S3:E15 Faith of the Founding Fathers
Were the founding fathers of the United States Christians or Deists? That question has been at the heart of a debate that comes up all the time in the Church: is the United States a Christian nation?
Our guest for this episode is Dr. Gregg L Frazer. He’s the author of The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders and God Against the Revolution.
- Jefferson’s letter about his beliefs
- A searchable database of founding father documents
- John Adam’s diary entry from Feb 13, 1756
- Were the founding fathers Deists or Christians?
- Was George Washington a Christian?
- Was John Adams a Christian?
- Was Alexander Hamilton a Christian?
- Was Thomas Jefferson a Christian?
- What does the Constitution say about God?
- What did Christians believe in the 1700’s?
- Did Benjamin Franklin build churches?
- Who was Joseph Priestley?
CS: CHRIS STARON (host)
GF: Dr. Gregg Frazer
JP: Josh Phillips
CS: I was recently at the Spark Christian Podcast Conference where Truce won both Best Produced Podcast and Best Male Podcast Host. Which is so flattering. But, before all that, I pulled two cool ladies aside…
TS: Tina Smith
AA: Alecia Aviant
CS: …to do what seemed at first like a trivial exercise.
CS: I’m just gonna grab something here out of my bag. What is that?
TS: Trail mix?
CS: Trail mix. Can we open that up real quick? Can you open that up? So we’re just going to kind of pour it out here a little bit. So what do we have there?
TS: We have peanuts, ooh… yogurt covered raisins. What are these?
AA: Those are regular raisins.
TS: These are walnuts.
CS: Lots of good stuff, right? Now, what do you think are your favorite pieces in this batch?
TS: The yogurt covered raisins and probably the walnuts.
AA: I would say raisins, not the yogurt but the regular raisins.
AA: Yes. Those were my favorite growing up and I called them “puffies”.
CS: (laughs) I’m going to just pull out all the yogurt raisins. Everyone says they love them, so we’ll just pull them out and put them aside. We’ve still got a pile in the middle. I just want to ask you: is that still trail mix?
TS: Yeah. Still trail mix.
AA: I would say so.
CS: Okay, what if I pull out the other raisins. I know you like the raisins. So we have no yogurt raisins, we have no regular raisins. Is that still trail mix?
TS: It’s not very aesthetically pleasing at this point.
AA: It’s becoming less and less trail mix as we go.
CS: Okay. So, what we’ve got now is peanuts, walnuts, and pineapple. And it… you’re right, it’s all yellow and brown. It does not look good. We’ll pull out the pineapple bits as best I can. And… is that still trail mix?
TS: No, now it’s mixed nuts.
AA: You’re right! Mixed nuts.
TS: It’s mixed nuts.
CS: When did it cross that line? What is the burier?
TS: When you took all the good stuff out. When you got rid of all of the fruit! We have no more fruit!
CS: When does this trail mix stop being trail mix?
It feels like a silly exercise, but this is how a lot of us approach Christianity. We pick out the stuff we’re not cool with and throw it away. There are a lot of ingredients, though. We can toss aside concepts, ideas, theology… and it still kinda looks like Christianity.
But is it?
I’ll let you in on a little secret: the founding fathers of the United States did the same thing. That fact is at the heart of a debate that is really popular in the Christian world. Some of us, not all of us, believe that the United States is a Christian nation. In the next few episodes, we’re going to be looking into whether or not that’s actually true. Is the US a Christian nation, what do we hope to gain by calling it one, and just how much of historic, orthodox Christianity can we ditch before it’s not really Christianity anymore?
You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian church. We press pause on the culture wars in order to explore how we got here and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.
I want to introduce you to our guide for the next few weeks.
GF: My name is Dr. Gregg Frazer. I teach history and political studies at the Master’s University in California.
CS: He’s the author of two books, “The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders” and “God Against the Revolution: The Loyalist Clergy’s Case Against the Revolution”.
We’re going to start… with a story. About a man named Joseph Priestley who lived in the 1700’s.
GF: Priestley was a… an interesting character. He was kind of a… on one hand a scientist, in fact, he’s generally recognized as getting credit for discovering oxygen.
CS: As well as seven other gasses. He also wrote about how to carbonate water. Think about him the next time you drink a seltzer1. This was around the time of the American Revolution, which, a few years later, helped to spark the French Revolution. Priestley supported both. He lived in England, which was not exactly thrilled with the idea of revolution. Obviously… because it was an empire spanning several continents. The notion that a people could rise up against their god-appointed leader… that was obviously not cool with them.
