DEISM AND THE FOUNDING FATHERS

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What is Deism?

One thing that is common these days is to assert that the Founding Fathers were Deists.  Since I doubt that the term deism is especially well understood, let us start with a definition.

Deism\De”ism\ (d[=e]”[i^]z’m), n. [L. deus god: cf. F.
d[‘e]isme. See Deity.]
The doctrine or creed of a deist; the belief or system of
those who acknowledge the existence of one God, but deny
revelation.

Note: 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 of any
revelation from God. Hence, deism implies infidelity,
or a disbelief in the divine origin of the Scriptures. (from here)

As a religious philosophy, the key word is “reason”.  Because they do not believe it reasonable to accept relevation such as the Bible, Deists claim to derive their beliefs about God from God’s creation.   Curiously, however, with little actual proof some Deists readily accept the notion that the Founding Fathers were Deists.

Who were the Deists?

During the time of the Founding Fathers, Americans were not especially tolerant of non-Christians.  The idea of religious freedom was still being invented and only slowly being accepted.  Thomas Paine, one of the few known Deists amongst the Founding Fathers attests well to this fact as he begins The Age of Reason.

IT has been my intention, for several years past, to publish my thoughts upon religion. I am well aware of the difficulties that attend the subject, and from that consideration, had reserved it to a more advanced period of life. I intended it to be the last offering I should make to my fellow-citizens of all nations, and that at a time when the purity of the motive that induced me to it, could not admit of a question, even by those who might disapprove the work.

The circumstance that has now taken place in France of the total abolition of the whole national order of priesthood, and of everything appertaining to compulsive systems of religion, and compulsive articles of faith, has not only precipitated my intention, but rendered a work of this kind exceedingly necessary, lest in the general wreck of superstition, of false systems of government, and false theology, we lose sight of morality, of humanity, and of the theology that is true.

As several of my colleagues and others of my fellow-citizens of France have given me the example of making their voluntary and individual profession of faith, I also will make mine; and I do this with all that sincerity and frankness with which the mind of man communicates with itself. (from here)

Paine began his last great work in France as that nation sank into the Reign of Terror.  In his own way, Paine feared for the loss of the theology that is true.  So he started to write. Yet he had been right to wait.  Although The Age of Reason sold well, its publication helped to destroy his reputation.  Not content to explain his own beliefs, Paine directly attacked, particularly in Part 2 of The Age of Reason, the authenticity of the Bible.

The religious sensitivities of early Americans were such that the Founding Fathers avoided the mention of God in the Constitution.  They spoke about reverence for Almighty God and encouraged religious toleration, but many avoided discussing their personal beliefs.  So which of the Founders were Deists?  Most often the Founding Fathers included amongst Paine’s allies are spoken of as Deists.  These allies included George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson.

  • Was Washington a Deist?  Washington was closed-mouth about his personal religious beliefs.   He attended church services, but in the later part of his life he was not a communicant.  He promoted religious toleration, and he promoted the belief in God.  Washington established the tradition of chaplains serving in the United States military (see here).  In addition, Washington inaugurated the first Thanksgiving (see here).  Nonetheless, as he never made his personal beliefs about Christianity publicly known, Washington could have been a Deist.
  • Was Franklin a deist?   In his autobiography, Franklin makes it clear that he was a Deist.  Nonetheless, it is also apparent that Franklin had great respect for the teachings of Jesus.  Franklin had this to say a month before he died in a letter to Ezra Stiles.

    As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.

  • Was Jefferson a Deist?  In a letter to Ezra Stiles, Jefferson wrote “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know” (see here).  Jefferson clearly questioned the divinity of Jesus.  At the same time, like Franklin, Jefferson had respect for the teachings of Jesus.  Jefferson studied the Bible intensely, trying to separate what he considered the myth from Jesus’ teachings.  Based upon what he extracted from the New Testament, he wrote two works:  “The Philosophy of Jesus” (1804) and The Life and Morals of Jesus (1819-20?).  Unsatisfied with the first work, Jefferson wrote the second (see here).  The second is also known as The Jefferson Bible.

