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Thursday, January 18, 2001

The Faith of the Founders

I would like to take issue with several of the things Bo Turner said in his December 23 article; however, at this time I will take issue with only one. In his article he said that most of the framers of the U.S. Constitution were “deists, agnostics, Unitarians, and free-thinkers.” First of all let’s define some of these: 1) In certain dictionaries the terms “deist,” “agnostic,” and “atheist” appear as synonyms. So a deist can range from someone who believes there is no God, to those who believe in a distant, impersonal creator, to those who believe there is no way to know if God exists. The most common definition of deism is the belief in a distant, impersonal creator. 2) Deism gave rise to Unitarianism. A Unitarian is defined as “A monotheist who rejects the doctrine of the Trinity.”

Mr. Turner said that “most” of the framers fell into one of the categories named above. While it can be argued that a few of the framers fit into his description, including Thomas Jefferson, it is very misleading to say that “most” did. In fact, hardly any of the notable Founders can be called anything but orthodox evangelical Christians. Noted historian David Barton claims that “52 of the 55 founding fathers were orthodox evangelical Christians.” Actually there were over 200 “Founders”(55 at the Constitutional Convention, to which Mr. Barton refers, 90 who framed the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights, and 56 who signed the Declaration of Independence). Let’s briefly examine some of the words of a few of the more significant, or popular, Founders.

George Washington was an open promoter of Christianity. In a speech on May 12, 1779, he stated that what children needed to learn “above all” was the “religion of Jesus Christ.” 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.” He also said, “It is impossible to govern the world without God. He must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligation.” In the Yale Divinity School Library there is a book by William Johnson entitled George Washington, the Christian. In it are many words from Washington which reveal that he was a devout Christian. Washington certainly doesn’t fit Mr. Turner’s description of a Founder.

Neither does Benjamin Franklin. At a very crucial point at the Constitutional Convention in May, 1787, Franklin gave a short, but resounding speech. (The debate over representation was becoming very bitter, and the Convention was on the verge of breaking up.) In it he said, “In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for Divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered…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 man.’ And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?…We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings that except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it. I firmly believe this…” In a letter to the French ministry he said, “He who shall introduce into public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world.” Franklin also chose a biblical inscription for the Seal of the United States and was instrumental in the establishment of a paid chaplain in Congress.

On the subject of the Bible Patrick Henry said, “There is a Book worth all other books which were ever printed.” We’ve all heard of Henry’s famous line “Give me liberty or give me death!” In that same speech he also said, “God presides over the destinies of nations and will raise up friends for us.” In his will it reads, “I have now disposed of all my property to my family; there is one more thing I wish I could give them, and that is the Christian religion. If they had this, and I had not given them one shilling, they would be rich; but if they had not that, and I had given them all the world, they would be poor.” Does Henry sound like a Unitarian?

John Adams said, “I believe in God and in His wisdom and benevolence.” Of the day that the Declaration was passed Adams wrote to his wife saying that that day “ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.”

James Madison’s writings are full of declarations of his faith in God and Christ. In a letter to Attorney General Bradford he said that public officials should be “fervent advocates for the cause of Christ.”

John Jay, who was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and along with Madison and Alexander Hamilton wrote the Federalist Papers, said this: “Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” Imagine that! The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court telling us that we ought to elect Christians!

Consider some of the lesser known Founders, as noted by David Barton: “Charles Pickney 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. This does not even include the huge number of thoroughly evangelical Christians who signed the Declaration or who helped frame the Bill of Rights.” I think Mr. Turner should be more careful than to make such sweeping statements that would label men such as these to be deists, agnostics, or Unitarians.

I’ll end with a quote from Mr. Turner’s favorite Founder, Thomas Jefferson: “Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.”

Copyright 2015, Trevor Grant Thomas
At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason.
www.trevorgrantthomas.com
Trevor and his wife Michelle are the authors of: Debt Free Living in a Debt Filled World
tthomas@trevorgrantthomas.com