No one can deny that many of the founding fathers of the United States of America were men of deep religious convictions based in the Bible and faith in Jesus Christ. Of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence, nearly half (24) held seminary or Bible school degrees.
These founding fathers’ quotes on religion will give you an overview of their strong moral and spiritual convictions which helped form the foundations of our nation and our government.
16 Founding Fathers’ Quotes on Religion
1st U.S. President
“While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished character of Patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian.”
—The Writings of Washington, pp. 342-343.
2nd U.S. President and Signer of the Declaration of Independence
“Suppose a nation in some distant Region should take the Bible for their only law Book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited! Every member would be obliged in conscience, to temperance, frugality, and industry; to justice, kindness, and charity towards his fellow men; and to piety, love, and reverence toward Almighty God … What a Eutopia, what a Paradise would this region be.”
—Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, Vol. III, p. 9.
“The general principles, on which the Fathers achieved independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite, and these Principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all these Sects were United: And the general Principles of English and American Liberty…
“Now I will avow, that I then believe, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System.”
-Adams wrote this on June 28, 1813, excerpt from a letter to Thomas Jefferson.
3rd U.S. President, Drafter and Signer of the Declaration of Independence
“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 of the Gift of 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; that His justice cannot sleep forever…”
—Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII, p. 237.
“I am a real Christian – that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ.”
—The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, p. 385.
1st Signer of the Declaration of Independence
“Resistance to tyranny becomes the Christian and social duty of each individual. … Continue steadfast and, with a proper sense of your dependence on God, nobly defend those rights which heaven gave, and no man ought to take from us.”
—History of the United States of America, Vol. II, p. 229.
Signer of the Declaration of Independence and Unites States Constitution
“Here is my Creed. I believe in one God, the Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His Providence. That He ought to be worshipped.
“That the most acceptable service we render to him is in doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental points in all sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them.
“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, is the best the world ever saw, or is likely to see;
“But I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble. I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as probably it has, of making his doctrines more respected and more observed; especially as I do not perceive, that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the unbelievers in his government of the world with any peculiar marks of his displeasure.”
–Benjamin Franklin wrote this in a letter to Ezra Stiles, President of Yale University on March 9, 1790.
Signer of the Declaration of Independence and Father of the American Revolution
“And as it is our duty to extend our wishes to the happiness of the great family of man, I conceive that we cannot better express ourselves than by humbly supplicating the Supreme Ruler of the world that the rod of tyrants may be broken to pieces, and the oppressed made free again; that wars may cease in all the earth, and that the confusions that are and have been among nations may be overruled by promoting and speedily bringing on that holy and happy period when the kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ may be everywhere established, and all people everywhere willingly bow to the sceptre of Him who is Prince of Peace.”
–As Governor of Massachusetts, Proclamation of a Day of Fast, March 20, 1797.
4th U.S. President
“A watchful eye must be kept on ourselves lest while we are building ideal monuments of Renown and Bliss here we neglect to have our names enrolled in the Annals of Heaven.”
–Written to William Bradford on November 9, 1772, Faith of Our Founding Fathers by Tim LaHaye, pp. 130-131; Christianity and the Constitution — The Faith of Our Founding Fathers by John Eidsmoe, p. 98.
Signer of the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution
“I believe that there is one only living and true God, existing in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, the same in substance equal in power and glory. That the scriptures of the old and new testaments are a revelation from God, and a complete rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him. That God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, so as thereby he is not the author or approver of sin. That he creates all things, and preserves and governs all creatures and all their actions, in a manner perfectly consistent with the freedom of will in moral agents, and the usefulness of means. That he made man at first perfectly holy, that the first man sinned, and as he was the public head of his posterity, they all became sinners in consequence of his first transgression, are wholly indisposed to that which is good and inclined to evil, and on account of sin are liable to all the miseries of this life, to death, and to the pains of hell forever.
“I believe that God having elected some of mankind to eternal life, did send his own Son to become man, die in the room and stead of sinners and thus to lay a foundation for the offer of pardon and salvation to all mankind, so as all may be saved who are willing to accept the gospel offer: also by his special grace and spirit, to regenerate, sanctify and enable to persevere in holiness, all who shall be saved; and to procure in consequence of their repentance and faith in himself their justification by virtue of his atonement as the only meritorious cause…
—The Life of Roger Sherman, pp. 272-273.
Signer of the Declaration of Independence and Ratifier of the U.S. Constitution
“The gospel of Jesus Christ prescribes the wisest rules for just conduct in every situation of life. Happy they who are enabled to obey them in all situations!”
