How Christian were the Founders?

That’s the topic of this fascinating NYT article. The article probably spends a little too much time poking fun at the backward Texans (though it’s so easy); but also does a good job of laying out the complicated question of deciphering just how Christian the founders were. My favorite quote:

Or, as Brookhiser rather succinctly summarizes the point: “The founders were not as Christian as [conservative activists] would like them to be, though they weren’t as secularist as Christopher Hitchens would like them to be.”

(Also, the scary Texans do get really scary for parts of the piece.)

What do you think of the article, and of the underlying issues?

24 comments for “How Christian were the Founders?

  1. John Willis
    February 12, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    An excellent and well balanced article. The quote by Brookshier is absolutely on point (as we lawyers would say).While LDS people are right to revere the founding fathers it is a mistake to see them as proto-Mormons or evagelical christians. In any case all their Temple Work was done by Wilford Woodruff in the St. George Temple shortly after it was completed.

  2. Julie M. Smith
    February 12, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    And people wonder why I homeschool here . . .

  3. mpb
    February 12, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    Kaimi, I realize you’re mostly joking, but I don’t get, and never have got, the word “scary,” as used here and in the NY Times comments being used to describe people with unorthodox (and in my view insupportable) world views. I may not agree with these, my neighbors, but the tendency is turn them into an “other” is really off putting.

  4. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    February 12, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    Evangelical christianity as it exists now largely did not exist 200 years ago. Many of the characteristics that some Evangelicals regard as essentially Christian, and most contrary to Mormonism, are actually innovations that the Founders were wholly unfamiliar with.

    Several recent books make the same point, that many of the founders were not conventional Christians, but they were still profoundly religious in the sense that their faith governed their lives at a most basic level. While the legend about Washington praying at Valley Forge in the snow may not be true, there is no doubt that he did pray about his army, and later his nation. The same could be said about Lincoln. I will take the sincere convictions of such men any day over the forms of worship that do not affect behavior of a Bill Clinton.

  5. djinn
    February 12, 2010 at 8:17 pm

    Lincoln and most of the founding fathers (exception here for Nathan Hale) were as close to irreligous as one could be back in the day. Raymond Takahishi Swenson, as a major fan of Pres. Lincoln, I am dismayed that you accused him of praying, in any way other than using the language of the day in the way that was required by a politician. A single quote that he believed in any sort of God equivalent to YHWH, Yahweh, Jesus Christ, etc. will be sufficient.

  6. djinn
    February 12, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    Or am I misreading you, as I confess I am apt to do; and all you are saying is that you personally believe that he and you shared more similarities in faith than the historical record would indicate? Because that belief is inassailable.

  7. February 12, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    Lincoln’s religious beliefs are a complicated thing, and have been debated back and forth for over a century. this article from Slate Magazine did a fair job summarizing where the current historical consensus lies.

    A great number of historians contribute to the excellent blog, American Creation. The blog has seen a great number of fantastic debates on the subject of various founder’s religious beliefs, and is a good read for those interested in the topic.

  8. Gerald T
    February 13, 2010 at 3:40 am

    Thomas Sowell in his “Intellectuals and Society” says, “intellect is not wisdom and can be put at the service of concepts and ideas that lead to mistaken conclusions and unwise actions in light of all the factors involved, including factors left out of some of the ingenious constructions of the intellect.” He then quotes Alfred North Whitehead…”Intelligence is quickness to apprehend as distinct from ability, which is capacity to act wisely on the thing apprehended.”

    If the study of the founding of our country is to be wisely apprehended, it will be done including all of the factors with a context that gives us, latter-day Saints, an edge for “wise apprehending”.

    Joseph J Ellis in “Founding Brothers” doubts the confident and providential statements of leaders like Paine, Jefferson, and Adams…he says, “What in retrospect has the look of a foreordained unfolding of God’s will was in reality an improvisational affair in which sheer chance, pure luck–both good and bad–and specific decisions made in the crucible of specific military and political crises determined the outcome.” but then he continues, “At the dawn of a new century, indeed a new millennium, the United States is now the oldest enduring republic in world history, with a set of political institutions and traditions that have stood the test of time. The basic framework for all these institutions and traditions was built in a sudden spasm of enforced inspiration and makeshift construction during the final decades of the eighteenth century.”

