What is Deism?
One thing that is common these days is to assert that the Founding Fathers were Deists. Since I doubt that the term deism is especially well understood, let us start with a definition.
deism noun, often capitalized
de·ism | \ ˈdē-ˌi-zəm , ˈdā- \
: a movement or system of thought advocating natural (see NATURAL entry 1 sense 8b) religion, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century denying the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe (from here (merriam-webster.com)
Merriam-Webster’s definition includes this note.
Did You Know?
Belief in God based on reason rather than revelation or the teaching of any specific religion is known as deism. The word originated in England in the early 17th century as a rejection of orthodox Christianity. Deists asserted that reason could find evidence of God in nature and that God had created the world and then left it to operate under the natural laws devised by God. By the late 18th century, deism was the dominant religious attitude among Europe’s educated classes; it was accepted by many upper-class Americans of the same era, including the first three US presidents. (from here (merriam-webster.com)
As a religious philosophy, the key word is “reason”. Because they do not believe it reasonable to accept revelation such as the Bible, Deists claim to derive their beliefs about God from God’s creation. Curiously, however, with little actual proof some Deists readily accept the notion that the Founding Fathers were Deists.
Who were the Deists?
During the time of the Founding Fathers, Americans were not especially tolerant of non-Christians. The idea of religious freedom was still being invented and only slowly being accepted. Thomas Paine, one of the few known Deists amongst the Founding Fathers attests well to this fact as he begins The Age of Reason (en.wikipedia.org).
IT has been my intention, for several years past, to publish my thoughts upon religion. I am well aware of the difficulties that attend the subject, and from that consideration, had reserved it to a more advanced period of life. I intended it to be the last offering I should make to my fellow-citizens of all nations, and that at a time when the purity of the motive that induced me to it, could not admit of a question, even by those who might disapprove the work.
The circumstance that has now taken place in France of the total abolition of the whole national order of priesthood, and of everything appertaining to compulsive systems of religion, and compulsive articles of faith, has not only precipitated my intention, but rendered a work of this kind exceedingly necessary, lest in the general wreck of superstition, of false systems of government, and false theology, we lose sight of morality, of humanity, and of the theology that is true.
As several of my colleagues and others of my fellow-citizens of France have given me the example of making their voluntary and individual profession of faith, I also will make mine; and I do this with all that sincerity and frankness with which the mind of man communicates with itself. (from here (ushistory.org))
Paine began his last great work in France as that nation sank into the Reign of Terror (en.wikipedia.org). In his own way, Paine feared for the loss of the theology that is true. So he started to write. Yet he had been right to wait. Although The Age of Reason sold well, its publication helped to destroy his reputation. Not content to explain his own beliefs, Paine directly attacked, particularly in Part 2 of The Age of Reason, the authenticity of the Bible.
The religious sensitivities of early Americans were such that the Founding Fathers avoided the mention of God in the Constitution. They spoke about reverence for Almighty God and encouraged religious toleration, but many avoided discussing their personal beliefs. So which of the Founders were Deists? Most often the Founding Fathers included amongst Paine’s allies are spoken of as Deists. These allies included George Washington (en.wikipedia.org), Benjamin Franklin (en.wikipedia.org), and Thomas Jefferson (en.wikipedia.org).
- Was Washington a Deist? Washington was closed-mouth about his personal religious beliefs. He attended church services, but in the later part of his life he was not a communicant. He promoted religious toleration, and he promoted the belief in God. Washington established the tradition of chaplains serving in the United States military (see here (army.mil)). In addition, Washington inaugurated the first Thanksgiving (see here (en.wikipedia.org)). Nonetheless, as he never made his personal beliefs about Christianity publicly known, Washington could have been a Deist.
- Was Franklin a deist? In his autobiography (ushistory.org), Franklin makes it clear that he was a Deist. Nonetheless, it is also apparent that Franklin had great respect for the teachings of Jesus. Franklin had this to say a month before he died in a letter to Ezra Stiles (en.wikipedia.org).
As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble. (from here (constitution.org)
- Was Jefferson a Deist? In a letter to Ezra Stiles, Jefferson wrote “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know” (see here (monticello.org)). Jefferson clearly questioned the divinity of Jesus. At the same time, like Franklin, Jefferson had respect for the teachings of Jesus. Jefferson studied the Bible intensely, trying to separate what he considered the myth from Jesus’ teachings. Based upon what he extracted from the New Testament, he wrote two works: “The Philosophy of Jesus” (1804) and The Life and Morals of Jesus (1819-20?) (web.archive.org). Unsatisfied with the first work, Jefferson wrote the second (see here (sfu.ca)). The second is also known as The Jefferson Bible ((en.wikipedia.org)).
If these men were Deists, then they were Christian Deists. Even if they had trouble accepting the divinity of Jesus, they did have faith in His religious teachings. What Jefferson discovered about himself, is perhaps true of everyone. We are each our own religious sect. Consider that as Paine, Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson approached the end of their years, each handled this crisis in his own way. Paine sought to explain and convince others of the principles his own religious beliefs. Washington gracefully accepted his role as a political leader; he set for others an example of resolute honor, Christian forbearance, and calm demeanor. Franklin approached his end with humble faith. And Jefferson scoured the Bible for something in which he could believe.
Other Founding Fathers
I have a book I bought in a bookstore at a national park some years back, The Signers of the Constitution (amazon.com) by Robert G. Ferris and James H. Charleston. In the fall of 1787, fifty-five delegates attended the Constitutional Convention. Thirty-nine of those men completed the work and signed the document. The book provides a brief biographical sketch of each of these men. When I was first confronted with the notion that the Founding Fathers were Deists, I decided to look at the book once again.
Although Ferris and Charleston did not write their book to expound upon the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers, their work does provide clues. One signer at least was a religious minister. On at least two other occasions, the church affiliation of a signer was sufficiently strong that the authors remarked on this fact. However, what is most revealing in the book is where most of these men are buried. In an era when there was a great deal of empty land, and the families of most upstanding citizens had acreage of their own, at least twenty-eight of the signers were buried in the cemetery next to a Christian church.