Deism, Atheism, and the Founders
The standard claim by those who wish to minimize the role that Christianity has played in the establishment and propagation of American civilization is that the architects of American political institutions were deists and atheists who did not subscribe to religion in general or Christianity in particular. It is further claimed that they insisted that religion be confined to private life, excluded from public life, i.e., public schools and government. Of course, abundant proof exists to refute this outrageous, though widely believed, claim. But one must go back to the original documents—not history books written in the last fifty years—to allow the Founders to speak for themselves.
Were the Founders “deists”? A standard dictionary definition of the word is: “The belief, based solely on reason, in a God who created the universe and then abandoned it, assuming no control over life, exerting no influence on natural phenomena, and giving no supernatural revelation” (American Heritage…, 2000, p. 479). One would be hard-pressed to identify a Founder that fits this description. Indeed, the writings of the Founders are replete with their belief in and promotion of the Christian religion in its enlarged sense. Even Thomas Jefferson, who probably questioned the deity of Christ, nevertheless advocated and defended true Christianity. In a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush on April 21, 1803, he wrote:
Dear Sir, In some of the delightful conversations with you, in the evenings of 1798-99, and which served as an anodyne to the afflictions of the crisis through which our country was then laboring, the Christian religion was sometimes our topic; and I then promised you, that one day or other, I would give you my views of it. They are the result of a life of inquiry & reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. 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 he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others (“The Thomas Jefferson Papers…,” n.d., emp. added).
Among the small handful of those who were not particularly whetted to the Christian religion, Thomas Paine is conspicuous, especially in his production of Age of Reason. Though he challenged the inspiration of the Bible, denounced the formal world religions, including the perversions of Christianity that were in abundance, and opposed the promotion of any national church or religion, nevertheless he was not an atheist. He claimed to believe in God and afterlife: “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life” (1794). He also wrote: “Were man impressed as fully and as strongly as he ought to be with the belief of a God, his moral life would be regulated by the force of that belief; he would stand in awe of God and of himself, and would not do the thing that could not be concealed from either” (1794). Paine not only believed in “the certainty of his existence and the immutability of his power,” he asserted that “it is the fool only, and not the philosopher, or even the prudent man, that would live as if there were no God.” In fact, he stated that it is “rational to believe” that God would call all people “to account for the manner in which we have lived here” (1794).
Nevertheless, Paine styled himself a “deist” and hurled some rather uncomplimentary epithets against the Christian religion. But the real issue—one that has been largely ignored by the revisionist historians of the last fifty years—is whether Paine’s views were representative of the Founders and the citizenry of America at the time. The historical record proves that they were not. In fact, Paine’s production of Age of Reason nearly two decades after the Declaration of Independence drew heavy fire from several of the Founders who expressed strong aversion to Paine’s ideas in no uncertain terms. Consider the following examples.
John Adams played a central role in the birth of our nation, as evidenced by a string of significant participatory activities, including delegate to the Continental Congress (1774-1777) where he signed the Declaration of Independence, signer of the peace treaty that ended the American Revolution (1783), two-time Vice-President under George Washington (1789-1797), and second President of the United States (1797-1801). Yet, Adams’ sentiments regarding Paine’s writing were, to say the least, blunt: “The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity, let the Blackguard Paine say what he will” (3:421, 1856). “Blackguard” was an 18th century term for a thoroughly unprincipled person—a scoundrel.
Zephaniah Swift, who was a member of the U.S. Congress from 1793-1797, offered a strong reaction to Paine:
[W]e cannot sufficiently reprobate the beliefs of Thomas Paine in his attack on Christianity by publishing his Age of Reason…. He has the impudence and effrontery to address to the citizens of the United States of America a paltry performance which is intended to shake their faith in the religion of their fathers…. No language can describe the wickedness of the man who will attempt to subvert a religion which is a source of comfort and consolation to its votaries merely for the purpose of eradicating all sentiments of religion (1796, 2:323-324).
John Jay was another brilliant Founder with a long and distinguished career in the formation and shaping of American civilization from the beginning. He not only was a member of the Continental Congress from 1774-1776, serving as President from 1778-1779, he also helped to frame the New York State Constitution and then served as the Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court. He co-authored the Federalist Papers, was appointed as the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court by George Washington (1789-1795), served as Governor of New York (1795-1801), and was the vice-president of the American Bible Society (1816-1821). In a letter dated February 14, 1796, he affirmed:
I have long been of the opinion that the evidence of the truth of Christianity requires only to be carefully examined to produce conviction in candid minds, and I think they who undertake that task will derive advantages…. As to The Age of Reason, it never appeared to me to have been written from a disinterested love of truth or of mankind (Jay, 1833, 2:266).
