|Jefferson's home at Monticello|
Well, what were the religions of our Founding Fathers? Were they Christians and what were their intentions regarding the religious identity of our nation? Did they intend to establish a Christian Nation?
Almost all of the Founders of the American Republic were Christians, of a sort. I say “of a sort” because the understanding of what it meant to be a Christian differed in the mid- and late-seventeenth century than what we hold to and we would not recognize all of them as Christians today. Indeed in today’s world several, and several of the more important founders of our nation, would probably not identify themselves as Christians if they had access to our understanding of the term.
Almost all delegates to the Continental Congress who approved and signed the Declaration of Independence were affiliated with one religious group or another. More than half of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence were Church of England, now Episcopalian. Others were Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Unitarian, and Quaker. One, Chalres Carroll of Carrollton, was a Catholic. Several signers identify themselves with double affiliations. John Adams, for example, was a Unitarian but also Congregationalist. Unitarianism was at the time a faction within Congregationalism. Thomas Jefferson is usually identified as Episcopalian and Benjamin Franklin as a Quaker when in fact both were Deists and not Christian at all. This is particularly important to note given that Jefferson and Franklin played an especially key role—along with John Adams—in the development of the Declaration of Independence. They would go on to be among the principal shapers of our American Republic. Franklin was the dean of the Founding Fathers, the oldest and most distinguished to whom the others deferred and he took an active role in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that gave us our Constitution.
Jefferson was baptized an Episcopalian and when he died his grandson read the Episcopal burial service at his grave but in between Jefferson was what today would call an agnostic. He acknowledged the existence of a Supreme Being and indeed wrote eloquently of the Supreme Being. I particularly like his quote inscribed on the architrave of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Great Quote. Of course, one of the forms of tyranny over the minds of man for Jefferson was organized religion, particularly hierarchical denominations such as the Anglican and the Catholic. When Jefferson writes of “God” it is important to keep in mind that he did not believe in the God of the Judeo-Christian revelation but rather the Rationalist Deity of the Enlightenment, an impersonal “clockmaker-god” who set up the universe with its laws of nature and then let it wind its mechanical way unguided by a divine hand. Jefferson regarded Jesus as a great moral teacher but did not think him more divine than any other human person. Jefferson created his Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth by cutting (literally cutting with a razor from his King James) and pasting selections from the canonical gospels in a chronological order and eliminating anything of the supernatural—the virgin birth, miracles, angels, the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, and his resurrection. Jefferson’s exegetical skill had convinced him that these were accretions added by the evangelists to the original message of Jesus. With a bible like that, Jefferson couldn’t be elected nothin’ in Virginia today—though he would be a strong Democratic candidate in Massachusetts. Jefferson’s agnosticism did not make him opposed to Christianity, however, and he made contributions in his old age to various churches—Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist—as he felt that religion was a good vehicle to train the common folk (he also was a elitist) in good morals. During his time as ambassador to France he had extensive contact with Catholicism at the court of Louis XVI. He felt that Catholicism was identified with the ancien regime and humanity would be better with Catholicism passing into the historical oblivion that Enlightenment figures were confident was its destiny. (My favorite Enlightenment quote—which which Jefferson was familiar—is Diderot’s: Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the guts of the last priest. I don’t share the sentiment, I just love how outrageous the quote is.) With his every day relationships with Catholics Jefferson was a gentleman and wrote a cordial letter to Bishop John Carroll in 1801 supporting Carroll’s effort to purchase land in the district of Columbia for the building of a Catholic church. Jefferson, for his part, could not have but noticed that the Catholics in the colonies were ardent supporters of Independence from Britain and though few in number were enthusiastic supporters of the Republic. Once America split into parties in the mid 1790’s Catholics tended to side with the Federalists rather than we Jefferson’s Republicans—the ancestors of today’s Democrats, but unlike the more virulent Federalists, the Catholics were strongly committed to republican rather than monarchical government. Catholic thought favored a stronger central government at the expense of the States while Jefferson and his Republicans (now Democrats) were for a weak Federal government and stronger powers to the States. See how things change, Kundun? Most important to understand Jefferson’s ideas regarding the place of religion in public life is to remember that Jefferson had authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty. I will post it in a future posting, but suffice it to say here that it makes religious belief or disbelief irrelevant to public and political life. Given Jefferson’s own disbelief in traditional Christianity it is clear to the reader that Jefferson was not only concerned about strife between Anglicans and Baptists—the immediate area of strife in newly independent Virginia, but also to protect his own position as a post-Christian rationalist who was also governor of Virginia. I will post that in my next posting and then we will go on to Adams, Franklin, and other Founders of our Christian Nation. Or not.