Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Founders and the Bible, by Carl J. Richard

[Editor's Note: Below is a guest post by Dr. Carl J. Richard on the thesis of his new book.]

In sharp contrast to numerous books that focus obsessively on a few founders, implying falsely that their beliefs were typical of their class and generation, my forthcoming book, The Founders and the Bible (Rowman & Littlefield, April 2016), examines the religious beliefs of approximately thirty founders of the United States. What I demonstrate is that while four founders (Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams) possessed biblically unorthodox beliefs concerning the divine origins and authority of Scripture, the divinity of Jesus, and the means of salvation, three (George Washington, James Madison, and James Monroe) wrote so little about these matters that no honest historian can make confident assertions about them, and the other twenty-three were all biblically orthodox. In other words, the ratio of orthodox to unorthodox founders among the thirty leaders examined was nearly six to one.

Furthermore, one of the most important findings of the book is that none of the founders was a deist, at least not if one defines deism in the conventional manner, to refer to the belief in a God who created the universe but does not intervene in it. Even the least orthodox founders believed in an omniscient, omnipotent God much like the deity of the Bible, who not only invested each individual with inalienable rights but also intervened in the affairs of individuals, societies, and nations to enforce those rights, as well as to advance other goods necessary to human happiness. The only difference between the orthodox and unorthodox founders concerning divine intervention was that the latter rejected the idea that God intervened through miracles, asserting instead that He intervened solely through natural causes.

The image of even the least orthodox founders as modern secularists is a false conception that wrenches them from the historical and cultural context in which they lived. The founders were steeped in a culture that revered the Bible as the Word of God. Many were raised by devout parents who named them after biblical figures, and many were closely related to ministers. At least two founders, James Madison and John Adams (who married a preacher’s daughter), seriously considered a career in the ministry before deciding on law, and a third, John Witherspoon, was one of the most prominent clergymen in America. 

Like most children of their day, the founders probably learned to read by means of the Bible, the latter testament of which they then studied in its original Greek language at their grammar schools and colleges. Most attended church services regularly, where they listened to sermons that lasted for hours, addresses that mingled numerous scriptures with classical learning. Many married devout wives. They lived in a society filled with biblical place names and expressions, a society rocked by the Great Awakening, which constituted one of the primary causes of the American Revolution, uniting Americans of different denominations and regions around the same biblical themes, the danger of corruption and the existence of a divine mission, that had motivated the Puritans over a century earlier.

Although a few of the founders rejected important biblical doctrines, they were almost unanimous in asserting the Bible’s central role in promoting the social morality they deemed essential to the survival and success of the new republic. Thus, most not only urged their own children to read Scripture and to attend church services in which it was recited but also worked to disseminate biblical knowledge more broadly. Elias Boudinot, who served as president of the Continental Congress, later established the American Bible Society, which distributed Bibles to the poor. While John Jay, the nation’s first Supreme Court chief justice, served as the organization’s president, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a signer of the Constitution and a two-time presidential nominee of the Federalist Party, served as one of its vice-presidents, in which capacity he boldly defied slaveholders’ attacks on the organization for dispensing Bibles to African Americans, a policy for which the slaveholders blamed the Denmark Vesey slave revolt. 

Both Benjamin Rush and Samuel Adams urged the continued reading of the Bible in public schools. Rush started a Sunday school movement and founded the Philadelphia Bible Society. George Washington consistently supported the preaching of the gospel to Native Americans, not merely for reasons of national interest, but also for what he sincerely regarded as their own good. Even Thomas Jefferson endorsed adult Bible reading for moral reasons and contributed a large sum to the American Bible Society.

Even the least orthodox founders (with the sole exception of Thomas Paine in his later years) considered the Bible a source of wisdom and valued the lessons they derived from it. They employed biblical references and analogies in private letters as frequently as in public documents because Scripture formed an important part of their stock of knowledge, their way of making sense of the world. Its influence in their society was too pervasive to permit them to ignore or dismiss it, even had they wished to do so. Instead, they grappled with the Bible unceasingly, and while the end result of that lifelong engagement by the unorthodox founders included the discarding of some important doctrines, it also produced a deepening of Scripture’s rhetorical, moral, and spiritual imprint on their minds.

