Given what we currently know, all of the first five presidents and most, if not all, of the Founding Fathers believed in God. Atheism was mostly unknown among the writers of Constitution and was very rare among those of European descent in the 18th- Century. However, it is not always easy to ascribe a particular denomination to an individual. Because of the rural nature of early America, many in colonial times chose churches based on convenience. Where they went to church regularly may not be a perfect indicator of what faith they considered themselves. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was raised Episcopalian, donated a significant amount of money to building Episcopalian churches, attended a Episcopalian church, and yet is not considered an orthodox Episcopalian by any historian of note. His views would be considered heretical by today's orthodox standards.
Further complicating the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers is the fact that, like a lot of us, their views changed over time. Both Jefferson and Franklin, for example, became slightly more orthodox in their beliefs during the last decades of their lives (although this was more a matter of degree than substance).
During the colonial period, there was a lot of gray area among believers. Issues of theology and eschatology were more carefully categorized and picked over by the educated classes in the 1700's than they are today. Yet at the same time, Enlightenment thinking allowed for liberal interpretations of religious doctrine. Most of the new emerging denominations were still considered Christian as long as one followed the teachings of Christ.
Since there was no national church in America, the 18th century religious culture operated regionally and locally. Individual religious beliefs also seemed to be going through a creative transformation, especially during the Great Awakening of 1730-50 (scholars do not always agree on an end date). What few people today seem to realize is that real definitions of orthodoxy don't easily apply to the American generations of people born during the 18th century. Protestantism had not matured to its current state, and the Age of Enlightenment was introducing new theological concepts based on reason over scripture. Individuals and Institutions were both in an active state of process.
Because of the changing times and the enthusiasm with which all religions began to operate in the New World, many spiritual ideas were exchanged with letters. Some of the Founding Fathers were more expressive than others, but our religious "pigeon-holing" relies heavily on their letters for our historical understanding.
Defining the Belief Systems
Separating Deists and Unitarians from Orthodox Christian Beliefs
Deism and Unitarianism are really apples and oranges in one important sense. Unitarians are a recognized national religious group with a church and ministers. Deism is not a religion. It is more of a religious viewpoint mostly relegated to 18th century philosophical thought. Nevertheless, I still feel inclined to separate these two from the orthodox religious groups that surrounded them - perhaps because many of the Founding Fathers defined themselves with such terms. The commonalities of Deism and Unitarianism were vividly expressed in an exchange of several letters by Jefferson and Adams after both had retired from public office. Both schools of thought were anchored in reason and had significant differences from the Calvinist\Protestant and Anglican orthodoxy of the time period.
However, it should be noted that many Unitarians had specific problems with Deism, as was the case with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Adams thought Franklin's Deist ideas were far too liberal for his tastes. However, neither the Deist nor Unitarian belief systems fit particularly well into orthodox beliefs governing Anglicans or Calvinists because of their anti-Trinitarian position (see definitions below). Because of this rather bold line, I have separated these two from the Protestant mainstream religions.
It was possible to be "Deistic" in principle and still be "church-Protestant". George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have been claimed him as both Deist and Anglican at different times by historians, but this open attitude is largely a reflection of the liberal ideas marking Enlightenment thinking. A perfect religious "package" was not demanded of public officials. Generally, though, there is a faith-based and even dogmatic structure dividing the Deist\Unitarians and all other groups such as Anglicans, Puritans, and Roman Catholics. John Adams is the only one of the first five presidents that appears to be a professed Unitarian in the classic sense and whose writings fully support that claim. Other Founding Fathers can be harder to read and have a tendency to blend beliefs.
Deism - Deism has no church and no official organization, hence, it is not considered a religion. It is more a reason-based view of religion in general. Deism is sometimes referred to as a religious philosophy or a religious outlook. In general, Deism did not see Christ as the Son of God, did not believe in the Trinity, had no strong belief in miracles, and had no belief in atonement or resurrection. The Bible was not considered “sacred text” among most Deists, although most Deists were (like Franklin) Christian-friendly.
Deism could fall into certain subcategories of Deist-Christian (i.e. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson) and Deist non-Christian (i.e. Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen). Deist-Christians generally believed the Bible provided good lessons to live by and they attended church regularly. Deist non-Christians generally felt that Christianity was largely an impediment to growth and they did not attend church regularly.
