible verses as the basis for setting aside probably the largest devise of its kind in the history of the New World?

Webster argued that the single anti-Christian provision of Girard's will should force the entire will to be set aside. But courts will attempt to salvage a will by removing any clause offensive to public policy. This is what the City of Philadelphia argued. They granted that the atheistic school clause was anti-Christian and therefore unlawful, but they argued that Webster should have

. . . joined with us in asking the State to cut off the obnoxious clause.

The City agreed with Webster that this was a Christian nation and that the Bible must be taught in schools. Giving a tortured interpretation of the Frenchman's will, the City argued:

The purest principles of morality are to be taught. Where are they found? Whoever searches for them must go to the source from which a Christian man derives his faith -- the Bible. . . . [T]here is an obligation to teach what the Bible alone can teach, viz., a pure system of morality.

So here we have two parties before the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that a clause in a will requiring a Bible-free school cannot be enforced in America because this is a Christian nation. If the ACLU's version of history were true, the Supreme Court would have laughed these lawyers out onto the street. Nobody after Everson can make arguments like this before the Court. (But then, the case which took prayer out of schools in 1962 did not cite a single judicial precedent. The doctrine of "separation of church and state" required a wholesale revision of American history. The Holy Trinity case, of course, cited this 1844 case to prove that America was a "Christian nation.")

So what exactly did the Girard Court hold? How did it react to these Bible-thumping lawyers before it?

After both sides argued that the anti-Christian provision of the will was repugnant to law, the unanimous opinion of the US Supreme Court was delivered by Justice Joseph Story, whose Commentaries on the Constitution were regarded as the greatest statement of U.S. Constitutional Law. The Court ruled that Christianity could NOT be excluded from the school.

Christianity . . . is not to be maliciously and openly reviled and blasphemed against to the annoyance of believers or the injury of the public. . . . It is unnecessary for us, however, to consider . . . the establishment of a school or college for the propagation of . . . Deism or any other form of infidelity. Such a case is not to be presumed to exist in a Christian country.

Note that "deism" is equated with "infidelity." The Supreme Court said they were not to be tolerated in a Christian nation. Deism is not approved the way modern writers say the Founders did.

John Adams denounced "infidelity": 

The idea of infidelity cannot be treated with too much resentment or too much horror. The man who can think of it with patience is a traitor in his heart and ought to be execrated as one who adds the deepest hypocrisy to the blackest treason. [20]

The Founders believed that a school which would teach Deism is against public policy. That's what the United State Supreme Court ruled in 1844. That holding cannot be made after the Everson case. Not because the Constitution requires it, but because the Secular Humanist Court now requires that atheists are not to be annoyed by prayers, Bible readings, or manger scenes in public.

It might be instructive to recall the words of Scripture:

the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous. Proverbs 13:22

The Vidal Court very wisely does not allow the will to fail, but takes millions of dollars from an apparent unbeliever and uses them to build a school which will teach Christianity. The Court looks at Girard's will, which expressly states that no clergy can even enter the school -- even as visitors -- and says, that's OK:

Why may not laymen instruct in the general principles of Christianity as well as ecclesiastics [that's "clergy" for you public school graduates.]
And we cannot overlook the blessings which such [lay]men by their conduct, as well as their instructions, may, nay must impart to their youthful pupils. Why may not the Bible, and especially the New Testament, without note or comment, be read and taught as a divine revelation in the college -- its general precepts expounded, its evidences explained and its glorious principles of morality inculcated? . . . Where can the purest principles of morality be learned so clearly or so perfectly as from the New Testament?

You cannot even IMAGINE the current Supreme Court saying anything like this. That's why the Court has had to ignore all legal precedent in formulating its doctrine of the "separation of church and state." It's not in the Constitution, nor its legislative history, nor in Court cases throughout the 19th century.

This case blows the myth of "separation" to pieces, but most Americans have had their historical memories flushed down the Orwellian Memory Hole and can't even grasp what's going on in this case. Nobody in this case believed in a "separation of church and state" as now understood, and nobody believed that the Constitution required the Bible to be removed from schools.