That imprint not only influenced the founders’ self-perceptions but proved crucial to the outcome of national debates. In the colonial period Benjamin Franklin viewed himself as an American Solomon, dispensing practical advice in the form of proverbs as Poor Richard. In 1776, as the leading orator for independence in Congress, John Adams considered himself a latter-day Moses, leading his people from Egyptian-style bondage at the hands of Britain to freedom and independence, although most Americans bestowed that appellation on George Washington. In the same year Thomas Paine succeeded in persuading Americans to declare their independence largely by convincing them that God condemned monarchy in 1 Samuel 8.

As a result of the founders’ unanimous belief in an interventionist God, all except Thomas Paine believed in the efficacy of prayer and therefore frequently called for public and private prayer both in times of crisis and in periods of peace and prosperity. The most famous such appeal was Benjamin Franklin’s emotional speech urging daily prayer at the Constitutional Convention, a plea he based on his personal experience that “God governs in the affairs of men.” In the original manuscript for the speech Franklin underscored the whole sentence once, “God” twice.

The founders considered the United States a new Israel, a nation chosen by God to accomplish a sacred purpose. They believed that the United States was destined by the Almighty to advance the cause of freedom by erecting a model republic that would provide a haven for the world’s oppressed. This belief in a divine mission gave them a sense of identity and purpose and the courage to face the enormous trials of their day. They believed that God led them to victory, against staggering odds, over Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. 

Many of them considered the U.S. Constitution another divine gift, the usually reticent James Madison even going so far as to call it “a miracle” in a private letter to Jefferson. Yet many of the founders also worried that the same intervening God might punish the nation for its greatest violation of the covenant of liberty, its institution of slavery.

The founders considered Christian morality superior to all other ethical systems, past and present, due to its promotion of humility, benevolence, and forgiveness, and considered religion and morality, defined largely in Judeo-Christian terms, vital to the survival and success of any republic. Despite his rejection of portions of the Bible, Thomas Jefferson was particularly emphatic regarding the superiority of Christian ethics, which was why he invested so much time in distilling its essence in his own abbreviated Bible. 

Even Thomas Paine, the sole founder who denied the superiority of Christian morality, defined virtue precisely as Jesus had, as the fulfillment of duty to God and to one’s neighbor, while almost comically refusing to acknowledge the obvious source of this principle. Except for Jefferson and Paine, the founders were adamant that the widespread belief in an omniscient God who rewarded virtue and punished vice was essential to republican government, and even Jefferson conceded that while such a belief might not be essential, it provided a powerful inducement to virtue. Despite their own private doubts regarding certain biblical doctrines, both Benjamin Franklin and John Adams reacted with great fury when anyone assaulted the Bible publicly because they viewed popular belief in it as one of the chief pillars of the republic and dreaded its collapse.

The founders also shared crucial beliefs in the biblical concepts of human equality before God, free will, and the existence of an afterlife that included rewards and punishments. The founders’ belief in spiritual equality derived from the biblical concept of a single creation, a concept that contrasted sharply with contemporary, racist, European theories of separate creations of different human species on various continents. It led the founders to abolish slavery throughout the North and to end the foreign slave trade, though they were unable to end the institution in the South, where it was more deeply entrenched socially and economically. John Witherspoon and William Livingston were instrumental in abolishing slavery in New Jersey, as were Benjamin Rush, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin in Pennsylvania, and John Jay and Alexander Hamilton in New York. Despite being a slaveholder himself, Jefferson succeeded in persuading Congress to prohibit slavery in the Northwest Territory (the land north of the Ohio River) as a first step towards his goal of ending it nationally. George Washington freed and provided for his own slaves in his will. Many of the founders used scriptural arguments to condemn slavery and denounced all efforts to employ biblical passages in its favor. 

