Mike Kueber's Blog

September 22, 2011

Christianity, Deism, and the Founding Fathers

While doing some research on a famous old saying (“God helps them who help themselves.”), a website informed me that the originator was, ironically, Benjamin Franklin.  That is ironic because Ben Franklin was a Deist, which is a person who  believes that in the beginning God created the world, but since then has not been actively involved the affairs of the world:

  • “The term often implies that this supreme being does not intervene in human affairs or suspend the natural laws  of the universe.  Deists typically reject supernatural events such as prophecy and miracles, tending to assert that a god (or “the Supreme Architect”) does not alter the universe by (regularly or ever) intervening in the affairs of human life. This idea is also known as the Clockwork Universe theory, in which a god designs and builds the universe, but steps aside to let it run on its own. Deists believe in the existence of a god without any reliance on revealed religion, religious
    authority or holy books.”

Since that is basically my world view, I decided to read a little more about Deism.  The first website I went to is called Modern Deism, and it asserted something shocking – “many of the American Founding Fathers were Deists, or incorporated  Deistic thought, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Paine and George Washington.”   This assertion shocked me because I have always been told that the Founding Fathers were Christians.  Well, I can’t imagine a stronger list of Founding Fathers than our first four presidents, plus Franklin and Paine.

But were these people deists or did the Modern Deism people draft them into its fold?  I decided to check with my Bible – a/k/a Wikipedia – and learned the following:

  • George Washington: According to historian Paul F. Boller Jr., “Washington was in fact a typical 18th-century deist.”  Boller finds that “Washington seems to have had the characteristic unconcern of the eighteenth-century Deist for the forms and creeds of institutional religion. He had, moreover, the strong aversion of the upper-class Deist for sectarian quarrels that threatened to upset the ‘peace of Society.'” Washington never made attempts to personalize his own religious views or express any appeal to the aesthetic side of biblical passages. Boller states that Washington’s “allusions to religion are almost totally lacking in depths of feeling.”  In philosophical terms, he admired and adopted the Stoic philosophy of the ancient Romans, which emphasized virtue and humanitarianism and was highly compatible with Deism.  Historian Patrick Allitt characterized Washington’s religious views as “lukewarm”, and said “he went through the motions but he clearly wasn’t a man of particular piety or devotion.
  • John Adams: Adams was raised a Congregationalist, becoming a Unitarian at a time when most of the Congregational churches around Boston were turning to Unitarianism. Adams was educated at Harvard when the influence of deism was growing there, and used deistic terms in his speeches and writing.  He believed in the essential goodness of the creation, but, being a Unitarian, his beliefs excluded the divinity of Christ.  He also believed that regular church service was beneficial to man’s moral sense. Everett (1966) concludes that “Adams strove for a religion based on a common sense sort of reasonableness” and maintained that religion must change and evolve toward perfection.  Fielding (1940) shows that Adams’s beliefs synthesized Puritan, deist, and humanist concepts. Adams thought Christianity had originally been revelatory, but was being misinterpreted and misused in the service of superstition, fraud, and unscrupulous power.  Goff (1993) acknowledges Fielding’s “persuasive argument that Adams never was a deist because he allowed the suspension of the laws of nature and believed that evil was internal, not the result of external institutions.”  Frazer (2004) notes that, while Adams shared many perspectives with deists, “Adams clearly was not a deist. Deism rejected any and all supernatural activity and intervention by God; consequently, deists did not believe in miracles or God’s providence….Adams, however, did believe in miracles, providence, and, to a certain extent, the Bible as revelation.”   Fraser concludes that Adams’s “theistic rationalism, like that of the other  Founders, was a sort of middle ground between Protestantism and deism.”  By contrast, David L. Holmes has argued that John Adams, beginning as a Congregationalist, ended his days as a Christian Unitarian, accepting central tenets of the Unitarian creed but also accepting Jesus as the redeemer of humanity and the biblical account of his miracles as true.
  • Thomas Jefferson:  Jefferson rejected the orthodox Christianity of his day and was especially hostile to the Catholic Church as he saw it operate in France.  Throughout his life Jefferson was intensely interested in theology, biblical study, and morality. As a landowner he played a role in governing his local Episcopal Church; in terms of belief he was inclined toward the religious philosophy of Christianity: In private letters, Jefferson refers to himself as “Christian” (1803): “To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence….  Jefferson believed in the moral teachings of Christ and edited a compilation of Christ’s teachings leaving out the miracles.  Jefferson was firmly anticlerical saying that in “every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot…they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all mankind, and therefore the safer for their purposes.
  • James Madison:  Wikipedia says nothing about Madison’s religion, but another website said – “In the case of James Madison, his personal faith could be best described as Deist or Unitarian. It was the belief in Nature’s God, the divine Creator that is referenced in the Declaration of Independence. Unlike others among the Founders, Madison was much more reticent when speaking about his personal faith, and relatively few credible quotes exist.
  • Thomas Paine:  About religion, The Age of Reason says:  “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. My own mind is my own church.  All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”  Though there is no evidence he was himself a Freemason, Paine also wrote “An Essay on the Origin of Free-Masonry” (1803–1805), about the Bible being allegorical myth describing astrology: “The Christian religion is a parody on the worship of the sun, in which they put a man called Christ in the place of the sun, and pay him the adoration originally payed to the sun.”  He described himself as deist, saying: “How different is [Christianity] to the pure and simple profession of Deism! The true Deist has but one Deity, and his religion consists in contemplating the power, wisdom, and benignity of the Deity in his works, and in endeavoring to imitate him in everything moral, scientifical, and mechanical.”  And again, in The Age of Reason: “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.”
  • Benjamin Franklin: Although Franklin’s parents had intended for him to have a career in the Church, Franklin as a young man adopted the Enlightenment religious belief in deism, that God’s truths can be found entirely through nature and reason.  “I soon became a thorough Deist.”  As a young man he rejected Christian dogma in a 1725 pamphlet A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, which he later saw as an embarrassment, while simultaneously asserting that God is “all wise, all good, all powerful.”  He defended his rejection of religious dogma with these words: “I think opinions should be judged by their influences and effects; and if a man holds none that tend to make him less virtuous or more vicious, it may be  concluded that he holds none that are dangerous, which I hope is the case with me.” After the disillusioning experience of seeing the decay in his own moral standards, and those of two friends in London whom he had converted to Deism, Franklin turned back to a belief in the importance of organized religion, on the pragmatic grounds that without God and organized churches, man will not be good.  Moreover, because of his proposal that prayers be said in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, many have contended that in his later life, Franklin became a pious Christian.