I anticipate nothing but suffering to the human race while the present systems of paganism, deism and atheism prevail in the world.[21]
Benjamin Rush, Signer of the Declaration of Independence

The attempt by the rulers of a nation [France] to destroy all religious opinion and to pervert a whole people to atheism is a phenomenon of profligacy [an act of depravity] . . . . [T]o establish atheism on the ruins of Christianity [is] to deprive mankind of its best consolations and most animating hopes and to make it a gloomy desert of the universe.[22]
Alexander Hamilton

[T]he rising greatness of our country . . . is greatly tarnished by the general prevalence of deism which, with me, is but another name for vice and depravity. . . . I hear it is said by the deists that I am one of their number; and indeed that some good people think I am no Christian. This thought gives me much more pain than the appellation of Tory, because I think religion of infinitely higher importance than politics . . . . [B]eing a Christian . . . is a character which I prize far above all this world has or can boast.[23]
Patrick Henry

[I] have a thorough contempt for all men . . . who appear to be the irreclaimable enemies of religion.[24]
Samuel Adams

[T]he most important of all lessons [from the Scripture] is the denunciation of ruin to every State that rejects the precepts of religion.[25]
Gouverneur Morris, Penman and Signer of the Constitution

[S]hun, as a contagious pestilence . . . those especially whom you perceive to be infected with the principles of infidelity or [who are] enemies to the power of religion.[26] Whoever is an avowed enemy of God, I scruple not to call him an enemy to his country.[27]
John Witherspoon, Signer of the Declaration

John Adams also recognized that the Bible cannot be removed from schools, because freedom cannot exist in chaos. We cannot separate religion and government:

Religion and virtue are the only foundations . . . of republicanism and of all free governments.[28]


But wasn't Adams a Unitarian? Those who believe in the "separation of church and state" would certainly like us to believe that he was, and that Unitarians were flagrant TomPaine-type atheists who flouted their anti-religious views and led an entire nation in an anti-Christian revolt. This is far from accurate.

Unitarianism appeared in America as early as 1785; its doctrines were stated by William Ellery Channing in 1819, with the American Unitarian Association being formed in 1825. The Theological Dictionary of 1823 described Unitarians thusly:

In common with other Christians, they confess that He [Jesus] is the Christ, the Son of the Living God; and in one word, they believe all that the writers of the New Testament, particularly the four Evangelists, have stated concerning him.

In fact, the early Unitarians published a pamphlet entitled An Answer to the Question, "Why Do You Attend a Unitarian Church?" Notice some of the eighteen reasons:

  • Because the Unitarians reject all human creeds and articles of faith, and strictly adhere to the great Protestant principle, "the Bible -- the Bible only;" admitting no standard of Christian truth, nor any rule of Christian practice, but the words of the Lord Jesus and his Apostles. . . .
  • Because at the Unitarian Church I hear Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, preached as the Christ, the son of the living God. . . .
  • Because Unitarians teach the doctrine of "the true grace of God." -- His unmerited, unpurchased favor to mankind, -- that salvation and eternal life are his free gifts through Jesus Christ; which is clearly the doctrine of Scripture . . . .
  • Because there the crucified Jesus is exalted, as having attained his high dignity and glory, and His appointment to be the Saviour and Judge of the world. . . .
  • Because there the necessity of personal righteousness is insisted on, and the spirit of Christ and conformity to His example, made essential to genuine Christianity.

As a further indication of the early Unitarian's reliance on the Bible, observers from that era noted "that several of the ablest defenders of Christianity against the attacks of infidels have been Unitarians." [29]

However, in 1838, Unitarianism took a radical turn when Ralph Waldo Emerson began slowly reshaping Channing's Christian teachings

. . . into a Transcendentalist version of the ethical theism of Plato, the Stoics, and Kant, coordinated with the nascent evolutionist science of the day and the newly explored mysticism of the ancient East. This new religious philosophy, as construed and applied by the Boston preacher Theodore Parker and other disciples of Emerson, included the other great ethnic faiths with Christianity in a universal religion of Humanity and through its intellectual hospitality operated to open Unitarian fellowship to evolutionists, monists, pragmatists and humanists. [30]

The 1844 source previously quoted indicates that Emerson's heresies took time to infect Unitarianism completely. But the Unitarianism of Adams' day was not the Unitarianism of our day.

Professing little reverence for human creeds, having no common standard but the Bible . . . . They believe that He [God] earnestly desires their repentance and holiness; that His infinite, overflowing love led Him miraculously to raise up and send Jesus to be their spiritual deliverer, to purify their souls from sin, to restore them to communion with Himself, and fit them for pardon and everlasting life in His presence; in a word, to reconcile man to God.

Because today's Unitarians are both non- and anti-Christian, a failure to account for the historical changes in this organization have caused many modern historians to conclude wrongly that the Founders associated with early Unitarianism could not have been Christians. In fact, they were much closer to the Religious Right in their social morality than to the ACLU.

I grant that all of the Founders were far too influenced by Enlightenment Humanism. But then, I think Pat Robertson is way too "moderate." The point is that none of them would support the present definition of "separation of church and state."