Unitarianism - In the 1700's, Unitarianism was an official recognized American religion. As a general rule, early American Unitarianism did not believe in the Trinity, believed the Christ was subordinate to God, and that salvation was largely through character. However, unlike Deists, Unitarianism might very well see Jesus as God’s messenger, and believe in the resurrection as well as the miracles reported in the New Testament. By the same token, reason and inquiry were highly esteemed - to the point where those features might supersede biblical teachings.
Unitarianism was vastly different than any of the major religions practicing at that time due to the fact that it valued human reason so highly, even at the expense of Biblical authority, and because it had no belief in the Trinity. This religion had its coming-out party during the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment, and indeed, one-hundred fifty years earlier it would have likely had to operate under cover and under threat of persecution. John Adams was a Unitarian and Thomas Jefferson, although not an official Unitarian, believed it to be the best of the organized religions.
Fitting the Deists and Unitarians into ideal separate definitions is not always a simple task since individual writings don’t always make for a convenient 21st century understanding.
Anglicans (Church of England and after the war, referred to as Episcopalian). The Church of England sprung from the English Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Like Roman Catholicism, it kept its hierarchy of bishops and priests, but like Calvinism it held that the Holy Scripture was the final authority on spiritual matters, not popes or any clergy. Anglicans also believed that the church could err in its teachings (also unlike Roman Catholicism). It was considered a middle way between Roman Catholicism and Reformed Churches.
Anglicans were a major force in parts of New York, Pennsylvania, the mid-Atlantic states and in the southern states, especially Virginia. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe were all raised Anglican.
Calvinists - The Calvinists included Puritans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists and other reformed churches. Essentially, Calvinists did not believe that true Christianity should retain a pope or official bishops. Pastors could serve in the capacity of minor church authorities. The also believed that salvation was entirely through God and that humans were sinners and that there was nothing they could do to change that.
Much of New England was Calvinist in some capacity throughout the 18th-Century. Most of the colleges around 1770 were Calvinist-influenced institutions. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams grew up in Calvinist homes although both would renounce that form of Christianity in later years (Franklin by the age of 15, and Adams as an adult). Holmes p 12-37. Samuel Adams, on the other hand, remained a practicing Calvinist all his life.
Roman Catholics were a distinct minority in mid 1700's and most could be found in eastern Maryland and Pennsylvania. Most were land-owners.
A variety of smaller Christian sects made up a large portion of the U.S. population in the 18th Century. These included Quakers (possibly 1/5 of the population early in the century), Mennonites, Shakers, and a variety of smaller sects that had been persecuted in Europe.
There were regional issues among these religions. One can make the rather broad observation that most Congregationalist Calvinists resided in New England and the Anglicans were more commonly found farther south. Deism and Unitarianism were not as regionally local although Deism had more strength in the mid-Atlantic states. Each state was slightly unique in its dominant religious orientation. Prior to independence, a variety of state laws were implemented with the majority state religion in mind.
The chart below explores the differences between orthodox Christian action and beliefs and Deist actions and beliefs as it specifically deals with eight of the Founding Fathers.
I chose to look at the years from around 1770 to 1800 as the defining years to establish the particular belief set up in these charts. A couple of these men had a change of heart from earlier years, and a few have been rumored to have yielded to more traditional feelings of religion very late in life.
The Chart Categories
Much of what is inferred about the founding fathers and their religious beliefs cannot always be taken from their letters. There are other ways above and beyond their letters that I have outlined in their church actions. Again, this informational content comes from the book, “Faiths of the Founding Fathers” by David Holmes, although these tables are entirely my creation.
From their actions, the following ideas are considered indicators of Christian orthodoxy, Deism, or some combination of both:
Actions: Communion, Confirmation, Church Attendance, Vocabulary
Beliefs: Resurrection, Christ-Divinity, Trinity, Miracles
1. Communion – Deists were simply not likely to take communion when in church. The Sacraments in general were considered mostly superstition by Deists. The Last Supper and the taking of bread were relevant only if you believed Jesus was The Savior and died for our sins. Deists generally did not accept the divinity of Christ. For Anglicans to attend church regularly and not take communion was highly unusual. In the case of George Washington, it was noticeable. Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all visited Anglican churches regularly. None of these Founding Fathers were known to take communion.
Calvinist's views on communion vary. Reform churches did not see it as a sacrament or specific channel of divine grace but as an expression of faith and obedience. Hence, communion did not carry the same weight for Calvinists. Whether or not a someone like John Adams took communion would likely not have been noteworthy as it was in Anglican churches. However, I admit to being unclear as to how John Adams in a Unitarian church or Samuel Adams in a Congregationalist church would have observed communion and whether or not it would have been recorded.
