Saturday, May 31, 2008

Sherman on Morris:

If I asked you to guess the randiest of America's founders, you'd probably guess Ben Franklin. Arguably you'd be wrong. Gouverneur Morris was an avid and unrepentant adulterer and fornicator. He attempted to seduce many married women including Dolly Madison. Arguably he was even more licentious than Franklin.

As his biographer Richard Brookhiser put it in this interview: "If you were broke, or in jail, or had lost the dearest person in your life, and you needed money, help, or consolation, the first Founder you would call would be Morris." Yet, Brookhiser joked, if you had him over for dinner you'd never seat him next to your wife or your daughter.

Sounds like "The Wolf" (Harvey Keitel's character) from Pulp Fiction.

On his religion he was either a theistic rationalist, or perhaps a strict deist. He certainly was no orthodox Christian. Morris was appointed US minister to France, in 1792. His fellow founder Roger Sherman, himself an orthodox Christian, testified about Morris' character, explaining why he opposed Morris' appointment:

Some observations respecting Mr. Morris' appointment having been already made, I shall explain the reasons why I shall not vote for his appointment, and that I may not be misunderstood I shall class my remarks under two heads, one having respect to Mr. Morris' natural capacity, & the other his moral character.

I ought in the first place to observe, that I bear Mr. Morris no ill will—1 have personally known him for several years; I have served with him in Congress, & was with him in the Convention of 1787. I have never been borne down by his superior Talents, nor have I experienced any mortifications from the manner in which he has treated me in debate. I wish him and all mankind holy and happy. I allow that he possesses a sprightly mind, a ready apprehension, and that he is capable of writing a good letter and forming a good Draft. I never have heard that he has betrayed a Trust, or that he lacks integrity—indeed I have not known him in any individually responsible station—In the State Legislature, in Congress, & in the Convention of 1787, he was one of many, and in the office of Finance his principal was responsible, and nothing for or against him can be inferred from these stations.

With regard to his moral character, I consider him an irreligious and profane man—he is no hypocrite and never pretended to have any religion. He makes religion the subject of ridicule and is profane in his conversation. I do not think the public have as much security from such men as from godly and honest men—It is a bad example to promote such characters ; and although they may never have betrayed a trust, or exhibited proofs of a want of integrity, and although they may be called men of honor—yet I would not put my trust in them—I am unwilling that the country should put their Trust in them, and because they have not already done wrong, 1 feel no security that they will not do wrong in future. General Arnold was an irreligious and profane character—he was called a man of honor, but I never had any confidence in him, nor did I ever join in promoting him. I remember he sued a man at New Haven for saying he had the foul disease—and it was urged that the Jury should give heavy damages, because Arnold was a man of honor and high-minded—but this same Arnold betrayed his Trust when he had an opportunity and would have delivered up the Commander in chief & betrayed his country. And the like has happened from other such characters ; and I am against their being employed and shall therefore vote against Mr. Morris. [My emphasis.]
On Political Protestantism and Liberty:

On the American Revolution Blog, I participated in long discussions on the key American Founders' personal faith, in particular, on George Washington's. I've conceded that unlike the case with J. Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin, with Washington, there are no "smoking gun" quotations, one way or the other. Rather, you have to "fit" pieces together in a puzzle. And even though Washington doesn't "fit" with a strict Deist, Thomas Paine-like faith, he "fits" perfectly with the middle ground, softer form of what the orthodox termed "infidelity" that J. Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin clearly believed in and what Madison very likely believed in.

Indeed, Washington in his cabinet surrounded himself with those softer, milder Protestant infidels, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, G. Morris and others. And J. Adams and Jefferson, the two Presidents who followed Washington -- indeed perhaps the next three, four, or more -- were likewise closet heretic-infidels (again, according to orthodox Christian standards). That's why one Reverend Wilson from Albany, New York -- erroneously thought by historians to be Bird Wilson (James Wilson's son) but in reality was a Presbyterian Covenanter named James Renwick Willson -- could decry in a sermon in 1831, on the religion of the Presidents from Washington to Jackson, “among all our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not of more than Unitarianism.”

