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Sep 12, 2016
Presented by
Joshua Charles

What did the Founding Fathers believe about religion? Were they Christians, or just deists? Did they believe in secularism, or did they want Americans to be religious? Joshua Charles, New York Times bestselling author and researcher at the Museum of the Bible, explains.

The Founders believed in a transcendent, moral, and personal God—not an impersonal deity unconcerned with man.

  • All of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, believed in a Divinity who, as Benjamin Franklin said, “governs in the affairs of men,” and established an absolute morality.View Source
  • For more on the Founders’ religious beliefs, watch Joshua Charles.View Source
  • Related reading: Liberty's Secrets – Joshua CharlesView Source
  • Related reading: The Founders on Religion – James H. HutsonView Source
  • Related reading: What Would the Founders Say? – Larry SchweikartView Source

The Founders believed that if Americans were not religious, the American experiment of self-government would inevitably fail.

  • George Washington called God “the great author of every public and private good” and in part credited the Bible for America’s strong foundation.View Source
  • Thomas Jefferson made our dependence on a Creator a fundamental concept in the Declaration of Independence and drew on Biblical stories in both of his inaugural addressesView Source
  • All of the Founding Fathers, including Washington, Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison, believed in a Divinity who, as Benjamin Franklin said, “governs in the affairs of men,” and who established an absolute morality.View Source
  • For more on the Founders’ religious beliefs, watch Joshua Charles.View Source
  • Related reading: The Founders on Religion – James H. HutsonView Source
  • Related reading: Liberty's Secrets – Joshua CharlesView Source
  • Related reading: A Patriot's History of the United States – Larry SchweikartView Source

James Madison, along with nearly every Founder, regularly made a point of giving God credit for America’s success.   

  • James Madison referenced the Creator in both of his inaugural speeches, citing God’s divine protection over and guidance of America.View Source
  • All of the Founding Fathers, including Madison, George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, believed in a Divinity who, as Benjamin Franklin said, “governs in the affairs of men,” and who established an absolute morality.View Source
  • For more on the Founders’ religious beliefs, watch Joshua Charles.View Source
  • Related reading: The Founders on Religion – James H. HutsonView Source
  • Related reading: Liberty's Secrets – Joshua CharlesView Source
  • Related reading: What Would the Founders Say? – Larry SchweikartView Source

The writings of George Washington, along with those of every Founder, were full of references to God.

  • George Washington called God “the great author of every public and private good” and in part credited the Bible for America’s strong foundation.View Source
  • All of the Founding Fathers, including Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington, believed in a Divinity who, as Benjamin Franklin said, “governs in the affairs of men,” and established an absolute morality.View Source
  • For more on the Founders’ religious beliefs, watch Joshua Charles.View Source
  • Related reading: The Founders on Religion – James H. HutsonView Source
  • Related reading: Liberty's Secrets – Joshua CharlesView Source
  • Related reading: A History of the American People – Paul JohnsonView Source

The Founders would have strongly opposed the modern secularization of America.

  • George Washington called God “the great author of every public and private good” and in part credited the Bible for America’s strong foundation.View Source
  • Thomas Jefferson made our dependence on a Creator a fundamental concept in the Declaration of Independence and drew on Biblical stories in both of his inaugural addresses.View Source
  • All of the Founding Fathers, including Washington, Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison, believed in a Divinity who, as Benjamin Franklin said, “governs in the affairs of men,” and who established an absolute morality.View Source
  • For more on the Founders’ religious beliefs, watch Joshua Charles.View Source
  • Related reading: The Founders on Religion – James H. HutsonView Source
  • Related reading: Liberty's Secrets – Joshua CharlesView Source
  • Related reading: A History of the American People – Paul JohnsonView Source

Even Thomas Jefferson, who coined the term “separation of church and state,” believed America must remain a religious society.