Barton's discussion of Unitarianism is found in Original Intent at pp. 304-306.

My Answer to a Letter from the World Union of Deists

> To Whom It May Concern,
> I am convinced that the ideal nation is a secular democratic republic
> that allows its adult citizens to do whatever they want as long as
> they do not obviously hurt someone else. The United States was not
> necessarily designed to be such a nation at its conception, yet,
> compared with other nations at the time, it certainly was a major
> step in the right direction.

Anyone who takes an oath to "support the Constitution" as our judges and politicians do, should be expected to support the Constitution as it was written and intended to be carried out, not what the politicians think it should be or want it to be.

> The United States was founded on some excellent ideas, but sometimes
> these ideas had to be expanded to be as good as possible. For
> example, the Declaration of Independence declares "that all men are
> created equal." What does that mean? It originally meant that all
> white American men who own property and pay taxes are created equal,
> and, thus, should be allowed to vote.

All men are created equal, but not all are allowed to hold public office (must be 35 years old to be President, for example). The ability to vote to increase taxes should be limited to those who must pay them.

> The same can be said of America's secular seed. The Declaration of
> Independence does mention "Nature's God." (Which, by the way, refers
> to the Deist conception of God, not Yahweh or the Trinity. Remember
> that the writer of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson,
> was an outspoken Deist.) 

Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence was altered by a revision committee, and signed by those who cannot be called "deists."

> Yet the Declaration of Independence
> mentions Nature's God in passing, so it is by far more of a secular
> document than a religious one. 

I disagree. The Declaration says:

• that the existence of God is a "self-evident truth"
• that our rights are the product of intelligent design (not the government)
• that all Americans are obligated to conform their lives to "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God"
• that our actions must one day pass judgment with "the Supreme Judge of the world"
• that all Americans should have "a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence."

This is pervasively religious.
Most Americans today are victims of educational malpractice, and so they don't know how religious America was in  those days.

> Deism is also a far more secular
> philosophy than Christianity. 

But not the deism of Jefferson's day:

> Furthermore, the United States
> Constitution does not refer to any deity. 

This is because Christians did not want the federal government to have any authority over religion.

> If the United States was
> supposed to be a very religious nation, its constitution should have
> at least mentioned a deity!

Not according to the Christians who wrote it. If the Framers had intended the Constitution to be secular, they could have done so. The French did this, but the Americans did not:

> From these largely-secular beginnings, the United States will
> hopefully develop into a purely secular nation in the same way it
> developed from a pro-white-rich-male-citizen nation into a pro-adult-
> citizen nation. 

Even Jefferson wanted America to be a Christian nation, albeit Unitarian. But religious, not secular, not atheist:

Sharing a hope nurtured by many Americans in the early nineteenth century, Jefferson anticipated a re-establishment of the Christian religion in its "original purity" in the United States.
Andrew M. Allison, in Thomas Jefferson: Champion of History, pp.299ff.

Once primitive Christianity was fully restored . . . Christianity would escape all danger of being eclipsed or superseded. "I confidently expect," Jefferson wrote in 1822, "that the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States." And to the Harvard professor and Unitarian Benjamin Waterhouse, Jefferson that same year observed: "I trust that there is not a young man now living in the U.S. who will not die an Unitarian.
Gaustad, Faith of our Fathers, p. 105

> May the United States government favor no religion,
> not Deism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Satanism, Atheism,
> Agnosticism, et cetera. That way, Americans can practice their
> religions without interference from their government and no religion
> will have a governmental advantage over another. 

It was never intended for practitioners of human sacrifice, cannibalism, polygamy, or suttee to be permitted to practice their religion, because this was a Christian nation.

I oppose government support of religion (i.e., taxing people). But government makes laws, and laws impose somebody's morality, and morality comes from somebody's religion. Government will always favor one religion over others, or be in the process of changing favored religions.

> Americans will be
> much more likely to embrace or reject a religion based on its merit
> (or lack thereof), rather than because their government backs it.

I agree.

> This allows more freedom, and freedom is the core value of the United
> States of America!
> May reason prevail!
> Jayson
> Deputy Director
> World Union of Deists

Human beings have reason because they are created in the Image of God.

Beings which are created by impersonal, random, meaningless, blind forces do not have reason.
They are simply the random interaction of various chemicals.


It would be difficult to name a single Founding Father who did not believe in a God who judges men and nations in this life or in the life to come. Thus, not a single Founding Father could be called a deist or any other form of infidel.  Back to Black's Law Dictionary

Footnote 1. Michael McDonald, "Founding Fathers Weren't Devout," The Charlotte Observer, Friday, January 15, 1993, 7A.