Few realize how controversial this sermon was in 1831. The public in Albany burned James Renwick Willson in effigy for it. Willson was a member of the "non-respectable Right," and as with the "non-respectable Left" (like Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen) such figures weren't afraid to tackle sacred cows, even if it meant having their public reputations ruined. In all historical ages, including the present one, we live by public myths or at the very least have certain public sacred cows which might not necessarily be true, but that only non-respectable sides willingly challenge. Sometimes public figures unknowingly venture into such minefields (see for instance Larry Summers) and pay the consequences for it.

What few appreciate about the religion of America's key Founders is that their personal, heterodox religious views were non-respectable for their time (the mid to late 18th Century). The Right tends to deny that they possessed such views. And the Left seems to argue America was proudly, publicly, and openly founded on such "infidelity." The innovative ideas that drove the American Founding came in large part from elite sources whose heretical religious views were closeted as they did their best to pass off unconventional, non-traditional ideas as perfectly compatible with "Christianity." America's Founders were the "cultural elite" of their day. These were also men who guarded their public reputations with their lives and lived by a very civilized, "gentlemanly" code of conduct and honor. As such, regarding their religious secrets, they treaded with great caution. They saw how Thomas Paine's loud infidelity ruined his public reputation. And quite frankly, Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin, did NOT, like Paine, want to overthrow the institution of "religion," but rather wanted it to further reform and liberalize its doctrines (which raises a whole new can of worms: "liberalization" of Christianity to them meant getting rid of such "irrational" doctrines like original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, eternal damnation and infallibility of the Bible, arguably transforming Christianity into a different animal).

It really was not safe to "come out of the closet" as a non-Trinitarian Christian in America until the late 1790s, around 1800. But you can thank America's Founders for that safe environment: Recognizing the rights of conscience as unalienable meant that the forces of orthodoxy could no longer use the power of the state to enforce conformity. The orthodox could and did scold deists and unitarians as heretics and infidels. But with the rights of conscience secure, such heterodox thinkers were now free to form their own societies and social groups and begin to publicly argue their case without fear of civil penalty. By the 19th Century in New England, although the orthodox still considered it a soul damning heresy (as they still do), Unitarianism became a socially respectable form of liberal Protestant Christianity. Harvard University officially went Unitarian around 1805.

It's my contention, after a few other more notable scholars, that the political dimension of Protestantism as a movement of dissidence, NOT the theological dimension of Protestantism as an orthodox creed, is responsible for religious and political liberty. When Jefferson rejected "[t]he immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c.," he was being a good political Protestant, not a good orthodox Christian. Jefferson, J. Adams, arguably most of the key Founders held to such heretical unitarian religious beliefs at a time when doing so was socially (and in some instances legally) prohibited. As such one motivation in bringing the rights of conscience to America was so that secret heretics such as themselves would feel more comfortable "coming out." And indeed, that's exactly what occurred.

The God of Washington's Prayers

Perer Lillback, author of the book George Washington's Sacred Fire, makes the assertion that America's first President and Commander-in-Chief was, "an orthodox, Trinity-affirming believer in Jesus Christ" (27). Lillback, who received his Ph. D. in Theology from Westminster Theological Seminary, is only the latest in a series of religious figures who have crossed over into the field of history, in an effort to "restore" or "save" history from the hands of secularists.

In Sacred Fire, Lillback presents to the reader a large collection of primary sources, which he feels help to prove his thesis that Washington was a devout orthodox Christian. In addition, Lillback presents evidence to counter the argument that Washington was a Deist. While I am in complete agreement with Lillback's assessment that Washington was far from being a Deist, I still remain unconvinced of his orthodox Christian leanings.

In "Appendix Three" of Sacred Fire, Lillback puts together a collection that he calls "George Washington's Written Prayers." This collection contains an assortment of letters, general orders and presidential declarations, which Lillback believes helps to prove Washington's orthodoxy. As Lillback states at the beginning of this appendix:

One of the elements of the Christian faith that was suspect, and eventually abandoned by Deists, was the practice of prayer. This was logical since there was little purpose in speaking to a Deity who on principle had abandoned all contact and communication with his creation.