Despite living in a Calvinist nation, they also cited biblical references against predestination and in support of free will, a belief that imbued them with a strong sense of responsibility for the outcome of events. All of the founders, even the least orthodox, expressed a belief in an afterlife characterized by divine rewards and punishments that was clearly based on biblical teaching. This belief provided the founders with priceless consolation for the deaths of their loved ones and motivated them to hazard all for their fellow citizens. Alexander Hamilton’s confidence in the existence of such an afterlife led him to sacrifice his life rather than return Aaron Burr’s gunfire in their famous duel.

The founders’ conception of what they termed divine “Providence” extended to their own personal lives. It comforted them amid misfortunes and motivated them to sacrifice everything for the cause of liberty in a revolution against the greatest power on earth and in the establishment of a sound and durable republic. As the Declaration of Independence noted, “a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence” was the chief source of their willingness to sacrifice their lives and fortunes. Even after Paine wrote a tome attacking the Bible, he continued to assert a strong belief in its most important concept: the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God who intervened on behalf of individuals and nations. 

Indeed, Paine credited his own survival of the French Revolution to divine protection, a claim that flatly contradicted a central tenet of deism. The founders overcame the greatest misfortunes, such as the death of a fiancĂ©e (Charles Carroll) or a small child (John Marshall and John Jay), by interpreting them as God’s way of teaching wisdom, fortitude, compassion, humility, and the futility of a life focused on fleeting earthly pleasures rather than on eternity.

The orthodox majority, joined by the unorthodox John Adams and the generally reticent Washington and Madison, strongly espoused a view of human nature that was fundamentally biblical. This pessimistic conception of human nature encouraged them to oppose British claims to unchecked power during the Revolutionary era and led them to establish elaborate systems of checks and balances in both state and federal constitutions thereafter.

Even the founders’ shared advocacy of religious freedom, variously defined but always including the right to worship freely in the manner of an individual’s own choosing, was based on the Bible’s emphasis on the importance of the individual’s relationship with an omniscient God who cared deeply about His creatures’ inner beliefs. No government had the authority to interpose itself between the individual and his creator, the founders frequently declared. Furthermore, they often noted that both Jesus Himself and His disciples in the early Church never compelled anyone to express any belief but relied solely on the power of the Holy Spirit to attract people to the faith according to their own free will.

In The Founders and the Bible I discuss the educational system, familial influences, church experience, and social conditions that immersed the founders in the Bible, their lifelong engagement with Scripture, their biblically-infused political rhetoric, their powerful belief in a divine Providence that protected them and guided the nation, their belief in the superiority of Christian ethics and in the necessity of religion to republican government, their belief in spiritual equality, free will, and an afterlife, their religious differences, the influence of their biblical conception of human nature on their formulation of state and federal constitutions, and their use of biblical precedent to advance religious freedom. I conclude by summarizing the manner in which the subsequent generation of Americans carried these themes to new heights, in the process transforming American society.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Exc piece, and pretty much David Barton's thesis, minus his errors and exaggerations. Unfortunately, the secular left is interested only in destroying political enemies like Barton, not in the actual historical truth as posited here by Dr. Richard.

I would quibble that Madison meant the framing and finishing of the Constitution was the miracle, not the actual content of the document itself

Adding to these considerations the natural diversity of human opinions on all new and complicated subjects, it is impossible to consider the degree of concord which ultimately prevailed as less than a miracle

but hardly a blemish on this compelling and comprehensive primer on religion and the Founding. Props, sir. I shall refer people to it often.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I'm certainly interested in better more detail about the personal religious creeds of the "non-key" Founders.

"Despite living in a Calvinist nation, they also cited biblical references against predestination and in support of free will, ..."

