The 4th of July is upon us and with it comes cookouts, fireworks, and American flags. As we celebrate the birthday of our nation, many reflect on the faith of the founding fathers of our nation. What did they believe? How did the faith of the founding fathers impact their decision-making process? Were they regular members of churches? Were some of them deists?
Here are seven things you probably didn’t know about the faith of the founding fathers — what they believed or wrote about faith.
1. George Washington referenced “God” more than 146 times in his public and personal writings. Many historians note that these references weren’t exclamations or slang, but most often were in reference to the providential hand of God.
2. James Madison was a strong and early advocate for religious liberty. He opposed a Declaration of Rights written for the new state of Virginia because of language that stated:
“…all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience….”
Madison objected to the word “toleration.” He thought it insinuated that religious belief was gifted by the government and not an inalienable right of all people. He suggested, “all men are entitled to the full and free exercise” of religion. This was added instead.
3. John Adams issued a national day of fasting on March 23, 1798. In his proclamation, Adams urged Americans to:
“…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 offences, 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.”
4. John Hancock’s father and grandfather were both ministers who graduated from Harvard’s ministerial school. Hancock himself was a life-long member of the Brattle Street Congregationalist Church. As president of the Continental Congress and Governor of Massachusetts, Hancock offered up frequent prayers for repentance and believed that God was in control of America’s destiny.
5. Thomas Jefferson once described himself as one who was in a sect by himself. He seemed to pull threads from several different philosophies and religions together to create a Unitarian theology. However, he wrote this sentiment to fellow founding father John Adams regarding the teachings of Jesus:
“…they are the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man…”
6. Alexander Hamilton was a secretary and aide to George Washington for four years. He was also the first Treasurer of the United States. When he was mortally wounded by Vice President Aaron Burr, his last words reportedly were:
I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am a sinner. I look to Him for mercy; pray for me.
7. There are many opinions when it comes to what Benjamin Franklin believed about Jesus, Scripture and the afterlife. One thing most historians seem to agree on is that Franklin did become a strong deist at some point in his life. However, he still seemed to hold on to a piece of his Calvinist upbringing. In a letter to Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, who had asked for his opinion on Jesus, Franklin wrote:
“As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see…”
He then went on to express that he thought some of the teachings of Jesus had been hijacked by political schemes and admitted to doubting the divinity of Jesus.
As you can see, some of our founding fathers held very deep and strong beliefs about Scripture and the person of Jesus Christ. Each wrestled with what religion and the government had to do with the other and how to express that in the newly formed states of America. This is only the tip of the iceberg on this subject. There are several books out there that examine the faith of the founding fathers. Here are few to look up:
The Faiths of the Founding Fathers – David Holmes