The Founding Fathers: Deism & Christianity

As was traditional of the time period, the Founding Fathers did have a Christian upbringing. For instance, in Virginia, founders such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Patrick Henry all grew up under the influence of the Anglican Church. Further north, in New England, founders John Adams and Benjamin Franklin emerged from a Puritan rearing. Each of the Founding Fathers had a religious background — though it may have varied in denomination — which was an influence many of them would carry forward into their adult life. All of the previously mentioned men, with the exception of Franklin, would continue to attend church (however sporadically), marry under church law, entrust their children to its care, and be buried by members of the clergy.

Additionally, whether or not they agreed with all of the religious doctrines, most of the Founding Fathers recognized the vital role religion played in defining a nation’s, and a people’s, morality. Religion, they believed, was necessary for morality, and morality was necessary for a republic to operate free from corruption. Therefore, religion was needed for the correct function of a republican form of government. Even if they themselves did not practice, or believe in all that the Christian church taught, the Founding Fathers still recognized the importance of religion.

However, around the same time Deism was gaining momentum and unseating Christian orthodoxy in institutions of higher learning, several of the Founding Fathers were enrolled, or about to enroll, in college. Since Deism was, at the time, considered a novelty, and taking into account the fact that young, college-enrolled individuals are more willing to embrace novelty, it is not far-fetched to assume that many of the Founding Fathers were influenced by Deism.

Interestingly, believing in, or having Deistic tendencies, did not mean that one had to completely reject the Church and its teachings. Nor did it mean that an individual did not believe in the Christian God. In fact, the main principles of Deism stated that there is a God, that he should be worshipped, that humans should repent their sins, and that there is a life after death where good is rewarded and evil is punished, all of which are beliefs synonymous with Christianity. However, the way that Deism differs from Christianity lies in its renunciation of revelation, and its belief that virtue, not God (or “Nature’s God, as Deists called him), is the principal element of worship.

The Founding Fathers never completely abandoned their Christian roots — under the influence of Deism, several began to examine them with a more critical eye, applying reason and logic to Church doctrine. When a sacrament or teaching did not uphold the test of reason, like communion or the Resurrection, many of the Founding Fathers rejected it. For instance, George Washington, who regularly attended church, always left the service before communion because he did not find it logical that the bread and wine was converted into the body and blood of Christ.

In fact, most of the founders can be divided into three categories, depending upon the degree to which they embraced Deism or rejected their Christian upbringing. First, Non-Christian Deists were the ones that embraced Deism the most — founders who fall into this category stopped attending church, and were extremely critical of all biblical revelations. Second, Deistic Christians regularly attended church, were active in some of the church sacraments, and believed in some Church doctrine. Finally, orthodox Christians were active church-goers, and adamant believers in all Church doctrine.

The Founding Fathers, in their establishment of this nation, carried with them the influences of both Christianity and Deism — neither holds precedent over the other.