It is often claimed that America’s founding fathers were irreligious deists who never intended to establish a Christian nation. Secularists point to quotes from Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and even George Washington in their quest to detach our nation from her Judeo-Christian roots. The quotes that they use are almost always taken out of context or sometimes even completely fabricated. But, if we simply read through founding era speeches, letters and other writings, it is easy to see that most of our founders would more easily fit the description of apologist.
For example, secularists claim that because George Washington used terms like Divine Providence and Supreme Being, he must have been a Deist and not a Christian. However, they overlook (or ignore) the fact that Providence was a term commonly used to refer to God during the founding era and for at least 2 centuries before. The Geneva Bible alone referred to God as Providence 144 times. Many sermons of the day utilized the word as well, including “Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men,” which was delivered by John Witherspoon on May 17, 1776. In this sermon, Witherspoon referred to Providence 10 times overall and twice in these opening sentences…
THERE is not a greater evidence either of the reality or the power of religion, than a firm belief of God’s universal presence, and a constant attention to the influence and operation of his providence. It is by this means that the Christian may be said, in the emphatical scripture language, to walk with God, and to endure as seeing him who is invisible.
THE doctrine of divine providence is very full and complete in the sacred oracles. It extends not only to things which we may think of great moment, and therefore worthy of notice, but to things the most indifferent and inconsiderable: Are not two sparrows sold for a farthings, says our Lord, and one of them falleth not on the ground without your heavenly Father; nay, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. It extends not only to things beneficial and salutary, or to the direction and assistance of those who are the servants of the living God; but to things seemingly most hurtful and destructive, and to persons the most refractory and disobedient. He over-rules all his creatures, and all their actions.
Regardless of how many others used the term, Washington made it clear that he was, in fact, a Christian. On May 2, 1778, General Washington issued general orders to his soldiers at Valley Forge. Included in his brief statement were these words…
While we are zealously performing the duties of good Citizens and soldiers we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of Religion—To the distinguished Character of Patriot, it should be our highest Glory to add the more distinguished Character of Christian…
Later, when he resigned from his post as commander in chief of the Continental army, Washington closed his Circular to the States this way…
I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks [original spelling] of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.
In March of 1785, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson traveled to France to meet with the ambassador of Tripoli in hopes of ending the attacks on American merchant ships. Tragically, the attacks would continue for more than 3 decades and 4 presidents. One of many treaties signed along the way was the Treaty of Tripoli. A small snippet from this treaty is used by atheists and secularists to defend their position that America was never a Christian nation. The quote is often incorrectly attributed to John Adams and is usually presented this way: “The United States is in no sense founded on the Christian religion.” Apart from its context, this sentence seems like a death knell. But, context is everything. This is the full paragraph.
As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims] and as the said States [America] have never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
As you can see, what it is quoted as a complete sentence is actually just a small part of a much longer sentence and it is clear that this was nothing more than an attempt to placate the Muslim nations and convince them that the United States had no interest in a holy war. Wallbuilders has an article on The Treaty of Tripoli that explains this quote in more detail here.
In addition to attributing the preceding quote to John Adams, revisionists label him as a Unitarian who rejected orthodox Christianity, the doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. Below are just a few quotations from Adams that demonstrate that, in fact, Adams was a devout and outspoken Christian. (Read more about John Adams here; full bibliography including page numbers at the end of the article.)
“It is notorious enough that I have been a church-going animal for seventy-six years from the cradle.”
John Adams to Benjamin Rush on August 28, 1811, Quoted from The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor
“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.”
From John Adams to Thomas Jefferson on June 28, 1813, Quoted from The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew A. Lipscomb, editor
“I have examined all [religions], . . . and the result is that the Bible is the best book in the world.”
John Adams to Thomas Jefferson on December 25, 1813, Quoted from The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor
“I think there is nothing upon this earth more sublime and affecting than the idea of a great nation all on their knees at once before their God, acknowledging their faults and imploring His blessing and protection.”
John Adams, correspondence originally published in the Boston Patriot, 1809, Letter XIII, Quoted from The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor
“The Bible contains the most profound philosophy, the most perfect morality, and the most refined policy that ever was conceived upon earth. . . .The curses against fornication and adultery, and the prohibition of every wanton glance or libidinous ogle at a woman, I believe to be the only system that ever did or ever will preserve a republic in the world. . . . I say then that national morality never was and never can be preserved without the utmost purity and chastity in women; and without national morality a republican government cannot be maintained.”
