By Dave Dentel
Of all the things one could claim about America’s Founding Fathers, among the least controversial is to assert that their bold experiment in democracy also brought about expanded civil liberties—most notably for religious freedom.
But what inspired this achievement? More to the point, just what sort of personal faith did these men adhere to, and how did it affect them?
Over the past two-and-a-half centuries this question has inspired countless inquiries and no small amount of debate—especially among those keen on advancing a particular ideology.
In the conservative evangelical circles I grew up in, it was fashionable to imagine that George Washington and many of his compatriots held views that placed them just one or two finer points of theology away from being fellow Bible-thumping revivalists.
On the other hand, I’m sure Google could easily turn up freethinkers and liberal scholars who claim Thomas Jefferson and similar revolutionaries rejected Christianity in favor of deism and atheism.
This longstanding partisan approach to the discussion makes it refreshing to encounter a book like Alf J. Mapp Jr.’s The Faith of Our Fathers: What America’s Founders Really Believed.
His short, scholarly—yet accessible—work examines the lives of 11 prominent figures of the American Revolution and produces credible, nuanced summaries of their religious views. Mapp shows that men like Washington and Jefferson did not simply parrot prevailing creeds, but thought deeply about the divine, about duties owed to God and man, and how the prospect of someday facing an eternal judge should influence their actions and beliefs.
Where the Evidence Leads
Not that Mapp’s accounts are dogmatic or simplistic. He acknowledges the difficulty of finding enough reliable evidence to detail something most people guard as deeply personal, and adds that the search is made more arduous given the fact that we’re dealing with men who were public servants and politicians in a nascent democracy.
Though it’s true men like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton often dealt in fiery rhetoric, the broader reality is that they could not afford always to bluster or dictate. They had to sway people, and to do so entailed casting themselves not as reactionaries or elitists, but as trustworthy fellow-travelers. This also meant sometimes having to disguise certain beliefs or aspects of their personas if these traits put them at risk of alienating constituents.
Mapp acknowledges this in his account of Benjamin Franklin’s rather peculiar view of God (or rather, gods). When writing about the topic, observes Mapp, Franklin displayed a “frequent habit of achieving agreement with a correspondent even if he had to confine himself to partial truths, trotting his own views out in costumes more concealing than revealing.” Mapp adds: “He was resolved not to inspire hatred … if tactfulness could prevent it.”
The author also reveals intriguing—and surprising—tidbits about various Founders’ relationships to religion, how these relationships changed over time, and how they were manifested in the behavior of these men.
Washington, for example, served as an officer in the Episcopal Church and frequented worship services. But he often refused communion. Was this reluctance, Mapp wonders, not because Washington eschewed the sacrament, but because he doubted his own worthiness to partake of the holy ritual?
Then there’s Jefferson, who admired the ethics of Jesus but famously balked at believing the Galilean performed supernatural deeds. But as he aged, Jefferson often went to hear a Baptist preacher—who was also a good friend—deliver evangelical sermons. Did Jefferson finally embrace Christ as the son of God?
Hamilton, as well, apparently “turned increasingly to things of the spirit” as he entered middle age. According to Mapp, Hamilton even “proposed a national organization of Christian activists to work for a conservative political agenda.”
Faith to Faith
And though the author takes pains to point out that the Founders were not monolithic, a theme in their collective religious beliefs definitely emerges. It is plain that Washington, Jefferson and others held Christian morality in high regard, and they intended that the essence of Christ’s teachings should infuse the legal and social fabric of the nation they were creating.
For many of these men this intention was also borne out in a deep personal faith.
Mapp illustrates this truth in his summation of Charles Carroll, who apparently leveraged his renown as a great patriot to try and persuade friends and loved ones to embrace the gospel and its promise of eternal salvation.
As the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, writes Mapp, Carroll “was revered as the paterfamilias of a nation. Heartened by his accomplishments, but questioning his own selflessness, he relied on the mercy of the Heavenly Father and the intercession of the Son.”