Several of the Founders were severe in their denunciations of Paine. John Witherspoon, member of the Continental Congress (1776-1782) and signer of the Declaration of Independence, insisted that Paine was “ignorant of human nature as well as an enemy to the Christian faith” (1802, 3:24). Another signer of the Declaration, Charles Carroll, pronounced Paine’s work as “blasphemous writings against the Christian religion” (as quoted in Gurn, 1932, p. 203). Yet another Declaration signer, Benjamin Rush, called The Age of Reason “absurd and impious” (1951, 2:770). William Paterson, signer of the federal Constitution and U.S. Supreme Court justice appointed by George Washington, became so indignant over those few Americans who seemed to agree with Paine, that he declared: “Infatuated Americans, why renounce your country, your religion, and your God? Oh shame, where is thy blush? Is this the way to continue independent, and to render the 4th of July immortal in memory and song?” (as quoted in O’Conner, 1979, p. 244). [NOTE: Observe that Paterson believed that independence depended on loyalty to the Christian religion and God.] In a similar vein, John Quincy Adams, referring to Paine’s Rights of Man, insisted that “Mr. Paine has departed altogether from the principles of the Revolution” (1793, p. 13). Patrick Henry asked: “What is there in the wit, or wisdom of the present deistical writers or professors…? And yet these have been confuted, and their fame decaying; in so much that the puny efforts of Paine are thrown in, to prop their tottering fabric, whose foundations cannot stand the test of time” (as quoted in Wirt, 1817, pp. 386-387, emp. added; cf. Arnold, 1854, p. 250), and the President of the Continental Congress, Elias Boudinot, published The Age of Revelation in direct rebuttal to The Age of Reason (1801).
Even Benjamin Franklin, one of the least religious of the Founding Fathers, though a longtime friend of Paine, viewed Paine’s thinking with great disfavor, as evidenced by Franklin’s critique of a previous manuscript written by Paine:
I have read your Manuscript with some Attention. By the Arguments it contains against the Doctrine of a particular Providence, tho’ you allow a general Providence, you strike at the Foundation of all Religion: For without the Belief of a Providence that takes Cognizance of, guards and guides and may favour particular Persons, there is no Motive to Worship a Deity, to fear its Displeasure, or to pray for its Protection. I will not enter into any Discussion of your Principles, tho’ you seem to desire it; At present I shall only give you my Opinion that tho’ your Reasonings are subtle, and may prevail with some Readers, you will not succeed so as to change the general Sentiments of Mankind on that Subject, and the Consequence of printing this Piece will be a great deal of Odium drawn upon your self, Mischief to you and no Benefit to others. He that spits against the Wind, spits in his own Face. But were you to succeed, do you imagine any Good would be done by it?…. I would advise you therefore not to attempt unchaining the Tyger, but to burn this Piece before it is seen by any other Person, whereby you will save yourself a great deal of Mortification from the Enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a good deal of Regret and Repentance. If Men are so wicked as we now see them with Religion what would they be if without it? I intend this Letter itself as a Proof of my Friendship…. (1840, 10:281-282, emp. added).
Sadly, friendless and shunned due to his irreligious views, Thomas Paine died in Greenwich Village, New York City, on June 8, 1809. At the time of his death, most U.S. newspapers reprinted the obituary notice from the New York Citizen, which read in part: “He had lived long, did some good and much harm.” Only six mourners came to his funeral (Conway, pp. 417-418).
The overwhelming majority of the Founders and the bulk of the American population at the beginning of our nation held strong convictions regarding the primacy of the Christian religion over all other religions (as well as no religion at all). What a change has come over the country. God has blessed America in the past—undoubtedly due to the willingness of the Founders and the citizenry to acknowledge Him as the one true God and Author of the one true religion. Now that so many are rejecting the one true God, while accommodating false religions and ideologies, we can well expect that the bestowal of God’s blessings on our national well-being will come to an end. In the words of George Washington:
I am sure there never was a people who had more reason to acknowledge a Divine interposition in their affairs than those of the United States; and I should be pained to believe that they have forgotten that Agency which was so often manifested during our revolution, or that they failed to consider the omnipotence of that God who is alone able to protect them (1838, 10:222-223).
The psalmist was even plainer: “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God” (Psalm 9:17).
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