Friday, October 24, 2008

Faiths of the Founding Fathers/Founding Faith Book Comparison

From Special Guest Blogger, Robert Cornwall

I am pleased to present to our blog readers the following book reviews by Pastor Robert Cornwall. Mr. Cornwall is Pastor of the Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, MI. Pastor Cornwall holds a Ph.D. in history and regularly blogs about the role of religion in American society. Here is a link to his personal blog, which we invite you all to visit.

We are delighted that Pastor Cornwall has taken the time to contribute the following material to American Creation. Pastor Cornwall's insight into the theme of this blog is greatly appreciated. So, without further delay, here are Pastor Robert Cornwall's book reviews on Faiths of the Founding Fathers by David Holmes, and Founding Faith by Steven Waldman:


David L. Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 225 pages.

There is great debate about the piety of the nation’s founders. There are those who claim that ours is a Christian nation and that the founders – with perhaps the exception of Thomas Jefferson -- were pious Christians. On the other side of the coin there are those who insist that the nation was as pluralist as today and that the Founders were to the man (yes they were men) non-Christian Deists. In large part this debate has political implications, for it is a debate about how great a separation there is between church and state.

Historian David L. Holmes, himself an Episcopalian, takes on the task of faithfully laying out the views and practices of the Founding Generation of Americans. He begins with a survey of the state of religion in America circa 1770. We learn that New England is Congregationalist, the Middle Colonies more mixed, and the South having originally a more Episcopal establishment. The educational establishments were by and large religious, from the Congregationalist Harvard and Yale to the Episcopal William and Mary and King’s College (Columbia), from Presbyterian Princeton to Baptist oriented Brown. It is in these institutions that most of the Founding Fathers were educated, but as we read we discover that there were other influences, influences of the Enlightenment such as Free Masonry that also proved influential.

The center-piece of the book is a series of chapters that explore the religious beliefs and practices of Benjamin Franklin and the first five presidents. All six of these figures valued religion, but were by any measure Deists. The stories of Washington’s piety were created whole-cloth following his death. What is interesting is that Monroe was the least religious of the early Presidents. He was by affiliation Episcopalian, but his writings and speeches say little religion. The wives, on the other hand, were for the most part much more pious than their husbands. The one major exception was Abigail Adams who shared her husband’s strong Unitarianism. But Martha Washington and other wives and first daughters tended toward orthodoxy – a reality explained in part by education, social circles, expectations, and the fact that there was no woman’s version of the Deist infused Freemasonry to be had.

That these leading figures were not orthodox does not mean that none of the Founding Generation was Orthodox. Indeed there were a number of leading patriots who were extremely orthodox, ranging from Patrick Henry to Samuel Adams. Holmes devotes one chapter to the lives and practices of three orthodox founders, Adams, Elias Boudinot, and John Jay. Jay was especially conservative theologically, but this did not keep them from embracing the revolutionary spirit. Indeed, Samuel Adams was considered the “Father of the American Revolution.”

With these contrasting stories, the question is: How do we discern who is orthodox and who is not? In what is, I believe, the most important contribution of the book, Holmes offers four tests to distinguish a Deist from an Orthodox Christian. Holmes divides the Founders into three categories – non-Christian Deist, Christian Deist, and Orthodox Christian, and by considering these four tests we are better able to place the Founders in their proper category.

The four “tests” are as follows:

1. Examine the actions of the founders in the area of religion. Do they belong to a church? Attend church? Serve on governing boards? By itself this criteria offers little help, for Jefferson and other Deistic founders held roles of importance in their churches. But, the more active, the more likely one was to be orthodox.

2. Reception of “ordinances” or sacraments. While baptism is not a good marker – they likely did not have a choice in the matter (infant baptism being the predominant mode) and the baptism of children could have been done at the behest of wives, but other ordinances such as confirmation (which was available among Episcopalians in the colonies after the appointment of the first bishops in the 1780s), and reception of the Lord’s Supper were more telling. Deists tended to shy away from both sacraments, believing them expressions of superstition. Many Deists, such as Jefferson and Washington, would either avoid Eucharistic Sundays or leave prior to the celebration of the sacrament.

3. Dimension of Inactivity versus Activity. Few thorough-going Deists took an active role in Christian rituals, and Deistic Christians were less observant and active than orthodox ones. In other words, Deistic Christians would participate in more passive forms of Christian life such as listening to sermons, but tended to avoid active expressions such as being confirmed or receiving communion. It is noticeable that Jefferson left out the Last Supper from his retelling of the Gospels.