I think this understates the sectarian diversity of the American landscape at the time. It went well beyond Calvinists and Arminians living together. As John Adams put it:

"There were among them, Roman Catholicks English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anababtists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists; and 'Protestans qui ne croyent rien.' Very few however of Several of these Species. Never the less all Educated in the general Principles of Christianity: and the general Principles of English and American Liberty."

It was hard to be a good Quaker and a good Whig. But two of the most important Founders who don't get enough press -- John Dickinson and William Livingston -- arguably qualify as a quasi-Quakers or Quaker hybrids.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The case for a "Calvinist" nation is at least arguable.

Calvinism has influenced more minds and entered more nations than has any other reform doctrine. In America, it provides the foundational theology for the Congregational, Reformed, and Presbyterian Churches. It also has had a strong influence on many Anglican, Baptist, and independent churches.

Indeed, although many Baptists today lean to Arminianism, back in the day, as Thomas Kidd writes here

Calvinists once dominated Baptist church life in America.

jimmiraybob said...


I own and have cited in the comments here at AC two of Richard’s previous works; Why We're All Romans, The Roman Contribution to the Western World. (2010) and Romans and Greeks Bearing Gifts, How the Ancients Inspired the Founding Fathers (2008). And I would highly recommend them. These are well written and researched and I have no reason to think that his The Founders and the Bible won’t also find its way to the bookshelf.

But, that being said, there are a couple of things in this post and the book introduction that should be flagged (much a Gregg Fraser flagged issues with Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God; the Heretical Origins of the American Republic (2015).

When Richard begins the second paragraph of the book’s introduction with “The claim that ‘all of the founders were Christians’ holds true only if one adopts an uncommonly broad definition of Christianity” (pg. 1 of Amazon preview), I think that were off to a good start and I anticipated another shoe to drop regarding the deists.

But then Richard goes on to state that “Contrary to public belief, none of the founders was a deist – at least not as the term is generally used. Deism was an eighteenth-century philosophy that contended that God had created the universe and the physical laws that governed it but declined to intervene in its affairs…” (pg. 5 of Amazon preview)

It’s strange that he challenges an overly expansive definition of ‘Christian’ but then uses the narrowest definition of deism upon which to base the recurring claim that “none of the founders was a deist.” I have not read the book so maybe this is later clarified. But, if one goes beyond “generally used” terms and look at scholarly research into deism the claim simply does not hold up. Certainly recent work by Hutson (1) and works going back to at least Colie (2) present a far more complex evaluation of the natural religion/deist tradition and provides not just a more expansive definition but places deism into context within historical and contemporaneous social, political and religious currents, including orthodox and heterodox Christianity (think Remonstrants and Collegiants and Arminians). And it’s within this literary tradition, beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries (it was not just an 18th century phenomenon), that better place certain of the founders on the natural religion and deist scale.

1) Hutson, W., 2009, The English Deists: Studies in Early Enlightenment. Pickering. P. 204.

2) Rosalie L. Colie*, 1959. Spinoza and the Early English Deists. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 20, No. 1. (January), pp. 23-46.

Tom Van Dyke said...

It’s strange that he challenges an overly expansive definition of ‘Christian’ but then uses the narrowest definition of deism upon which to base the recurring claim that “none of the founders was a deist.” I have not read the book so maybe this is later clarified.

In the next sentence of the essay, Dr. Richard obviates that argument:

Even the least orthodox founders believed in an omniscient, omnipotent God much like the deity of the Bible

This lends support to Waligore's locution of "Christian deist": It's still Jehovah, without all the bells and whistles. Richard goes on to touch all the Jehovan [?] bases. Paine, in Common Sense, "succeeded in persuading Americans to declare their independence largely by convincing them that God condemned monarchy in 1 Samuel 8," America as a new Israel.

The God of the American "deists" was not a different one than the Biblical one, not "the God of the Philosophers."

Alleged deist Ben Franklin: I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth -- that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice*, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that "except the Lord build they labor in vain that build it**."

*Mt 10:29
**Ps 127:1

jimmiraybob said...

"Dr. Richard obviates that argument"

No, Dr. Richard does not obviate that argument.