2. Confirmation – The sacrament of confirmation was generally not taken by Deists, but would nearly always be taken by typical Anglicans. This important sacrament was available to Anglicans after they secured Bishops for the American Episcopal churches in the 1780s.
3. Church Attendance – Most Deists still attended church either as a civic duty or because they enjoyed hearing about the life of Christ, but a few Deists like Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen were known to have stopped attending altogether. Church attendance is considered a weak indicator of one’s theological beliefs as most Deists attended at least some church activities.
4. Vocabulary – Vocabulary is one of the easiest ways to ascertain orthodoxy. In orthodox religions during the colonial period, God was nearly always referred to as “the Redeemer,” “the Savior,” “Father,” or “Lord.” In the Deistic vernacular, these words were changed to “Providence,” “Heaven,” “the Deity,” “the Supreme being,” “the Grand Architect,” ‘the Author of all Good,” and “the Great Ruler of Events.” Deists only infrequently refer to Christianity and rarely to Jesus Christ. Holmes p. 65
Many Freemasons and Deists seem to borrow vocabulary terms from each other when expressing thoughts about the Creator. The words "Grand Architect" was a common Freemason expression for the Creator, especially in the letters of George Washington. That reference specifically may be based in the Freemason tradition since architecture was symbolic as it pertained to the "builders of men."
Because of the volume of letters and speeches these men wrote, these changes in vocabulary are considered significant indicators of Deistic thought. They may also be indicators of Freemasonry, but other evidence of Freemasonry is required before one should make that connection. There are infrequent times when the Founding Fathers used both orthodox and Deistic types of language, but their usage is sometimes weighted heavily on one side or the other depending on their faith.
The second chart, I believe, is self explanatory. Unitarians and Deists differed on some of the miracles and the resurrection, but generally agreed that the Trinity was nothing more than hocus-pocus. On the subject of the Trinity, they clearly differentiated themselves from Anglicans and Congregationalists.
reference: Faiths of Our Founding Fathers, Holmes
The Beliefs of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Benjamin Franklin, and Samuel Adams
George Washington – Washington attended church fairly regularly after the War and during his presidency, but very little is known about his religious beliefs. Although he didn’t write much on the subject, quite a bit is known about his actions in church at that time. He was never confirmed, and he avoided communion – two actions synonymous with Deists who attended Anglican churches. Both confirmation and communion would have been expected from an orthodox Anglican believer. William White, Washington’s bishop and pastor, answered an inquiry about Washington by stating, “Truth requires me to say that General Washington never received communion…” and was to known to even avoid church on those Sundays when communion was given.
Washington also used a lot of Deist vocabulary in his speeches, and when his speech-writer would write the word “God”, Washington was known to substitute “Great Spirit,” or some other Deist-like words. He only rarely referred to Jesus or Christianity in general. We have no information on how Washington felt about the virgin birth, the resurrection, the miracles, or the the divinity of Christ. On his deathbed, Washington never asked for an Episcopal clergyman. His last words, “tis well” suggest little. He died peacefully and was buried after Episcopal and Masonic funeral services.
It should be noted that much of the Washington myth began in 1800 with the Parson Weems biography of Washington using some evangelical spin. This biography, and the stories surrounding it, was disputed after its publication by people like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as well as many others. Weems was the same author who first wrote of the cherry tree story that he admitted was based on hearsay. Weems had a low standard as a historian and truth-teller even among his own Episcopal clergy. Yet Weems book remained popular well into the 1820’s and beyond. reference: Faiths of Our Founding Fathers, Holmes p.62, 68, 70
Assigning Washington to a specific belief system is not easy. Some historians desperately want Washington as an orthodox Christian even if it minimizes the complexity of what we know about his background. Washington was definitely a Freemason and was very inclusive towards other religions.
From Mackey's Revised Encyclopedia of Freemasonry:
Since he attended an Anglican church fairly regularly, some historians spend a great deal of time making Washington's God a personal one (in order to separate it from the impersonal god of Deism). I think the safest definition is to say Washington was a Christian with Deistic tendencies or a Deist with a very Christian God and Christian-friendly attitude.
Is defining Washington so important that we reduce him to a single religious label? History makes no judgments, but many people seem intent on pigeon-holing Washington's belief system into their favorite category.