    I have read the letters and biographies of George Washington, John Adams, Samuel Adams, and others of the “great experiment”. They did indeed have a testimony of the hand of providence in the success of the undertaking. A factor that was left out of the previous analysis, and similar analysis of others, is the revealed knowledge and testimony of Joseph Smith on the founding of our nation.

    I have a unique perspective being a direct descendant of Colonel Fielding Lewis and Betty Washington as well as a seventh great grandson of Sacajawea who was raised on the Wind River Indian Reservation with others of the “first nation” people. I have no worries about how I see the founding fathers/brothers/lucky/fortunate men of our country as I read in the Book of Mormon in 1Nephi 13, I am confident that I understand the context and the factors for wisely apprehending who the founders were.

    So, in spite of the intellects who argue so wittingly and studiously about that which they have hardly considered, it is with a sure knowledge of the Christians who, with the providence of God, were instrumental in the founding for a purpose that the geniuses of Texas, or elsewhere, would do well to wisely apprehend and include in their school books.

  9. Bryan in VA
    February 13, 2010 at 9:05 am

    Perhaps I’m straying a bit in not commenting on the article (which I didn’t even read all of the way), but it seems a good time to post my collection of Jefferson quotes that somewhat support LDS (but not necessarily mainstream Christian) beliefs. “RLTJ” referenced below is the book “The Religious life of Thomas Jefferson”. Each topic is in CAPS followed by a quote or two from Jefferson and a quote or two from a Church source.



    When great evils happen, I am in the habit of looking out for what good may arise from them as consolations to us, and Providence has in fact so established the order of things, as that most evils are the means of producing some good. (RLTJ pg. 155)


    … if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience and be for thy good. (D&C 122:7)



    Christ’s principles were early departed from by those who professed to be his special servants and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind, a mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves. (RLTJ pg. 59)

    He often identified Plato’s “foggy mysticism” as the source of the intangible speculations of the medieval church that had distorted Jesus’ simple doctrines. (RLTJ pg. 61)

    … to knock down the mysticisms, fancies, and falsehoods by which the religion-builders have distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus and get back to the pure and simple doctrines he inculcated. (RLTJ pg. 105)


    Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first… (2 Thessalonians 2:3)

    I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: (Galatians 1:6)



    “There is… an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents… The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendancy.” –Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813.

    “The foundation on which all [our State constitutions] are built is the natural equality of man, the denial of every pre-eminence but that annexed to legal office and particularly the denial of a pre-eminence by birth.”
    –Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1784.

    “The principles of our Constitution are wisely opposed to all perpetuations of power, and to every practice which may lead to hereditary establishments.” –Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Address, 1809.

    “That liberty [is pure] which is to go to all, and not to the few or the rich alone.” –Thomas Jefferson to Horatio Gates, 1798.


    For what man among you having twelve sons, and is no respecter of them, and they serve him obediently, and he saith unto the one: Be thou clothed in robes and sit thou here; and to the other: Be thou clothed in rags and sit thou there – and looketh upon his son and saith I am just? (D&C 38:26)



    Read good books because they will encourage as well as direct your feelings. –Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1787


    …seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom… (D&C 88:118)



    I tremble for my country, when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever. The almighty cannot take side with us in such [an issue]. (RLTJ pg. 71)

    REGARDING SLAVERY – “a God of justice who will awaken to their distress and, by his exterminating thunder, right the things of this world. (RLTJ
    pg. 98)


    D&C 87 – Prophecy of the American Civil War



    When the atheist descanted on the unceasing motion and circulation of matter through the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms, gifted with the power of reproduction; the theist, pointing ‘to the heavens above, and to the earth beneath, and to the waters under the earth,’ asked, if these did
    not proclaim a first cause possessing intelligence and power. (RLTJ pg. 86)


    … not withstanding so many evidences which ye have received; yea, even ye have received all things, both things in heaven, and all things which are
    in the earth, as a witness that they are true. (Helaman 8:24)



    “It is rare that the public sentiment decides immorally or unwisely, and the individual who differs from it ought to distrust and examine well his own opinion.” –Thomas Jefferson to William Findley. 1801.


    Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this ye shall observe and make it your law – to do your business by the voice of the people. (Mosiah 29:26)



    People are accountable for their principles to God alone. (RLTJ pg. 19)

    Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or
    burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion. (The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom.)

    The holy author of our religion, and lord of both body and mind, chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, but created the mind free. (The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom.)

    It does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods or no gods. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my arm.

    Our rules can have authority over such natural rights as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted. We could not submit.

    Jefferson believed that God himself cannot save a man against his will; and any form of spiritual compulsion is doomed to inevitable failure.


    We claim the privilege of worshipping almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may. (11th Article of Faith)

    We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others; but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the conscience of men, nor dictate forms of public devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress freedom of the soul. (D&C 134:4)

    We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied. (D&C 134:9)



    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. (The Declaration of Independence)

    “The evidence of [the] natural right [of expatriation], like that of our right to life, liberty, the use of our faculties, the pursuit of happiness, is not left to the feeble and sophistical investigations of reason, but is
    impressed on the sense of every man. We do not claim these under the charters of kings or legislators, but under the King of Kings.” –Thomas
    Jefferson to John Manners, 1817.

    “The idea is quite unfounded that on entering into society we give up any natural rights.” –Thomas Jefferson to Francis Gilmer, 1816.

    All eyes are opened, or opening to the rights of man… The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace or God. (RLTJ pg.

    The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time: the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them… (RLTJ pg. 88)

    “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 of the gift of God? –Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia,

    “A free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.” –Thomas Jefferson: Rights of
    British America, 1774


    … My soul standeth fast in that liberty in which God hath made us free.
    (Alma 61:9)

    I, the Lord God, make you free; therefore ye are free indeed; and the law also maketh you free. (D&C 98:8)

    Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down; (Moses 4:3)

    If Americans should ever come to believe that their rights and freedoms are instituted among men by politicians and bureaucrats, then they will no longer carry the proud inheritance of their forefathers, but will grovel before their masters seeking favors and dispensations – a throwback to the feudal system of the Dark Ages. (President Ezra Taft Benson)

    Next to the bestowal of life itself, the right to direct our lives is God’s greatest gift to man.(President David O. McKay)



    “It will be said that great societies cannot exist without government.”
    –Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, 1782.


    We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man; and that he hold men accountable for their acts in relation to them, for the good and safety of society. (D&C 134:1)



    Happiness is the aim of life, but virtue is the foundation of happiness.
    (RLTJ pg. 36)

    … an overruling providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here, and his greater happiness hereafter.
    (RLTJ pg. 95 – First Inagural Address)


    Do not suppose, because it has been spoken concerning restoration, that ye
    are to be restored from sin to happiness. Behold, I say unto you, wickedness never was happiness. (Alma 41:10)

    Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy. (2 Nephi 2:25)



    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. (RLTJ pg. 148)

    Indeed, Jesus himself, the Founder of our religion, was unquestionably a Materialist as to man. In all His doctrines of the resurrection, He teaches expressly that the body is to rise in substance. In the Apostle’s Creed, we all declare that we believe in the ‘resurrection of the body’. (RLTJ pg.


    There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter. (D&C 131:7,8)



    In a letter to Adams, Jefferson wrote “You and I shall look down to another world on these glorious achievements to man, which will add to the joys even of heaven.” (RLTJ pg. 159)

    We shall only be lookers on, from the clouds above, as now we look down on the labors, hurry, and bustle of ants and bees… We may be amused with seeing the fallacy of our own guesses. (RLTJ pg. 159)

    In a letter to Adams, Jefferson hoped that he and Adams would one day reconvene with their dead colleagues of the Continental Congress who had accomplished so much for the freedom of men to receive God’s approbation.
    (RLTJ pg. 158, 162)


    The signers of the Declaration of Independence along with other eminent menand women appeared to Wilford Woodruff demanding their temple work be done for them two nights in a row.

    The spirit and the body shall be reunited again in its perfect form; both limb and joint shall be restored to its proper frame, even as we now are at this time; and we shall be brought to stand before God, knowing even as we know now, and have a bright recollection of all our guilt. (Alma 11:43)



    “Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong, merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature, as the sense
    of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality.”
    –Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1787.