If these men were Deists, then they were Christian Deists.  Even if they had trouble accepting the divinity of Jesus, they did have faith in His religious teachings.  What Jefferson discovered about himself, is perhaps true of everyone.  We are each our own religious sect.   Consider that as Paine, Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson approached the end of their years, each handled this crisis in his own way.  Paine sought to explain and convince others of the principles his own religious beliefs.  Washington gracefully accepted his role as a political leader; he set for others an example of resolute honor, Christian forbearance, and calm demeanor.  Franklin approached his end with humble faith.  And Jefferson scoured the Bible for something in which he could believe.

Other Founding Fathers

I have a book I bought in a bookstore at a national park some years back, The Signers of the Constitution by Robert G. Ferris and James H. Charleston.  In the fall of 1787, fifty-five delegates attended the Constitutional Convention.  Thirty-nine of those men completed the work and signed the document.  The book provides a brief biographical sketch of each of these men.  When I was first confronted with the notion that the Founding Fathers were Deists, I decided to look at the book once again.

Although Ferris and Charleston did not write their book to expound upon the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers, their work does provide clues.  One signer at least was a religious minister.  On at least two other occassions, the church affiliation of a signer was sufficiently strong that the authors remarked on  this fact.  However, what is most revealing in the book is where most of these men are buried.  In an era when there was a great deal of empty land, and the families of most upstanding citizens had acreage of their own, at least twenty-eight of the signers were buried in the cemetery next to a Christian church.

100 thoughts on “DEISM AND THE FOUNDING FATHERS

  1. Trying to offer an interpretation of words written by a proclaimed Deist (Paine) is not the wisest way to make your point. One need only read the document to see its intent. Reading into ones own words neither gives clarity or credence to your assertions. As to the fact that over half of the signers of the Constitution were buried in Christian Church grave yards gives little to your assertion that they were truly “christian.” There are a good many “non-believers” buried on “sacred ground” as a wish to either be buried by loved ones, or any number of reasons.
    Again….read their words….don’t offer what you THINK they meant based on your NEED for them to mean a certain thing.

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  2. Jay – What Humanism is is a bit difficult to define. Over the last several centuries, the meaning of the term has drifted. However, you have defined how you want to use the term. So that is fair enough.

    Were the Founding Fathers Humanists? Is the Constitution a Humanist document with a Deist religious foundation? I think the answer to both questions is no. Are rationality and compassion solely the province of Humanism?

    Undoubtedly, the Founders did intend to write a rational and reasonable Constitution. Unlike Humanists, however, the Founding Fathers did not rate human rationality, reasoning, compassion or morality too highly. I suppose that is why only one of these words appears in the Constitution. The word reason appears once in the Constitution. Even so, “reason” is not there to laud human reason.

    The words rational, reason, and moral do appear in the Federalist Papers. Generality, these words appear in reference to the system of checks and balances and the compromises written into the Constitution. Consider this passage.

    But in the sciences of morals and politics, men are found far less tractable. To a certain degree, it is right and useful that this should be the case. Caution and investigation are a necessary armor against error and imposition. But this intractableness may be carried too far, and may degenerate into obstinacy, perverseness, or disingenuity. Though it cannot be pretended that the principles of moral and political knowledge have, in general, the same degree of certainty with those of the mathematics, yet they have much better claims in this respect than, to judge from the conduct of men in particular situations, we should be disposed to allow them. The obscurity is much oftener in the passions and prejudices of the reasoner than in the subject. Men, upon too many occasions, do not give their own understandings fair play; but, yielding to some untoward bias, they entangle themselves in words and confound themselves in subtleties. — Hamilton, FEDERALIST No. 31, Tuesday, January 1, 1788 (from here).

    Christians concede that God will not write our laws for us. So it is that the Founders wrote their own laws. And they did their best to create a system they could not corrupt. The Founders wrote Law for humble men, men who recognize their failings and their susceptibility to so many temptations. Nonetheless, in spite of their accomplishment we still risk wholly corrupting the Constitution. Moreover, not all the compromises in the document were moral.