John Adams – Adams was, simply put, a Unitarian. Unitarianism, however, needs some context in the colonial period. The theology of Unitarianism is far removed from Anglican orthodoxy. It did not believe in the Holy Trinity and was opposed to the priests and bishops of Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. Unitarianism was the most liberal arm of Calvinism – which spawned Puritans, Baptists, and Presbyterians – but was clearly outside their beliefs in many ways. Since like all Calvinist religions it had no priesthood, there was no "sacramental" communion.
Unitarianism is a religion built on tolerance and reason. Human reason and experience are the final authority in determining spiritual truth, not the Bible. I think it’s fair to say that Unitarianism was probably closer to Deism than either the Calvinist or Anglican beliefs. Adams's personal disdain for the priesthood and the Church of Rome were well documented.
Thomas Jefferson – Jefferson was, by most accounts, a Deist. He is sometimes referred to less commonly as a Unitarian, and even occasionally an Anglican. Jefferson did remain loyal to his Anglican\Episcopal upbringing and had an Episcopal minister at his bedside before he died. He believed in the moral leadership of Christ but was highly critical of Christianity in general. Jefferson did not believe in the miracles of the Bible, the virgin birth, the resurrection, or the divinity of Christ. Those beliefs alone would make him decidedly non-Anglican by today's standards.
Interestingly, Jefferson physically cut out all references to the miraculous events from his Bible. His edited version concentrated on the Jesus’ parables and ethical teachings and omitted the miracles. It ended with the death of Jesus, and omitted all the Letters of Paul as well as the Book of Revelations. Jefferson’s Bible was published approximately 100 years after his death.
Like Franklin before him, Jefferson believed in the institution of the church and contributed to the building of Episcopal, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches. Like Adams though, Jefferson had an enormous disdain for the priesthood and even sometimes lumped Congregationalist ministers in with his definition when discussing such matters.
Although Jefferson remained Episcopalian throughout his life, he attended a Unitarian church when in Philadelphia and is often associated with that religion.
James Madison – Like Washington, there is little in writing to indicate how Madison felt about religion. He was known to attend an Episcopal church, and it was known, like other Deists, that he did not get confirmed (even though his wife and mother were both confirmed). He clearly thought about religion a great deal as he was well-read and had an extensive library on the subject.
He was known to use a Deistic vocabulary in his writings and speeches, and his references about the Holy Trinity mirror Jefferson’s almost identically – “mindless jargon” as he referred to it. Madison, perhaps more than any other president, believed strongly on the separation of church and state and was influential in his writings on the subject.
James Monroe – If little is known about Madison’s theological belief, less is known of Monroe’s. Unlike Madison, however, Monroe does not appear to have a vested interest in the subject. His library was thin by comparison to other Founding Fathers, and he seemed far more interested in civic duties and citizenship.
There are a few things of note concerning his beliefs. Madison was never Confirmed even though he was Episcopalian. He used Deistic vocabulary whenever possible, and he was an established Freemason. It has also been quoted that Monroe once went to a visiting church with a friend only to discover an intense Calvinist preacher who “took him by surprise” much to the chagrin of his Unitarian friend.
It appears Monroe had nothing in his background to suggest any orthodox Christian values, and what few snippets there are suggests a Unitarian\Deistic quality.
Benjamin Franklin. Franklin is clearly a Deist in most of his views and confesses as much in his writings. Unlike Deists like Thomas Paine or Ethan Allen, however, Franklin was pro-Christian. He attended church and supported churches monetarily. He believed religion played a positive role in society, and the Bible was a strong moral guide. Like most Deists, he questioned the Trinity and the resurrection, and was skeptical of the miracles of Jesus. Most of Franklin’s thoughts on religion were not professed openly, but were generally inferred from the sheer volume of his philosophical writings and his satirical comments on religion.
Franklin joined the Freemasons in Philadelphia in 1730. He had a distinguished career as a Mason including service as a provincial grand master. He was also active in the Freemasonry Lodge while in France.
Samuel Adams - Adams played a very important role in the founding of this country. He may have been a prime instigator in both the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party. He served on the Continental Congress from 1774-1781. He was entirely orthodox in his beliefs and was raised in a Puritan household. He worshipped daily and led prayer before every meal. He was against Freemasonry.
Adams was also respected by nearly everyone, and not just because of his leadership in congress. Even the anti-Christian Thomas Paine spoke to him with a certain respect. There was nothing phony about Adams, and his piety in all matters did not go unnoticed. He could "walk the walk" as they say. reference: Faiths of Our Founding Fathers, Holmes