Religion and the Founding Generation

The role Christianity played in the founding period is often a subject of considerable debate, particularly for those on the Left who would want Americans to forget the founding generation. Leftists will often cherry-pick quotations that “show” the founding generation was anti-Christian or at the very least suspicious of religion in public life. 

Most often Thomas Jefferson’s “Bible” or James Madison’s views on the “separation of church and state” are held as concrete evidence that all of the members of the founding generation thought the same way. That’s funny, because these same people will often scream things like, “The Founding Fathers never agreed on anything, so you right wingers can’t claim them as your own!” Yet, the question of religion in the founding generation is a nice case study of how that generation generally did agree on fundamental principles. 

The question should not be if the founding generation were Christians, because most were, it should be which members of the founding generation are being used as examples. 

Fifty of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 were practicing Christians. Benjamin Franklin—often used as a great non-Christian “example” by the Left—praised his Christian sister in letters for her devotion to the faith and during the Constitutional Convention called for daily prayer to help move the business of the group. Jefferson had his “Bible,” but he never published it in his lifetime for fear of reprisal from the Virginia community and he never let it be known publically that he was a “non-Christian.”

Madison consistently argued for the separation of church and state, but considered a career in the ministry as a young man. And for every Jefferson or Madison or Franklin, there were at least a handful of members of the founding generation who were pious Christians. Many of them are not household names because they didn’t leave the same written legacy as their more famous counterparts, but they had as much of a role in shaping the state and federal governments as Jefferson, Madison, or Franklin. 

Additionally, the Left is correct that the United States government is a secular government, but the key to understanding the role of religion in the founding period is not the United States Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, but the state constitutions that were written between 1776 and 1781. Jefferson emphasized in the Declaration of Independence that the “united States,” as “FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES,” were declaring their independence from Great Britain. An 18th Century definition of a state is a sovereign political entity. Thus, the state constitutions in the late 18th Century were more important than the Articles of Confederation or the United States Constitution and are a nice window into how the founding generation viewed religion.

The founding generation believed the states were better equipped to handle the status of religion. No one wanted Puritan Northerners telling Orthodox Anglican Southerners how to worship or Catholic Marylanders infringing on the rights of Pennsylvania Quakers. All four groups are Christians, but all worshiped in different churches with different rituals and ceremonies. To form a union, all had to get along, and all could as long as religious issues, among others, were removed from the general business of the union. 

This is why the Articles of Confederation was mute on the question of religion and why the 1st Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the establishment of religion, meaning a Church of the United States. But at the state level, things were much different.

The 1776 Pennsylvania constitution, Delaware constitution of 1776, and 1777 Vermont constitution contained a religious-test oath that required each member of the assembly to swear that he believed in God and acknowledged “the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.” Both the Vermont and North Carolina constitution of 1776 required members of the state legislatures to uphold “the Protestant religion.”

The 1778 South Carolina constitution was more direct: “The Christian Protestant religion shall be deemed, and is hereby constituted and declared to be, the established religion of this State. That all denominations of Christian Protestants in this State, demeaning themselves peaceably and faithfully, shall enjoy equal religious and civil privileges.”

The 1776 New Jersey constitution was slightly more tolerant. It declared that all Protestants were guaranteed freedom of worship, but it left the door open to abridge religious freedom for other denominations or sects. The 1776 constitution of Maryland and 1780 constitution of Massachusetts allowed for religious freedom for all “Christians” and the Maryland constitution imposed a tax for supporting Christianity in the State.

Georgia, in its 1777 constitution, granted religious freedom, provided the religion was not “repugnant to the peace and safety” of the state. The Virginia constitution of 1776 included a right to freedom of worship, but insisted that all men had a duty to practice “Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.” New York had perhaps the strictest statements against an established religion and it prohibited clergyman from holding office. 

From the evidence above one can only conclude that the founding generation was at least generally supportive of Christianity in public life. These were not godless men, selective quotations to the contrary. The members of the founding generation as a rule were Christians who thought religion in public life was not only a blessing but a necessity for a free government. Don’t let the Left fool you. Even if the United States government was secular and mute on organized religion, the “united States” and the people of those states were not.