“All Of the Founding Fathers Were Agnostics And Deists!”

In case you’re wondering what the fireworks, parades and cookout clamor is all about this time of year, let me give you a one sentence history lesson on July 4th: Independence Day is when Americans (winning!) celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence that happened on July 4, 1776, which declared American Colonial independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain.

I’m thankful the founding fathers had the backbone to stand up to the bloody Motherland and sign that Revolutionary document of epic proportions. Otherwise we’d all be sporting bad teeth and eating crappy food right now; Or even worse, obsessed with the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

There is another legacy I am thankful the FF left behind too. This one is to the chagrin of strange secular e-scholars armed with gobs of misinformation. If you do a tertiary Google search of the “Founding Fathers Religion” you just might walk away with an overwhelming impression that America was founded on Deism and Agnosticism.

As my scorned Brit counterparts may say in a classic Monty Python tone: “Rubbish!”

Now, I know some wiggle room may be needed when throwing around absolutes about the personal religious belief’s of dudes who lived 250 years ago. Given there are some minor conflicting reports on a handful of the signers, a + or – 2 point margin of error may be due. But the signers were highly literate public figures who wrote a lot, whether it be letters or articles. In addition to church records, their own words take the guesswork out of discerning where most all of them stood whether politically or religiously.

So here is the specific religious persuasion of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. Scope out this snazzy table I jacked from Adherents.com:

Episcopalian/Anglican 32 57.1%
Congregationalist 13 23.2%
Presbyterian 12 21.4%
Quaker 2 3.6%
Unitarian or Universalist 2 3.6%
Catholic 1 1.8%
TOTAL 56 100%

The FF’s religion simply mirrored that of American religious life. A compelling case could be made that the FF’s were actually more denominationally affiliated than the average citizen of the day.

Out of the 56 signers, only two were the overtly unorthodox “Unitarian/Universalist”: John Adams and Robert Paine (both came from a Congregationalist background). The table does fail to distinguish two notable Episcopalian-affiliated FF’s from the rest (I would have put them in a different category). Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were both Deists. Though both subscribed to a Creator, they also posited God was as an absentee Father in their day in age.

So when adding it up in the most liberal way possible, there were a total of FOUR signers of the DoI who would not be considered “bible-believing” Christians in the most fundamental classical sense.

4 out of 56. A total of 7 % were not orthodox Christians. Or to put it positively, 93 % of the signers of the DoI were orthodox bible believing Christians. In fact, four of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were current or former full-time preachers, and many more were the sons of clergymen. A large percentage graduated from Ivy League seminaries, back when Ivy League Seminaries churned out missionaries with a high view of Scripture.

Signer John Witherspoon, the President of Princeton University and Presbyterian minister, said:

It is the man of  piety and inward principle, that we may expect to find the uncorrupted patriot, the useful citizen, and the invincible soldier. – God grant that in America true religion and civil liberty may be inseperable and that the unjust attempts to destroy the one, may in the issue tend to the support and establishment of both.

Hmmm. Sounds like the founders had a much more nuanced view of that “impenetrable wall between church and state” than contemporary secular apologists suggest. Contemporary historical expert on the matter, Robert G. Ferris, writes:

The signers possessed many basic similarities. Most were American-born and of Anglo-Saxon origin. The eight foreign-born… were all natives of the British Isles. Except for Charles Carroll, a Roman Catholic, and a few Deists, every one subscribed to Protestantism. For the most part basically political nonextremists, many at first had hesitated at separation let alone rebellion.

Now I know some of the founders (especially the unorthodox ones) had some disparaging remarks about institutionalized religion. They were not far removed from the abuses and persecutions of a British state religion after all. That is the primary reason the DoI has a strong non-denominational appeal to it. Though largely all Protestant, the signers were wise enough to see the folly and corruption that followed a virtual Theocratic state.

That is the genius of their “government by the people,” instead of by the King or political elite. Most every FF believed in the sinfulness of all men, even (especially?) those untouchable men crowned with great authority.

So I am thankful for the Christian heritage of America’s Founding Fathers. By no means do I believe they intended to establish an expressly “Christian nation” with no regard to other worldviews. But a majority were clearly men of Christian conviction and conscience, with a deep reverence for the sovereign God revealed in Scripture.

The founding fathers were not all agnostics or deists. Any modern theory that leans on such blatant historical revisionism is, well…rubbish.

Bryan Daniels

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Author: Bryan Daniels

I am a follower of Jesus, a husband to Jessica, and a father of three boys: Josiah, Gideon and Judah. I teach high school math as a job, read reformed theology as a hobby, and write this blog just for kicks. With the rest of my time I coach football and track.

29 thoughts on ““All Of the Founding Fathers Were Agnostics And Deists!””

  1. This is well-written and well said. I have been reading much on the political and religious views of the FF, as you put it.

    Although I don’t disagree with you that our FF never intended “to establish an expressly ‘Christian nation,'” I am under the belief that none would have been accepting of any other religion that did not acknowledge the One True God.

    How would they respond to our current climate of government removing God from discourse or consideration? I’ve read far too many quotes from the FF to think they would be accepting of this.

    Agnostics? Hardly.

