the imaginative conservative logo

40-books Religious beliefs of Am's founders

The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, Revolutionby Gregg L. Frazer

The religious views of America’s founders have been fiercely contested in the public arena for many years. The principal battle is between those who claim that most founders were devout Christians and those who assert that they were deists. This debate has important ramifications for arguments that the United States was founded as a distinctively Christian nation, or as an essentially secular one, and for how to interpret the First Amendment. 

Into the fray has stepped Gregg L. Frazer, a professor of history and political studies at The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, California. In The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, Revolution, he argues that the nation’s most prominent founders—George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin—and key framers (of the Declaration and the Constitution)—Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton—were neither Christians nor deists.

Frazer aims to correct the “severely flawed” arguments of popularizers (primarily pastors, lawyers, and armchair historians) such as David Barton (The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson) who portray most of the founders as committed Christians, if not evangelical Protestants, and others, including Americans United for the Separation of Church and State spokesperson Barry Lynn and journalist Brooke Allen (Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers), who depict the founders as “rank secularists.”

The former group contends that most of the founders sought to create a thoroughly Christian nation, while the latter group portrays the founders as seeking to erect an absolute “wall of separation” between church and state (or even between religion and government by excluding all religious ideologies and principles from the public square).

Although a substantial group of founders were orthodox Christians—including Samuel Adams, John Witherspoon, John Jay, Elias Boudinot, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Rush, Roger Sherman, and Oliver Ellsworth—Frazer convincingly argues that the most renowned founders were not traditional Christians, strident secularists, or devoted deists.

Frazer shows that neither the Christian-America camp nor the strict separationists (which include many influential historians and political scientists, the American Civil Liberties Union, and People for the American Way) correctly understand the religious views of America’s leading founders. The partisan agendas of both groups discourage careful, dispassionate analysis of the evidence.

Frazer builds on the foundation laid by numerous historians and political scientists who show that the founders were deeply influenced by both Christianity and the Enlightenment. Convinced that labeling these key founders as Christian, deist, or secular is inaccurate, Frazer invents a new term—theistic rationalism—to describe their convictions. Theistic rationalism is a hybrid system that mixes “elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism” and makes rationalism the dominant component. While these three elements usually complemented each other, reason played the decisive role when they conflicted on particular issues. Instead of employing reason to show that divine revelation was true, theistic rationalists “made reason the ultimate standard.”

This belief system was not a label anyone actually applied to himself in the eighteenth century and it cannot be identified with any particular denomination, theology, or form of worship. Espoused by educated elites, theistic rationalism appealed little to average Americans.

Frazer is correct that the conventional understanding of deism does not accurately explain the views of these key founders and framers. Deism traditionally portrayed God as absent and aloof from the world he created, denied the value of Scripture, and rejected many central Christian doctrines including Christ’s Virgin Birth, atonement, and resurrection, as well as original sin, hell, and the biblical understanding of faith.

Theistic rationalists, by contrast, believed that God not only created the world but actively directs it and intervenes in human affairs. They often stressed God’s providence and insisted that he heard and answered prayers. Although theistic rationalists denied that Jesus was God, they viewed him more highly than deists, often calling him a great moral teacher. They also had a much higher view of the Bible than deists, arguing that its parts that accorded with reason were truly from God. The beliefs that theistic rationalists shared with Christians prompted them to attend Christian churches and employ language that Christians found “familiar and comforting.” They argued that religion had a major role to play in the public square, especially by promoting the individual virtue that was essential to the success of the new republic. Moreover, these theistic rationalists believed that biblically based moral principles provided a crucial foundation for the work of political officials as they strove to promote the common good and corporate justice.

Many other scholars have noted that the conventional categories used to describe the religious views of the key founders are inadequate and have used descriptions similar to theistic rationalism. Other terms employed to describe the convictions of these prominent founders—“enlightened Christianity,” “Christian rationalism,” or “rational Christianity”—are inadequate because they imply that these founders were Christians. These founders, however, rejected “every fundamental doctrine of Christianity as it was understood in their day,” most notably the deity and atonement of Christ.

