The Christianity of America’s Founding Fathers
By Pastor Gray Clark
America’s Founding Fathers are portrayed by a growing number of people as atheists, agnostics, and deists. If these allegations were true, Christianity would not have been found in their public lives. But it has, as will be shown. Christianity was the religion of nearly all of them. If Christians today were as faithful to Christianity as the Founders were then, there would be no decline in moral values today.
We will look at two arguments posed by those who profess that the Founders were irreligious. What you will see are two statements upon which they base their arguments, which are taken out of context. First is this quote from John Adams: “This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it.” He said this in a letter he wrote to Thomas Jefferson on April 19, 1817. Quoted below is the account of what Adams related in a conversation between two ministers he knew. This is found in Original Intent by David Barton (WallBuilders Press) p. 125. This account provides the context of Adam’s above remark and proves that Adams was not irreligious. “Seventy years ago…Lemuel Bryant was my parish priest, and Joseph Clevery my Latin schoolmaster…The parson and the pedagogue lived much together, but were eternally disputing about government and religion. One day the schoolmaster (Clevery) had been more than commonly fanatical and declared ‘if he were a monarch, he would have put one religion in his dominion;’ the parson (Bryant) coolly replied, ‘Cleverly! You would be the best man in the world if you had no religion.’ Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out ‘this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!’ But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant and Cleverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell.”
The next account is attributed to George Washington, whom proponents of the concept that our Founders were irreligious claim said this: “The government of the United States was in no sense founded on the Christian religion.” This statement is reported to be in the Treaty of Tripoli; however, as you will see, it may not be there. David Barton, a leading authority on the Founding Fathers, believes that attributing the Treaty of Tripoli to Washington is in error. This is what Barton says regarding the matter on page 128 of Original Intent: “No statement in it (Treaty of Tripoli) can be attributed to Washington (the treaty did not arrive in America until months after he left office); Washington never saw the treaty; it was not his work; no statement in it can be ascribed to him.”
In his book, William J. Federer, author of America’s God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations. (FAME Publishing, Coppell, Texas. p. 166-167), offers an explanation on this statement attributed to the treaty: “The government of the United States was in no sense founded on the Christian religion.” He suggests that it was not in the treaty. “Congress of the United States of America June 4, 1805, during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, drafted a Treaty of Peace and Amity with Tripoli, ratified April 12, 1806. Congress deleted from the previous June 7, 1797 treaty, an unauthorized phrase that the United States ‘is not, in any sense founded on the Christian religion…’ (an insertion intended to clarify that the American government was not like the Mohammedan, Buddhist, or Hindu countries, where the government controls the religious life of the people).
Of note is the fact that this phrase is also not found in the Arabic version of the 1797 treaty, and appears to have been an unauthorized insertion by Joel Barlow, the American consul in Algiers who oversaw the translation process from the Arabic to English. The original Arabic translation of the treaty contains the following wording: Glory be to God! Declaration of the third article. We have agreed that if American Christians are traveling with a nation that is at war with the well-preserved Tripoli, and he (evidently the Tripolitan) takes prisoners from the Christian enemies and from the American Christians with whom we are at peace, then sets them free; neither he nor his goods shall be taken…Praise be to God!...May God strengthen (the Pasha of Tripoli), and the Americans…May God make it all permanent love and good conclusion between us…by His grace and favor, amen.”