Given this understanding, Washington's lifetime practice of prayer, illustrated by these more than one hundred written prayers, is an undeniable refutation of his alleged Deism...The sheer magnitude of the umber of prayers, coupled with the expansive topics included in his prayers, give substantial credence to the universal testimony of Washington's contemporaries of his practice of corporate and private prayer.

This underscores how misplaced contemporary scholars have been in claiming that Washington was a man of lukewarm religious faith.

With this in mind, I decided that it would be worthwhile to dissect the various "written prayers" that Peter Lillback sites in his book. After all, the language that Washington used in these prayers should be a valuable tool in determining Washington's actual beliefs.

Here are the actual phrases that Washington used in his "written prayers" to describe divinity, along with the number of times they were used:

"Providence" - 26 times
"Heaven" -25 times
"God" - 16 times
"Almighty God" - 8 times
"Lord" - 5 times
"Almighty" - 5 times
"Author of all Blessings" - 3 times
"Author of the Universe" - 3 times
"God of Armies" - 3 times
"Giver of Victory" - 3 times
"Great Ruler of the Universe" - 2 times
"Divine Protector" - 2 times
"Ruler of Nations" - 2 times
"Particular Favor of Heaven" - 2 times
"Divine Author of Life and Felicity" - 2 times
"Author of Nations" - 1 time
"Divine Being" - 1 time
"Allwise Dispenser of Human Blessings" - 1 time
"Supreme giver of all good Gifts" - 1 time
"Sovereign Dispenser of Life and Health" - 1 time
"Source and Benevolent Bestower of all good" - 1 time
"Power which has Sustained American arms" - 1 time
"Allwise Providence" - 1 time
"Infinite Wisdom" - 1 time
"Eye of Omnipotence" - 1 time
"Divine Author of our Blessed Religion" - 1 time
"Omnipotent being" - 1 time
"Great Spirit" - 1 time
"Glorious being" - 1 time
"Supreme being" - 1 time
"Almighty being" - 1 time
"Creator" - 1 time
"Jesus Christ" - 0
"Salvation" - 0
"Messiah" - 0
"Savior" - 0
"Redeemer" - 0
"Jehovah" - 0

With such a large assortment of phrases, I find it amazing that Lillback does not provide a single example of where Washington prayed to Jesus specifically or directly. In fact, the only time the word "Christian" is mentioned in all of appendix three is on page 775. In a letter to the king of France, Washington begins the letter by writing, "To our great and beloved Friend and Ally, his Most Christian Majesty." [My emphasis added].

Despite these obvious discrepancies in his argument, I must also point out the fact that Lillback provides AMPLE evidence to support his claim that Washington was NOT a Deist. The simple fact that these prayers exist is sufficient proof of this fact. Regardless of who Washington was praying to, the fact remains that he did, in the end, pray regularly.

In addition, there are a number of statements in Washington's "written prayers" that seem to suggest at least a possible allegiance to Christian philosophy. For example, Washington regularly issued thanksgiving and fasting proclamations, which seem to petition God for a forgiveness of sin. Phrases like, "we may unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions" (Source here). Or other instances where Washington states, "Instant to be observed as a day of 'fasting, humiliation and prayer, humbly to supplicate the mercy of Almighty God' that it would please him to pardon all our manifold sins and transgressions" (Source here). Clearly there is AT LEAST a remnant of Christian belief, and possibly a sincere devotion to Jesus as the savior of mankind.

Regardless of what we may insinuate from these various statements, the fact remains that there are NO specific public or private records showing Washington in prayer to the Christian God. While I will agree that Washington is far from a Deist and that he did pray and believe in a great deal of Christian doctrine, I remain unconvinced that he was an ORTHODOX Christian as Lillback suggests.