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  3. Religious pluralism in the United States includes allowing a diversity of philosophical beliefs, including Humanism, which does not explicitly side with any political thought. Humanism only entrusts the development of political thought to human reason and compassion. The Founding Fathers believed social contracts can be decided upon in lawmaking bodies based on rational argument and compassion and that was the only pure testing ground, not a shared belief in the same religion. They thought that God had given human beings the ability to think rationally in order to be able to govern themselves without the need for magical thinking or forced agreement to the same religious dogma. The Founding Fathers specifically opposed a religious test for political offices because they believed rational thinking was the basis for lawmaking discussions, not religious bigotry or something akin to the Catholic Church’s repression of scientific thought and political freedoms we take for granted today.

    Humanism is the philosophical basis for Deism in the lawmaking realm because without an acknowledgment that human rational thought is the common ground all religious inspired representatives use to convince each other of the usefulness of the laws, you might as well take a member of each religion and ask them to agree upon which God they believe in and who the true prophets were – they wouldn’t agree. But only human rationality allows calculated compromise in a pluralistic society.

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  4. Good work Citizen Tom.

    I’ve looked into this years and have come to this conclusion:

    Paine was the most radical, but clearly a Deist.

    Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, likely Washington would be better classified Unitarians. (No relation to the Unitarian Universalists of today, who are mainly Humanist or Pagan.)

    What we forget is the cultural norms of society of that time. All were within the fringes of Protestantism which was in transition at that time.

    Excluding Jefferson, all the others above were Freemasons, whose deistic religious views accepted all believers in God. I belief in God was required. Half the signers of the Constitution were Freemasons. So in the sense of the deistic views of Freemasonry, our nation was founded on that Deism.

    That has no relation to the anti-religion so-called Deism of France, which led directly to Humanism, socialism, Nazism, and Fascism. It was ushered in by the Reign of Terror.

    Keep up the good work.

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  5. Dan – Thank you for visiting.

    I find your comment puzzling. While expressing an objection to Christianity, it seems that you agreed with the content of my post.

    Christians do not object to seekers. Otherwise, since most of the world’s population is not Christian, most could never discover Christianity.

    Even if most people were Christians, I still hope people would do their best to understand what God wants. I think we should continually seek to learn about God. To respectfully study God and his Creation is a type of worship.

    I think Christianity is the best place to start learning about God. The doctrine is sound and teaches humility, that we have much to learn.

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  6. The presumption that because the Founding Fathers “did have faith in His religious teachings” (referring to Jesus) makes them Christian Deists is a fallacious one. Does not Christianity require the belief that Jesus is a personal savior? One can believe in many “teachings” without subscribing to the religion behind it. There are many beautiful and fully acceptable teachings in the Buddhist faith, but they do not make one a Buddhist. Buddha himself told any followers to find that which fulfills them and not to accept, blindly, the Buddhist faith. Now there is religious strength. Give me a Buddhist, or a Deist, over a Christian any day.

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  7. Religious tolerance is religious tolerance. If you want religious tolerance, you can’t weed out the religions you don’t like. I’m not saying Jefferson would have joined in. I’m saying, though, that his advocating religious tolerance and doctrinal independence is very much UU. Sorry if you disagree.

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    1. He wished hew as a Unitarian??? His beliefs were in fact Unitarian and not deism as defined by these modern Christian bashers and closet secular humanists.

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  8. You must not know your history. Jefferson actually WAS a Unitarian, but this was way before the Unitarian Universalists came along. I highly doubt that he would agree with the logic of current day Unitarian Universalists and some of the practices that are allowed to be held in the UU “church”, such as pagan rituals and rites.

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  9. Interesting!!

    However, so long as they are for religious tolerance and freedom, I’m good with whatever our founders claimed to be.

    I like Jefferson’s response the best. He’s his own sect. He’d make a good Unitarian Universalist.

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    1. Jefferson was a Unitarian. His statement that he was of his own sect simply meant that he was free to make his own decision as to what to believe.

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