4. The Use of Religious Language. The way God was referred to and the use of distinctly Christian language can be gauged from the writings and speeches of the Founders. Some like Monroe hardly even mention God or religion. It is almost totally absent from his public expressions. Words like Providence, Creator, and Nature’s God were used by non-Christian Deists like Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen (though Allen was even more radical than Paine). Deistic Christians would make use of the same terms, but they tended to add modifiers such as “Merciful Providence” or “Divine Goodness,” and they were more likely to speak of Jesus – even if not in orthodox Christian ways. Positive references to the Trinity and use of terms such as savior and redeemer would be found only among the orthodox.

With these guidelines, we can discern that a Thomas Paine or an Ethan Allen was a non-Christian Deist (though Allen may have been an atheist). Franklin, Washington, and the other presidents considered, were Christian Deists. Among the orthodox were Henry, Adams, Martha Washington, and Jay. The lesson is that while Protestant Christianity was dominant, a goodly number of the Founding Generation – at least among the men – were not Orthodox partisans.

What we can say, Holmes insists, is that the Founding Generation as a rule did believe in divine providence and life after death, putting them in a different place from the more radical forms of Deism. But, they were by and large Deists of some form, and as Holmes writes, it would have been more surprising if they had become “evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics, Russian Orthodox, Scandinavian Lutherans, or Orthodox Jews” (164). Deism was the dominant philosophical perspective among educated males of the day.

What is true of the Founders is not true today. From Gerald Ford to the present, a period surveyed in the “Epilogue” of the book, the Presidents have made their religious professions quite public. Indeed, many have courted the religious vote. That the current election cycle is so filled with religious rhetoric would have surprised the Founders, but it seems to be expected today – in spite of our supposed secularism. The religious beliefs and practices of each President beginning with Ford, is explored in this final chapter, That they might use religion for political ends is acknowledged, but for most the professions have been sincere.

With the religious rhetoric growing louder and more divisive, this relatively brief and very readable book is just the tonic we need to attend to. Note well that the title of this book is not “The Faith of the Founding Fathers,” but the “Faiths of the Founding Fathers.” There is not one faith perspective or style that covers them all – and in a time of religious turmoil that pluralism needs to be recognized. This tonic will then, if properly digested, offer an important perspective not just on the past, but on the present situation as well. This is then, a must read book for the upcoming election cycle.


FOUNDING FAITH: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America. By Steven Waldman. New York: Random House, 2008. xvi + 277 pages.

It is no secret that Americans are a religious people. More than any other developed nation, we not only believe in God, but we regularly go to church, synagogue, mosque, and temple. We do this without any social inducement or government coercion. This is true, because at the core of American life is the belief that we should be free to believe and practice our faith as we choose. That belief has enabled the faithful to remain steadfast in their beliefs and practices, even as much of the rest of the Western world has become increasingly secularized.

The secret to this American success can be traced back to the nation’s founding, to a time when a group of British colonies, most of which had established churches, threw off their rulers, established a new nation, and came to the conclusion that the religious pluralism already present in this new nation (even if it remained predominantly Protestant) would undermine the nation’s unity if the government did not grant some kind of religious freedom. There was not, of course unanimity as to how this would be accomplished – the fact that state establishments continued into the 1830s shows this to be true. In the end, however, the work of the Founders, especially in laying out the Constitution, laid the foundation for the religious freedom Americans enjoy today.

In recent years the discussion of America’s religious identity has become at times heated and has spurred the publication of numerous books and articles, some scholarly and others that are more general and popular. Some of these contributions leave much to be desired, but in the mix have been a number of helpful and well-written tomes, including ones written by Randy Balmer, Mark Toulouse, Jon Meacham, and David Holmes. The most helpful works have explored the historical connections that link today to the Founders. They have helped us understand where we started and the road we took to get to where we are today.

Among the most recent offerings is Steven Waldman’s Founding Faith (2008). Like Jon Meacham, Waldman is a journalist. Before becoming the founder of he served as editor at U.S. News and World Report. There are numerous similarities between the Waldman and the Meacham books, in part I think because both write as journalists who understand how to communicate their message in bold and concise fashion. At the same time neither is a professional historian, so both rely on the judgments of leading historians. That reliance is reassuring – it helps us understand that they aren’t making this stuff up. There’s another similarity between the Meacham book and Waldman’s; they both take a middle path between Christian nation partisans and secularists. What sets them apart is Waldman’s focus on the founding generation.

At the heart of this book is the question: what did the Founders believe and how does that belief affect what we do now. To put it another way, “What Would the Founding Fathers Do?” (WWFFD) – Waldman uses this exact acronym (p. 197). To best gauge this impact, Waldman focuses on five figures – Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin. Other figures, including Patrick Henry appear, but Waldman believes (rightly so) that these figures proved most influential in the end. They didn’t all agree on every point, but all of them, at least in the end, realized that America’s success as a nation required not just toleration, but inclusion of multiple voices. Protestantism might be dominant, but it didn’t tell the whole story. They could have institutionalized this Protestant dominance, but they chose to go another direction. And when it comes to religion, these Founders were both deeply spiritual and committed to a simple creed that focused on ethics not doctrine.

“Each journey was distinctive, but they ended up in similar places, still deeply spiritual but with an ever shortening list of required religious creeds. The older they got, the simpler their faith became” (p. 182).

What ultimately drives Waldman’s book is his concern about the continuation of religious liberty in America. That is a liberty to both practice and believe (or not) as one pleases. In arguing for a robust freedom of religion, Waldman believes that the Founders not only got it right, but that we need to listen to and understand their rationale for liberty so as to protect religious liberty today. In analyzing their contributions, he concludes that Founders were neither card-carrying orthodox evangelicals, as some would have us believe, nor were they necessarily wild eyed secularists, as others will argue. There were evangelicals in the mix, but some of them – like John Leland and Isaac Backus – were among the strongest proponents of separation of church and state. As for the five Founders under investigation, they weren’t orthodox, but the wouldn’t qualify as true Deists (Jefferson included), if we take the classic definition of Deism into account. All five would likely have affirmed a Unitarian version of Christianity, but they all believed in divine providence, affirming the direct involvement of God in human history. Indeed, they believed that God was active in America’s rise to nationhood. Therefore, they were likely closer in their theology to John Locke than to David Hume.

This attempt at taking the middle road may not sit well with all observers, but it would seem to be the most accurate accounting. His point is clear – if we’re going to use the Founder, let’s use them appropriately. They are not, as he says, “historical conversation stoppers” (p. 196).
To understand the decisions of the Revolutionary Era, one must understand the Colonial Era that gave rise to it. This was, as Waldman lays out for us, a period of state establishment – with Congregationalism in New England and Anglicanism in the Southern Colonies. Maryland may have started out as a safe haven for Roman Catholics, but in time it became an Anglican colony and Catholics became a persecuted minority. Baptists suffered under colonial rule, but even their disabilities paled in contrast to the Quakers, many of whom were executed for their faith. Founders such as Madison saw this happening around them and decided it could not continue. With this in mind, Waldman believes that the American Revolution was in many ways a religious war. In part it was driven by fears of Anglican establishment – including provision of bishops who might undermine the religious distinctives of the colonies. There was also concern about an ascendant Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches. Fear of an imposed religious settlement drove the push for liberty. As described by Waldman, the picture of an established Christianity isn’t pretty and should stand as a warning of what could happen if America ever did become an officially Christian nation.

The Revolution itself had religious overtones, with patriot clergy rallying their congregations to the cause and political pamphleteers, including Thomas Paine, using religious language to defend and describe the revolutionary effort. This was in the minds of many God’s war, and thus it was a righteous cause. But even as they sought to wrap their cause in religious language, leaders such as George Washington discovered that success in this effort required not just toleration but bridging of differences. If they were to work together then they had to see each other as equals. Thus, even as they fought for their own freedoms, the soldiers discovered that they were fighting for the freedoms of others with whom they differed religiously.

The most important contribution is Waldman’s exploration of the religious identities and of Benjamin Franklin and the first four presidents. While none of these five would be welcomed into the modern evangelical fold, they each affirmed a supreme being/God who ruled over all and believed that religion played an essential role in the life of the nation. By their own definition each was a Christian – though they’re definition of Christianity would be different from some coreligionist. Theirs was a simple creed focused on ethics and behavior rather than on doctrine or institutions. They were not classic Deists, but instead viewed God as intimately involved in human and American history. Where they differed with “orthodox” Christians was in their Christology.

In many ways the hero of this book is James Madison. It is Madison, of course, who is the primary author of the U.S. Constitution, a document that is conspicuous by the absence of God from its pages. Article Six of the Constitution specifically forbids religious tests, and while Madison did not believe a Bill of Rights was necessary he made sure that there was an amendment that ensured religious freedom. Madison shared many beliefs with Jefferson, but according to Waldman Madison was just as concerned, if not more so, with the corrupting effects of state support on religion itself. Jefferson was more concerned about the possible evils of religious influences on government. Getting these provisions in the Constitution was not easy, for there were those, like Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams that wanted to see a stronger church-state relationship. But even as he fought tax assessments for churches in Virginia and argued vociferously for keeping religion and the state as separate as possible. While Jefferson was greatly concerned about the corrosive effects that a religious establishment might have on government, Madison was equally concerned about the unhealthy effects government support might have on religion. He truly believed that religion would flourish only if government got out of the way. History has proved him prescient.

The ultimate effect of the Founders vision took time to spread throughout American society. Madison didn’t believe a Bill of Rights was necessary, believing that the Constitution had provided sufficient protection of civil rights – including those of religious people – but he lost that debate. However, once it became clear that such a bill of rights would emerge he made sure that religious liberty was protected. Unfortunately, he was not able to get these protections extended beyond the Federal level. Compromises required the language to be muted and the effects narrowed. Therefore, it was not until the 14th Amendment was passed that these important rights were extended below the Federal level. Thus, when we talk about the interpretation of the Constitution we must recognize that a strict constructionist view that does not take into consideration the 14th Amendment will restrict, not expand, civil and religious liberties. Waldman writes:

“As interpreted by twentieth-century court rulings, the Fourteenth Amendment applied the principles of the First Amendment to the states eighty years after Madison had tried unsuccessfully to do the same” (p. 188).

In writing this book Waldman has attempted to disprove the assertion that to be an advocate of separation one is therefore anti-God or anti-religion. By highlighting the efforts of Madison and his evangelical supporters such as Leland and Backus, he has demonstrated otherwise. Whether or not the book will end the debate is uncertain, but surely he has helped clarify the issues. If you are at all concerned about religious liberty then this is a must read, and the foundation of important conversations within this country.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Sorry, Pastor Bob, your own analysis is nonexistent here, and merely echoes "common knowledge." Journalists are not theologians.

Many Deists, such as Jefferson and Washington...

No. Sorry, Pastor, but you're already buying unreservedly into the fog. Jefferson and Washington have absolutely nothing in common except that people in the 21st century lump them together as "Deists." Neither one was. Neither was Franklin.

I do see our blogmother has rounded up yet another Christian who has an antipathy toward the McCain-Palin ticket. That's four or five in a row now. One might even suspect a pattern.

Should you want to defend these arguments, I'll be happy to deconstruct them with you. But I do not expect you will.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Jefferson and Washington have absolutely nothing in common except that people in the 21st century lump them together as "Deists." Neither one was. Neither was Franklin.

Tom I think you've just contradicted yourself. The fact that folks lump J&W as "Deists" when neither was is something in common. That they were both Anglicans/Episcopalians and vestrymen in said Church is also something they had in common. And that both seemed to speak in more abstract, less identifiably Trinitarian language on God is also something they had in common. The big difference between the two is whereas Jefferson, in his private letters, rejects every single tenet of orthodox Christianity, there is a big void when looking for said evidence in Washington's private correspondence.

Phil Johnson said...

Cornwall has given us some interesting information in his two book reports.
I'm currently reading this book which also covers the controversies involved.
I don't think they're ever going to be settled--especially by people who have not experienced what it means to be an Evangelical and Born Again Christian.
BTW, where did Cornwall get his PhD?

Robert Cornwall said...

I'll wait a little before jumping into the conversation, but I received my Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. My area of specialization is 18th century English Church History.

Raven said...

Pastor Cornwall:

Don't mind the comments of one Tom Van Dyke. He is the "Village Idiot" of this blog. The reality is that your reviews are right on the mark and I am sure that the majority of us appreciat them.

Phil Johnson said...

Very interesting
Fuller's founder was one of the main thrusters in the creation and development of Christian Fundamentalism in America. His radio broadcasts are legendary.

Phil Johnson said...

Your hyperbole made my day as far as having a good laugh here at the club.

Brad Hart said...


Let me know what you think of Mapp's book. I've been thinking of putting it on my "to read" list.

Phil Johnson said...

Mapp's book is a fast and easy read.
I pick it up and read a few pages every once in a while.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"right on the mark" = stuff I agree with

"idiot" = those I don't agree with

So be it. Better men than I have been called idiots.

I was a bit harsh, Mr. Cornwall, so I hope you'll accept my apology. However, I did find the POV of these authors [and your agreement with them] to be conventional wisdom, and worse, more of the conventional method [focusing on a half-dozen marquee figures, the catchall use of the term "Deism," elevating personal belief over public action]. We have plenty of that around here and in the public debate. If that's all there is to the question, then the case is closed [some folks think it is] and there's no point in continuing.

Phil Johnson said...

Tom admits, "We have plenty of [personal belief] around here...."

"Ain't the truth. Ain't it the truth." Bert Lahr in some movie.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I've got Mapp's book. He's an excellent writer so the book will be a good read. However, I'd say the book overall lacks "depth." With many of these Founders, the evidence for what they believed exactly doesn't readily exist on the surface. And I've found Mapp wasn't willing to do the "deep digging."