Will the Real Deist/Christian Please Stand Up: Benjamin Franklin

The second founder up for discussion in this series is none other than the great politician, scientist, inventor and statesman, Benjamin Franklin. As we all know, Benjamin Franklin was America’s quintessential Enlightenment figure. His ideas on government, politics, religion, etc. all reflect Franklin’s deep attachment to Enlightenment ideals.

Yet the impact of Enlightenment philosophy only tells part of the story when it comes to Franklin’s religious beliefs. After all, Franklin was raised in a very religious family, where his father, Josiah, – upon immigrating to the British colonies in America – rose to the status of a “watchman” within the Puritan community of Boston, where he enforced the strict rules of morality and piety of the colony. Josiah even planned to have Benjamin enrolled in the Boston Latin School, where he hoped his son would begin his preparations for the Congregationalist ministry (Founding Faith, 53). Benjamin, however, had different plans. As Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson points out, “Franklin’s ‘skeptical, punkish and irreverent’ behavior made him a terrible fit for the clergy” (Benjamin Franklin, 19). Later during his teenage years – while pretending to be a widowed woman named Silence Dogood – Franklin would expound upon his “rebellious” sentiments towards religion. In Silence Dogood #9, Franklin states:

'Tis not inconsistent with Charity to distrust a Religious Man in Power, tho' he may be a good Man; he has many Temptations "to propagate publick Destruction for Personal Advantages and Security": And if his Natural Temper be covetous, and his Actions often contradict his pious Discourse, we may with great Reason conclude, that he has some other Design in his Religion besides barely getting to Heaven. But the most dangerous Hypocrite in a Common-Wealth, is one who <>A Man compounded of Law and Gospel, is able to cheat a whole Country with his Religion, and then destroy them under Colour of Law: And here the Clergy are in great Danger of being deceiv'd, and the People of being deceiv'd by the Clergy, until the Monster arrives to such Power and Wealth, that he is out of the reach of both, and can oppress the People without their own blind Assistance. And it is a sad Observation, that when the People too late see their Error, yet the Clergy still persist in their Encomiums on the Hypocrite; and when he happens to die for the Good of his Country, without leaving behind him the Memory of one good Action, he shall be sure to have his Funeral Sermon stuff'd with Pious Expressions which he dropt at such a Time, and at such a Place, and on such an Occasion; than which nothing can be more prejudicial to the Interest of Religion, nor indeed to the Memory of the Person deceas'd. The Reason of this Blindness in the Clergy is, because they are honourably supported (as they ought to be) by their People, and see nor feel nothing of the Oppression which is obvious and burdensome to every one else.
Upon revealing the true identity of Silence Dogood, Franklin was quickly branded a dangerous and rebellious heretic. Those within Boston’s religious community – including Franklin’s friend, Cotton Mather – distanced themselves from the young man who dared to question the religious status quo. As Franklin put it, “My indiscreet Disputations about Religion began to make me pointed at with Horror by good People, as an Infidel or Atheist” (Franklin, Autobiography, 71).

After moving away from Boston and establishing himself as a successful printer in Philadelphia, Franklin continued his attack on pious religious leaders, who used their faith to control their flock. As Franklin states in one edition of his popular series, Poor Richard’s Almanac, “Sin is not harmful because it is forbidden, but it is forbidden because it is hurtful…Nor is duty beneficial because it is commanded, but it is commanded because it is beneficial.” In another edition Franklin wrote, "Serving God is doing good to man, but praying is thought easier service and therefore is more generally chosen."