On what basis is someone considered a Founding Father? Founding Fathers would include, but not be limited to: 1) signers of the Declaration of Independence; 2) signers of the Articles of Confederation; 3) attendees of the Constitutional Convention of 1787; 4) signers of the Constitution of the United States of America; 5) those who served in the first Congress as a senator or a representative. This group totals 204 individuals. (Some accounts can go as high as about 250 individuals.) Of this group, forty individuals had multiple roles. Others, such as Patrick Henry, would be viewed as a Founder, although he did not participate in any of these events. According to “adherents.com/gov/Founding-Fathers-Religion,” the religious affiliations of these 204 Fathers were as follows: “88 Episcopalian/Anglican; 30 Presbyterian; 27 Congregationalist; 7 Quaker; 6 Dutch Reformed/German Reformed; 5 Lutheran; 3 Catholic; 3 Huguenot; 3 Unitarian; 2 Methodist; 1 Calvinist”
An official committee of the House of Representatives clearly addresses the regard the Founders had for Christianity. Readers should be able to agree that official support for Christianity could come only from Christians. A House Judiciary Committee stated, “An early House Judicary Committee affirmed the Founders lack of Pluralistic intent when it declared: ‘Christianity …was the religion of the founders of the republic and they expected it to remain the religion of their descendents” (B.F. Morris, The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States (Philadelphia: Geo: W. Childs, 1864) p. 323).’”
The Christianity of the Founding Fathers
John Adams (signer of the Declaration, member of Continental Congress) said this: “The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were…the general principles of Christianity…I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God, and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature” (John Adams, Works, Vol. X, pp. 45-46, to Thomas Jefferson on June 28, 1813).
“The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, and humanity…” (John Adams, Works, Vol. III, p. 421. diary entry for July 26, 1796).
“Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited! Every member would be obliged in conscience, to temperance, frugality, and industry; to justice, kindness, and charity towards his fellow men, and to piety, love, and reverence toward Almighty God…What a Utopia, what a Paradise would this region be” (America’s God and Country. etc. p. 5).
“The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my religion” (In a letter he wrote to Jefferson November 4, 1816. Original Intent. p. 13).
Benjamin Franklin (signer of the Declaration, the Articles of Confederation, & the Constitution) said this: “Whoever shall introduce into public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world” (letter to French ministry, March 1778. Original Intent. p. 246).
At a crisis situation in the Constitutional Convention, Franklin spoke to the necessity of bringing prayer and God into the situation. He closed his remarks with this thought: “I therefore beg leave to move—that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessing on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service” (Original Intent. p. 248-249).
“A Bible and a newspaper in every house, and good school in every district—all studied and appreciated as they merit—are the principal support of virtue, morality, and civil liberty” (Original Intent. p. 246).
Franklin’s proposal for the seal of the United States was this: “Moses lifting up his wand, and dividing the Red Sea, and pharaoh in his chariot overwhelmed with the waters. This motto: ‘Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God’” (Original Intent. p. 246).
Thomas Jefferson (author of the Declaration, 1st Vice President): The charge of being Deist has been falsely stated of Jefferson. Jefferson never called himself a Deist. Jefferson has said this: “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus” (Original Intent. p. 144). He would not pass the orthodox test of being Christian as he did not view Christ as divine. He certainly was not Deist.
Jefferson proposed this for the national seal: “The children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night” (Original Intent. p. 144).
Alexander Hamilton (Revolutionary officer, signer of the Constitution, 1st secretary of treasury) said this: “The attempt by the rulers of a nation (France) to destroy all religious opinion and to pervert a whole people to atheism is a phenomenon of profligacy (act of moral depravity)…to establish atheism on the ruins of Christianity (is) to deprive mankind of its best consolations and most animating hopes and to make a gloomy desert of the universe” (Original Intent. p. 144-145).
“I have carefully examined the evidences of the Christian religion, and if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity I would unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor. I can prove it truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of men” (America’s God and Country, etc p. 274).
“It is not the talking but the walking and working person that is the true Christian” (God and Country, etc. p. 413).
“Christ’s Divinity appears by St. John, chapter xx2: ‘And Thomas answered and said unto Him, my Lord and my God’ Resurrection testified to and witnessed by the Apostles, Acts iv, 33: ‘And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them al’” (America’s God and Country, etc. p. 413).
James Madison—(Chief architect of the Constitution). “Religion (is) the basis and Foundation of Government.” (America’s God and Country, etc. p. 410).
“We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self government; upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.” (America’s God and Country, etc. p. 411).
