Many conservative Christians and politicians often parrot the claim that America’s Founding Fathers were virtually all (it not all) evangelical Christians (view a partial listing of Christian organizations and individuals who are making such claims, or listen to the current speeches of many Republican and Tea Party politicians). To prove their claim, they typically turn to selective quotes from persons identified as “Founding Fathers.”
Are they right?
To assess this claim, one must pose a second question: Who were America’s Founding Fathers?
THE ORIGIN OF AMERICA’S “FOUNDING FATHERS’
If one had asked this question as late as 1915, he or she would have received a blank stare. The phrase had not yet been coined.
To Warren G. Harding, Republican Senator from Ohio and later United States president, belongs credit for coining the phrase “Founding Fathers” in his 1916 keynote address to the Republican National Convention. His most notable use of the phrase was during his 1921 presidential inaugural address, at which time he referred to the “divine inspiration of the founding fathers.”
IDENTIFYING THE FOUNDING FATHERS
By the 1970s, many historians were writing about the “Founding Fathers.” Yet there was (and remains) no consensus as to exactly who constitutes this select group of American men of the era of the nation’s revolution and founding. At its most expansive definition, “Founding Father” nominees are drawn from the signers of the declaration of independence, delegates to the Federal Convention that framed the U. S. Constitution, and other politicians, statesmen, soldiers, diplomats, jurists and even ordinary citizens who are deemed – by someone – to have played a notable role in the securing of American independence and/or nationhood.
Persons, typically not historians, who voice the Christian nationalist claim that most all of America’s Founding Fathers were evangelical Christians tend to define “Founding Fathers” and “Christian” in a certain manner.
Firstly, they enlarge the list of “Founding Fathers” to include as many as hundreds of individuals, primarily drawn from officials and other leaders of the (then theocratic) colonies/states. That is, they include an abundance of lesser-known theocratic politicians, clergy, lawyers, doctors, and other notable men among the “Founding Fathers.”
Secondly, Christian nationalists apply the term “Christian” to the Founding Fathers in a different manner than they do to everyone else. In other words, late 18th and early 19th century figures who never expressed a belief in Jesus Christ, who rarely if ever attended church, and who rarely if ever had anything positive to say about the Bible, are magically transformed into evangelical Christians, based on one or two select quotes that mention God or a deity in a somewhat positive light. George Washington (right) and Thomas Jefferson (below) are two such examples.
In short, many conservative Christians and politicians are re-writing history (it is an ongoing process on their part) in order to “prove” their claim that most (if not all) of America’s “Founding Fathers” were evangelical Christians.
A more responsible and truthful way of handling the historical record is to begin by examining the men that most historians, at a minimum, identify as America’s “Founding Fathers.” Such a list inevitably includes at least the following seven men, whose religious identifies are thus noted:
George Washington (Revolutionary War hero and America’s first President) – As required by colonial Virginia law, he was baptized as an infant into the Anglican / Episcopalian Church, which he occasionally attended in his earlier adult years. According to his Diaries, on rare occasions after the early 1770s he attended the state-supported Episcopalian / Anglican church, a Roman Catholic church, and (at least once) a Quaker meeting. Washington never participated in Christian communion, calling into question any formal religious affiliation as an adult, and in his day was often called a Deist. In all his voluminous writings, he referred to Jesus Christ only once (impersonally, in relation to a treaty with the Delaware Indians).
John Adams (America’s first vice-president and second President) – As a non-Trinitarian Unitarian, his views fell outside the realm of orthodox Christianity.
Thomas Jefferson (principal author of the Declaration of Independence and America’s third President) – Jefferson was a leading Deist who voiced respect for Jesus as a human teacher of moral truths, but was not an active churchman and rejected the doctrinal teachings of the Bible. Other than Baptists (who loved Jefferson for allying with them on enacting religious liberty for all and church state separation in the new American nation), many Christians of the day dismissed Jefferson as a heretic, infidel, and even an atheist.
James Madison (the father of the U.S. Constitution and America’s fourth President) – A leading Deist, Madison sometimes attended an Episcopalian/Anglican church (the denomination he was birthed into as required by colonial Virginia law), yet strongly opposed efforts by church leaders to extend colonial theocracy to the new nation, instead working alongside Baptists to enact religious liberty for all and church state separation.