With such an early assortment of controversial statements on religion, it is understandable why some people have considered Franklin to be an agnostic or even possibly an atheist. Such a conclusion, however, obscures much of Franklin’s passionate belief in virtue and divinity. For example, though Franklin questioned the authority of the pious ministers of his day, he never doubted the importance of living a virtuous life. Instead of devoting himself to a particular brand of orthodoxy, Franklin chose to invoke the “laws of nature” – a typical Deist principle of his day – which became the backbone of his views on divinity. Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues are a perfect example of how Franklin merged Christian principles with his Deistic philosophy:

1. Temperance. Eat not to Dulness. Drink not to Elevation.
2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling Conversation.
3. Order. Let all your Things have their Places. Let each Part of your Business have its Time.
4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality. Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing.
6. Industry. Lose no Time. Be always employ'd in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary Actions.
7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful Deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice. Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.
9. Moderation. Avoid Extreams. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Cloaths or Habitation.
11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity. Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dulness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another's Peace or Reputation.
13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
In addition to this personal code of conduct, Franklin sought to “amend” a number of Christian creeds and beliefs. His version of the Lord’s Prayer is an excellent example of how Franklin stripped the miracles of Christianity from his personal liturgy.

Perhaps the most telling evidence of Franklin’s personal beliefs comes from his infamous letter to Ezra Stiles in 1790. In the letter, Franklin states:

You desire to know something of my Religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it: But I do not take your Curiosity amiss, and shall endeavour in a few Words to gratify it. Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to 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. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them. 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; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho' it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.
Franklin's Deistic leanings are augmented when we consider the fact that he not only questioned the divinity of Jesus Christ – as evidenced by the Ezra Stiles letter – but that he also questioned the infallibility of the Bible. The fact that he also rejected the ordinances of communion and confirmation, combined with his lack of regular church attendance serve as ample evidence that Franklin was far from an orthodox Christian. Franklin’s own admission that he was “a thorough Deist” virtually ends the dispute over his religious leanings (Franklin, Autobiography, 114).

Such an admission, however, does not suggest that Franklin was a pure Deist. After all, Franklin did believe that God regularly intervened in the affairs of mankind (Holmes, Founding Faith, 55). Franklin also maintained an appreciation for the teachings of Christianity, though he detested how it was being practiced:

I wish it were more productive of good works than I have generally seen. I mean real good works; works of kindness, charity, mercy, and public spirit; not holiday-keeping, sermon-reading or hearing; performing church ceremonies, or making long prayers...[Jesus] preferred the doers of the word, to the mere hearers...Serving God is doing good to man...Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means" (Quoted in Waldman, Founding Faith, 20-21).
So where should we classify Franklin on the Deism/orthodox Christian spectrum? From the evidence noted, it is clear that he does not fall anywhere near orthodox Christianity, yet he also falls short of embracing pure Deism. Clearly Franklin is closer to Deism than he is Christianity, so it would be fair to categorize his religious beliefs as being those of a "liberal Deist," or as I choose to define him, a "Jesus-centered Deist."

Will the Real Deist/Christian Please Stand Up: James Madison

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, 92).

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, 96).

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” (Founding Faith, 105).

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” (Madison, 47-48).

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” (Founding Faith, 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 and 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.

Did Washington Pray at Valley Forge?

Though we've discussed this before, I discovered some new evidence and thought it would be fun to bring this topic up yet again.

Nearly every American has seen this painting. In fact, it has become one of the best selling pieces of art in recent years. Thousands of homes, churches, office buildings, etc. have adorned their walls with this extremely powerful portrayal of America's first president kneeling in prayer. As is common with the legacy of our Founding Fathers, Americans today gain a sense of pride, reverence, and even patriotism when witnessing poignant recreations such as this painting.

But how accurate is it? Did Washington really pray at Valley Forge?

Officially known as The Prayer at Valley Forge, artist Arnold Friberg chose to capture what he called, "The spirit of 1776" by painting this picture for the American bicentennial festivities of 1976. Since then, Friberg's painting has become one of the top selling pieces of American art and has inspired a countless number of "copycat" artists, who have capitalized on creating similar pieces of art. The painting has also become a source of controversy between Christian conservatives and secularists, who seem to be caught up in a constant battle over America's founding legacy.

So what are the facts surrounding the "Prayer at Valley Forge?"