    1. Thank you Dean for your comment!

      I agree, the FF’s being mainly bible believing orthodox Christians, would not have accepted other religions as valid. Yet convinced of the inherent God-given rights of all men, they did create a DoI and Constitution that gave great freedom for the exercise of other religions, even ones that contradicted theirs.

      As you suggest, I am sure many FF would be utterly shocked that the contemporary court would mandate removal of prayer and references to God in the public square.

  2. Great post Coach. I wonder if any of the FF ever contemplated a day when Christians might be in the minority? I wonder what proportion Congress today are orthodox Christians? Clearly the FF were mostly concerned that a form of Christianity would be forced upon them that was not of their liking. My guess is they considered that nearly as distasteful as having a pagan religion thrust upon them, but lived in a time and place where the replacement of Christianity with humanism was literally unthinkable.

    What I think I’ve seen, even my lifetime, is a movement from orthodox Christians believing other orthodox Christians were going to hell for some legalistic reason, to a place where many, many social Christians believe almost every path leads to salvation. I’m not sure which is more damaging to the soul, believing the saved are condemned, or believing the condemned are saved. Both extremes point to a wrong view of salvation, and a disfigured conception of the mercy and justice of God and the work of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    1. Great thoughts Joel!

      It seems the grip of extreme legalistic fundamentalism has waned some (thankfully) but is being replaced by the Rob Bell-esque liberal Christiantiy where do-goodin’ is the new Nintendo. Thanks for the thought provoking comment!

  3. Only in one sentence did you mention that Franklin and Jefferson were Deists, essentially Christians in name only (if you can even say that). Franklin’s early writings heavily influenced the classical liberal ideals in the DoI, and Jefferson wrote the document! This is why some people have the idea that the founding fathers were Deists — arguably the two most important signers were (and Adams, as noted, was a universalist). So I would have liked to see an acknowledgment that some signers were more important in shaping the vision of the country than others.

    1. Thanks for the comment geagoe!

      Here is what I said regarding Jefferson and Franklin: “The table does fail to distinguish two notable Episcopalian-affiliated FF’s from the rest (I would have put them in a different category). Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were both Deists. Though both subscribed to a Creator, they also posited God was as an absentee Father in their day in age.”

      That is more than one sentence. I also said that I would have put them in a different category than the table has them in. I would not call them Episcopalian because (I agree with you) they were NOT Christian in the classical sense. They were Deists which means essentially agnostic in modern terms. As far as your assertion that those two were “more important” signers, than others I don’t know how that can be proved. Just because some are “more famous” doesn’t equate in my mind as “more important.” To explore such an endeavor is beyond the scope of this blog post.

      So I did mention the four non Christian Deists and Universalists (which is better than what many do), and I was much more objective with the history than with those I am in contention with : those who claim blindly that most ALL the founders were Deists or Agnostic. Thanks for engaging thoughts!

  4. I’m certainly no expert on US history but it would seem from my reading that Jefferson, even by today’s standards had a very liberal view of God and Scripture. My thought is that you can see his liberal influence in much of American life today

    1. Being a Deist Jefferson definitely had a liberal view of Scripture; he actually published his own NT which omits all of the miraculous and just includes the “philosophy” of Jesus. “Whoever takes out any words written in this book will be cursed…”

  5. Did you forget to mention Thomas Paine? What a christian(sic) he was!
    What a character. You should read him. Very astute mind.
    When he died only six people pitched up for his funeral because of his radical views on Christianity. There was a man with ‘balls’ (‘scuse my French)

    1. I didn’t include him because he was not a signer or even personally apart of the Constitutional Convention (though I know he was an influential Englishman). I don’t think adding him would change the percentages too much. Certainly, he was a Deist who I’d put in the unorthodox agnostic category with Jefferson (whom you curiously called a Christian when talking about slavery).

      1. Paine was still considered a Founding Father.
        Jefferson believed in Jesus as a man. Does this not make him a Christian?

        1. No, it isn’t enough to just believe in Jesus as a man or good moral teacher (Romans 10:9-10). Jesus either was bat crap crazy or exactly who he said he was (Son of God/Man) but a good moral teacher would never make such claims if not true. The glib approach to Scripture and the outright denial of the resurrection (John 11:25) of Christ in “Jefferson’s Bible” gives me reservation to deem him Christian in any real sense.

          1. ‘Jesus’ never said he was the Son of God.
            I’m not comfortable with the term Bat Crap (crazy) Bat Crap has many good things in its favour, believe it or not. To ascribe this to a narrative construct is a waste of good manure.
            Resurrection?
            Hmm. And when the dead arose after Jesus’ supposed crucifixion do you not think it odd that there were no secular accounts of all these dead folk walking about?

            1. Tell that to Jesus’ audience of the day: After he said “I and the Father are one.” the Jews were ready to kill Him right there! Why? “Because you,” they said, “a mere man, claim to be God” (John 10:33).

              On another occasion, He used the personal name of Israel’s God–the name revealed to Moses (Exodus 3:14)–to refer to Himself. And He even used the Torah for context, so no one would misunderstand Him: “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58). This would be about wild as telling a Muslim, “I am your God, Allah.”

              Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man which was a claim ot deity itself. That comes from Daniel 7 just read the audacity of Christ’s claims:”In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”

              Read Mark 14:60-64, the High priest knew what Christ was claiming.

              He also regularly received worship like in Luke 5:20-24)

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