In recent years, a fierce battle over the religious views of our Founding Fathers has created a rift between right-wing religious zealots and left-wing secularists. Both sides have engaged in a virtual tug-o-war over the legacy of America’s founding, which is likely to continue for years to come, or as historian Joseph Ellis puts it, “There is a fierce custody battle going on out there for ownership of the Founding Fathers…with no end in site.”
In defense of their beliefs, both factions are able to successfully site various quotations from our Founding Fathers, which they believe accurately support their respective claims. For religious conservatives in general, the only acceptable truth, when it comes to our Founding Fathers, is that they were stalwart men of God, who remained steadfast in their orthodox devotion to Christianity. In contrast, those of the secular persuasion maintain that the Founding Fathers were anything but orthodox, and that many key founders actually adopted a deistic approach in their understanding of religion.
With the political, religious and historical mess that has ensued, both the left and right wing persuasions have lost a key component in understanding the spiritual persuasions of our founders: perspective. As Steven Waldman, author of the book Founding Faith
stated, “in the heat of this custody battle over the spiritual lives of the Founding Fathers, both sides distort history…the culture wars have so warped our sense of history that we typically have a very limited understanding of how we came to have religious liberty.”
Over the past couple of weeks, this blog has engaged in some wonderful discussions on religion and the Founding Fathers. With this in mind, I thought it would be beneficial to continue our inquiry into the religious nature of our key Founding Fathers, which will hopefully provide us with the needed perspective into their respective spiritual beliefs.
With this in mind, I have decided to devote my next few postings to a more detailed analysis of our individual Founding Fathers. I hope that each of you will add your insight, since I am anything but an expert on the topic. I hope that with everyone’s participation we will be able to better understand the religion of our Founders. It is my belief that this project will reveal the fact that the Founding Fathers - in a general sense - embraced the following ideas of religion:
1.) They personally disliked organized religion, but were for cultivating an individualistic understanding and relationship with God.
2.) They were anti-faith, but pro-rational belief
3.) They were anti-orthodox Christianity, but pro-Jesus, at least in terms of his doctrine, which they felt had been altered from its original design.
4.) None of the "major" Founding Fathers were either purely Diests or Orthodox Christians.
So, let us begin. The first victim up for debate...JAMES MADISON
To begin our inquiry into the religious sentiments of James Madison, we need to travel back to his childhood years. From his youth, James Madison was raised in an orthodox Anglican home, where his father, James Madison Sr., was a vestryman in the church. When Madison was able to attend college, he and his family chose to send young James to the College of New Jersey (later Princeton). Instead of attending nearby William and Mary College, Madison chose to travel north and attend the College of New Jersey, because of its reputation for being “the principle training ground for American Presbyterian clergy” (Holmes, Faith of Founding Fathers
While attending college in New Jersey, Madison witnessed two evangelical revivals, which split the student body into two groups. Steven Waldman, author of Founding Faith
, notes that these two groups (known as the Cliosophical Society and the American Whig Society) differed in how they perceived religion. The “Cliosophes” were ]more evangelical in their sentiments, while the American Whigs were more cerebral. Madison took part in the latter (Founding Faith
The fact that Madison favored an intellectual perspective on religion may suggest that the orthodox teachings of his youth were beginning to change. After all, Madison had begun to investigate the teachings of Deism while under the tutelage of Donald Robertson and Alexander Martin. Regardless of what he may have learned from many of his Enlightenment-centered instructors, it appears that Madison still maintained at least a part of his orthodoxy. As he stated in a letter to his friend, William Bradford, Madison found Deism to be “loose in their principles, encouragers of free enquiry even such as destroys the most essential truths, enemies to serious religion”
(JM to WB: December 1, 1773). Regardless of what he may have learned in college, it appears that Madison was still unwilling to part with his orthodox upbringing.
Upon his return home, Madison continued to study the Bible with great regularity and even conducted family worship (what David Holmes calls a sign of orthodoxy). At the age of twenty-two, however, Madison became a first-hand witness to a violent wave of religious persecution, which emanated from the very church that Madison embraced. The recipients of the persecution – who were primarily Baptists – were often arrested on bogus charges of disturbing the peace. Since Virginia had a government-sanctioned church – the Anglican Church – Baptists were often esteemed as a lesser faith. This unfortunate turn of events had a deep impact on Madison. As Steven Waldman points out, “Madison’s sympathy for the Baptists translated into an increasing disgust with the Anglican hierarchy”
Contrary to popular belief, the American victory over the British during the American Revolution did not instantly bring about religious freedom. In fact, most colonies – now officially states – continued to support the idea of a state religion. In Virginia, Patrick Henry hoped to continue this practice by proposing to tax Virginians to support Christian churches and clergy. Though the act did not specifically favor one religion in particular, Madison stood defiant to the proposal. In one of the most celebrated documents on religious freedom, the Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments
, Madison argued that religion and government ought to be completely separate from one another:
“experience witnesseth that eccelsiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation.During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. Enquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest lustre; those of every sect, point to the ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy. Propose a restoration of this primitive State in which its Teachers depended on the voluntary rewards of their flocks, many of them predict its downfall. On which Side ought their testimony to have greatest weight, when for or when against their interest?”
For a man who was raised to be an orthodox supporter of the Anglican faith, these harsh words against “eccelsiastical establishments” signify a clear change in Madison’s spiritual leanings.
In addition, Madison’s notes
, which he used as a reference during his debates with Patrick Henry and to write his Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments
, reveal the fact that Madison was beginning to contemplate his spiritual leanings. In these notes, Madison asks, “What is Xnty” (Christianity), and, “What clue is to guide [a] Judge thro’ this labyrinth when ye question comes before them whether any particular society is a Xn society?” Clearly, Madison was beginning to distance himself from his previous orthodoxy.
In addition to these attacks on religious freedom, James Madison’s religious sentiments were further shaped as a result of his friendship with Thomas Jefferson (a known critic of orthodox Christianity), and his wife, Dolley (a Quaker from birth). As Madison biographer, Ralph Ketcham, stated “Madison’s Christianity came to have an exceedingly individualistic tone…especially as he distanced himself from the Anglican Faith”
Steven Waldman adds to this assertion when he writes, “there are signs that his affection for orthodox Christianity faded, too, as the years went on. Although his wife, Dolley, and his mother, Nelly, were both confirmed, Madison himself never was”
, 183-184). In addition, Madison eventually quit following a strict observance of the Sabbath and – like Washington – quit kneeling in prayer (See Meade’s account here
). In addition, Meade states that Madison affirmed his belief in Christianity, as the best form of religion on earth. Despite this account – which is hotly debated in terms of its authenticity – Madison seems to have completely severed all of the orthodox attachments of his youth. In addition, Madison conveyed his “high regard for Unitarian principles,” which were completely incompatible with Christian orthodoxy.
So where does Madison fall? According to David Holmes, author of the book Faiths of the Founding Fathers, Madison is either a closet Unitarian or a moderate Christian Deist. I think this is a pretty good assessment of the man, since it is clear that Madison never returned to his orthodox views of his youth. In addition, Madison’s desire for a strict separation between church and state – which was made evident during the Constitutional Convention and the ratification of the Bill of Rights – serves as ample evidence of Madison’s Unitarian leanings.