The Founding Fathers’ Religious Beliefs

Thomas Jefferson Seated at His Desk. By: Gilbert Stuart, 1805.

The religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers may serve as a surprise to some modern Americans. However, it is important to put into context that the Founding Fathers lived in an era that was not filled with the religious fervor that would become commonplace in the 1800s. See Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 576.

Thomas Jefferson hated “the clergy and organized religion.” Id. at 577. He said that the Trinity was “Abracadabra” and “hocus-pocus . . . so incomprehensible to the human mind that no candid man can say he has any idea of it,” and thus, ridiculing it was the best option. Id. quoting Thomas Jefferson to Horatio Spafford, 17 Mar. 1814, to James Smith, 8 Dec. 1822, in James H. Hutson, ed., The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations (Princeton, 2005), 68, 218.

Benjamin Franklin also appeared to harbor at least some dissension about religion, as he advised a friend in 1786 to not publish “anything attacking traditional Christianity” as “[he] that spits against the wind . . . spits in his own face.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 589. Franklin was keenly aware of the fact that Thomas Paine had “destroyed his reputation” by writing “scathing comments about Christianity in his Age of Reason (1794).” Id. citing Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (1794), in Eric Foner, ed., Thomas Paine: Collected Writings (Library of America, 1995), 825.

George Washington, however, “had no deep dislike of organized religion or of the clergy as long as they contributed to civic life.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 585. In fact, during the Revolutionary War, “he had required all troops to attend religious services and had prescribed a public whipping for anyone disturbing those services.” Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (New York, 2006), 35; Forrest Church, So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle over Church and State (New York, 2007), 36.

Underlying these early views was a key concept: the early American public would not tolerate its individuals, in government or not, undermining the sanctity of religion. Thomas Paine’s alienation, after his massive success of Common Sense highlights this fact.

It should also be noted that there were varying views about religion amongst the Founding Fathers. This diverse group of interests would ensure that the early Republic would not become a purely religious nation and not a purely secular nation.

As is evident in so many areas of American history, and world history for that matter, where diverse interests converge and the byproduct is moderation, success is much more likely. The role of religion in America was passed through this filter of moderation, which has ebbed and flowed for the past two centuries but has remained somewhere near the middle of the two options. That moderation has prevented religion from becoming a significant, schismatizing issue.

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