John Jay (America’s first Chief Justice) – An Anglican, Jay is the only one of the primary Founding Fathers who could legitimately be considered an orthodox or evangelical Christian.
Alexander Hamilton (America’s first Secretary of the Treasury) – Not a church member, Alexander Hamilton was known for exploiting Christianity for political purposes, although he evidenced some semblance of personal religion after 1801.
Benjamin Franklin (leading author and Revolutionary advocate, and America’s first Ambassador to France) – Baptized as an infant (as required by colonial law) and raised as an Episcopalian, Franklin became a Deist in adulthood and rarely attended church. One month before his death, he wrote a letter in which he summarized his “creed” as belief in a “Creator of the Universe” and the “moral” teachings of Jesus, but not the divinity of Christ.
In addition, two other men are included on many (perhaps most) lists of Founding Fathers:
James Monroe (one of America’s first senators, and fifth President) – A Deist, Monroe sometimes attended the Episcopalian Church.
Thomas Paine (influential Revolutionary-era writer and thinker) – Like most of the the Founding Fathers, Paine was a Deist who was not an active churchman and who rejected orthodox Christianity. Paine summarized his creed as “My own mind is my own church.”
In other words, although many Christian nationalists claim that all seven (or nine) of the Founding Fathers herein listed were evangelical Christians, the claim simply does not hold water … unless one employees a rather creative definition of “Christian” that would never be welcomed in today’s evangelical churches.
DEFINING CHRISTIANITY IN THE 18TH CENTURY
While the primary Founding Fathers (with one exception) were not Christians in any traditional sense, the further one expands the number of persons included as Founding Fathers, the more Christians are netted – for the simple reason that so many politicians, clergy and other leaders of the revolutionary and founding era were from colonial/state theocracies.
Ironically, the most amazing aspect of the Founders creating a constitution that makes no mention of God is that the framers resisted intense pressure from theocrats (politicians and preachers alike) to create a Christian constitution. Defying the will of colonial and state theocracies, the Founders enacted a secular constitution and then separated church and state in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.
An examination of an expansive listing of Founding Fathers reveals the extent to which establishment churches were represented. While actual church attendance hovered around 10% of Americans in the 1780s, church membership – thanks to colonial/state laws that mandated or favored a certain religious affiliation – was much larger.
For example, of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence (1776), some sources indicate up to 80% were affiliated with government established churches (Episcopalian/Anglican and Congregationalist). None were from the one denomination wholly committed to and actively pursuing full religious liberty and separation of church and state: Baptists. In 1776, Baptists were yet being denied freedom by the Episcopalian/Anglican and Congregationalist church state governments.
A similar breakdown represented the signers of the U. S. Constitution (1787): of the 55 attendees to the Constitutional Convention sessions (not all 55 actually signed the Constitution), over 70% were affiliated with establishment churches (or recently abolished establishment churches, such as was the case of Virginia, where disestablishment took place in 1786), and no Baptists were represented. (Source of stats, here and below)
In short, formal Christian affiliation was commonplace among men who signed the Declaration of Independence and U. S. Constitution – largely because of colonial government laws mandating membership in establishment (state) churches. Establishment Christians were, in effect, coerced by colonial governments into church affiliation. And few, if any, evangelical Christians in the 21st century would argue that government-mandated faith is true faith.
So, how many signers of the Declaration and Constitution were actually evangelical Christians? In the late 18th century, Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians constituted evangelical Christians, and very few were represented among even an expanded list of Founding Fathers. There were no Baptists and only two Methodists who signed the Declaration of Independence or attended the Constitutional Conventions. Presbyterians did have somewhat better representation, although many Presbyterians, like Episcopalians/Anglicans and Congregationalists, favored government mandated faith.
In short, an expanded list of America’s Founding Fathers includes very few evangelical Christians, and many men who bore the Christian label as mandated by colonial/state governments. By any measurement, Christian nationalists are incorrect in asserting that many (much less most) of America’s Founding Fathers were evangelical Christians.
While many conservative Christians and politicians of the late 18th and early 19th centuries (products of theocratic colonies) were upset that America was founded as a secular nation, today’s religious and political conservatives – against all credibility and in spite of the historical record – insist that their forebears had it all wrong, and that the United States was indeed founded by evangelical Christians as a Christian nation.