    “Nature [has] implanted in our breasts a love of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct, in short, which prompts us irresistibly to feel and to succor their distresses.” –Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, 1814.

    “never do or say a bad thing…. Our maker has given us all this faithful internal Monitor, and if you will always obey it, you will always be prepared for the end of the world, or for a much more certain event, which
    is death. This must happen to all: it puts an end to the world as to us, and the way to be ready for it is never to do a wrong act. (Jefferson letter to daughter Patsy)


    For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every good thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; whereby ye may know by a perfect knowledge it is of God. (Moroni 7:16)



    “If ever there was a holy war, it was that which saved our liberties and gave us independence.” –Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1813.

    “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” –Thomas Jefferson to
    William Stephens Smith, 1787.


    And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed
    the land by the shedding of blood. (D&C 101:80)



    Jefferson referred to the Trinity as “an unintelligible proposition of Platonic mysticisms that three are one and one is three; and yet one is not three and the three are not one.” (RLTJ pg. 88)


    The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.
    (D&C 130:22)

  10. John Willis
    February 13, 2010 at 11:26 am

    In regrards to Bryan’s last comment, you also need to take into account the Jefferson Bible in which Jefferson literally cut and pasted the Gospels and took out all the miracles and accounts of Jesus rising from the dead. He may have believed in an Apostacy but he saw no need for a resoration of priethood authority or keys. I think to make him a proto-Mormon takes the evidence too far.

    Jesus to Jefferson was a great teacher of ethical principles, the greatest who ever lived. But he was not the son of God in a literal or figurative sense. If you read the correspondence between Jefferson and John Adams you see that both held Unitarian views.

    As I mentioned and has been mentioned in elsewhere in this thread Wilford Woodruff did do Jefferson and the other founding fathers Temple Work ;so Jefferson and the other founders have had the missonary discussions and I am sure he has changed his views.

    Over Chrirstmas break I had the privilege of visiting Monticello with my sons and did feel inspired in visiting the home of that great man.

    Of course I had to tell my boys more about the relationship of Jefferson with Sally Hemmings than what the guide told our tour group.

    If you go to the website you can see that sealing has been preformed by proxy of Jefferson to Sally Hemings. I’ll let the Lord sort out Jefferson’s marital and extra marital relationships. He will do a better job than I could.

  11. Mike Parker
    February 13, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    Well, DUH—of course the Founders were all conservative fundamentalist Christians. This painting says so.

  12. djinn
    February 13, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    Any discussion of the founding fathers’ religious beliefs is muddied, perhaps hopelessly, by the fact that they professed a certain amount of belief in their public statements only to deride pretty much the same beliefs in their private letters. The founding fathers’ Unitarian views (pretty much to a man) of which John Willis speaks are that of a non-interventionist diety. Full stop. Except Benjamin Franklin, who sidled up pretty close to atheism. Like it or not.

  13. Dan
    February 13, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    What does it mean to be a Christian? Frankly by today’s Evangelical standards, the Founding Fathers’ religious views would not pass their test. The only reason today’s Evangelical Christians project their perceptions on the Founding Fathers is because they wish to use the Founding Fathers as a cudgel to bludgeon their political opponents for not being in line with the Founding Fathers, as if Evangelical Christians are in line with the Founding Fathers. As much as I respect Bridget Jack Myers and her attempt at bridging the gap between Mormonism and Evangelical Christianity, I would rather do everything we can to distance ourselves as far as possible from today’s Evangelical Christian theology/political ideology.

  14. February 13, 2010 at 10:58 pm


    I think you exaggerate the founder’s antipathy to religion. I will note that the founders were hardly homogeneous in their views – our pantheon includes everyone from avowed atheists such as Tom Paine to strong Christians such as Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Rush. I also think you overly simplify things by declaring the founder’s beliefs found in their public addresses only – the evidence shows a much messier picture.

  15. djinn
    February 13, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    I read the blog post you hyperlinked T. Greer, and it proved the opposite point that you think it did I think. George Washington never used the word Jesus Christ in a speech, never prayed, never belonged to a church (though he did attend with Martha occassionally, a fact overlooked, I believe, by the blog author), never took communion…the list goes on. He wasn’t Christian, and showed no signs of being anything other than a deist. Or what am I missing?

