The Deism Myth - Were our founders really Deists?

Author: Andrew Alleman

Were the Founders of the United States simply “deists”? Debunking this modern myth. 


Most who are even somewhat familiar with apologetics and debate concerning political history may recall the common assertion: “the Founders certainly weren’t Christians! They were only diests!” Such is a phrase often repeated with zealous gusto. It seems the only time the term “deist” even appears in contemporary conversation is in the context of the United States Founders specifically somehow being averse to Christianity. It is interesting that secularists that have pushed this claim do not use the term “theist” as if to intentionally avoid a reference to theism directly. Such a reference to “theism” might imply that the Founders connected the God they spoke of with the God of the Bible, or at the least were inspired by Him. Such would be a reasonable implication and concession, but why stop there? We are after the whole truth. Were the US founders simply “deists”, only vaguely acknowledging a loosely defined and distant “higher power” that set the world in motion than vanished, never again to govern the affairs of men?


The simple definition of what deism actually is simply does not accurately describe the Founders, even those that may have been considered general skeptics at certain points in their life. There is no evidence that most of the Founders were either deists, rejected Christian beliefs, or that “God set the world in motion and then abstained from human affairs”.i Concerning the civic leadership as a whole at that time in the United States, there are very few occasions, examples, or evidences of them embracing deism or rejecting Christianity.ii Regarding the general populace, there were few non-Christians in late 18th century America.iii In 1776, each and every colonist, with the exception of approximately two thousand Jews, identified as Christian.iv About 98 percent of them were protestants, and 2 percent were Roman Catholics.v During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the vast majority of colonists were Reformed or Calvinist The “diest” label is frequently applied to only a few of the most famous Founders, treated almost as flags to be captured, while the names of the rest of the Founders are rarely mentioned at all and generally go forgotten in historical discussions. Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Roger Sherman, and John Witherspoon all expressly held orthodox Christian ideas and beliefs.vii Additional Founders frequently left out of the discussion whom held traditional Christian faith include Elias Boudinot, Eliphalet Dyer, Oliver Ellsworth, Matthew Griswold, John Hancock, Benjamin Huntington, Samuel Huntington, Thomas McKean, William Paterson, Tapping Reeve, Jesse Root, Oliver Wolcott, and Robert Yates.viii


        Concerning the abundance of evidence related to the Christian faith and religious conviction of none other than George Washington, an entire volume could be written. Here we can examine just a few records of his personal writing that bring his faith to light. A 1790 letter to a Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island alone contained no less than nine scriptural references.ix The use here of Micah 4:4, which some have called his favorite verse, is further referenced 40 times elsewhere.x Washington frequently referred to God in invocations of “Providence, Heaven, the Supreme Being, the Great Architect, the Author of all Good, and the Great Ruler of Events”. George Washington referred to “Providence” alone at least 270 times in his writings and thanked Providence for literally saving his life through divine protection.xi This directly contradicts the assertion that he was simply a vaguely detached diest, whom merely credited a non-benevolent and unknown force that had no divine interference or direction in the affairs of men.xii Furthermore, in 1791 Washington signed a letter drafted by Jefferson to the emperor of Morocco that offered a prayer by “God...under his holy keeping”. A French friend of his once noted of Washington that “every day of the year, he rises at five in the morning; as soon as he is up, he dresses, then prays reverently to God.” One of his most beautiful expressions of conviction regarding Christianity was made in his General Orders on May 2nd, 1778. It is recorded as follows: “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 signal Instances of providential Goodness which we have experienced and which have now almost crowned our labours with complete Success, demand from us in a peculiar manner the warmest returns of Gratitude & Piety to the Supreme Author of all Good.” Washington used the word "God" 146 times in his personal writing and public speeches. A popular secularist myth persists that Washington never mentioned or referenced Jesus Christ specifically, despite having clearly done so several times in his General Orders and in his "Circular Letter to the Governors" of 1783: “…and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.”


