The Founding Fathers Were Not Christians
By Steven Morris
Free Inquiry, Fall 1995
The Christian right is trying to rewrite the history of the United States as part of its campaign to force its religion on others. They try to depict the founding fathers as pious Christians who wanted the United States to be a Christian nation, with laws that favored Christians and Christianity. This is patently untrue. The early presidents and patriots were generally Deists or Unitarians, believing in some form of impersonal Providence but rejecting the divinity of Jesus and the absurdities of the Old and New Testaments.
Thomas Paine was a pamphleteer whose manifestos encouraged the faltering spirits of the country and aided materially in winning the war of Independence: “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of.... Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all." The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine (Republished 1984, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY)
George Washington, the first president of the United States, never declared himself a Christian according to contemporary reports or in any of his voluminous correspondence. Washington championed the cause of freedom from religious intolerance and compulsion. When John Murray (a universalist who denied the existence of hell) was invited to become an army chaplain, the other chaplains petitioned Washington for his dismissal. Instead, Washington gave him the appointment. On his deathbed, Washington uttered no words of a religious nature and did not call for a clergyman to be in attendance. George Washington and Religion, by Paul F. Boller Jr. (1963, Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, TX).
John Adams, the country's second president, was drawn to the study of law but faced pressure from his father to become a clergyman. He wrote that he found among the lawyers “noble and gallant achievements" but among the clergy the "pretended sanctity of some absolute dunces." Late in life he wrote, “Twenty times in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out. This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!" It was during Adam's administration that the Senate ratified the Treaty of
Peace and Friendship, which states in Article XI that "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion." The Character of John Adams, by Peter Shaw (1976, North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC; quoting a letter by John Adams to Charles Cushing, Oct 19, 1756); and John Adams, A Biography in his Own Words, edited by James Peabody (1973, Newsweek, New York, NY; quoting letter by John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, April 19, 1817); and in reference to the Treaty, Thomas Jefferson: Passionate Pilgrim, by Alf Mapp Jr., (1991, Madison Books, Lanham, MD; quoting a letter by Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse; June, 1814).
Thomas Jefferson, third president and author of the Declaration of Independence, said, "I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian." He referred to the Revelation of St. John as "the ravings of a maniac" and wrote, “The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ leveled to every understanding and too plain to need explanation, saw, in the mysticisms of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power, and pre-eminence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them: and for this obvious reason that nonsense can never be explained." Thomas Jefferson: an Intimate History, by Fawn M. Brodie (1974, W.W. Norton and Co. Inc., New York, NY; quoting a letter by Thomas Jefferson to Alexander Smyth, Jan 17, 1825); and Thomas Jefferson: Passionate Pilgrim, by Alf Mapp Jr., (1991, Madison Books, Lanham, MD; quoting a letter by Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, July 5, 1814). Thomas Jefferson also wrote, "The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." (Thomas Jefferson in a letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823).
James Madison, fourth president and father of the Constitution, was not religious in any conventional sense. "Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise." "During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution." The Madisons, by Virginia Moore (1979, McGraw-Hill Co. New York, NY; quoting a letter by James Madison to William Bradford, April 1, 1774), and James Madison: A Biography in his Own Words, edited by Joseph Gardner (1974, Newsweek, New York, NY; quoting Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, by James Madison, June 1785).
Ethan Allen, whose capture of Fort Ticonderoga while commanding the Green Mountain Boys helped inspire Congress and the country to pursue the War of Independence, said, "That Jesus Christ was not God is evidence from his own words." In the same book, Allen noted that he was generally "denominated a Deist, the reality of which I never disputed, being conscious that I am no Christian." When Allen married Fanny Buchanan, he stopped his own wedding ceremony when the judge asked him if he promised "to live with Fanny Buchanan agreeable to the laws of God." Allen refused to answer until the judge agreed that the God referred to was the God of Nature, and the laws those "written in the great book of nature." Religion of the American Enlightenment, by G. Adolph Koch (1968, Thomas Crowell Co., New York, NY; quoting Reason: The Only Oracle of Man and A Sense of History, compiled by American Heritage Press Inc. (1985, American Heritage Press, Inc., New York, NY).
Benjamin Franklin, delegate to the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, said, “As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion...has received various corrupting 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 think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the Truth with less trouble." He died a month later, and historians consider him, like so many great Americans of his time, to be a Deist, not a Christian. Benjamin Franklin, A Biography in his Own Words, edited by Thomas Fleming (1972, Newsweek, New York, NY; quoting a letter by Benjamin Franklin to Exra Stiles, March 9, 1790).
Speaking of the independence of the first 13 States, H.G. Wells in his Outline of History, writes, "It was a Western European civilization that had broken free from the last traces of Empire and Christendom; it had not a vestige of monarchy left and no State Religion... The absence of any binding religious tie is especially noteworthy. It had a number of forms of Christianity, its spirit was indubitably Christian, but as a State document of 1796 explicitly declared: 'The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.'" The words "In God We Trust" were not consistently on all U.S. currency until 1956, during the McCarthy Hysteria. The Treaty of Tripoli, passed by the U.S. Senate in 1797, read in part, "The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion." The Treaty was written during the Washington administration and sent to the Senate during the Adams administration. It was read aloud to the Senate, and each Senator received a printed copy. This was the 339th time that a recorded vote was required by the Senate, but only the third time a vote was unanimous (the next time was to honor George Washington). There is no record of any debate or dissension on the Treaty. It was reprinted in full in three newspapers: two in Philadelphia, one in New York City. There is no record of public outcry or complaint in subsequent editions of the papers.