Priestley saw the French Revolution as a sign of the end times from the Bible. His views were not shared by his fellow Englishmen who, in 1791… burned his house and lab.
The guy had some unpopular ideas for his time. Not just concerning politics… but also religion.
GF: He was a… a preacher. He didn’t have a church of his own because he was too radical. But.. he wrote a multi-volume series of books on what he called the corruptions, the history of the corruptions of Christianity.
CS: Which Thomas Jefferson liked so much that he referred to as “the basis of my own faith”. So, you know, an important book.
GF: Like a said a multi-volume work in which he takes on basically most of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity and argues that they are corruptions, that they are not true Christianity.
CS: This was the era of the Enlightenment, the 1700’s. That period in history class we all kind of forgot about. You can guess what it was about based on one of its other names: the Age of Reason. The idea was that the problems of humanity could be solved by using our gifts of reason. If something did not fit with human reason… it simply wasn’t true.
Priestley was one of the preachers who applied ideas from guys like John Locke, Emmanuel Kant, Voltaire, to theology. He could read through the Bible… If a story or teaching from the Bible didn’t fit… he figured he could just throw it out.
And keep whatever he thought was rational. In his mind, what was left was the heart of Christianity, the true stuff.
GF: For him, true Christianity was the moral teachings of Jesus.
CS: Love your neighbor as yourself. Do unto others as you’d have done to you. A lot of the sermon on the mount. Basic morality. He believed that nature could teach us about God’s… nature. Bird and trees, rain and thunder… and he determined in his own reason, that God was, essentially, benevolent. He was good to his people. If something didn’t fit his idea of God’s benevolence… he didn’t keep it.
God’s wrath? Hardly benevolent. So he put that in the shredder. Enlightenment theology left a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor. Maybe the biggest idea, one of the first to be cut out, was the concept of Jesus’ divinity.
Priestly took out ye olde chainsaw and…
…cut that part out.
GF: So he denied the deity of Christ, he denied original sin, he denied the atonement, the atoning work of Christ. He denied just about every fundamental doctrine of Christianity.
CS: He kept the morals. Ideas of peace, and turning the other cheek. The greeting card stuff. The stuff that people post on Instagram. Without Jesus’ divinity holding him back, he could pretty much create his own religion… that still looked a little like traditional Christianity. When, in truth, he was essentially a Unitarian.
This may appear kinda benign. Priestley was just some guy who isolated oxygen and wrote books. Not a big deal, right? But the thing about ideas is that they have a way of spreading. Some of the people influenced by Priestley? Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and John Adams.
GF: Benjamin Franklin led the effort to build a church in Philadelphia that was non-denominational so that anybody… basically, the way he put it… so that anybody who wanted to could preach there but he primarily built it to give a place for Joseph Priestley to periodically preach. Because he was so, sort of, outrageous that he wasn’t welcomed in most churches.
CS: Franklin was going to build a church for this guy in the United States. Someone who taught Christianity minus Jesus’ divinity.
Priestly figures heavily in the shaping of these men, along with other preachers who denied Jesus partially or fully. Guys like Samuel Clarke, Charles Chauncey, Jonathan Mayhew… These guys tried to pull apart the central tenants of biblically orthodox Christianity. In time, influencing the men who then shaped America. Using the values of the Enlightenment to pick out the metaphorical raisins and keeping the cashews.
His ideas, and those of people like him, went on to shape not just the theological fabric of their day… but the United States itself.
We’ll be right back after this message.
If you’ve studied the founding fathers, you’ve probably heard the argument that they were deists. Or that they were Christians. But, Doctor Frazer argues… that binary categorization is not good enough.
GF: Yeah, my… what actually spurred me to write that book is frustration at the sort of two-sides of the argument. You have these secularists who argued that all the founding fathers were deists or if not deists rank secularists who just wanted to separate all religion from public life. And then on the other side of the argument, you had the Christian American camp that argued that the American founders were virtually all Christians who wanted to, intended to create a Christian nation based on biblical principles and I was frustrated because I didn’t think either of those was right.
CS: So, instead… he researched their beliefs and came up with a third option. But in order to understand that third option… We should probably define the two big ingredients that were mixed together to make it: Deism and Christianity.
First up: Deism. Oooh.. big scary word. Essentially, it’s the idea that God created the world.
(sounds of explosions and magic)
He got the whole thing in motion. Making men and women. Cows and ducks. Building mountains. Filling the oceans. He got the whole thing going, got it up and running… and then… left.
(sounds die down)
Left it to run itself. There is a God, He created the world, but He is not actively participating in the world. Thus, Jesus was not God because God walking among us is the ultimate example of God getting involved. They didn’t think that could happen.
