The Founders of the United States and the Bible
Although a few of the founders rejected important biblical doctrines, they were almost unanimous in asserting the Bible’s central role in promoting the social morality they deemed essential to the survival and success of the new republic. Thus, most not only urged their own children to read Scripture and to attend church services in which it was recited but also worked to disseminate biblical knowledge more broadly.
See Also: The Founders and the Bible (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).
By Carl J. Richard
Department of History and Geography
University of Louisiana at Lafayette
In sharp contrast to numerous books that focus obsessively on a few founders, implying falsely that their beliefs were typical of their class and generation, my new book, The Founders and the Bible (Rowman & Littlefield, April 2016), examines the religious beliefs of approximately thirty founders of the United States. What I demonstrate is that while four founders (Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams) possessed biblically unorthodox beliefs concerning the divine origins and authority of Scripture, the divinity of Jesus, and the means of salvation, three (George Washington, James Madison, and James Monroe) wrote so little about these matters that no honest historian can make confident assertions about them, and the other twenty-three were all biblically orthodox. In other words, the ratio of orthodox to unorthodox founders among the thirty leaders examined was nearly six to one.
Furthermore, one of the most important findings of the book is that none of the founders was a deist, at least not if one defines deism in the conventional manner, to refer to the belief in a God who created the universe but does not intervene in it. Even the least orthodox founders believed in an omniscient, omnipotent God much like the deity of the Bible, who not only not only invested each individual with inalienable rights but also intervened in the affairs of individuals, societies, and nations to enforce those rights, as well as to advance other goods necessary to human happiness. The only difference between the orthodox and unorthodox founders concerning divine intervention was that the latter rejected the idea that God intervened through miracles, asserting instead that He intervened solely through natural causes.
The image of even the least orthodox founders as modern secularists is a false conception that wrenches them from the historical and cultural context in which they lived. The founders were steeped in a culture that revered the Bible as the Word of God. Many were raised by devout parents who named them after biblical figures, and many were closely related to ministers. At least two founders, James Madison and John Adams (who married a preacher’s daughter), seriously considered a career in the ministry before deciding on law, and a third, John Witherspoon, was one of the most prominent clergymen in America. Like most children of their day, the founders probably learned to read by means of the Bible, the latter testament of which they then studied in its original Greek language at their grammar schools and colleges. Most attended church services regularly, where they listened to sermons that lasted for hours, addresses that mingled numerous scriptures with classical learning. Many married devout wives. They lived in a society filled with biblical place names and expressions, a society rocked by the Great Awakening, which constituted one of the primary causes of the American Revolution, uniting Americans of different denominations and regions around the same biblical themes, the danger of corruption and the existence of a divine mission, that had motivated the Puritans over a century earlier.
Although a few of the founders rejected important biblical doctrines, they were almost unanimous in asserting the Bible’s central role in promoting the social morality they deemed essential to the survival and success of the new republic. Thus, most not only urged their own children to read Scripture and to attend church services in which it was recited but also worked to disseminate biblical knowledge more broadly. Elias Boudinot, who served as president of the Continental Congress, later established the American Bible Society, which distributed Bibles to the poor. While John Jay, the nation’s first Supreme Court chief justice, served as the organization’s president, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a signer of the Constitution and a two-time presidential nominee of the Federalist Party, served as one of its vice-presidents, in which capacity he boldly defied slaveholders’ attacks on the organization for dispensing Bibles to African Americans, a policy for which the slaveholders blamed the Denmark Vesey slave revolt. Both Benjamin Rush and Samuel Adams urged the continued reading of the Bible in public schools. Rush started a Sunday school movement and founded the Philadelphia Bible Society. George Washington consistently supported the preaching of the gospel to Native Americans, not merely for reasons of national interest, but also for what he sincerely regarded as their own good. Even Thomas Jefferson endorsed adult Bible reading for moral reasons and contributed a large sum to the American Bible Society.
Even the least orthodox founders (with the sole exception of Thomas Paine in his later years) considered the Bible a source of wisdom and valued the lessons they derived from it. They employed biblical references and analogies in private letters as frequently as in public documents because Scripture formed an important part of their stock of knowledge, their way of making sense of the world. Its influence in their society was too pervasive to permit them to ignore or dismiss it, even had they wished to do so. Instead, they grappled with the Bible unceasingly, and while the end result of that lifelong engagement by the unorthodox founders included the discarding of some important doctrines, it also produced a deepening of Scripture’s rhetorical, moral, and spiritual imprint on their minds.
That imprint not only influenced the founders’ self-perceptions but proved crucial to the outcome of national debates. In the colonial period Benjamin Franklin viewed himself as an American Solomon, dispensing practical advice in the form of proverbs as Poor Richard. In 1776, as the leading orator for independence in Congress, John Adams considered himself a latter-day Moses, leading his people from Egyptian-style bondage at the hands of Britain to freedom and independence, although most Americans bestowed that appellation on George Washington. In the same year Thomas Paine succeeded in persuading Americans to declare their independence largely by convincing them that God condemned monarchy in 1 Samuel 8.
As a result of the founders’ unanimous belief in an interventionist God, all except Thomas Paine believed in the efficacy of prayer and therefore frequently called for public and private prayer both in times of crisis and in periods of peace and prosperity. The most famous such appeal was Benjamin Franklin’s emotional speech urging daily prayer at the Constitutional Convention, a plea he based on his personal experience that “God governs in the affairs of men.” In the original manuscript for the speech Franklin underscored the whole sentence once, “God” twice.
