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Barbara Walking in the Valley
A bi-weekly column, featuring one Christian's (a)musings on life's journey

by Barbara Dahlgren


Were The Founding Fathers Christians?
Column for the weeks of July 1-15, 2006

We live in confusing times. Churches quote a barrage of statements from our founding fathers designed to prove they were Christians. By the same token, others quote just as many from the same founding fathers proclaiming they were not.

Here are a few quotes on record by some names you may recognize. A “C” on the side indicates the quotes used to prove the man was a Christian; the “NC” show quotes used to prove he was non-Christian.

Thomas Paine was an author whose manifestos fired up our country and aided in winning our War of Independence.

NC: “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, not by any church that I know of… Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all.” The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine

C: “The evil that has resulted from the error of the schools, in teaching natural philosophy as an accomplishment only, has been that of generating in the pupils a species of atheism. Instead of looking through the works of creation to the Creator himself, they stop short, and employ the knowledge they acquire to create doubts of his existence.” The Existence of God--1810

James Madison was our fourth president.

NC: Religious bondage shackles the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.” From a letter to William Bradford, April 1, 1774

C: “We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We’ve staked the future of all our political institutions upon our capacity…to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.” 1778 to the General Assembly of the State of Virginia

John Adams was our country’s second president.

NC: “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!” From a letter to Thomas Jefferson on April 19, 1817; from Charles Francis Adams, ed., Works of John Adams (1856), vol. X, p. 254

C: “Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell.” From the same letter quoted above

Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence, did not believe in Jesus’ divinity. He took exception to much of the Bible believing it was founded on fables and myth. He even rewrote the New Testament to omit the miracles. However he said, “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” Some of his views are inscribed on the wall of the Jefferson memorial in Washington D.C. below.

C: “God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that His justice cannot sleep forever.” Source: Merrill . D. Peterson, ed., Jefferson Writings, (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1984), Vol. IV, p. 289. From Jefferson ’s Notes on the State of Virginia , Query XVIII, 1781.

Benjamin Franklin was an inventor, diplomat, scientist, educator, philanthropist, ambassador, and delegate to the Continental Conference who helped draft the Declaration of Independence. Franklin supported the Presbyterian church but rarely attended. He found the sermons too dull. Yet, in his 1749 plan of education for public schools in Pennsylvania, he insisted “the excellency of the Christian religion above all other, ancient or modern” be taught.

NC: “As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion...has received various corrupting Changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his Divinity; …..” From: Benjamin Franklin, A Biography in his Own Words, edited by Thomas Fleming, p. 404, (1972, Newsweek , New York , NY) quoting letter by BF to Exra Stiles March 9, 1790

C: “God governs in the affairs of man. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured in the Sacred Writings that except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it. I firmly believe this. I also believe that, without His concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel.” Constitutional Convention of 1787

George Washington was the first president of the United States. He attended church regularly but never took communion or knelt to pray. When his wife Martha would take the sacraments he would wait outside the sanctuary for her. However, when taking his oath of office he asked for a Bible. After his oath he added the words “so help me God” and kissed the Bible. In a speech later in his life he said, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and Bible!”

How does one explain these statements or actions which at first glance appear to contradict each other? Here are some things to consider when reading these quotes:

1. What are they really trying to say? Are they questioning God’s existence or their frustration with how man has misused religion?

2. What is the context of the quote? The tendency is to just take a portion ofwhat was said or written and quote it, because it supports our premise. Such is the case of the quotes listed above for John Adams. Both quotes come from the same letter. If the whole letter were read, it shows that Adams is frustrated with those who fight between denominations and that mostly fanatics take the stand that there should be “no religion.”

3. Always beware of any …. you see. Those dots mean something has been omitted. It would be good to fill in the dots before you make a judgment.

4. Consider how old the person was at the time a statement was made? Sometimes we don’t have the same views when we get older as we did when we were young. Actions, beliefs, words, and motives may differ at various times in our lives.

5. Consider to whom the person was talking? Was it during a speech, lecture, or in an intimate letter? Was he trying to persuade a group to see it his way or chide someone about his view?

6. Some people try to rewrite history. A personal study of what was going on at the time the statement was made can be helpful. Is the quote what was really said or someone’s interpretation of what was said?

7. How does this one quote mesh with the majority of what this particular person has said or done?

Some say many of our founding fathers did not embrace Christianity but deism. In other words they believed in the existence of a God or a supreme being but not so much in religion. However, they were not opposed to religion and even felt it necessary for good citizenship. Their big fear was the misuse of religion.

After all, it was religious intolerance that drove many of the original settlers to America in the first place. They were also aware of people historically using God as an excuse for war as witnessed by the Crusades and denominational battle between Catholics and Protestants. They did not want the same mistakes to be made in this new country. So in ratifying official documents they formed their words carefully, so as not to promote one religion over another. As Jefferson once said, “Religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God.”

Were the founding fathers Christians? I don’t know. However, records show that Continental Congress called for a day of fasting and prayer for God’s guidance and direction on whether or not they should succeed from England before the Declaration of Independence was signed. 53 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence professed to be Christians. During the Revolutionary War the First Continental Congress appropriated funds for 20,000 Bibles to be given to our people. Official documents, statements, and actions prove most believed in God, the 10 Commandments, and Biblical principles.

Our founding fathers even believed God was the giver of every good and perfect gift they experienced in this great land. And they were intent on not letting religion muck it up!

 

 

Be sure to visit this page often to read the next edition of Walking in the Valley. You can write to the author at bdahlgren@wcgsouthbay.org.

 

 

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