That is deism in a nutshell.
Christianity, on the other hand, features a God who is really involved in the world. He created it. Cows and ducks. Men and women. Rain and thunder. Sending His Son Jesus to die, to take on Himself the wrath of God that we deserved because of our sin. If we believe in His sacrifice, we are forgiven of our sin and heaven is open to us.
Apart from that basic truth, Christianity can mean a lot of different things. Calvinism, Pentecostalism, and Catholicism, for example, are really different from each other. But they all still have the same basic guts.
For his first book, Gregg went back and determined not just what Christianity means today… but also what it meant back in the 1700s. Using the creeds and confessions of that era.
GF: To see what those denominations, what those churches said that they believed and what constituted Christianity.
CS: There is a remarkable similarity in what the various denominations believed at the time. He’s got a helpful chart in the book that lays this out. Comparing Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Catholics and what they believed.
GF: There were ten fundamental doctrines that all of them ascribed to.
CS: Catholic or Protestant. Ten big things in common.
GF: I used that then as the definition of Christianity for the purposes of the book and it just so happens that I think all ten of them are, in fact, fundamental doctrines of Christianity so it made it easy to… to adopt that.
CS: This is going to be a lot, so… let’s take a minute. Gather ourselves. Deep breath…
Get ready for a theology sprint. A literal sprint. I’m going to relay all of this… while sprinting.
CS: All right. So, who am I here with?
JP: Josh Phillips.
CS: Ready, set, go.
GF: One is the trinity.
CS: Okay, so the first topic is the Trinity. It’s basically the idea that there is God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.
JP: One being, three separate, distinct persons.
CS: Nice! Okay! That one was easy.
GF: Therefore, that leads to the second one. That is the deity of Jesus Christ.
CS: So the deity. That Jesus is God.
JP: I would say he actually refers to Himself as the Son of Man, which we reference that back to Daniel 7. That’s where we see that He is God.
CS: Hoo! I’m starting to feel it. Are you?
GF: The third is that there is a God… that God is active in human affairs.
JP: I think one of the best examples of it is His suffering. That’s something that we can relate to. Anything that we’re going through, you know, He did it. He suffered on this world just like we do.
CS: Oh, there’s a leaf blower up ahead so we probably should turn around and go that way. All right.
GF: Fourth, original sin.
CS: Basically, the idea that there was an actual, physical Adam and Even and their sin started the course of events across the whole of humanity that we are all now sinners who are fallen away from God. And there is this separation between us and God.
JP: I agree with that.
JP: That’s well put.
GF: Fifth is the virgin birth.
CS: It’s just like what it sounds like. Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in her. And Jesus’ father is God.
JP: That’s right. Immaculate conception, I believe, is what it’s referred to.
GF: Sixth is the atoning work of Christ.
JP: Death had to occur for our sin. It was the only payment that could be made for our transgressions.
CS: Now there’s a lawnmower. It is February! Who is moving their lawn? This is a bad neighborhood.
GF: The next one is the resurrection.
CS: Jesus actually died, He was crucified on a cross and then rose from the dead. And that is a key belief in Christianity.
JP: It’s a huge claim. It separates us from a lot of other beliefs
GF: And then eight is eternal punishment for sin.
CS: This is one we don’t like to talk about, but it’s fundamental and it’s pretty clear biblically that there is an actual hell. And those who don’t accept the free gift of Jesus’ death on the cross for them… well, it’s not going to look good. The good news, of course, is if we trust in Jesus we’re saved by the grace of God, not based on works. So we’ve got two leaf blowers, an airplane, and a highway.
JP: The oxygen level is lowering.
GF: Ninth is justification by faith.
JP: The Bible says we’re saved by grace through faith. Works alone can’t do it. It’s the one thing that sets us apart from other religions is that we can’t earn our way.
CS: This is the one asterisk for Catholics. Some Catholics would argue that we are saved by faith, yes, but also by works as well. I’m making sure we’re still recording.
JP: Oh, gosh, I hope so.
CS: We are. Yes. (laughing)
JP: I’m going to die.
GF: And then tenth is the inspiration and the authority of scripture, of the Bible.
CS: In the 1700’s all of those denominations believed that the Bible was the Word of God. That it is wholly inspired, that it is true.
JP: I could elaborate more in a less cardiovascular setting.
CS: Well, the purpose of this was to keep it short, so I think we’ve succeeded.
JP: Yes, you have.
CS: We’re crossing the finish line. And that is our theological sprint. I want you to plug your podcast because you’ve earned it.