  16. February 14, 2010 at 12:30 am


    I don’t think T. Greer is making the argument that you’re trying to refute. He’s saying that the picture is complicated; that the founders were not homogeneous; that there were varying degrees of religiosity among them; and that the resulting picture is “messy” rather than being consistent. As far as I can tell, the linked article doesn’t conflict with any of those ideas.

  17. Clyde
    February 14, 2010 at 1:37 am

    John Willis in posts 1 and 10 states that Willford Woodruff did the Temple work for all of the signers.

    It is my understanding that he did not do the work for John Hancock and William Floyd.

    In his personal journal Wilford Woodruff stated that he was baptized for all the signers except John Hancock and William Floyd.
    – John Hancock had already been baptized 29 May 1877; and endowed 30 May 1877 by Levi Ward Hancock, his 3rd cousin.
    Source: Life Everlasting by Duane S. Crowther, page 316, footnote 31.

  18. djinn
    February 14, 2010 at 2:52 am

    As I said earlier, and am not sure why i’m repeating but feel like i’ve been exceptionally unclear here, ‘Any discussion of the founding fathers’ religious beliefs is muddied, perhaps hopelessly, by the fact that they professed a certain amount of belief in their public statements only to deride pretty much the same beliefs in their private letters.”

    A handful of the founding fathers were capital “C” christians., one was, heavens, a jew. Most, as far as i can tell, were men of the enlightenment who weren’t in the mood for what, the first through 7th civil war in England, the 80 years war in the Netherlands, the expulshion of the Hugenots in France….you get the idea. Or not. The death toll from the religious wars in Europe is estimated at around 1/4 to 1/3 of the population. Let’s get right on that.

  19. djinn
    February 14, 2010 at 3:00 am

    I’m tempted to say at this point “Who should we kill?” Now, I have a relative that was, in fact, killed over the issue of whether or not he believed in transubstantiation or consubstantiation. He was British and took the former view. The auto-de-fé was enjoyed by almost, but not quite, all.

    The founding fathers were simply much less religious (for very good reason0 than the current batch of elected officials are, and it’s about time someone mentioned it. Deal.

  20. djinn
    February 14, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    In retrospect, my remark 19 was much too harsh; what I meant, but failed to convey was that the founding fathers had every reason to be much more aware of the very real dangers of sectarian strife than we are.

  21. Jay
    February 14, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    C’mon, have a heart. Next you’ll be telling me that Ronald Reagan didn’t really reduce the size of government.

  22. Bob
    February 14, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    I think confusion also enters because the Founders were, in general, passionate and believers. But not of Christianity__ but of the Enlightenment.

  23. nasamomdele
    February 16, 2010 at 11:59 am

    I think the effort to estrange the founding fathers from religiosity in an effort to distance them from religious conflict is as much an error as distancing them from abortion or SSM.

    A good question to ask in that regard is- were they as right or as good as we tout them to be? I mean, we are obviously right with whatever side we take on these issues, and we tend to think that they were of such sound judgment that they would have to agree with our rightness, whichever way we lean. I think its a simple example of ego-centrism.

    I also think it is a common historical view that the times of the founding fathers were rife with superstition, and I tend to think that references to God and “the Almighty” were as much cultural conversation as they were religious proclamation. They can’t be interpreted as preaching, and they aren’t necessarily empty words without faith behind them.

    Further, any of the founding fathers that were of the Christianity of the time, were likely joined to a Christianity that had settled on a distant God that was “invisible, without body, parts, or passions”.

    They likely would not have spoken much of the name of Jesus Christ. But I could be wrong.

    I think the founding fathers were highly spiritual people, whether they attended a church or not, but the expression of their beliefs were within their culture- and best understood without identifying them in terms of any modern conceptions of history or modern conceptions of religion; with healthy relativism, ideally.

    To answer the post and to insert a hypothetical, I think the founding fathers’ religion was not an evangelical Christianity, nor was it Mormonism. It was Judeo-Christian or something.

  24. Dean H
    February 21, 2010 at 2:05 am

    I don’t get it. The NY Times gets to decide who is Christian? I thought that was the Baptists job.

Comments are closed.