  • Thomas Jefferson made our dependence on a Creator a fundamental concept in the Declaration of Independence and drew on Biblical stories in both of his inaugural addresses.View Source
  • All of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison, believed in a Divinity who, as Benjamin Franklin said, “governs in the affairs of men,” and who established an absolute morality.View Source
  • For more on the Founders’ religious beliefs, watch Joshua Charles.View Source
  • Related reading: Liberty's Secrets – Joshua CharlesView Source
  • Related reading: The Founders' Key – Larry P. ArnnView Source
  • Related reading: The Founders on Religion – James H. HutsonView Source

Thomas Jefferson, who was among the least religious of the Founders, consistently referenced a Creator.

  • Thomas Jefferson made our dependence on a Creator a fundamental concept in the Declaration of Independence and drew on Biblical stories in both of his inaugural addresses.View Source
  • All of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison, believed in a Divinity who, as Benjamin Franklin said, “governs in the affairs of men,” and who established an absolute morality.View Source
  • For more on the Founders’ religious beliefs, watch Joshua Charles.View Source
  • Related reading: The Founders on Religion – James H. HutsonView Source
  • Related reading: Liberty's Secrets – Joshua CharlesView Source
  • Related reading: The Founders' Key – Larry P. ArnnView Source

Every Founder believed in a God who set a universal, moral code that all of humanity must abide by.

  • All of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, believed in a Divinity who, as Benjamin Franklin said, “governs in the affairs of men,” and established an absolute morality.View Source
  • For more on the Founders’ religious beliefs, watch Joshua Charles.View Source
  • Related reading: Liberty's Secrets – Joshua CharlesView Source
  • Related reading: The Founders' Key – Larry P. ArnnView Source
  • Related reading: The Founders on Religion – James H. HutsonView Source

The Founders firmly believed religion should be present in the public sphere.

  • George Washington called God “the great author of every public and private good” and in part credited the Bible for America’s strong foundation.View Source
  • Thomas Jefferson made our dependence on a Creator a fundamental concept in the Declaration of Independence and drew on Biblical stories in both of his inaugural addresses.View Source
  • All of the Founding Fathers, including Washington, Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison, believed in a Divinity who, as Benjamin Franklin said, “governs in the affairs of men,” and who established an absolute morality.View Source
  • For more on the Founders’ religious beliefs, watch Joshua Charles.View Source
  • Related reading: The Founders on Religion – James H. HutsonView Source
  • Related reading: Liberty's Secrets – Joshua CharlesView Source
  • Related reading: A History of the American People – Paul JohnsonView Source

John Adams, along with nearly every Founder, had deep reverence of the Bible.

  • As an old man, John Adams declared that “the Bible is the best book in the world.”View Source
  • All of the Founding Fathers, including Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington, believed in a Divinity who, as Benjamin Franklin said, “governs in the affairs of men,” and established an absolute morality.View Source
  • For more on the Founders’ religious beliefs, watch Joshua Charles.View Source
  • Related reading: Liberty's Secrets – Joshua CharlesView Source
  • Related reading: The Founders on Religion – James H. HutsonView Source
  • Related reading: What Would the Founders Say? – Larry SchweikartView Source

The “separation of church and state” refers to the government not endorsing a single religion—NOT cleansing the public sphere of religion.

  • Thomas Jefferson made our dependence on a Creator a fundamental concept in the Declaration of Independence and drew on Biblical stories in both of his inaugural addresses.View Source
  • All of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison, believed in a Divinity who, as Benjamin Franklin said, “governs in the affairs of men,” and who established an absolute morality.View Source
  • For more on the Founders’ religious beliefs, watch Joshua Charles.View Source
  • Related reading: The Founders on Religion – James H. HutsonView Source
  • Related reading: Liberty's Secrets – Joshua CharlesView Source
  • Related reading: A History of the American People – Paul JohnsonView Source
  • Related reading: A Patriot's History of the United States – Larry SchweikartView Source

For the Founders, religion was not just something to be exercised in one’s home, but out in the public sphere as well.