JP: Let me catch my breath. We’re the Switching Lenses podcast where we evaluate culture, society, and politics, break it down from an apologetics level.
CS: Praise God. Thank you so much!
JP: Thank you, Chris.
All of this stuff was agreed upon by the churches in the pre-revolutionary United States.
In his book, Doctor Frazer makes the case that the founding Fathers, he picks eight, were neither deists or Christian. They, like the Enlightenment preachers, believed that they could pick and choose whatever they liked. Whatever fit their ideas of what was within reason. Whatever was rational.
GF: Those who believe they were deists or rank secularists look for evidence in their writings that they weren’t Christians. And you can find that evidence and so they said, okay, aha, they must have been deists or secularists. And then on the other side, the Christian America people do the same thing but the other way around. They look for evidence to show that they weren’t deists and then they find that and they say, “aha. They weren’t deists therefore they must be Christians”. Well, that’s only true if there is this dichotomy. And so the evidence, the bulk of the evidence in my book comes from private correspondence, diary entries, personal memoranda, of the key founders rather than public pronouncements because public pronouncements are made for the benefit of the public and so it doesn’t necessarily tell you what they actually believed. One of the famous Thanksgiving Day proclamations, for example, was put out by John Adams includes a number of things that he absolutely, vehemently opposed belief in. But they’re there because that’s what the public wants to see in public documents. And so much of the Christian America argument is made off of public documents that are written for the public for public approval. In fact, in a number of cases… I ran across a number of cases and letters in which people like Thomas Jefferson, for example, would tell the person at the end of the letter, “after you read this letter, destroy it so that no one sees it.” Jefferson actually went after the widow of one of the guys he wrote to get back a letter that he had written to him so that it wouldn’t become public. And so, it’s in these private writings that they tell us what they really believe. Not what they’re saying for the public’s benefit. Whereas sometimes they sounded like they were deists or secularists and sometimes they sounded like they were Christian is because they weren’t really either. They were something in the middle that borrowed from both of those and so I invented the term “theistic rationalism.”
CS: Theistic rationalism mixes ideas of rationalism (that you can pick and choose whatever you want), natural religion (the idea that God is evident in nature), and orthodox Christianity.
GF: They retained as much of Christianity as they could but rejected whatever they thought was irrational in Christianity. Likewise, with deism, they retained as much of that as they could but rejected what they thought was irrational and as a result, they ended up rejecting both of the critical elements of deism and most of the nine, at least, of the ten fundamental doctrines of Christianity. At least as the 18th-century church identified it.
So which stuff from our theology marathon would they have liked? For starters, that God is active in human affairs. That’s… it. They didn’t agree with any of the other parts. No trinity, no atonement, no scripture… they could take it or leave it. Critically, and I know I’ve said this a few times already but we need to drive this home… they believed that Jesus was not God. A good man, but not God. Something, honestly, you hear a lot when you share your faith with others. So, their approach to scripture was like going to a buffet: take as much as you want, but leave behind anything you don’t like.
GF: Thomas Jefferson famously took scissors or a straight edge, as one of my critics says, I don’t know how he knows that… but anyway he took something to cut with and he cut out all the supernatural, miraculous elements in the four gospels and then pasted what was literally, pasted what was left back together… and you can still buy it today. It’s still in print. It’s called the Jefferson Bible. That isn’t what he called it. But there he was cutting out the parts of the Bible that, to him, were irrational and didn’t match with his reason. That is the supernatural stuff. And then pieced it back together to have the moral teachings of Jesus, which is what he considered to be valid.
CS: Jefferson is often disregarded in these discussions as an outlier. He and Franklin were the bad boys of the Declaration and Constitution. Jefferson flat out disagreed with the central tenants of Christianity. In the footnote of a letter to William Short from October 31, 1819, he stated it clearly. By the way, next time you write a letter to a friend, add footnotes. Why don’t we do that anymore?
He wrote that the teachings of Jesus should be “rescued” from ideas like:
JEFFERSON: “…the immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection & visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration, election orders of Hierarchy etc”
EN: Did Thomas Jefferson believe anything?
CS: (to the reader of the quote) He didn’t believe any of that.
EN: All right, okay.
CS: Playing the role of Thomas Jefferson is Eric Nevins of the Halfway There podcast.
CS: See? Jefferson was not a fan of Jesus being God. Yet, Christian Americans point to his writing in the Declaration, which mentions God, as proof he was a Christian. Nope. He looked like one, but did not believe the fundamental tenants of Christianity.
How about another example?