—The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush, pp. 165-166.
“If moral precepts alone could have reformed mankind, the mission of the Son of God into all the world would have been unnecessary.
The perfect morality of the gospel rests upon the doctrine which, though often controverted has never been refuted: I mean the vicarious life and death of the Son of God.”
—Essays, Literary, Moral, and Philosophical, published in 1798.
Signer of the Declaration of Independence and Ratifier of the U.S. Constitution
“I have carefully examined the evidences of the Christian religion, and if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity I would unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor.”
—Famous American Statesmen, p. 126.
Ratifier of the U.S. Constitution
“It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.”
—The Trumpet Voice of Freedom: Patrick Henry of Virginia, p. iii.
“The Bible … is a book worth more than all the other books that were ever printed.”
—Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, p. 402.
1st Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and President of the American Bible Society
“By conveying the Bible to people thus circumstanced, we certainly do them a most interesting kindness. We thereby enable them to learn that man was originally created and placed in a state of happiness, but, becoming disobedient, was subjected to the degradation and evils which he and his posterity have since experienced.
“The Bible will also inform them that our gracious Creator has provided for us a Redeemer, in whom all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; that this Redeemer has made atonement ‘for the sins of the whole world,’ and thereby reconciling the Divine justice with the Divine mercy has opened a way for our redemption and salvation; and that these inestimable benefits are of the free gift and grace of God, not of our deserving, nor in our power to deserve.”
—In God We Trust—The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers, p. 379.
“In forming and settling my belief relative to the doctrines of Christianity, I adopted no articles from creeds but such only as, on careful examination, I found to be confirmed by the Bible.”
—American Statesman Series, p. 360.
Did America Have a Christian Founding?
The role of religion in the American republic has been a source of controversy since the nation’s inception. Debates are particularly fierce when they concern religious liberty and the proper relationship between church and state. Arguments on these questions are often framed in the light of the Founders’ intentions, but unfortunately, their views are often distorted.
Did America have a Christian Founding? Two popular answers to this query—“Of course not!” and “Absolutely!”—both distort the Founders’ views. There is in fact a great deal of evidence that America’s Founders were influenced by Christian ideas, and there are many ways in which the Founders’ views might inform contemporary political and legal controversies.
Two Common but Mistaken Answers
According to those who answer “Of course not!” America’s Founders were guided by secular ideas and self, class, or state interests. These scholars do not deny that the Founders were religious, but they contend that they were mostly deists—i.e., persons who reject many Christian doctrines and who think God does not interfere in the affairs of men and nations.
For instance, historian Frank Lambert writes that “[the] significance of the Enlightenment and Deism for the birth of the American republic, and especially the relationship between church and state within it, can hardly be overstated.” Similarly, University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone avers that “deistic beliefs played a central role in the framing of the American republic” and that the “Founding generation viewed religion, and particularly religion’s relation to government, through an Enlightenment lens that was deeply skeptical of orthodox Christianity.” Virtually identical claims are made by Edwin Gaustad, Steven Waldman, Richard Hughes, Steven Keillor, David Holmes, Brooke Allen, and many others.
In addition to asserting that the Founders were deists, these authors regularly contend that they abandoned their ancestors’ intolerant approach to church–state relations and embraced religious liberty. They often concede that some Founders thought civic authorities should support religion but argue that this is irrelevant as Jefferson’s and Madison’s conviction that there should be a high wall of separation between church and state was written into the Constitution and reinforced by the First Amendment. As we shall see, there are significant problems with this story.
The second answer to this question is offered by popular Christian writers such as Peter Marshall, David Manuel, John Eidsmoe, Tim LaHaye, William J. Federer, David Barton, and Gary DeMar. They contend that not only did America have a Christian Founding, but virtually all of the Founders were devout, orthodox Christians who consciously drew from their religious convictions to answer most political questions.
To support their case, these writers are fond of finding religious quotations from the Founders. The rule seems to be that if a Founder utters anything religious, at any time in his life, he counts as an orthodox or even evangelical Christian Founder. Using this methodology, Tim LaHaye concludes, for instance, that John Adams was “deeply committed to Jesus Christ and the use of Biblical principles in governing the nation,” and George Washington, if he was alive today, “would freely associate with the Bible-believing branch of evangelical Christianity that is having such a positive influence upon our nation.” This approach leads to similarly bad history.
What Exactly Would a Christian Founding Look Like?