Footnote 2. Benjamin Franklin, The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Jared Sparks, Ed., (Boston: Tappan, Whittemore and Mason, 1840) X:281-282, to Thomas Paine in 1790.

Footnote 3. William V. Wells, The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1865) III:372-73, to Thomas Paine on Nov. 30, 1802.

Footnote 4. John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, Ed., (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856) III:421, dairy entry for July 26, 1796.

Footnote 5. John Adams (1735-1826), (L.H. Butterfield, ed., Diary and Autobiography of John Adams (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Press, 1961), Vol. III, p. 9. [February 22, 1756]

Footnote 6. Lester J. Capon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters 2 vols. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), 2:339-40

Footnote 7. Benjamin Rush, Letters of Benjamin Rush, L.H. Butterfield, ed., (Princeton University Press, 1951) II:770, to John Dickenson on Feb 16, 1796.

Footnote 8. Joseph Gurn, Charles Carrol of Carrolton (NY: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1932, p. 203.

Footnote 9. John Witherspoon, The Works of the Reverend John Witherspoon (Phila: Wm W. Woodward, 1802) III:24n2, from "The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men," delivered at Princeton on May 17, 1776.

Footnote 10. John Quincy Adams, An Answer to Pain's [sic] "Rights of Man" (London: John Stockdale, 1793) p. 13.

Footnote 11. Elias Boudinot, The Age of Revelation (Phila: Asbury Dickins, 1801) pp. xii-xiv, from the prefatory remarks to his daughter, Mrs. Susan V. Bradford.

Footnote 12. George Morgan, Patrick Henry (Phila: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1929) p. 366n. See also, Bishop William Meade, Old Churches, Ministers, and Families of Virginia (Phila: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1857) II:12.

Footnote 13. John E. O'Connor, William Paterson: Lawyer and Statesman (New Bruswick: Rutgers University Press, 1979) p. 244, from a Fourth of July Oration in 1798.

Footnote 14. Zephaniah Swift, A System of Laws of the State of Connecticut (Windham: John Byrne, 1796) II:323-24.

Footnote 15. William Jay, The Life of John Jay (NY: J. & J. Harper, 1833) p. 80 from his "Charge to the Grand Jury of Ulster County" on Sept. 9, 1777.

Footnote 16. Dictionary of American Biography, s.v. "Thomas Paine."

Footnote 17. Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (Phila: The Booksellers, 1794) p. 8.

Footnote 18. Benjamin Franklin, Two Tracts: Information to Those Who Would Remove to America and Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America (London: John Stockdale, 1784), p.24.

Footnote 19. "America's Unchristian Beginnings," The Los Angeles Times August 3, 1995, B-9. See our analysis of this article.

Footnote 20. The Papers of John Adams, Robert J. Taylor, ed., (Cambridge: Belknap Press [Harvard University], 1977-89) vol. VI p 348 to James Warren on Aug. 4, 1778

Footnote 21. Benjamin Rush, Letters of Benjamin Rush, L.H. Butterfield, ed., (Princeton University Press, 1951) II:799, to Noah Webster on July 20, 1798.

Footnote 22. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, Harold C. Syrett, ed., (NY: Columbia University Press, 1979) XXV:605-10, to James Bayard on April 16-21, 1802.

Footnote 23. Arnold, A.G., The Life of Patrick Henry of Virginia, (Auburn and Buffalo: Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1854) pp. 249-50.

Footnote 24. Samuel Adams, The Writings of Samuel Adams, Harry Alonzo Cushing, ed., (NY: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1906) II:381, to William Checkley on Dec. 14, 1772.

Footnote 25. Collections of the New York Historical Society for the Year 1821 (NY: E.Bliss and E. White, 1821) p 34, from "An Inaugural Discourse Delivered Before the New York Historical Society by the Honorable Gouverneur Morris on Sept. 4, 1816."

Footnote 26. Witherspoon, Works, VI:13, from "An Address to the Senior Class at Princeton College," Sept. 23, 1775.

Footnote 27. Ibid., III:42, from "The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men," delivered at Princeton on May 17, 1776.

Footnote 28. Adams, Works, IX:636, to Benjamin Rush, Aug. 28, 1811.

Footnote 29. Rupp, Daniel, An Original History of the Religious Denominations at Present Existing in the United States, (Phila: J.Y. Humphreys, 1844) p. 711.

Footnote 30. James Truslow Adams, Dictionary of American History (NY: Chas. Scribner's Sons, 1940) p. 345.

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