John Adams, second President of the United States, called the idea of Jesus’ divinity absurd. He did this in a diary entry on February 13, 1756. I’ll have a link to that on the website if you want to read it.
George Washington – the first President of the United States, serves as an interesting case study too. He believed in the power of prayer, attended church regularly, and said that the morals of Christianity were good for society. But scholars have noted that in more than 20,000 pages of writing, he only referred to Jesus by name one time. And even that is called into question because it’s not in his handwriting. He often had aides writing letters for him, which he would sign, perhaps without reading them.
Washington also never claimed to be a Christian. Jefferson wrote that Washington was not one. And the clergymen at Washington’s church in Philadelphia also denied that George was a believer. He refused to take communion and was a leader in the Freemasons, a social group that explicitly taught a supreme being but denied salvation through Christ.
The fact is, these guys looked Christian but did not believe the central tenants. They believed it was good for teaching morality, even though Franklin, Jefferson, and Gouverneur Morris were known womanizers.
GF: I don’t claim that everyone in the founders was a theistic rationalist. I studied eight key founders and concluded that those eight were all theistic rationalists.
CS: FYI, for all of the Alexander Hamilton fans out there… he became a Christian near the end of his life. And the end of the musical for those paying attention.
GF: Um, I know there were Christians among the founders. Absolutely there were Christians among the founders: John Jay, Roger Sherman, John Witherspoon and others. There were believers among the founders. I don’t think there were any deists, ironically, among the founders unless you go deep enough to get to Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen. That’s pretty far down the list of founders. I think people should be very leery of someone who tells you, “the founders believed this”. Because the founders were discreet individuals who held different beliefs. They didn’t all believe the same thing in lock step. They’re like politicians today. We can’t say, “politicians belief…” right? There’s a little bit of difference between what Donald Trump believes and what Nancy Peloci believes. And the same thing was true of the founders. They weren’t just a mass. They were individuals, and so I try not… you should be leery about people saying, “the founders believed” on anything other than what they actually wrote, like the Constitution.
CS: It’s important that we know what these guys believed. Because there is a movement out there saying that the US is a Christian nation, founded by Christian men. That isn’t really true. It is a nation that was deeply influenced by the morals of Christianity, yes. But, fundamentally, Christianity isn’t about morals. We are saved by faith. Not by works, not by being good enough. To say that Christianity is a religion of morals is to miss the point entirely and to skip historic, orthodox beliefs.
Just to give you a taste of what they believed, we’ll go over some basic parts of Christianity…
Like, miracles… do miracles happen? Nope. None of those guys believed in all of the miracles of the Bible. Though Franklin did fancy at least one. Turning water into wine. Go figure. The guy liked his wine. Did they believe that Jesus was God? None of them. Not Adams, not Franklin, not Madison.
Did they go to church? Yes. They went to church. Isn’t that crazy? They didn’t believe in Jesus but they went to church anyway! Partially to keep up a public persona. And, they believed that it was important to learn morals.
Let’s go back to that illustration about trail mix at the beginning of the show. The theistic rationalists laid out in the book believed they could pick and choose. Remember what their primary requirement was to determine if God actually did what the Bible claimed? It had to fit their ideas of his benevolence. His being good. If it didn’t fit their human, rational ideas, they threw it out like we might ignore the parts of trail mix we don’t like. Just as trail mix stops being trail mix when you’re just down to a pile of nuts, Christianity stops making sense when we cut out the parts you don’t like.
Are there any ways that we do this today? Of course. They removed everything that didn’t fit with God’s benevolence. Today, we do it when parts of the Bible don’t match up to our ideas of God’s love. Really. Many of our modern arguments with Christianity stem from this gap in our understanding. From where our human ideas of what love is collide with God’s actual character.
Picking the gospel apart, pulling out what we don’t like leaves us with something that has no power. No complexity. And, ultimately, leaves us with something that is about as valuable as a pile of old mixed nuts.
Special thanks to Dr. Gregg Frazer. His books are “The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders” and “God Against the Revolution: The Loyalist Clergy’s Case Against the Revolution”. We’re going to be spending some more time with him soon. Subscribe to the podcast so you’ll get every new episode as it’s released.
We had a lot of vocal help on this episode. Special thanks to Alicia Aviant, Tina Smith of “Raising Kids on Your Knees” Podcast, Josh Phillips of the “Switching Lenses” podcast, and Eric Nevins of “Halfway There”.
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We’ll be back in two weeks with more about the founders. What do we hope to gain by calling the US a Christian nation? And was the revolution even a biblical idea? It’s going to be great. Thanks for listening. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.