  • George Washington called God “the great author of every public and private good” and in part credited the Bible for America’s strong foundation.View Source
  • Thomas Jefferson made our dependence on a Creator a fundamental concept in the Declaration of Independence and drew on Biblical stories in both of his inaugural addresses.View Source
  • All of the Founding Fathers, including Washington, Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison, believed in a Divinity who, as Benjamin Franklin said, “governs in the affairs of men,” and who established an absolute morality.View Source
  • For more on the Founders’ religious beliefs, watch Joshua Charles.View Source
  • Related reading: The Founders on Religion – James H. HutsonView Source
  • Related reading: Liberty's Secrets – Joshua CharlesView Source
  • Related reading: What Would the Founders Say? – Larry SchweikartView Source

What were the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers of the United States?  

There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding this subject. But there shouldn’t be.

Because of their prominence, I will discuss George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin—our nation’s first three Presidents, and the man referred to as “the First American”—all of whom, even if some did not individually adhere to orthodox Christianity, were steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Here’s what we can say for certain about their religious beliefs.

1) All of the Founders believed in a transcendent God, that is, a Creator who exists outside of nature.

2) All the Founders believed in a God who imposes moral obligations on human beings.

3) All the Founders believed in a God who punishes bad behavior and rewards good behavior in an afterlife.

The notion that any of the Founders believed in an impersonal deity who merely created the universe and then left it to itself is false. All of them believed in a God who, as Franklin said at the Constitutional Convention, “governs in the affairs of men.”

Let’s start with George Washington.

Washington’s writings, both public and private, are full of references to the Bible. This is certainly true during his eight years as the first President of the United States. Here is Washington at his first Inaugural: “The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained.” In all likelihood, Washington was an orthodox Christian.

Like Washington, Benjamin Franklin also referenced Bible verses, stories, and metaphors throughout his life. His calls for prayer at the Constitutional Convention were typical of his attitude. Franklin, who had his own unorthodox views, summed up his faith this way: “That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this.”

While the religious views of Washington and Franklin are clear, those of John

Adams and Thomas Jefferson are more complicated. Adams referred to himself as a Christian throughout his life, but did not believe in traditional Christian doctrines such as the trinity or the divinity of Jesus. Nonetheless, before, during and after his tenure as President, Adams repeatedly asserted his admiration for the Christian faith: “Those general Principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the Existence and Attributes of God,” he wrote.

Likewise, Adams spoke of his great respect for the Bible. “[T]he Bible is the best book in the world. It contains more of my… philosophy than all the libraries I have seen…” Those who suggest that Adams was against religion like to quote from a letter he wrote to Thomas Jefferson in which he said, “This would be the best of all possible worlds if there was no religion in it.” 

Unfortunately, those who cite this line never quote the lines that immediately follow “But in this exclamation, I should have been as fanatical as [the skeptics of religion]. Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company—I mean hell.” So, those who quote the first line without quoting the subsequent lines are either unaware of the full comment or are deliberately misleading people as to Adams’s beliefs.

Like Adams, Thomas Jefferson did not adhere to orthodox doctrine. Yet he often declared himself to be a Christian. “I am a Christian, he said, “in the only sense he [Jesus] wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines...” As one of the leaders of the American Revolution, his views are well known. After all, this is the man who wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men… are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” You can’t get a much more explicit statement of belief than that.

These four founders – Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Franklin – were practical men with a sober view of human nature. They understood that man is morally weak and that religion provides the best encouragement and incentive to be good.

It does so, first and foremost, by teaching that choices have consequences. Not necessarily in the here and now, but most certainly in the hereafter – meted out by a just God. It should come as no surprise, then, that Jefferson, in his second inaugural, asked for, “The favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land.”

So, what were the religious beliefs of the Founders?

They were diverse. But all of them were rooted in the Judeo-Christian values found in the Bible.

I’m Joshua Charles, writer and researcher at the Museum of the Bible, for Prager University.

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