The original story of George Washington kneeling in prayer comes from a source that is questionable to say the least. The story allegedly originated from a young man named Isaac Potts, who is the supposed eyewitness to this event. It is said that Potts was riding along one day when he came across General Washington, hidden in the woods and caught up in deep prayer. Potts, who was originally against the war, stated that he experienced a change of heart upon seeing the General in prayer. The story then went unreported for roughly 40 years until Potts allegedly revealed his experience to his pastor, Reverend Nathaniel Snowden. Reverend Snowden then purportedly copied what Potts had told him in his journal, in the hopes that the story would be protected for posterity. Here is an excerpt from Snowden's journal:

I tied my horse to a sapling & went quietly into the woods & to my astonishment I saw the great George Washington on his knees alone, with his sword on one side and his cocked hat on the other. He was at Prayer to the God of the Armies, beseeching to interpose with his Divine aid, as it was ye Crisis, & the cause of the country, of humanity & of the world.

Such a prayer I never heard from the lips of man. I left him alone praying. I went home & told my wife. I saw a sight and heard today what I never saw or heard before, and just related to her what I had seen & heard & observed. We never thought a man c’d be a soldier & a Christian, but if there is one in the world, it is Washington. She also was astonished. We thought it was the cause of God, & America could prevail.

The powerful imagery of General Washington beseeching God to bless and protect his army is moving to say the least. The problem with the story, however, is that there is little to no proof of its veracity. First off, it is highly unlikely that Reverend Snowden ever knew or associated with Isaac Potts. Family history records have proven that the Potts family did not move to the Valley Forge area until 1800 (Washington was dead by then). Also, it is worth noting that Reverend Snowden's journal account records the name of Potts's wife to be Sarah, when in fact her name was Martha. In addition, Snowden's journal states that he heard the story from a man named "John," not Isaac Potts. Simply put, Reverend Snowden's journal is too unreliable to support the Valley Forge story.

Along with the questionable journal entries, it is worth noting that Isaac Potts never had a change of heart when it came to the war. In addition, several critics of Snowden claimed that the Reverend recanted his story when presented with the evidence.

So why would Snowden lie?

It is a known fact that a number of religious leaders from several different churches attempted to "claim" George Washington as their own. After all, Washington was a living legend in his time. To have the religious endorsement of America's general and first president would be extremely impressive in the eyes of the common citizenry. As a result, scores of religious leaders of the 18th century have distorted the true nature of Washington's faith.

While it is true that Washington was known for attending church with some regularity, and that he held organized religion "in high regard," it is important to recognize the fact that Washington was far from being an orthodox believer. First off, though Washington attended several religious services over the course of his life, he refused to be confirmed a member of any one denomination. Washington strongly opposed an orthodox allegiance in religious affairs (as he did in political affairs as well). It is also an established fact that Washington refused to take communion of any kind when attending church services. In fact, a number of religious leaders expressed disappointment at the fact that Washington would not participate in communion. During communion, it was common of Washington to simply walk out of church in the middle of the ceremony.

Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence against the Valley Forge painting is the simple fact that George Washington refused to pray on his knees. Historians and biographers of Washington have pointed out the fact that Washington would choose to stand instead of kneel when praying. In fact, Washington made it clear to his military advisers that he detested anything that brought a man to his knees.

Despite these facts, the "Prayer of Valley Forge" has received incredible publicity and attention over the years. In 1866, artist John McRae was commissioned by the United States to create an engraving of this event.

Later, the Valley Forge Park Commission was given a grant to create a statue of McRae's engraving, which was to be placed at the entrance to Valley Forge Park. The Park authorities refused, stating that there was ample evidence to suggest that the Washington prayer story was a hoax. Despite the decision of park authorities, tours were conducted until roughly 1930, which took travelers to various locations where Washington had allegedly knelt in prayer.

Despite your personal feelings, the Prayer at Valley Forgehas become an important symbol for millions of Americans. Even though the story behind the painting is an utter fraud, it is important to recognize the fact that Washington was, in the end, a man of prayer. As a revolutionary leader it would be natural for a man of Washington's status to refuse kneeling in prayer. Though not an orthodox follower of Christianity, Washington should be remembered as religious individual