In order to answer the question “Did America have a Christian Founding?” properly, we must first understand it. Let us begin by considering what, exactly, would constitute a Christian Founding?
One possibility is simply that the Founders identified themselves as Christians. Clearly, they did. In 1776, every European American, with the exception of about 2,500 Jews, identified himself or herself as a Christian. Moreover, approximately 98 percent of the colonists were Protestants, with the remaining 1.9 percent being Roman Catholics.
But this reality is not particularly interesting. These men and women might have been bad Christians, they may have been Christians significantly influenced by non-Christian ideas, or they may even have been Christians self-consciously attempting to create a secular political order.
Second, we might mean that the Founders were all sincere Christians. Yet sincerity is very difficult for the scholars, or anyone else, to judge. In most cases, the historical record gives us little with which to work. And even if we can determine, say, that a particular Founder was a member, regular attendee, and even officer in a church, it does not necessarily mean he was a sincere Christian. Perhaps he did these things simply because society expected it of him.
Third, we might mean that the Founders were orthodox Christians. In some cases—for example, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Roger Sherman, and John Witherspoon—there is abundant evidence that these Founders embraced and articulated orthodox Christian ideas. But the lack of records often makes it difficult to speak with confidence on this issue.
Nevertheless, in light of the many and powerful claims that the Founders were deists, it should be noted that there is virtually no evidence that more than a handful of civic leaders in the Founding era—notably Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and (if we count him as an American) Tom Paine—embraced anything approximating this view. Moreover, a good argument can be made that even these Founders were influenced by Christianity in significant ways—and it certainly does not follow that they desired the strict separation of church and state.
A fourth possibility is that the Founders acted as Christians in their private and/or public lives. Some historians have argued that the Founding cannot be called Christian because some Founders did not join churches, take communion, or remain faithful to their spouses. Moreover, in their public capacity, they did not act in a Christian manner because they did things such as fight an unjust war against England and did not immediately abolish slavery.
In some cases, these critiques do not take into account historical context, such as the difficulty of joining Calvinist churches in 18th century America. In others, they neglect the traditional Christian teaching that even saints sin. If the standard of being a Christian is moral perfection, no one has ever been a Christian. Most egregious, it is profoundly unhistorical to judge the Founders by specific policy outcomes that seem perfectly clear to 21st century Christians.
This is not to say that biblical principles are relativistic, but their applications to specific issues in particular times and places may vary or be unclear. To take a contemporary example, one should be very careful in saying, for instance, that someone is a good Christian politician only if she votes for (or against) tax cuts or national health care.
A final possibility is that the Founders were influenced by Christian ideas. Scholars have spent a great amount of time attempting to discern influence. Book after book has been written about whether the Founders were most influenced by Lockean liberalism, classical republicanism, the Scottish Enlightenment, etc.
I believe that this is the most reasonable way to approach the question “Did America have a Christian Founding?” In doing so, it is important to note that nominal Christians might be influenced by Christian ideas, just as it is possible for an orthodox Christian to be influenced by non-Christian ideas. I believe that an excellent case can be made that Christianity had a profound influence on the Founders.
Before proceeding, I should emphasize that I am not arguing that Christianity was the only significant influence on America’s Founders or that it influenced each Founder in the exact same manner. Clearly there were a variety of different, but often overlapping, intellectual influences in the era. The Founders were also informed by the Anglo–American political–legal tradition and their own political experience, and like all humans, they were motivated to varying degrees by self, class, or state interests. My contention is merely that orthodox Christianity had a very significant influence on America’s Founders and that this influence is often overlooked by students of the American Founding.
What Constitutes America’s Founding?
I have assumed here that America was founded in the late 18th century, but some authors have argued, in the words of Gary DeMar, that our “nation begins not in 1776, but more than one hundred fifty years earlier.” Let us consider three major possibilities that might count as the country’s founding: (1) the establishment of colonial governments in the 17th century, (2) America’s break with Great Britain in the 1770s, and (3) the creation of a new constitutional order in the 1780s and 1790s.
1. America’s Colonial Origins
Few doubt that Puritans were serious Christians attempting to create, in the words of Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop,“a shining city upon a hill” (a reference to Matthew 5:14). Puritans separated church and state, but they clearly thought the two institutions should work in tandem to support, protect, and promote true Christianity.