Frazer presents hundreds of examples from the writings of key founders and framers to support his argument that they espoused theistic rationalism. The term deserves to become widely accepted in both scholarly and public discourse because it effectively explains the convictions and political ideology of these prominent Americans and so sheds light on the kind of nation they sought to create.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreReprinted with the gracious  permission of the University Bookman.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
17 replies to this post
  1. I have debated Dr. Frazer more than a few times at my group blog American Creation. He makes some good points but I think he overstates his case in the reason trumps revelation argument. His term is a theological term not a Historical term which is problematic in a History debate. But he is a good guy and a very good historian.

    Overall I think he and others ask the wrong question. I think it a red herring to ask which founders were Christian or not? A better question is whether Christian ideas influenced the founding or not? America was built on ideas not men…

    http://www.3rdwavelandsproperties.net/2012/08/getting-back-to-constitution-truth-part.html#.UHe0_8X7KHg

  2. An even better question is whether the Constitution is a Biblical and Christian document. The only way to determine the answer to that question is not by perpetuating the war of quotations (Matthew 7:21-23) but to actually examine the Constitution, article by article and amendment by amendment, by the only standard by which everything must be ethically judged–that is, by Yahweh's morality as codified in His commandments, statutes, and judgments. You will find that this is precisely what I have done in "Bible Law vs. the United States Constitution: The Christian Perspective." You can find an online version at http://www.missiontoisrael.org/blvc-index.php.

  3. Frazer's premise is flawed from the start, arbitrarily picking who he claims are the most prominent founders. Sorry, he doesn't get to rig the game. Frazer will probably vote for Obama, given he must believe in picking winners and losers. His second flaw, is the colonists understood: John Adams, James Wilson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and perhaps Morris (John Jay knew him better than anyone, believed he was a Christian), were orthodox Christians. There are no smoking guns or any written evidence whatsoever, that any of these men denied the fundamentals of Christianity while they were in public office. The public understood John Adams to be orthodox, while serving the nation. It wasn't till after he retired, that he said he was a lifelong unitarian. Sorry, that doesn't fly either.

    Given the Congress used orthodox christian language, the entire fabric of our governmental system is indisputably founded ONLY on Biblical Christianity:

    "[t]hat all religious congregations do, with the deepest humility, acknowledge before God the manifold sins and transgressions with which we are justly chargeable as individuals and as a nation, beseeching Him at the same time, of His infinite grace, through the Redeemer of the World, freely to remit all our offenses, and to incline us by His Holy Spirit to that sincere repentance and reformation which may afford us reason to hope for his inestimable favor and heavenly benediction."

    –Adams, Fast of 1798.

    Here are people:

    "Forasmuch as it is the indispensable duty of all men to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with gratitude their obligation to Him for benefits received…[to offer] humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot [our sins] out of remembrance…and to prosper the means of religion for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth "in righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost."

    –Journals of…Congress (1907), Vol. IX, 1777, pp 854-855, November 1, 1777.

  4. What I believe Anonymous means here is that the American people believed that Adams, etc. were orthodox Christians while they were in public life—whether they were or not in private conscience is largely immaterial.

    For example, John Adams, in private, post-presidential letters [esp to jefferson] is quite non-orthodox. However, his 1798 presidential proclamation of a day of fast and humiliation does indeed use Trinitarian language: God, The Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit.

    I would caution those who try to make a direct connection between the Bible and the Constitution. It should be remembered that via federalism, religion was left to the states [Massachusetts even had an established state church until 1833], and it was the states that wrote the laws governing everyday life. It's at the state level you'll find the Biblical influence, not in the intentionally "godless" Constitution.

  5. Tom, the State Constitutions are compromised and not nearly as Biblical or Christian as one may initially think, but even if they were would not change the fact that there is hardly an article or amendment of the Federal Constitution that, in some fashion, is not antithetical, if not hostile, to Yahweh's sovereignty and morality.

  6. If Adams had written heterodox letters while in office, the papers would have had a field day with him.

    Although everyone agrees Christ is not specifically mentioned, I would connect Christ to the Constitution through Art 1, section 8; the Law of Nations, espoused by orthodox Christians: Grotius, Puffendorf, and perhaps Vattel, and through the Declaration of Independence, where, according to the Reformed Churches, it was common knowledge Nature's God was Christ, the 2nd Person of the co-equal Godhead. Among all the Christian philosophers who understood Nature's God, Jefferson's idol Francis Bacon, promoted it.