The founders considered the United States a new Israel, a nation chosen by God to accomplish a sacred purpose. They believed that the United States was destined by the Almighty to advance the cause of freedom by erecting a model republic that would provide a haven for the world’s oppressed. This belief in a divine mission gave them a sense of identity and purpose and the courage to face the enormous trials of their day. They believed that God led them to victory, against staggering odds, over Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. Many of them considered the U.S. Constitution another divine gift, the usually reticent James Madison even going so far as to call it “a miracle” in a private letter to Jefferson. Yet many of the founders also worried that the same intervening God might punish the nation for its greatest violation of the covenant of liberty, its institution of slavery.
The founders considered Christian morality superior to all other ethical systems, past and present, due to its promotion of humility, benevolence, and forgiveness, and considered religion and morality, defined largely in Judeo-Christian terms, vital to the survival and success of any republic. Despite his rejection of portions of the Bible, Thomas Jefferson was particularly emphatic regarding the superiority of Christian ethics, which was why he invested so much time in distilling its essence in his own abbreviated Bible. Even Thomas Paine, the sole founder who denied the superiority of Christian morality, defined virtue precisely as Jesus had, as the fulfillment of duty to God and to one’s neighbor, while almost comically refusing to acknowledge the obvious source of this principle. Except for Jefferson and Paine, the founders were adamant that the widespread belief in an omniscient God who rewarded virtue and punished vice was essential to republican government, and even Jefferson conceded that while such a belief might not be essential, it provided a powerful inducement to virtue. Despite their own private doubts regarding certain biblical doctrines, both Benjamin Franklin and John Adams reacted with great fury when anyone assaulted the Bible publicly because they viewed popular belief in it as one of the chief pillars of the republic and dreaded its collapse.
The founders also shared crucial beliefs in the biblical concepts of human equality before God, free will, and the existence of an afterlife that included rewards and punishments. The founders’ belief in spiritual equality derived from the biblical concept of a single creation, a concept that contrasted sharply with contemporary, racist, European theories of separate creations of different human species on various continents. It led the founders to abolish slavery throughout the North and to end the foreign slave trade, though they were unable to end the institution in the South, where it was more deeply entrenched socially and economically. John Witherspoon and William Livingston were instrumental in abolishing slavery in New Jersey, as were Benjamin Rush, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin in Pennsylvania, and John Jay and Alexander Hamilton in New York. Despite being a slaveholder himself, Jefferson succeeded in persuading Congress to prohibit slavery in the Northwest Territory (the land north of the Ohio River) as a first step towards his goal of ending it nationally. George Washington freed and provided for his own slaves in his will. Many of the founders used scriptural arguments to condemn slavery and denounced all efforts to employ biblical passages in its favor. Despite living in a Calvinist nation, they also cited biblical references against predestination and in support of free will, a belief that imbued them with a strong sense of responsibility for the outcome of events. All of the founders, even the least orthodox, expressed a belief in an afterlife characterized by divine rewards and punishments that was clearly based on biblical teaching. This belief provided the founders with priceless consolation for the deaths of their loved ones and motivated them to hazard all for their fellow citizens. Alexander Hamilton’s confidence in the existence of such an afterlife led him to sacrifice his life rather than return Aaron Burr’s gunfire in their famous duel.
The founders’ conception of what they termed divine “Providence” extended to their own personal lives. It comforted them amid misfortunes and motivated them to sacrifice everything for the cause of liberty in a revolution against the greatest power on earth and in the establishment of a sound and durable republic.
As the Declaration of Independence noted, “a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence” was the chief source of their willingness to sacrifice their lives and fortunes. Even after Paine wrote a tome attacking the Bible, he continued to assert a strong belief in its most important concept: the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God who intervened on behalf of individuals and nations. Indeed, Paine credited his own survival of the French Revolution to divine protection, a claim that flatly contradicted a central tenet of deism. The founders overcame the greatest misfortunes, such as the death of a fiancée (Charles Carroll) or a small child (John Marshall and John Jay), by interpreting them as God’s way of teaching wisdom, fortitude, compassion, humility, and the futility of a life focused on fleeting earthly pleasures rather than on eternity.
The orthodox majority, joined by the unorthodox John Adams and the generally reticent Washington and Madison, strongly espoused a view of human nature that was fundamentally biblical. This pessimistic conception of human nature encouraged them to oppose British claims to unchecked power during the Revolutionary era and led them to establish elaborate systems of checks and balances in both state and federal constitutions thereafter.
Even the founders’ shared advocacy of religious freedom, variously defined but always including the right to worship freely in the manner of an individual’s own choosing, was based on the Bible’s emphasis on the importance of the individual’s relationship with an omniscient God who cared deeply about His creatures’ inner beliefs. No government had the authority to interpose itself between the individual and his creator, the founders frequently declared. Furthermore, they often noted that both Jesus Himself and His disciples in the early Church never compelled anyone to express any belief but relied solely on the power of the Holy Spirit to attract people to the faith according to their own free will.
In The Founders and the Bible I discuss the educational system, familial influences, church experience, and social conditions that immersed the founders in the Bible, their lifelong engagement with Scripture, their biblically-infused political rhetoric, their powerful belief in a divine Providence that protected them and guided the nation, their belief in the superiority of Christian ethics and in the necessity of religion to republican government, their belief in spiritual equality, free will, and an afterlife, their religious differences, the influence of their biblical conception of human nature on their formulation of state and federal constitutions, and their use of biblical precedent to advance religious freedom. I conclude by summarizing the manner in which the subsequent generation of Americans carried these themes to new heights, in the process transforming American society.