George Mason (member of the Constitutional Convention, Father of the Bill of Rights) said this: “The laws of nature are the laws of God, whose authority can be superseded by no power on earth” (America’s God and Country, etc. p. 423).
“My soul, I resign into the hands of my Almighty Creator…humbly hoping from His unbounded mercy and benevolence, through the merits of my blessed Savior, a remission of my sins” (His last will and testament—America’s God and Country p. 424).
Benjamin Rush (signer of Declaration) said this: “I anticipate nothing but suffering to the human race while the present system of paganism, deism, and atheism prevail in the world.” (Original Intent, David Barton. p. 144).
“I have alternately been called an Aristocrat and a Democrat. I am neither, I am a Christocrat” (America’s God and Country, etc. p. 543).
George Washington (Father of our Country) said this: “You do well go wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ…Congress will do everything they can to assist you in this wise intention” (The Ignorant Fisherman Blog).
From Washington’s personal field prayer book, hand written, is this statement: “SUNDAY MORNING…Almighty God…receive O Lord, my morning sacrifice which I now offer up to thee. I yield thee humble and hearty thanks, that Thou hast preserved me from the dangers of the night past and brought me to the light of this day, and the comfort therefore, a day which is consecrated to Thine own service and for Thine own honour. Let my heart therefore, gracious God, be so affected with the glory and majesty of it, that I may but wait on Thee, and discharge those weighty duties Thou required of me...I beseech thee, my sins, remove them from Thy presence, as far as the east is from the west, and accept of me for the merits of Thy son Jesus Christ…Bless my family, kindred, friends, and country, be our God and guide this day and forever for His sake, who lay down in the grave and arose again for us, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (America’s God and Country, etc. pp. 656-657).
Samplings From Wills and Testaments (Original Intent. pp. 134-138.)
Samuel Adams (signer of the Declaration): “Principally and first of all, I recommend my soul to that Almighty Being who gave it and my body. I commit to the dust, relying upon the merits of Jesus Christ for a pardon of all my sins.”
Daniel Boone (Revolutionary officer, legislator): “The religion I have is to love and fear God, believe in Jesus Christ, do all the good to my neighbor, and myself that I can, do as little harm as I can help, and trust on God’s mercy for the rest.”
John Dickenson (signer of the Constitution): “…I resign myself, humbly confiding in His goodness and in His mercy through Jesus Christ for the events of eternity.”
Patrick Henry (Anti-federalist): “This is all the inheritance I can give to my dear family. The religion of Christ can give the one which will make them rich indeed.”
Thomas Treat Paine (signer of the Declaration): “I am constrained to express my adoration of the Supreme Being, the Author of my existence, in full belief of His Providential goodness and His forgiving mercy revealed to the world through Jesus Christ…”
Roger Sherman (signer of the Declaration & the Constitution): “I believe that there is one only living and true God, existing in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, the same in substance equal in power and glory.”
The Continental Congress: “Do earnestly recommend Friday, the 17th day of May (1776), be observed by the colonies as a day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that we may, with united hearts, confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions, and, by sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease God’s righteous displeasure, and, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain this pardon and forgiveness” (America’s God and Country, etc. p. 141).
“The use of the Bible is so universal and its importance so great that…the committee recommends that congress will order the Committee of Commerce to import 20,000 Bibles from Holland, Scotland, or elsewhere, into the different parts of the States of the Union (America’s God and Country, etc. p. 146).
Congress of the United States of America: “Resolved, That after the oath shall have been administered to the President, he attended by the Vice President, and the members of the Senate, and House of Representatives, proceed to St. Paul’s chapel, to hear divine service, to be performed by the Chaplain of Congress already appointed” (Original Intent. p. 154-155).
A short article such as this one can provide only a few quotations from selected Founders. Rest assured that there are sufficient quotations from these Founders, a fair representation of most all of them, illustrating how important Jesus Christ and the Bible were to them. It should be clear that they were not irreligious, but instead religious, as witnessed by their own words and the decisions they made in official capacities of public office.