Much has been made of the beliefs of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson which require their own dedicated article, though even a brief examination of their expressions display an attitude inconsistent with mere deism. Franklin noted during the Constitutional Convention that “in the beginning with the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible with danger, we had daily prayer in this room for divine protection…Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered…the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth- that God governs the affairs of men”xiii. Jefferson went to significant lengths to keep his opinions of personal faith private in his lettersxiv, however it is clear that he respected the bible’s moral teaching in general (a far cry from new age non-moralism in the vein of Nietzsche) indicated by an 1816 letter where he wrote, “the ten commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my Religion”.xv Jefferson is quoted in his first inaugural address “may the infinite power which rules the destines of the universe lead our councils to what is best, and give them favorable issue for your peace and prosperity.”xvi


A claim persists that Thomas Paine’s philosophically diest work The Age of Reason provided direct influence on the Founders or was at least a positive contribution to their way of thinking. However, the historical record shows this as patently false. American civil leaders held extremely negative reactions to the bookxvii and Paine was subsequently vilified. When he returned to the US he was abandoned by all his friends with the exception of Jefferson. Samuel Adams, John Adams, John Witherspoon, William Paterson, John Jay, Benjamin Rush, Charles Carroll, Zephaniah Swift, Elias Boudinot, and Patrick Henry openly criticized the book.xviii  Only six people came to his funeral, in which he was buried on a farm because of the Quakers refusal to allow him a grave with the church cemetery.xix 


The common deist assertion appears to be primarily used in the past by proudly atheistic secularists as an apologist angle of discrediting Christianity’s heritage. It is as if the bible having a foundational influence on the United States founding was not acceptable. One can understand their reason for zeal- the reality of Christianity’s influence conflicts directly with their insistence that godless atheism, lumped together with the concept of “enlightenment humanism”, produced the freest nation in the world. The fact of the matter is that unrestrained rejection of morality and militancy towards Christianity produced the chaos of the French Revolution and the massacres of the Reign of Terror. In contrast, the Founders typically targeted as being detached deists are on record as either being outright Christians, embracing Christianity’s moral influences, or in the least wrote concerning God’s direct intervention in the affairs of men and the world.xx The typical rebuttal to all this is usually “well, everyone was religious back then!” Well, if everyone was indeed religious back then (being mostly part of various Christian denominations) then does that not show that religious men built the foundations of the modern world rather than a-religious men?


It is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favors.”


-George Washington

Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, Issued by President George Washington, at the request of Congress, on October 3, 1789 




i David P. Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, p.3, p. XXII


ii David P. Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding, p.4

Noll, America’s God: From Johnathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, 138-145


iii David P. Hall, Did American Have a Christian Founding?, p. XXVII


iv David P. Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, p.XXI

Dreisbach and Hall, Sacred Rights of Conscience, 93


v David P. Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, p. XXI

Barry A. Kosmin and Seymour P. Lachman, One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society, p.28-29


vi David P. Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, p.16

Harry S. Stout, Preaching the Insurrection, Christian History, p.17


vii David P. Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, p.XXI 


viii David P. Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, p.17


ix David P. Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, p.XXVIII

Peter A. Lillback, George Washington’s Sacred Fire, p.321-322


x David P. Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, p. XXVIII

Peter A. Lillback, George Washington’s Sacred Fire, p. 211-227 


xi David P. Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, P.11

Washington to John Augustine Washington, July 18th, 1755 The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series


xii David P. Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, p.8

David L. Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, p.47, 65


xiii David P. Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, p.12

Dreisbach and Hall, Sacred Rights of Conscience, p.452

Hutson, Founders on Religion, p.176


xiv David P. Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, p.6


xv David P. Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, p.7

Adams to Jefferson, November 4th, 1816,” in Adams-Jefferson Letters 


xvi David P. Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, p.12

Dreisbach and Hall, Sacred Rights of Conscience, p.294


xvii David P. Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, p.5

Gary Nash “The American Clergy and the French Revolution” p.402


xviii David P. Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, p.5

The Works of John Adams, Charles Francis Adams, 3:421, 9:73

Samuel Adams to Thomas Paine, November 30, 182,” in Paine: Collected Writings


xix  Ian Shapiro, “Introduction: Thomas Paine, America’s First Public Intellectual, in Selected Writings of Thomas Paine, xxi


xx David P. Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding? p.11

Self-Evident Ministries


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