John Adams to Benjamin Rush on February 2, 1807, Quoted from Old Family Letters, Alexander Biddle, editor
Thomas Jefferson is probably the most slandered founding father. Christians and atheists alike have attacked Jefferson’s religion, character and actions. David Barton wrote an excellent book entitled, “The Jefferson Lies,” which dispels commonly held beliefs about the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. One of the things that he covers in that book is the so-called “Jefferson Bible.” The lie that is spread is that Thomas Jefferson cut pages out of his Bible, removing things that he didn’t agree with. This is a myth at best and outright propaganda at worst. The truth is that Jefferson wanted to give the Native Americans an abridgment of the Bible that would introduce them to Biblical morality and be easy to understand. He titled the work, “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth. Extracted from the Account of His Life and Doctrines Given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Being an Abridgement of the New Testament for the Use of the Indians, Unembarrassed [Uncomplicated] with Matters of Fact or Faith beyond the Level of their Comprehensions.” (See Defending The Jefferson Lies: David Barton Responds to his Conservative Critics.) This fits perfectly with Jefferson’s life as he used both his own money as well as federal funds to send missionaries to the Native Americans and build churches for them.
Furthermore, while Jefferson is held up as the champion of the “separation of church and state,” i.e. church should have no involvement in the state, much evidence exists that the only thing he was interested in was keeping the state out of the church and not the other way around. According to Wallbuilders, “Jefferson never promoted the concept of a secular state. While serving in the Virginia House of Burgesses he introduced a resolution for a day of fasting and prayer in 1774. As governor of Virginia he issued a proclamation for a day of prayer and thanksgiving in November 1779. While President, he chaired the school board for the District of Columbia and authored its plan of education using the Bible and Watt’s Hymnal as reading texts. He also proposed a treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians, which included using Federal money to build a church and support a clergyman. When he established the University of Virginia, he encouraged the teaching of religion and set apart space in the Rotunda for chapel services. He also praised the use of the local courthouse in his home town for religious services.” (See footnotes here.)
Jefferson wrote extensively about his Christian faith and the benefits of Christianity to society. Here are some examples.
“The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man.”
Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse on June 26, 1822, Quoted from The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Bergh, editor (Washington, D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904)
“The practice of morality being necessary for the well being of society, He [God] has taken care to impress its precepts so indelibly on our hearts that they shall not be effaced by the subtleties of our brain. We all agree in the obligation of the moral principles of Jesus and nowhere will they be found delivered in greater purity than in His discourses.”
Thomas Jefferson to James Fishback, September 27, 1809, Quoted from The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Bergh, editor (Washington, D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904)
“I am a Christian in the only sense in which He wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to His doctrines in preference to all others.”
Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803, Quoted from Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, editor (Boston: Grey & Bowen, 1830)
“I am a real Christian – that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ.”
Thomas Jefferson to Charles Thomson on January 9, 1816, Quoted from The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Ellery Bergh, editor (Washington, D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904)
Finally, like the others, Benjamin Franklin is thought by most to have been a Deist. While certainly one of the least religious of the founding fathers, Franklin was no Deist. At one point the Constitutional Convention seemed doomed to failure, but on June 28, 1787, the 81-year-old Franklin rose from his seat and spoke these words …
The small progress we have made after 4 or five weeks close attendance & continual reasonings with each other,”our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes and ays, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, some we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of Government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all round Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances.
In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection. ”Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth- that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments be Human Wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest.
I therefore beg leave to move, that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of the City be requested to officiate in that service.
Benjamin Franklin had more to say about Christianity and a personal God.
“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.”
Franklin to Ezra Stiles, March 9, 1790, Quoted from Works of Benjamin Franklin, John Bigelow, editor
“The body of Benjamin Franklin, printer, like the cover of an old book, its contents torn out and stripped of its lettering and guilding, lies here, food for worms. Yet the work itself shall not be lost; for it will, as he believed, appear once more in a new and more beautiful edition, corrected and amended by the Author.” (FRANKLIN’S EULOGY THAT HE WROTE FOR HIMSELF)
Quoted from Works of the Late Doctor Benjamin Franklin (Dublin: P. Wogan, P. Byrne, J. More, and W. Janes, 1793)
“Whosoever shall introduce into public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world.”
Again, most of America’s Founding Fathers could more easily be classified apologists than secularists since they spent most of their lives defending Christianity. Volumes more could be (and have been) written on the Christian faith of our founding fathers, but I will leave you with these words from John Quincy Adams,
Tags: America, Bible, christian nation, christianity, deism, Founding Fathers, george washington, john adams, thomas jefferson
In the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior. The Declaration of Independence laid the cornerstone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity.