A brief survey of readily-Googled resources has produced the following summary of the religious beliefs of American Founding Fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Thomas Paine, with Abe Lincoln thrown in for good luck.
NOT ONE OF THEM WAS A CHRISTIAN. Some of them were Deists, believing in the existence of a God or Supreme Being but denying "revealed" religions (such as Christianity), instead basing their belief on the light of nature and reason. Some were Unitarians. Unitarianism is the belief that God exists in one person, not three: it denies the deity of Christ, the personhood of the Holy Spirit, eternal punishment, and the vicarious atonement of Jesus. Unitarianism is obviously not Christian.
So while they all believed in "God" and "His Providence", and thoroughly appreciated the moral teachings of Jesus, not one of these men was a Christian, and some of them had some pretty scathing things to say about the Christian religion, as you will see. (Jefferson and Franklin, as you might expect, are particularly juicy.)
If there was ever something to "send to everyone you know" this would be it. Please copy the text and e-mail it or print it or send people the link to this page. Read on!
GEORGE WASHINGTON: a Deist, not a Christian. Said "no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny." (more about George below)
GEORGE WASHINGTON by Prof Peter Henriques, George Mason University
Rev. Dr. Bird Wilson, sermon in 1831: GW "was esteemed by the whole world as a great and good man; but he was not a professing Christian."
Bishop William White "I do not believe that any degree of recollection will bring to my mind any fact which would prove Gen. W. to have been a believer in the Christian revelation."
According to Arthur Bradford, Rev. Ashbel Green declared, "while GW was very deferential to religion and its ceremonies . He was not a Christian but a Deist."
It seems clear that never took Holy Communion, despite considerable pressure to do so. He rarely quotes the Bible and then to make a secular point. Most likely he did not pray on his knees. [And almost certainly not in the snow at Valley Forge!] His records confirm that he occasionally worked, entertained, went fox hunting, and drank on the Sabbath. [There was a distillery on MV.] Am not sure if he danced and gambled on the Sabbath but he certainly did on other days.
There is an interesting story which Thomas Jefferson tells, as he wrote it in his Diary, for February 1, 1800, just six weeks after Washington's death:
"Feb. 1. Dr. Rush tells me that he had it from Asa Green that when the clergy addressed General Washington on his departure from the Government, it was observed in their consultation that he had never on any occasion said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion and they thought they should so pen their address as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not. They did so. However, he observed, the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article in their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice . "I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets and believed himself to be so, has often told me that General Washington believed no more in the system (Christianity) than he did." (The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 1, p. 284.)
GW does not see the truth revealed so there is no dispute as to what it is - thus the key is to act in concert with your conscience, which has more power for GW than revealed religion. From rules of civility which GW copied as a youngster and which influenced his life, the final rule was: keep the heavenly spark of conscience alive in you. This he does. GW is confident he knows what is "just" and "right" and he does not rely on some kind of revealed religion or holy book to tell him so.
As Dorothy Twohig notes, Washington's "interest in religion always appears to have been perfunctory". I believe the image of GW as a man of honor rather than a man of religion helps explain why that is the case.
"If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed in the convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any religious society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it; and, if I could now conceive that the general government might ever be administered as to render liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution." (To the General Committee Representing the United Baptist Churches of Virginia.)
"For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens."
THOMAS JEFFERSON by John E. Remsburg
Jefferson said: "The whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills."
Jefferson said: "Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him [Jesus] by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being. I separate, therefore, the gold from the dross, restore to him the former, and leave the latter to the stupidity of some and the roguery of others of his disciples."
Jefferson found the Unitarian understanding of Jesus compatible with his own. In 1822 he predicted that "there is not a young man now living in the US who will not die an Unitarian." Jefferson's christology is apparent in one of his most famous writings, the "Jefferson Bible."
Of immense appeal is the image of President Jefferson, up late at night in his study at the White House, using a razor to cut out large segments of the four Gospels and pasting the parts he decided to keep onto the pages of a blank book, purchased to receive them. This original project of 1804, which he titled "The Philosophy of Jesus," he refined and greatly expanded in his later years. The final product, completed in 1820, he called the "Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth," which was the version Congress published [and traditionally given as a welcoming gift to every new congressman]. Jefferson's "Life and Morals" argues no theology. It is simply his edited version of the Gospels. He literally cut out the virgin birth, miracle stories, claims to Jesus' divinity, and the resurrection. Some scholars believe he first assembled his collage of Jesus' teachings for his own devotional use. A late reference to the "Indians" who could benefit from reading it, was likely directed at those public figures, often Christian ministers, who had viciously attacked his religious beliefs without in the least understanding them or -- as Jefferson believed -- Jesus.
In the gospel history of Jesus, Jefferson discovers what he terms "a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticism, and fabrications."
In the same communication he characterizes the Four Evangelists as "groveling authors" with "feeble minds." To the early disciples of Jesus he pays the following compliment:
"Of this band of dupes and impostors, Paul was the great
Corypheus, and first corrupter of the doctrines of
In the following significant passage we have Jefferson's opinion of the Christian religion as a whole: "I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition [Christianity] one redeeming feature. They are all alike, founded upon fables and mythologies"
It is probably safe to say that Jefferson first acquired from Joseph Priestley features of his worldview and faith which he found confirmed to his satisfaction by further thought and study for the rest of his life. These included a withering a scorn for Platonic and all forms of Neoplatonic metaphysics; a fierce loathing of all "priestcraft" whose practitioners he held guilty of deliberately perpetrating rank superstition for centuries, thus maintaining their own power; a serene conviction that Jesus' moral teaching was entirely compatible with natural law as it may be inferred from the sciences; and a unitarian view of Jesus. These features are all well attested in his voluminous private correspondence.
He considered Jesus the teacher of a sublime and flawless ethic. Writing in 1803 to the Universalist physician Benjamin Rush, Jefferson wrote, "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 in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other."
"Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one-half the world fools and the other half hypocrites."
"I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent."
"History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes."
"And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors."
"It is between fifty and sixty years since I read it [the Apocalypse], and I then considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams."
In his letter to Ezra Stiles, he extols the system of morals taught by "Jesus of Nazareth," but says, "I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the Dissenters in England, doubts as to his divinity."
Dr. Franklin and Dr. Priestley were intimate friends. Of Franklin, Priestley writes:
"It is much to be lamented that a man of Franklin's general good character and great influence should have been an unbeliever in Christianity, and also have done as much as he did to make others unbelievers" (Priestley's Autobiography, p. 60).
Dr. Franklin: "Some volumes against Deism fell into my hands. They were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle's Lecture. It happened that they produced on me an effect precisely the reverse of what was intended by the writers; for the arguments of the Deists, which were cited in order to be refuted, appealed to me much more forcibly than the refutation itself. In a word, I soon became a thorough Deist"
His expressed opinions are ample to show that at no time during his career was he a Christian -- that he lived and died a Deist. In a letter to the Rev. George Whitefield, written in 1753, when he was forty-seven years old, we have his opinion of Christianity:
"The faith you mention has doubtless its use in the world. I do not desire to see it diminished, nor would I desire to lessen it in any way; but I wish it were more productive of good works than I have generally seen it. I mean real good works, works of kindness, charity, mercy, and public spirit, not holy-day keeping, sermon-hearing, and reading, performing church ceremonies, or making long prayers, filled with flatteries and compliments, despised even by wise men, and much less capable of pleasing the Deity" (Works, Vol. vii, p. 75).
At the age of eighty-four, just previous to his death, in reply to inquiries concerning his religious belief from Ezra Stiles, the President of Yale College, he wrote as follows:
Here is my creed: I believe in one God, the Creator of the universe. That he governs it by his providence. That he ought to be worshiped. That the most acceptable service we render him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this."
This is pure Deism.
As President of the U.S., he signed the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797, which says, "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion... it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of ... any Mehomitan nation."
Adams was raised a Congregationalist, but ultimately rejected many fundamental doctrines of conventional Christianity, such as the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, becoming a Unitarian. In his youth, Adams' father urged him to become a minister, but Adams refused, considering the practice of law to be a more noble calling. Although he once referred to himself as a "church going animal," Adams' view of religion overall was rather ambivalent: He recognized the abuses, large and small, that religious belief lends itself to, but he also believed that religion could be a force for good in individual lives and in society at large. His extensive reading (especially in the classics), led him to believe that this view applied not only to Christianity, but to all religions.
Allen Guelzo, professor of American history at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pa., in a new book: "Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President" (Eerdmans):
Religion became a hot issue in 1846 when Lincoln won a seat in the U.S. House over Democrat Peter Cartwright. The Cartwright camp spread talk of Lincoln as infidel and he responded in a handbill distributed days before the election. Guelzo thinks this was probably Lincoln's most revealing theological statement. "That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true," Lincoln wrote. But he denied disrespect toward religion in general or any Christian group.
Springfield pastor James Smith said Lincoln believed some form of providence was at work in the universe, but was unable to believe in a personal God or in Jesus as his savior. That amounted to Unitarianism, but Lincoln had no interest in that liberal denomination.
Lincoln never joined a church nor ever made a clear profession of standard Christian beliefs. While he read the Bible in the White House, he was not in the habit of saying grace before meals. Lincoln's friend Jesse Fell noted that the president "seldom communicated to anyone his views" on religion, and he went on to suggest that those views were not orthodox: "on the innate depravity of man, the character and office of the great head of the Church, the Atonement, the infallibility of the written revelation, the performance of miracles, the nature and design of . . . future rewards and punishments . . . and many other subjects, he held opinions utterly at variance with what are usually taught in the church."
The Ambiguous Religion of President Abraham Lincoln by Mark A. Noll
As Carl Sandburg recounts in Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, Lincoln attended one of Cartwright's revival meetings. At the conclusion of the service, the fiery pulpiteer called for all who intended to go to heaven to please rise. Naturally, the response was heartening. Then he called for all those who wished to go to hell to stand. Not many takers. Lincoln had responded to neither option. Cartwright closed in. "Mr. Lincoln, you have not expressed an interest in going to either heaven or hell. May I enquire as to where you do plan to go?" Lincoln replied: "I did not come here with the idea of being singled out, but since you ask, I will reply with equal candor. I intend to go to Congress."
Some people claim that with the carnage of the Civil War, the difficulties with Mary Todd, and the death of his son, Lincoln underwent a conversion to Christianity in his later years:
John Remsburg (1848-1919), President of the American Secular Union in 1897, argued against claims of Lincoln's conversion in his book Six Historic Americans (1906). He cites several of Lincoln's close associates: