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From: free inquiry
By Rob Boston, Free Inquiry
“”The United States is a Christian nation.” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard this statement at a religious Right meeting or in the media, I wouldn’t be rich—but I’d probably have enough to buy a really cool iPad. The assertion is widely believed by followers of the religious Right and often repeated—and, too often, it seeps into the beliefs of the rest of the population as well. But like other myths that are widely accepted (you use only 10 percent of your brain, vitamin C helps you get over a cold, and the like), it lacks a factual basis.
Over the years, numerous scholars, historians, lawyers, and judges have debunked the “Christian nation” myth. Yet it persists. Does it have any basis in American history? Why is the myth so powerful? What psychological need does it fill?
I’m not a lawyer, and my research in this area has been influenced and informed by scholars who have done much more in- depth work. The problem with some of this material, great as it is,is that it tends to be—how shall I say this politely?—’dense.’ If I were a lawyer (the kind found on television dramas, not a real one), I would present the case against the Christian nation myth in a handful of easily digestible informational nuggets. Swallow them, and you’ll be armed for your next confrontation with Cousin Lloyd who sends money to Pat Robertson.
There are essentially five arguments that refute the Christian nation myth. I’m going to outline them here and then take a look at the history of the myth. From there, we’ll briefly examine the myth’s enduring legacy and how it still affects politics and public policy today.
1. The Text of the Constitution Does Not Say the United States Is a Christian Nation
If a Christian nation had been the intent of the founders, they would have put that in the Constitution, front and center. Yet the text of the Constitution contains no references to God, Jesus Christ, or Christianity. That document does not state that our country is an officially Christian nation.
Not only does the Constitution not give recognition or acknowledgment to Christianity, but it also includes Article VI, which bans “religious tests” for public office. Guaranteeing non-Christians the right to hold federal office seems antipodal to an officially Christian nation. The language found in Article VI sparked some controversy, and a minority faction that favored limiting public office to Christians (or at least to believers) protested. Luther Martin, a Maryland delegate, later reported that some felt it “would be at least decent to hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism.” But, as Martin noted, the article’s language was approved “by a great majority . . . without much debate.” The Christian nation argument just wasn’t persuasive.
In addition, the First Amendment bars all laws “respecting an establishment of religion” and protects “the free exercise thereof.” Nothing here indicates that the latter provision applies only to Christian faiths.Finding no support for their ideas in the body of the Constitution, Christian-nation advocates are left to point to other documents, including the Declaration of Independence. This also fails. The Declaration’s reference to “the Creator” is plainly deistic. More obscure documents such as the Northwest Ordinance or personal writings by various framers are interesting historically but do not rise to the level of governance documents. When it comes to determining the manner of the U.S. government, only the Constitution matters. The Constitution does not declare that the United States is a Christian nation. This fact alone is fatal to the cause of Christian nation advocates.
2. The Founders’ Political Beliefs Would Not Have Led Them to Support the Christian-Nation Idea
Jefferson and Madison came to this opposition in two ways. First, they were well-versed in history and understood how the officially Christian governments of Europe had crushed human freedom. Moreover, they knew about the constant religious wars among rival factions of Christianity. Second, they had witnessed religious oppression in the colonies firsthand.
Remember, Madison was inspired to fight for church-state separation and religious liberty because he had witnessed the jailing of dissenting ministers in Virginia. Madison and other founders wrote frequently about the dangers of governments adopting religion; they often worked alongside clergy who made similar arguments. John Leland, a Massachusetts pastor and powerful advocate for church-state separation, said it best: “The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever.”
Jefferson’s Virginia Statue for Religious Liberty, which many scholars consider a precursor to the First Amendment, guaranteed religious freedom for everyone, Christian and non-Christian. Attempts to limit its protections to Christians failed, and Jefferson rejoiced.
In his famous “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” Madison observed, “Torrents of blood have been spilt in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm, to extinguish Religious discord, by proscribing all difference in Religious opinion.”
In his Notes on Virginia Jefferson observed, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Alexander Hamilton, writing in “Federalist No. 69,” speaks bluntly to the religious duties of the U.S. president: There aren’t any. In this essay, Hamilton explains how the American president would differ from the English king, outlining several key differences between the two. He writes: “The one has no particle of spiritual jurisdiction; the other is the supreme head and governor of the national church!”
3. The Key Founders Were Not Conservative Christians and Likely Would Not Have Supported an Officially Christian Nation
To hear the religious Right tell it, men such as George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were eighteenth-century versions of Jerry Falwell in powdered wigs and stockings. This is nonsense.
The religious writings of many prominent founders sound odd to today’s ears because these works reflect Deism, a theological system of thought that has since fallen out of favor. Deists believed in God but didn’t necessarily see him as active in human affairs. The god of the Deists was a god of first cause: he set things in motion and then stepped back.
Although nominally an Anglican, George Washington often spoke in deistic terms. His god was a “supreme architect” of the universe. Washington saw religion as necessary for good and moral behavior but didn’t necessarily accept all Christian dogma. He seemed to have a special gripe against Communion and would usually leave services before it was offered.
Washington is the author of one of the great classics of religious liberty—the letter to Touro Synagogue (1790). In this letter, Washington assures America’s Jews that they would enjoy complete religious liberty—not mere toleration—in the new nation. He outlines a vision not of a Christian nation but of a multi-faith society where all are free to practice as they will:
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. . . . All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.
John Adams was a Unitarian. He rejected belief in the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, core concepts of Christian dogma. In his personal writings, Adams made it clear that he considered the concept of the divinity of Jesus incomprehensible.
In February of 1756, Adams wrote in his diary about a discussion he had had with a man named Major Greene. Greene was a devout Christian who sought to persuade Adams to adopt conservative Christian views. The two argued over the divinity of Jesus. When questioned on the matter, Greene fell back on an old standby: some matters of theology are too complex and mysterious for human understanding.
Adams was not impressed. In his diary he writes, “Thus mystery is made a convenient cover for absurdity.”
Jefferson’s skepticism of traditional Christianity is well known. Our third president did not believe in the Trinity, the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, original sin, and other core Christian doctrines. Jefferson once famously observed to Adams: “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”
Although not an orthodox Christian, Jefferson admired Jesus as a moral teacher. He even edited the New Testament, cutting away the stories of miracles and divinity and leaving behind a very human Jesus, whose teachings Jefferson found “sublime.”
Perhaps the most enigmatic of the founders was Madison. To this day, scholars still debate his religious views. Some of his biographers believe that Madison, nominally Anglican, was really a Deist. Notoriously reluctant to talk publicly about his religious beliefs, Madison was perhaps the strictest church-state separa- tionist among the founders, opposing not only chaplains in Congress and the military but also government prayer proclamations. As president, he vetoed legislation granting federal land to a church as well as a plan to have a church in Washington care for the poor. In each case, he cited the First Amendment.
4. Shortly After the Constitution Was Ratified, Conservative Ministers Attacked It Because It Lacked References to Christianity
Ministers of the founding period knew that the Constitution didn’t declare the United States officially Christian—and it made them angry.
In 1793, just five years after the Constitution was ratified, the Reverend John M. Mason of New York attacked that document in a sermon. Mason called the lack of references to God and Christianity “an omission which no pretext whatever can palliate.” He predicted that an angry God would “overturn from its foundations the fabric we have been rearing and crush us to atoms in the wreck.”
Conservative pastors continued whining well into the nineteenth century. In 1811, the Reverend Samuel Austin thundered that the Constitution “is entirely disconnected from Christianity. [This] one capital defect [will lead] inevitably to its destruction.”
In 1845, the Reverend D. X. Junkin wrote, “[The Constitution] is negatively atheistical, for no God is appealed to at all. In framing many of our public formularies, greater care seems to have been taken to adapt them to the prejudices of the INFIDEL FEW, than to the consciences of the Christian millions.”
These eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pastors knew that the Constitution was secular and granted no preferences to Christianity. They considered that a defect.
5. During the Post-Civil War Period, a Band of Politically Powerful Pastors Tried Repeatedly to Amend the U.S. Constitution to Add References to Jesus Christ and Christianity
Nineteenth-century ministers knew that the Constitution was secular and that the nation was not officially Christian. They sought to remedy that through an amendment that would have rewritten the preamble to the Constitution.
The drive was led by the National Reform Association (NRA), a kind of early religious Right organization that sought an officially Christian America. This NRA had ambitious goals. It sought laws curtailing commercial activity on Sunday, mandating Protestant worship in public schools and censorship of material deemed sexually explicit or blasphemous. (Thanks to the NRA, freethought societies of this period often had difficulties mailing periodicals to supporters. The U.S. Postal Service was under constant siege by the NRA.)
The NRA was successful in many of its legislative endeavors, but it was never able to secure passage of the Christian nation amendment. The group’s proposed preamble read as follows:
We, the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government, and in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the inalienable rights and blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to ourselves, our posterity and all the people, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.
Congress did consider the amendment, but the House Judiciary Committee voted it down in 1874, declaring its awareness of the dangers of putting “anything into the Constitution or frame of government which might be construed to be a refer- ence to any religious creed or doctrine.” The proposal was reintroduced several times after that; in fact, versions of it were still appearing in Congress as late as 1965.
While the NRA was never successful in getting the Christian nation amendment passed, the group had better luck with another policy objective: adding “In God We Trust” to coins. That practice was codified in the North during the Civil War.
Obviously, there would have been no need to amend the Constitution to declare America officially Christian if the document already said as much. But it didn’t, which is why the NRA felt so strongly about its emendation.
The Origins of the Christian-Nation Myth
This last point provides the key to understanding the staying power of the Christian-nation myth. The myth’s origins go back not to the founding period but to a much different time in history—the post-Civil War era.
During this period, the country came as close it ever would to being officially Christian. Many laws did reflect the tenets of that faith. For example, books, magazines, and even stage productions were banned if they were deemed insulting to the Christian faith. Protestant prayer and worship were common in many public schools. Laws curtailed Sunday commerce. Even the Supreme Court flirted with the Christian-nation concept in its infamous decision in the Holy Trinity case.
The post-Civil War era was also a period of great social upheaval. The end of slavery in the South created dislocation and confusion, which left people grasping for answers in the chaos. Other social changes loomed. Late in the century, women began advocating for the right to vote. Not surprisingly, some people reacted to these changes by latching onto reactionary religious views.
Despite the social unrest, in many ways this period of history is the religious Right’s ideal society. Think about it: public schools were pushing conservative forms of Protestantism. Religiously based censorship was common. All people were required to abide by a set of laws based on Christian principles, with the government playing the role of theological enforcer. Significantly, this was also a time of rigidly enforced gender roles and official policies of racial segregation.
Many of these principles still inspire the religious Right’s agenda today. So when religious Right leaders or television preachers hearken back to our days as a Christian nation, remember that they are not talking about the founding period. What they long for is a return to an aberrant era in late-nineteenth- century America.
The attempt to “nineteenth-century-ize” modern America continues into the present. It’s not uncommon to hear the Christian-nation myth invoked in battles over religion in public schools, displays of religious signs and symbols on public property, and other church-state disputes. It has also been raised in questions dealing with tax aid to religious groups through school vouchers and “faith-based” initiatives. The argument is that it’s only to be expected that large amounts of taxpayer money will end up in the coffers of Christian groups because we are, after all, a Christian nation.
The myth also feeds several psychological needs. It assures religious Right supporters who fear the pace of social change that things like same-sex marriage and the rise of secularists are aberrations that run counter to the “real” Christian nature of the country. It also invokes a “stolen legacy” myth—the idea that a grand and glorious history (in this case, a Christian one) exists but that it is being covered up or denied by usurpers who seek to sup- press the nation’s history as part of a power grab.
The Christian-nation myth also has political ramifications. Put simply, it is often used to motivate people to vote a certain way. Increasingly, the theocrats of the Far Right are assailing what they call the “secular Left,” an all-purpose bogeyman guilty of many crimes, including denying the Christian-nation idea.
But the myth is by no means limited to the religious Right. Polls show great confusion in this area: in 2007, for example, 55 percent of respondents told the First Amendment Center they believed the Constitution establishes America as an officially Christian nation.
Misinformation like this has especially bad consequences for secular humanists. The myth promotes the pernicious idea that non-Christians are second-class citizens in “Christian America.” It leads to the idea that the law mandates only a grudging tolerance of nonbelievers rather than what the Constitution really extends: full and equal rights to all Americans, regardless of what they do or do not believe.
That the Christian-nation myth has many supporters among the religious Right doesn’t mean it has validity. It is, in fact, a form of “historical creationism” that mainstream scholars have repeatedly shown to be fallacious. But, like “scientific creationism,” the Christian-nation myth still has great power and wide acceptance. Humanists must confront—and debunk—the myth wherever it appears.”
Rob Boston is the assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which publishes Church and State magazine.
From: The Secular Web
By: Farrell Till
“Whenever the Supreme Court makes a decision that in any way restricts the intrusion of religion into the affairs of government, a flood of editorials, articles, and letters protesting the ruling is sure to appear in the newspapers. Many protesters decry these decisions on the grounds that they conflict with the wishes and intents of the “founding fathers.”
Such a view of American history is completely contrary to known facts. The primary leaders of the so-called founding fathers of our nation were not Bible-believing Christians; they were deists. Deism was a philosophical belief that was widely accepted by the colonial intelligentsia at the time of the American Revolution. Its major tenets included belief in human reason as a reliable means of solving social and political problems and belief in a supreme deity who created the universe to operate solely by natural laws. The supreme God of the Deists removed himself entirely from the universe after creating it. They believed that he assumed no control over it, exerted no influence on natural phenomena, and gave no supernatural revelation to man. A necessary consequence of these beliefs was a rejection of many doctrines central to the Christian religion. Deists did not believe in the virgin birth, divinity, or resurrection of Jesus, the efficacy of prayer, the miracles of the Bible, or even the divine inspiration of the Bible.
These beliefs were forcefully articulated by Thomas Paine in Age of Reason, a book that so outraged his contemporaries that he died rejected and despised by the nation that had once revered him as “the father of the American Revolution.” To this day, many mistakenly consider him an atheist, even though he was an out spoken defender of the Deistic view of God. Other important founding fathers who espoused Deism were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, James Madison, and James Monroe.
Fundamentalist Christians are currently working overtime to convince the American public that the founding fathers intended to establish this country on “biblical principles,” but history simply does not support their view.” (N.B.: In fact, the first four of the Ten Commandments are in violation of the First Amendment – chasdarwin). “The men mentioned above and others who were instrumental in the founding of our nation were in no sense Bible-believing Christians. Thomas Jefferson, in fact, was fiercely anti-cleric. In a letter to Horatio Spafford in 1814, Jefferson said, “In every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is easier to acquire wealth and power by this combination than by deserving them, and to effect this, they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all mankind, and therefore the safer for their purposes” (George Seldes, The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey Citadel Press, 1983, p. 371). In a letter to Mrs. Harrison Smith, he wrote, “It is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read. By the same test the world must judge me. But this does not satisfy the priesthood. They must have a positive, a declared assent to all their interested absurdities. My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest” (August 6, 1816).
Jefferson was just as suspicious of the traditional belief that the Bible is “the inspired word of God.” He rewrote the story of Jesus as told in the New Testament and compiled his own gospel version known as The Jefferson Bible, which eliminated all miracles attributed to Jesus and ended with his burial. The Jeffersonian gospel account contained no resurrection, a twist to the life of Jesus that was considered scandalous to Christians but perfectly sensible to Jefferson’s Deistic mind. In a letter to John Adams, he wrote, “To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, God, are immaterial is to say they are nothings, or that there is no God, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise” (August 15, 1820). In saying this, Jefferson was merely expressing the widely held Deistic view of his time, which rejected the mysticism of the Bible and relied on natural law and human reason to explain why the world is as it is. Writing to Adams again, Jefferson said, “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter” (April 11, 1823). These were hardly the words of a devout Bible-believer.
Jefferson didn’t just reject the Christian belief that the Bible was “the inspired word of God”; he rejected the Christian system too. In Notes on the State of Virginia, he said of this religion, “There is not one redeeming feature in our superstition of Christianity. It has made one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites” (quoted by newspaper columnist William Edelen, “Politics and Religious Illiteracy,” Truth Seeker, Vol. 121, No. 3, p. 33). Anyone today who would make a statement like this or others we have quoted from Jefferson’s writings would be instantly branded an infidel, yet modern Bible fundamentalists are frantically trying to cast Jefferson in the mold of a Bible believing Christian. They do so, of course, because Jefferson was just too important in the formation of our nation to leave him out if Bible fundamentalists hope to sell their “Christian-nation” claim to the public. Hence, they try to rewrite history to make it appear that men like Thomas Jefferson had intended to build our nation on “biblical principles.” The irony of this situation is that the Christian leaders of Jefferson’s time knew where he stood on “biblical principles,” and they fought desperately, but unsuccessfully, to prevent his election to the presidency. Saul K. Padover‘s biography related the bitterness of the opposition that the clergy mounted against Jefferson in the campaign of 1800
The religious issue was dragged out, and stirred up flames of hatred and intolerance. Clergymen, mobilizing their heaviest artillery of thunder and brimstone, threatened Christians with all manner of dire consequences if they should vote for the “in fidel” from Virginia. This was particularly true in New England, where the clergy stood like Gibraltar against Jefferson (Jefferson A Great American’s Life and Ideas, Mentor Books, 1964, p.116).
William Linn, a Dutch Reformed minister in New York City, made perhaps the most violent of all attacks on Jefferson’s character, all of it based on religious matters. In a pamphlet entitled Serious Considerations on the Election of a President, Linn “accused Jefferson of the heinous crimes of not believing in divine revelation and of a design to destroy religion and `introduce immorality’” (Padover, p. 116). He referred to Jefferson as a “true infidel” and insisted that “(a)n infidel like Jefferson could not, should not, be elected” (Padover, p. 117). He concluded the pamphlet with this appeal for “Christians to defeat the `infidel’ from Virginia”
Will you, then, my fellow-citizens, with all this evidence… vote for Mr. Jefferson?… As to myself, were Mr. Jefferson connected with me by the nearest ties of blood, and did I owe him a thousand obligations, I would not, and could not vote for him. No; sooner than stretch forth my hand to place him at the head of the nation “Let mine arms fall from my shoulder blade, and mine arm be broken from the bone” (quoted by Padover, p. 117).
Why would contemporary clergymen have so vigorously opposed Jefferson’s election if he were as devoutly Christian as modern preachers claim? The answer is that Jefferson was not a Christian, and the preachers of his day knew that he wasn’t.
In the heat of the campaign Jefferson wrote a letter to Benjamin Rush in which he angrily commented on the clerical efforts to assassinate his personal character “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” That statement has been inscribed on Jefferson’s monument in Washington. Most people who read it no doubt think that Jefferson was referring to political tyrants like the King of England, but in reality, he was referring to the fundamentalist clergymen of his day.
After Jefferson became president, he did not compromise his beliefs. As president, he refused to issue Thanksgiving proclamations, a fact that Justice Souter referred to in his concurring opinion with the majority in Lee vs. Weisman, the recent supreme-court decision that ruled prayers at graduation ceremonies unconstitutional. Early in his first presidential term, Jefferson declared his firm belief in the separation of church and state in a letter to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptists “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should `make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”
Before sending the letter to Danbury, Jefferson asked his attorney general, Levi Lincoln, to review it. Jefferson told Lincoln that he considered the letter a means of “sowing useful truths and principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets” (quoted by Rob Boston in “Myths and Mischief,” Church and State, March 1992). If this was indeed Jefferson’s wish, he certainly succeeded. Twice, in Reynolds vs. the United States (1879) and Everson vs. Board of Education (1947), the Supreme Court cited Jefferson’s letter as “an authoritative declaration of the scope of the [First] Amendment” and agreed that the intention of the First Amendment was “to erect `a wall of separation between church and state.’” Confronted with evidence like this, some fundamentalists will admit that Thomas Jefferson was not a Bible-believer but will insist that most of the other “founding fathers”–men like Washington, Madison, and Franklin–were Christians whose intention during the formative years of our country was to establish a “Christian nation.” Again, however, history does not support their claim.
James Madison, Jefferson’s close friend and political ally, was just as vigorously opposed to religious intrusions into civil affairs as Jefferson was. In 1785, when the Commonwealth of Virginia was considering passage of a bill “establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion,” Madison wrote his famous “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” in which he presented fifteen reasons why government should not be come involved in the support of any religion. This paper, long considered a landmark document in political philosophy, was also cited in the majority opinion in Lee vs. Weisman. The views of Madison and Jefferson prevailed in the Virginia Assembly, and in 1786, the Assembly adopted the statute of religious freedom of which Jefferson and Madison were the principal architects. The preamble to this bill said that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.” The statute itself was much more specific than the establishment clause of the U. S. Constitution “Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise [sic] diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities”.
Realizing that whatever legislation an elected assembly passed can be later repealed, Jefferson ended the statute with a statement of contempt for any legislative body that would be so presumptuous “And though we well know this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding assemblies, constituted with the powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable, would be of no effect in law, yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right” (emphasis added).
After George Washington’s death, Christians made an intense effort to claim him as one of their own. This effort was based largely on the grounds that Washington had regularly attended services with his wife at an Episcopal Church and had served as a vestryman in the church. On August 13, 1835, a Colonel Mercer, involved in the effort, wrote to Bishop William White, who had been one of the rectors at the church Washington had attended. In the letter, Mercer asked if “Washington was a communicant of the Protestant Episcopal church, or whether he occasionally went to the communion only, or if ever he did so at all…” (John Remsberg, Six Historic Americans, p. 103). On August 15, 1835, White sent Mercer this reply
In regard to the subject of your inquiry, truth requires me to say that Gen. Washington never received the communion in the churches of which I am the parochial minister. Mrs. Washington was an habitual communicant…. I have been written to by many on that point, and have been obliged to answer them as I now do you (Remsberg, p. 104).
In his Annals of the American Pulpit, The Reverend William B. Sprague, D.D., wrote a biographical sketch of the Reverend James Abercrombie, the other pastor of the congregation Washington attended. In this work, Sprague quoted Abercrombie in confirmation of what White had written to Mercer
One incident in Dr. Abercrombie’s experience as a clergyman, in connection with the Father of his Country, is especially worthy of record; and the following account of it was given by the Doctor himself, in a letter to a friend, in 1831 shortly after there had been some public allusion to it “With respect to the inquiry you make I can only state the following facts; that, as pastor of the Episcopal church, observing that, on sacramental Sundays, Gen. Washington, immediately after the desk and pulpit services, went out with the greater part of the congregation–always leaving Mrs. Washington with the other communicants–she invariably being one–I considered it my duty in a sermon on Public Worship, to state the unhappy tendency of example, particularly of those in elevated stations who uniformly turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. I acknowledge the remark was intended for the President; and as such he received it” (From Annals of the American Pulpit, Vol. 5, p. 394, quoted by Remsberg, pp. 104-105).
Abercrombie went on to explain that he had heard through a senator that Washington had discussed the reprimand with others and had told them that “as he had never been a communicant, were he to become one then it would be imputed to an ostentatious display of religious zeal, arising altogether from his elevated station” (Ibid.). Abercrombie then said that Washington “never afterwards came on the morning of sacramental Sunday” (Ibid.).
Here is firsthand testimony from the rectors of the church that Washington attended with his wife, and they both claimed that he never participated in the communion service. Writing in the Episcopal Recorder, the Reverend E. D. Neill said that Washington “was not a communicant, notwithstanding all the pretty stories to the contrary, and after the close of the sermon on sacramental Sundays, [he] had fallen into the habit of retiring from the church while his wife remained and communed” (Remsberg, p. 107). In this article, Neill also made reference to Abercrombie’s reprimand of Washington from the pulpit, so those who knew Washington personally or who knew those who had known him all seem to agree that Washington was never a “communicant.” Remsberg continued at length in his chapter on Washington to quote the memoirs and letters of Washington’s associates, who all agreed that the president had never once been known to participate in the communion service, a fact that weakens the claim that he was a Christian. Would preachers today consider someone a devout Christian if he just attended services with his wife but never took the communion?
As for Washington’s membership in the vestry, for several years he did actively serve as one of the twelve vestrymen of Truro parish, Virginia, as had also his father. This, however, cannot be construed as proof that he was a Christian believer. The vestry at that time was also the county court, so in order to have certain political powers, it was necessary for one to be a vestryman. On this matter, Paul F. Boller made this observation
Actually, under the Anglican establishment in Virginia before the Revolution, the duties of a parish vestry were as much civil as religious in nature and it is not possible to deduce any exceptional religious zeal from the mere fact of membership.* Even Thomas Jefferson was a vestryman for a while. Consisting of the leading gentlemen of the parish in position and influence (many of whom, like Washington, were also at one time or other members of the County Court and of the House of Burgeses), the parish vestry, among other things, levied the parish taxes, handled poor relief, fixed land boundaries in the parish, supervised the construction, furnishing, and repairs of churches, and hired ministers and paid their salaries (George Washington & Religion, Dallas Southern Methodist University Press, 1963, p. 26).
A footnote where the asterisk appears cited Meade as proof that avowed unbelievers sometimes served as vestrymen “As Bishop William Meade put it, somewhat nastily, in 1857, `Even Mr. Jefferson and [George] Wythe, who did not conceal their disbelief in Christianity, took their parts in the duties of vestrymen, the one at Williamsburg, the other at Albermarle; for they wished to be men of influence’” (William Meade, Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia, 2 vols., Philadelphia, 1857, I, p. 191).
Clearly, then, one cannot assume from Washington’s presence at church services and his membership in the Truro parish vestry that he was a Christian believer. Is there any other evidence to suggest that he was a Christian? The Reverend Bird Wilson, an Episcopal minister in Albany, New York, preached a sermon in October 1831 in which he stated that “among all our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not of more than Unitarianism” (Paul F. Boller, George Washington & Religion, pp. 14-15). He went on to describe Washington as a “great and good man” but “not a professor of religion.” Wilson said that he was “really a typical eighteenth century Deist, not a Christian, in his religious outlook” (Ibid.). Wilson wasn’t just speaking about matters that he had not researched, because he had carefully investigated his subject before he preached this sermon. Among others, Wilson had inquired of the Reverend Abercrombie [identified earlier as the rector of the church Washington had attended] concerning Washing ton’s religious views. Abercrombie’s response was brief and to the point “Sir, Washington was a Deist” (Remsberg, p. 110). Those, then, who were best positioned to know Washington’s private religious beliefs did not consider him a Christian, and the Reverend Abercrombie, who knew him personally and pastored the church he attended with his wife flatly said that Washington was a Deist.
The Reverend Bird Wilson, who was just a few years removed from being a contemporary of the so-called founding fathers, said further in the above-mentioned sermon that “the founders of our nation were nearly all Infidels, and that of the presidents who had thus far been elected [George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson] _not a one had professed a belief in Christianity_” (Remsberg, p. 120, emphasis added).
Dr. Wilson’s sermon, which was published in the Albany Daily Advertiser the month it was delivered also made an interesting observation that flatly contradicts the frantic efforts of present-day fundamentalists to make the “founding fathers” orthodox Christians
When the war was over and the victory over our enemies won, and the blessings and happiness of liberty and peace were secured, the Constitution was framed and God was neglected. He was not merely forgotten. He was absolutely voted out of the Constitution. The proceedings, as published by Thompson, the secretary, and the history of the day, show that the question was gravely debated whether God should be in the Constitution or not, and after a solemn debate he was deliberately voted out of it…. There is not only in the theory of our government no recognition of God’s laws and sovereignty, but its practical operation, its administration, has been conformable to its theory. Those who have been called to administer the government have not been men making any public profession of Christianity…. Washington was a man of valor and wisdom. He was esteemed by the whole world as a great and good man; but he was not a professing Christian (quoted by Remsberg, pp. 120-121, emphasis added).
The publication of Wilson’s sermon in the Daily Advertiser attracted the attention of Robert Owen, who then personally visited Wilson to discuss the matter of Washington’s religious views. Owen summarized the results of that visit in a letter to Amos Gilbert dated November 13, 1831
I called last evening on Dr. Wilson, as I told you I should, and I have seldom derived more pleasure from a short interview with anyone. Unless my discernment of character has been grievously at fault, I met an honest man and sincere Christian. But you shall have the particulars. A gentleman of this city accompanied me to the Doctor’s residence. We were very courteously received. I found him a tall, commanding figure, with a countenance of much benevolence, and a brow indicative of deep thought, apparently approaching fifty years of age. I opened the interview by stating that though personally a stranger to him, I had taken the liberty of calling in consequence of having perused an interesting sermon of his, which had been reported in the Daily Advertiser of this city, and regarding which, as he probably knew, a variety of opinions prevailed. In a discussion, in which I had taken a part, some of the facts as there reported had been questioned; and I wished to know from him whether the reporter had fairly given his words or not…. I then read to him from a copy of the Daily Advertiser the paragraph which regards Washington, beginning, “Washington was a man,” etc. and ending, “absented himself altogether from the church.” “I endorse,” said Dr. Wilson, with emphasis, “every word of that. Nay, I do not wish to conceal from you any part of the truth, even what I have not given to the public. Dr. Abercrombie said more than I have repeated. At the close of our conversation on the subject his emphatic expression was–for I well remember the very words–`Sir, Washington was a Deist.’”
In concluding the interview, Dr. Wilson said “I have diligently perused every line that Washington ever gave to the public, and I do not find one expression in which he pledges him self as a believer in Christianity. I think anyone who will candidly do as I have done, will come to the conclusion that he was a Deist and nothing more” (Remsberg, pp. 121-122, emphasis added).
In February 1800, after Washington’s death, Thomas Jefferson wrote this statement in his personal journal
Dr. Rush told me (he had it from Asa Green) that when the clergy addressed General Washington, on his departure from the government, it was observed in their consultation that he had never, on any occasion, said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion, and they thought they should so pen their address as to force him at length to disclose publicly whether he was a Christian or not. However, he observed, the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly, except that, which he passed over without notice….
I know that Gouverneur Morris [principal drafter of the constitution], who claimed to be in his secrets, and believed him self to be so, has often told me that General Washington believed no more in that system [Christianity] than he did” (quoted in Remsberg, p. 123 from Jefferson’s Works, Vol. 4, p. 572, emphasis added).
The “Asa” Green referred to by Jefferson was probably the Reverend Ashbel Green, who was chaplain to congress during Washington’s administration. If so, he was certainly in a position to know the information that “Asa” Green had passed along to Jefferson. Reverend Ashbel Green became the president of Princeton College after serving eight years as the congressional chaplain. He was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a prominent figure in the colonial Presbyterian Church (Remsberg, p. 124). His testimony has to be given more weight than what modern day clerics may think about Washington’s religious beliefs.
Dr. Moncure D. Conway, who was once employed to edit a volume of Washington’s letters, wrote an article entitled “The Religion of Washington,” from which Remsberg quoted the following
In editing a volume of Washington’s private letters for the Long Island Historical Society, I have been much impressed by indications that this great historic personality represented the Liberal religious tendency of his time. That tendency was to respect religious organizations as part of the social order, which required some minister to visit the sick, bury the dead, and perform marriages. It was considered in nowise inconsistent with disbelief of the clergyman’s doctrines to contribute to his support, or even to be a vestryman in his church.
In his many letters to his adopted nephew and younger relatives, he admonishes them about their manners and morals, but in no case have I been able to discover any suggestion that they should read the Bible, keep the Sabbath, go to church, or any warning against Infidelity.
Washington had in his library the writings of Paine, Priestley, Voltaire, Frederick the Great, and other heretical works (pp. 128-129, emphasis added).
In a separate submission to the New York Times, Conway said that “Washington, like most scholarly Virginians of his time, was a Deist.... Contemporary evidence shows that in mature life Washington was a Deist, and did not commune, which is quite consistent with his being a vestryman. In England, where vestries have secular functions, it is not unusual for Unitarians to vestrymen, there being no doctrinal subscription required for that office. Washington’s letters during the Revolution occasionally indicate his recognition of the hand of Providence in notable public events, but in the thousands of his letters I have never been able to find the name of Christ or any reference to him” (quoted by Remsberg, pp. 129-130, emphasis added).
The absence of Christian references in Washington’s personal papers and conversation was noted by historian Clinton Rossiter
The last and least skeptical of these rationalists [Washington] loaded his First Inaugural Address with appeals to the “Great Author,” “Almighty Being,” “invisible hand,” and “benign parent of the human race,” but apparently could not bring himself to speak the word “God” (“The United States in 1787,” 1787 The Grand Convention, New York W, W, Norton & Co., 1987, p. 36).
These terms by which Washington referred to “God” in his inaugural address are dead giveaways that he was Deistic in his views. The uninformed see the expression “nature’s God” in documents like the Declaration of Independence and wrongly interpret it as evidence of Christian belief in those who wrote and signed it, but in reality it is a sure indication that the document was Deistic in origin. Deists preferred not to use the unqualified term “God” in their conversation and writings because of its Christian connotations. Accordingly, they substituted expressions like those that Washington used in his inaugural address or else they referred to their creator as “nature’s God,” the deity who had created the world and then left it to operate by natural law.
Moncure Conway also stated that “(t)here is no evidence to show that Washington, even in early life, was a believer in Christianity” (Ibid.). Remsberg also noted that Conway stated that Washington’s father had been a Deist and that his mother “was not excessively religious” (Ibid.).
Christians have often claimed that most non-Christians make death-bed professions of faith when they realize that they are dying. These claims almost always turn out to be unverifiable assertions, but Conway made it very clear that Washington, even on his death bed, made no profession of faith
When the end was near, Washington said to a physician present–an ancestor of the writer of these notes–”I am not afraid to go.” With his right fingers on his left wrist he counted his own pulses, which beat his funeral march to the grave. “He bore his distress,” so next day wrote one present, “with astonishing fortitude, and conscious, as he declared, several hours before his death, of his approaching dissolution, he resigned his breath with the greatest composure, having the full possession of his reason to the last moment.” Mrs. Washington knelt beside his bed, but no word passed on religious matters. With the sublime taciturnity which had marked his life he passed out of existence, leaving no act or word which can be turned to the service of superstition, cant, or bigotry” (quoted by Remsberg, pp. 132-133, emphasis added).
Some Christians were of course involved in the shaping of our nation, but their influence was minor compared to the ideological contributions of the Deists who pressed for the formation of a secular nation. In describing the composition of the delegations to the constitutional convention, the historian Clinton Rossiter said this about their religious views
Whatever else it might turn out to be, the Convention would not be a `Barebone’s Parliament.’ Although it had its share of strenuous Christians like Strong and Bassett, ex-preachers like Baldwin and Williamson, and theologians like Johnson and Ellsworth, the gathering at Philadelphia was largely made up of men in whom the old fires were under control or had even flickered out. Most were nominally members of one of the traditional churches in their part of the country–the New Englanders Congregationalists, and Presbyterians, the Southerners Episcopalians, and the men of the Middle States everything from backsliding Quakers to stubborn Catholics–and most were men who could take their religion or leave it along. Although no one in this sober gathering would have dreamed of invoking the Goddess of Reason, neither would anyone have dared to proclaim that his opinions had the support of the God of Abraham and Paul. The Convention of 1787 was highly rationalist and even secular in spirit” (“The Men of Philadelphia,” 1787 The Grand Convention, New York W. W. Norton & Company, 1987, pp. 147-148, emphasis added).
Needless to say, this view of the religious beliefs of the constitutional delegates differs radically from the picture that is often painted by modern fundamentalist leaders.
At the constitutional convention, Luther Martin a Maryland representative urged the inclusion of some kind of recognition of Christianity in the constitution on the grounds that “it would be at least decent to hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism.” How ever, the delegates to the convention rejected this proposal and, as the Reverend Bird Wilson stated in his sermon quoted above, drafted the constitution as a secular document. God was nowhere mentioned in it.
As a matter of fact, the document that was finally approved at the constitutional convention mentioned religion only once, and that was in Article VI, Section 3, which stated that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Now if the delegates at the convention had truly intended to establish a “Christian nation,” why would they have put a statement like this in the constitution and nowhere else even refer to religion? Common sense is enough to convince any reasonable person that if the intention of these men had really been the formation of a “Christian nation,” the constitution they wrote would have surely made several references to God, the Bible, Jesus, and other accouterments of the Christian religion, and rather than expressly forbidding ANY religious test as a condition for holding public office in the new nation, it would have stipulated that allegiance to Christianity was a requirement for public office. After all, when someone today finds a tract left at the front door of his house or on the windshield of his car, he doesn’t have to read very far to determine that its obvious intention is to further the Christian religion. Are we to assume, then, that the founding fathers wanted to establish a Christian nation but were so stupid that they couldn’t write a constitution that would make their purpose clear to those who read it?
Clearly, the founders of our nation intended government to maintain a neutral posture in matters of religion. Anyone who would still insist that the intention of the founding fathers was to establish a Christian nation should review a document written during the administration of George Washington. Article 11 of the Treaty with Tripoli declared in part that “the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion...” (Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States, ed. Hunter Miller, Vol. 2, U. S. Government Printing Office, 1931, p. 365). This treaty was negotiated by the American diplomat Joel Barlow during the administration of George Washington. Washington read it and approved it, although it was not ratified by the senate until John Adams had become president. When Adams signed it, he added this statement to his signature “Now, be it known, that I, John Adams, President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the said treaty, do, by and within the consent of the Senate, accept, ratify and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof.” This document and the approval that it received from our nation’s first and second presidents and the U. S. Senate as constituted in 1797 do very little to support the popular notion that the founding fathers established our country as a “Christian nation.”
Confronted with evidence like the foregoing, diehard fundamentalists will argue that even if the so-called founding fathers did not purposefully establish a Christian nation our country was founded by people looking for religious liberty, and our population has always been overwhelmingly Christian, but even these points are more dubious than most Christian-nation advocates dare suspect. Admittedly, some colonists did come to America in search of religious freedom, but the majority were driven by monetary motives. They simply wanted to improve their economic status. In New England, where the quest for religious freedom had been a strong motive for leaving the Old World, the colonists quickly established governments that were just as intolerant, if not more so, of religious dissent than what they had fled from in Europe. Quakers were exiled and then executed if they returned, and “witches,” condemned on flimsy spectral evidence, were hanged. This is hardly a part of our past that modern fundamentalists can point to as a model to be emulated, although their rhetoric often gives cause to wonder if this isn’t exactly what they want today.
As for the religious beliefs of the general population in pre and post revolutionary times, it wasn’t nearly as Christian as most people think. Lynn R. Buzzard, executive director of the Christian Legal Society (a national organization of Christian lawyers) has admitted that there is little proof to support the claim that the colonial population was overwhelmingly Christian. “Not only were a good many of the revolutionary leaders more deist than Christian,” Buzzard wrote, “but the actual number of church members was rather small. Perhaps as few as five percent of the populace were church members in 1776″ (Schools They Haven’t Got a Prayer, Elgin, Illinois David C. Cook Publishing, 1982, p. 81). Historian Richard Hofstadter says that “perhaps as many as ninety percent of the Americans were unchurched in 1790″ (Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, New York Alfred A. Knopf, 1974, p. 82) and goes on to say that “mid-eighteenth century America had a smaller proportion of church members than any other nation in Christendom,” noting that “in 1800 [only] about one of every fifteen Americans was a church member” (p. 89). Historian James MacGregor Burns agrees with these figures, noting that “(t)here had been a `very wintry season’ for religion every where in America after the Revolution” (The American Experiment Vineyard of Liberty, New York Vintage Books, 1983, p. 493). He adds that “ninety percent of the people lay outside the churches.”
Historians, who deal with facts rather than wishes, paint an entirely different picture of the religious composition of America during its formative years than the image of a nation founded on “biblical principles” that modern Bible fundamentalists are trying to foist upon us. Our founding fathers established a religiously neutral nation, and a tragedy of our time is that so many people are striving to undo all that was accomplished by the wisdom of the founding fathers who framed for us a constitution that would protect the religious freedom of everyone regardless of personal creed. An even greater tragedy is that they many times hoodwink the public into believing that they are only trying to make our nation what the founding fathers would want it to be. Separation of church and state is what the founding fathers wanted for the nation, and we must never allow anyone to distort history to make it appear otherwise.”