Other colonies, however, are often described as being significantly different from those in New England. Historian John Fea, for instance, contends that “the real appeal of Jamestown was economic opportunity and the very real possibility of striking it rich.” It is certainly the case that colonists were attracted to the New World by economic opportunity (in New England as well as in the South), and yet even in the southern colonies the protection and promotion of Christianity was more important than many authors assume. For instance, Virginia’s 1610 legal code begins:
Whereas his Majesty, like himself a most zealous prince, has in his own realms a principal care of true religion and reverence to God and has always strictly commanded his generals and governors, with all his forces wheresoever, to let their ways be, like his ends, for the glory of God….
The first three articles of this text go on to state that the colonists have embarked on a “sacred cause,” to mandate regular church attendance, and to proclaim that anyone who speaks impiously against the Trinity or who blasphemes God’s name will be put to death.
Early colonial laws and constitutions such as the Mayflower Compact, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, and Massachusetts Body of Libertiesare filled with such language—and in some cases, they incorporate biblical texts wholesale. Perhaps more surprisingly, tolerant, Quaker Pennsylvania was more similar to Puritan New England than many realize. The Charter of Liberties and Frame of Government of the Province of Pennsylvania (1681) begins by making it clear that God has ordained government, and it even quotes Romans 13 to this effect. Article 38 of the document lists “offenses against God” that may be punished by the magistrate, including:
swearing, cursing, lying, profane talking, drunkenness, drinking of healths, obscene words, incest, sodomy…stage-plays, cards, dice, May-games, gamesters, masques, revels, bull-baiting, cock-fighting, bear-baiting, and the like, which excite the people to rudeness, cruelty, looseness, and irreligion….
An extensive survey of early colonial constitutions and laws reveals many similar provisions. As well, at least nine of the 13 colonies had established churches, and all required officeholders to be Christians—or, in some cases, Protestants. Quaker Pennsylvania, for instance, expected officeholders to be “such as possess faith in Jesus Christ.”
If one is to understand the story of the United States of America, it is important to have a proper appreciation for its Christian colonial roots. By almost any measure, colonists of European descent who settled in the New World were serious Christians whose constitutions, laws, and practices reflected the influence of Christianity. Although some authors refer to this “planting” as a “founding,” such a designation is rare among scholars. Instead, most scholars consider America to have been founded in the late 18th century around one of, or some combination of, two major events: the War for Independence and the creation of America’s constitutional order.
So did America have a Christian Founding? History is complicated, and we should always be suspicious of simple answers to difficult questions. As we have seen, there is precious little evidence that the Founders were deists, wanted religion excluded from the public square, or desired the strict separation of church and state. On the other hand, they identified themselves as Christians, were influenced in important ways by Christian ideas, and generally thought it appropriate for civic authorities to encourage Christianity.
What do these facts mean for Americans who embrace non-Christian faiths or no faith at all? Although the Founders were profoundly influenced by Christianity, they did not design a constitutional order only for fellow believers. They explicitly prohibited religious tests for federal offices, and they were committed to the proposition that all men and women should be free to worship God (or not) as their consciences dictate.
As evidenced by George Washington’s 1790 letter to a “Hebrew Congregation” in Newport, Rhode Island, the new nation was to be open to a wide array of individuals who were willing to assume the responsibilities of citizenship:
All [citizens] possess alike liberty and 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, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
…May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
Yet it does not follow from this openness that Americans should simply forget about their country’s Christian roots. Anyone interested in an accurate account of the nation’s past cannot afford to ignore the important influence of faith on many Americans, from the Puritans to the present day.
Christian ideas underlie some key tenets of America’s constitutional order. For instance, the Founders believed that humans are created in the image of God, which led them to design institutions and laws meant to protect and promote human dignity. Because they were convinced that humans are sinful, they attempted to avoid the concentration of power by framing a national government with carefully enumerated powers. As well, the Founders were committed to liberty, but they never imagined that provisions of the Bill of Rights would be used to protect licentiousness. And they clearly thought moral considerations should inform legislation.
America has drifted from these first principles. We would do well to reconsider the wisdom of these changes.
The Founders believed it permissible for the national and state governments to encourage Christianity, but this may no longer be prudential in our increasingly pluralistic country. Yet the Constitution does not mandate a secular polity, and we should be wary of jurists, politicians, and academics who would strip religion from the public square. We should certainly reject arguments that America’s Founders intended the First Amendment to prohibit neutral programs that support faith-based social service agencies, religious schools, and the like.
Finally, we ignore at our peril the Founders’ insight that democracy requires a moral people and that faith is an important, if not indispensable, support for morality. Such faith may well flourish best without government support, but it should not have to flourish in the face of government hostility.