To leap from "much like the deity of the Bible' to Jehovah is not a valid argument.

All I can say is that the serious person that wants to make a serious argument about deism and the deist have to actually make an honest attempt to understand what they're talking about - they have to do the reading and not just the reading that confirms your bias.

While some of the deists might have been Jehovahists to some degree, overall, the deist deity bears little resemblance to the Jehovah of the OT. Omniscience and omnipotence are characteristics that 1) are not necessarily distinct to the Christian faith tradition and 2) these attributes can and were derived solely by reason.

Four guiding beliefs that might be universally defining with regards to "the deists" was 1) an abiding faith in reason in the search for deity, 2) an aversion to priestly and ecclesiastical authority, 3) a refutation of divine revelation, and )4 a rejection of an anthropomorphic deity. While they were certainly influence by the larger society and more orthodox forms of Christianity, many were "Christian" largely in the sense of cultural identity - rejecting much or all of what would be considered minimal articles of Christian faith. Some would incorporate ideas consistent with various articles of more orthodox Christian tradition (e.g., rewards and punishment after death, providence). But just because someone is surrounded by a larger, dominant religious culture does not make one automatically an adherent of that religion. Otherwise Christians, Jews and other minority religions would not exist in dominantly Islamic states and cultures - which, without any doubt, they have and do. In fact, minority faiths, including Christianity and Judaism, often did quite well and were unmolested in dominantly Muslim territories (or even in the pagan dominated culture of the Roman empire). Of course, there were also periods of severe persecution.

But all of "the deists", were also very heavily influenced by pagan sources as well while being immersed in a Christian culture - sources also often appropriated by the likes of Augustine and your guy Aquinas, as Richard's earliest two books amply demonstrated. And, to once again cite some Hutson:

Continued Below

jimmiraybob said...

From (1):

The classical legacy was plural and included, inter alia:

1. a Peripatetic-Aristotelian position for which the deity was a necessary First Cause or pure act, with no knowledge of individual things or human affairs;

2. an Epicurean position which acknowledged a distant abstract deity who did not intervene in the world or concern himself with the affairs of individuals;

3. two Stoic positions: 1. A religious-moralist Stoic position which acknowledged a perfect benevolent deity and identified ‘true religion’ with virtue, a life lived in accordance with right reason, and the imitation of the deity’s attributes; and 2. A naturalistic Stoic position which held that the world was governed by fate or fortune, and that human beings were mortal and should live within the limits of nature;

4. a Pythagorean position which held that the deity was ‘all in all’ and that human beings reincarnated; and

5. a Stoic-Platonist position which acknowledged both a transcendent and an immanent world soul.

Strangely, this pluralism has not been much related to deism in the existing literature, even though it undermines the myth of a monistic deism, and implies that philosophers who were deists might have different views, depending on whether the approximated to the Peripatetic, the religious Stoic, the non-religious Stoic, the Epicurean, the Pythagorean, or the Platonizing Stoic positions. Some might only acknowledge a Deus, while others might be committed to a necessitarian form of theism for which God had to be perfect and must manifest this perfection in his dealings with the universe. Further, philosophers with different philosophical and theological views might agree that the non-anthropomorphic Deus of the universe was not to be confused with the popular theology of the masses, without agreeing on the nature of the Deus, just as they could argue that true religion could be arrived at by the use of reason.

1) Hutson, W., 2009, The English Deists: Studies in Early Enlightenment. Pickering. p.p. 33-34.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, but that's not the God of the Founders. Even Ethan Allen hid behind "Jehovah" in his memoirs; Thomas Paine in "Common Sense" cites the God of the Old Testament against having kings. Your (Matthew Stewart's) musings are untethered from actual American history, the key to relevance here at this blog. We are familiar with the 'God of the philosophers' you refer to here, but that is deism, not 'Christian deism.'

jimmiraybob said...

You confuse using Jehovah as a literary device with passionately professing devotion. Easy mistake to make.