Based on this information, I think the Modern Deism people have accurately asserted that many of the leading American Founding Fathers were Deists, or incorporated Deistic thought.  Some historians have added the fifth president to the list – James Monroe:

  • “When it comes to Monroe’s thoughts on religion,” Bliss Isely notes, “less is known than that of any other President.” No letters survive in which he discussed his religious beliefs. Nor did his friends, family or associates comment on his beliefs.  Letters that do survive, such as ones written after the death of his son, contain no discussion of religion….  As  an adult frequently attended Episcopalian churches, though there is no record he ever took communion. He has been classified by some historians as a Deist because he used deistic language to refer to an impersonal God.”

So perhaps our politicians should rely less on their specific religious credentials and more on the universal merit of their values.

P.S.

According to Modern Deism, the following are the nine unofficial tenets of Deism:

1. Belief in God based on Reason, Experience and Nature (nature of the universe) rather than on the basis of holy texts and divine revelation. Essentially, through the use of Reason, God’s existence is revealed by the observation of the order and complexity found within nature and our personal experiences.

2. Belief that the nature of God is abstract and generally incomprehensible which puts it beyond definition for humanity at this time.  Furthermore, human language is limited and inadequate to define God; however, man can use Reason to theorize  and speculate on what this possible nature is.

3. Belief that man’s relationship with God is transpersonal.  However, this does not create a feeling of a distant and cold deity, but of one in which God has a profound and unfathomable relationship with all of creation (nature) rather than just one aspect of it.

4. Belief that humanity has the ability to use Reason to develop ethical/moral principles and through the application of Reason these principles can be used to implement moral behavior, which in turn creates a Utilitarian-Humanist morality. Essentially, humans can be guided by their conscience in matters of morality.

5. Belief that humans have the individual capability of experiencing God, which is defined as spirituality.  These spiritual experiences are multi-faceted and can include awe, epiphany, fellowship and even the transcendental.  Essentially, each human is capable of having a profound experience of God and nature.

6. Belief that God should be honored in a way that the individual believes is best and most appropriate for them.  Individuals must determine for themselves how best to honor God and only they can develop how to accomplish this. For many, it is a multi-faceted and an individualized process.

7. Belief in the principle of Natural Law that states that all men and women are created equal to each other with inherent freedom and liberty so that no human has more worth than another. Essentially,  each human is equal in terms of the freedoms that they have and in the eyes of  the law.

8. Belief that mankind’s purpose is to use our  God-given reason to understand what it means to be alive in every sense of the  word (to live life to the fullest) and to act in such a way as to secure human happiness and contentment for all involved.

9. Belief that Reason and Respect are God-given  traits to mankind and that we are to utilize them in all aspects of our daily  lives thus creating a pragmatic approach to life. This includes respecting other alternative views and opinions of God (other religions) as long as they do not produce harm and/or infringe upon others.