    In fact, the framers purposely made the Constitution silent on God. The Constitution is the details from the principles laid out in the Declaration. The Constitution is supposed to be silent on principles. Those details are left to the States unless specifically enumerated.

    As to the State Constitutions, where is the verbage of heterodoxy? Even Roger Williams was orthodox, the various government proclamations orthodox christian, and rejecting the modern notion of separation of church and state.

    The entire narrative is a rigged game. From Frazer cherry-picking who he thinks is important or not, to the distorting of 18th century terms in a 20th century context.

    Ted,

    "hostile, to Yahweh's sovereignty and morality."

    Where did that come from? Every state mandated the Bible's morality into their Constitutions. Furthermore, abortion was fine and jail time. The sin of homosexuality? Taken from the Bible, some States right from the text:

    "That if any man shall lie with mankind as he lieth with womankind, both of them have committed abomination; they both shall be put to death.
    –CONNECTICUT. The Public Statute Laws of the State of Connecticut (Hartford: Hudson and Goodwin, 1808), Book I, p. 295.

    That if any man lieth with mankind as he lieth with a woman, they both shall suffer death.
    –VERMONT. Statutes of the State of Vermont (Bennington, 1791), p. 74

    That the detestable and abominable vice of buggery [sodomy] . . . shall be from henceforth adjudged felony . . . and that every person being thereof convicted by verdict, confession, or outlawry [unlawful flight to avoid prosecution], shall be hanged by the neck until he or she shall be dead.
    –New-York . . . Since the Revolution (New York: Thomas Greenleaf, 1798), Vol. I, p. 336

  7. That God rested sovereignty with the people who in turn invest it in their rulers goes back to at least Aquinas and drives "Calvinist resistance theory," which drove the Revolution.

    Only a few mistaken souls would claim Yahweh is or was ever intended to be directly sovereign in America, not even David Barton.

    As for "Yahweh's" morality, imago Dei, that we are created in the image and likeness of God, is what vitiates "all men are created equal," and it goes back to Genesis. From that fundamental equality we derived that man's rights are "endowed by their creator." It's explicit in the Declaration, and implicit in the Constitution [esp the Bill O'Rights].

    Yes, the Constitution is formally "godless," but without its Judeo-Christian context–and by "Judeo-Christian" here I mean 2000 years of Christian thought as well as the Bible—it's quite a dry document, and the Ninth Amendment about unenumerated rights is .

    Clearly your thesis is written in the same zone as Dr. Frazer's

    http://www.missiontoisrael.org/biblelaw-constitutionalism-preface.php

    but since I don't share your theology, I don't share your conclusions. Your theology is indifferent or even hostile to that "2000 years of Christian thought" whereas I think it's inextricable from what a historian—not a theologian—is obliged to call "Christianity."

    I do understand your argument, and within your own theology appears to be perfectly valid, as long as you get to determine what is and is not "Christian."

  8. From the article: "Frazer builds on the foundation laid by numerous historians and political scientists…" David Barton quotes the original sources. Case closed.

  9. If Adams had written privately contradicting what he had written publicly, the papers would have had a field day.

    We all know Christ is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, but it isn't supposed to. The Constitution presents the details of the principles written in the Declaration of Independence. It is the DOI that connects our nation with the Bible–which is still in effect. Although, art. 1 sect 8, the Law of Nations, indirectly references God, the Christian Philosophers, such as Jefferson's idol Francis Bacon understood Nature's God is Christ, according to the understanding of the Reformed Churches.

  10. Scott Todd: You wish you could close the case. Your cherry picked quote from the OP is one of Barton's bogus talking points (that scholars cite one another but not the primary sources). No. Dr. Frazer cites the primary sources too. And so does Dr. Warren Throckmorton. Why don't you grapple with Prof. Throckmorton's demolition of David Barton?

  11. Anon./(OFT) writes:

    "Frazer's premise is flawed from the start, arbitrarily picking who he claims are the most prominent founders. Sorry, he doesn't get to rig the game."

    Sorry, there is nothing arbitrary about the FIRST FOURT Presidents. (And the author of the DOI, 3/5 of the writing team of the DOI., etc. etc.)