"Your (Matthew Stewart's) musings..."

We've moved on. We are now in more serious scholarly academic work via Hutson.

Much of the Christian deist God is a mashup of the 'God of the philosophers' and unique Christ teachings. That is why it's so hard to tease them apart. Heck, it's hard to differentiate the Christianized Jehovah (Judeo OT derivation) from the 'God of the philosophers' after the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin and countless others synthesizing Stoic, Platonic and Aristotelian concepts with the OT and the Gospels.

And, what I'm saying is not even controversial in the realm of Biblical scholarship. Or, ask Tertulian what he thought about bringing so much pagan claptrap into the fold.

I know that you despise me as a leftist fool but anyone willing to read, and study history outside of modern conservative and Christian apologetics will get the same story. But I guess that's the Catch 22, anyone reading outside of conservative and Christian apologetics is a leftist fool.

Tom Van Dyke said...

You confuse using Jehovah as a literary device with passionately professing devotion.

There is only one God. The Enlightenment Christian-deists invented nobody or anything new. As to their devotion, I suppose that's an individual matter. I don't perceive that Jefferson loved God [altho he's said to have been partial to the psalms], but I do think that Franklin did.

Devotion is precisely what is at question here, as opposed to passionless and thus empty rationalism.

"...I soon became a thorough Deist. My arguments perverted some others, particularly Collins and Ralph; but each of these having wronged me greatly without the least compunction, and recollecting Keith’s conduct towards me (who was another freethinker), and my own towards Vernon and Miss Read, which at times gave me great trouble, I began to suspect that this doctrine, though it might be true, was not very useful."

--Franklin, Autobiography

Indeed, reducing the God of the Founders to the god of the philosophers is quite the "foolish" thing to do here.

Much of the Christian deist God is a mashup of the 'God of the philosophers' and unique Christ teachings.

You're correct but "mashup" is pejorative and inaccurate. Stoic thought in particular was congenial to and co-opted by the early Christians ["our" Seneca, Paul on Mars Hill]; Aquinas "baptized" Aristotle. Aristotelian/Thomistic classical theism is subsumed by Christianity: Paul claims the Athenians' "unknown God" as Jehovah [Acts 17].

22Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

24“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’b As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

Just as Paul claims the god of the philosophers for the God of the Bible, the whole point of Aquinas, scholasticism and even its Protestant descendants such as Founder and major Framer James Wilson* is that truth cannot contradict truth. They form a coherent whole, not just a "mashup."
*"The law of nature and the law of revelation are both Divine: they flow, though in different channels, from the same adorable source. It is indeed preposterous to separate them from each other."
James Wilson, Of the Law of Nature, 1804

jimmiraybob said...

"There is only one God."

That is a theological position and doesn't respond to my comment about using Jehovah or Biblical themes or quotes as a literary device. There were plenty of people during the 17th and 18th centuries that professed belief in a God - a deity - defined by various attributes but that did not profess a connection with OT or NT theology. I'm not making this up to defend a personal position, it's just the way things were/are.

As I ask in the comments section of Jon's most recent post, what is the minimum criteria that defines the crossover between a deist and a Christian deist? And I'll put the same disclaimer here: I am not asking to be combative. And, although I didn't specify, there are at least two contexts: 1) how would this question have been answered contemporaneous with the 17th-18th century deists and 2) how would this question be answered today?

Jonathan Rowe said...

There are, it seems to me, two different ways of looking at things:

1. There is one God, therefore, all monotheists believe in/worship the same one, but might get some of the details wrong;

2. There is one God and if you don't get the details right, you don't believe in/worship Him, but a false one.

It's clear where the American Founding was:

"It has pleased the Providence of the first Cause, the Universal Cause, that Abraham should give religion not only to Hebrews but to Christians and Mahomitans, the greatest part of the modern civilized world."

-- John Adams to M.M. Noah, July 31, 1818.

Anonymous said...

An interesting article. I look forward to reading the book.