  12. Tom Van Dyke: "Only a few mistaken souls would claim Yahweh is or was ever intended to be directly sovereign in America…"

    I guess you'll have to include William McGuffey as one of the mistaken souls:

    "Their [the 17th-century colonials] form of government was as strictly theocratical insomuch that it would be difficult to say where there was any civil authority among them distinct from ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Whenever a few of them settled a town, they immediately gathered themselves into a church; and their elders were magistrates, and their code of laws was the Pentateuch…. God was their King; and they regarded him as truly and literally so…." (William Holmes McGuffey, McGuffey’s Sixth Eclectic Reader (New York, NY: American Book Company, 1879) p. 225.)

    Furthermore, Yahweh is sovereign here in America (always has been and always will be)as He is over all His creation by the very fact that He's Almighty God and Creator, whether you, I, or anyone else claims He is or not!

  13. "Theistic rationalism is a hybrid system that mixes “elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism” and makes rationalism the dominant component. While these three elements usually complemented each other, reason played the decisive role when they conflicted on particular issues. Instead of employing reason to show that divine revelation was true, theistic rationalists “made reason the ultimate standard.”

    This is probably as good a description of the Founding Fathers' beliefs, based on what I've read of them, as I've ever encountered. It seems very true that many of them made Christian-sounding statements quite frequently,but when one digs deeper, one finds that Christianity was not necessarily the prime driving force in their lives. People will say, "so what?", but the point is that, when we follow Jesus Christ, He must come first in everything we do. His commandments must be our rule of life and thought; His word must direct and inform our every step and action.
    Were the Founders influenced to a degree by the Christian culture of their day(in both its good points and bad)? Yes. But were they orthodox Christians on the whole(I speak of the majority of them here, not one or two who may have been more devout)? It doesn't appear so. The Constitution they wrote, after all, was a far cry from earlier documents from the Pilgrim era which were framed as direct and explicit Covenants before and under God. The Constitution, instead of placing the nation and the people under the Lord Jesus Christ and His Law, introduced its own, un-Biblical law-order and elevated the will of the people over the Word of God.

  14. The Puritans made some foundering steps toward theocracy, but it never took. Another myth that makes the "godless" Constitution seem more godless.

    http://www.sail1620.org/history/articles/124-theocracy-new-england.html

    [Dr Jeremy Bangs is a gentleperson of my acquaintance, an expert in the Puritan era both in America and in Holland.]

    That New England's Calvinist Puritans created theocratic governments is a stereotype that owes much to the nineteenth-century myth that Calvin established theocratic government in Geneva. In his Institutes, Calvin distinguishes between the jurisdiction of civil and ecclesiastical governments, stating that the magistrate in a Christian society has general authority over the entire society, including the obligation to protect and enforce religion and morality. Clergy have authority within the congregation only, including excommunication.

    While laws should conform with biblical precept, Calvin believes that many Old Testament regulations were abrogated by the New Testament. No way to ensure biblical conformity is described. Calvin expresses no preference when considering monarchic, aristocratic, or democratic forms of government. Calvin's ideas had little effect on Geneva's centuries-old system of syndics, co-optative small and large councils, and an electorate of privileged burghers rather than all residents. Throughout Europe, even where Calvin's ideas guided the reformation of the church and the replacement of canon law, Calvin's ideas caused scant change to the forms of established civic government. Nowhere did they lead to a dominance of political affairs by the clergy. Moreover, it was no innovation to insist that civic officials be church members (though now that meant Protestants); nor was medieval government, despite personal imperfections, conceived everywhere to be necessarily inconsistent with biblical precept.

    Establishing colonies outside the bounds of functioning European laws brought opportunity for innovation. New England's colonies present shifting solutions to the problem of giving structure to government. John Robinson, the Pilgrims' minister, shared Calvin's view of the duties of the Christian magistrate but became convinced of an obligation for mutual religious toleration (at least among Protestants) by the time Plymouth Colony began.

    He insisted that church officials had no authority over the magistrates except within the congregation. With the Mayflower Compact, patterned on church covenants, the colonists acknowledged subordination to the English king (and consequently his laws) and agreed to live by mutually consented by-laws. Guided by Robinson's writings, the colonists drew up laws intended to be "equitable" without respect to church membership; and covenanted church membership never became a prerequisite for suffrage in Plymouth Colony. In its initial years there was no minister in the colony; later, ministers were rarely consulted by the court. Plymouth's 1636 constitution follows English legal precedent with few exceptions…

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: