To celebrate the 4th of July I thought I’d make this Founders’ Week with posts on the Founders and the heritage of our nation. On a Sunday, the place to begin is by looking at their religious beliefs. M.E. Bradford, in his Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution has an excellent chapter titled, “Religion and the Framers: The Biographical Evidence.” Bradford’s credentials as a historian are verified by Russell Kirk in his foreword to another book of Bradford’s Founding Fathers: Brief Lives of the Framers of the United States Constitution. Kirk states that he and Bradford were frequent correspondents and met at least once a year, and it is quite evident that he had the highest esteem for Bradford.
Bradford’s national reputation is founded upon his painstaking and accurate scholarship—and upon his rhetorical skill as well…In general, American historians have been daunted by the tremendous task of fighting their way through antique printed collections of politicians’ letters and through thousands of holograph letters, uncollected, in dusty archives and private hands, but Mel Bradford was possessed of fortitude and a desire to write real history. He knew that there is no better way to ascertain the much-debated “original intent” of the Framers than to pass beyond the somewhat meager journals of the Convention, and beyond The Federalist Papers, to the labyrinthine treasury of letters the Framers wrote home or to one another.
…More fully than most commentators upon those Framers, Bradford has carefully examined their several religious persuasions or affiliations, discovering few Deists or unchurched.1
Bradford writes this in his introduction about the men in Founding Fathers (emphasis added in the below quotes):
…with no more than five exceptions, they were orthodox members of one of the established Christian communions. An internal transformation of American society in the direction of a secularized egalitarian state was the furthest thing from the minds of these men. The majority of them were committed to representative government, to the continued existence of the sovereign states, and to a dependence upon the virtue of the people acting as independent political, economic and moral agents as the best security for the hope of a common future. But they also believed in the imperfection of human nature and had no patience with the notion that men were essentially good of that institutions were the culprit in the darker chapters of history.2
In Original Intentions Bradford expands his discussion to the 150 to 200 men considered to be the principal Founders of the Republic.
Part of the confusion that so often leads us to a misunderstanding of the original Constitution and Bill of Rights is the special status to which a selected group of early American leaders have been elevated as the quintessence of what the Founders had in mind in accomplishing our national independence and then channeling the impetus generated with the Revolution into the creation of a new form of government, one that is “part national” and part federal.” These few are forced to serve as heralds of a “golden moment” of “perfect toleration” and public enlightenment, the embodiments of reason, and are put forward as windows on the American soul, on the collective spirit from which, as a people and polity, we most legitimately derive. The difficulty with this tendentious interpretive strategy is that the student of early American history who goes to the trouble to learn about the private lives of a reasonable number of important public figures in the original thirteen states can discredit it with ease. The selective, disingenuous past visible when filtered through such a list is one well-calculated to foster a partisan misuse of the Constitution in rearranging the present. With the moderns and impenitent futurists who invoke this authority with reference to religion, the names thus collected are a constant: Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin along with such lesser figures as Benjamin Rush and James Wilson. To this set it is conventional to add that part of Madison which seems to have a natural place in such company. Apart from Madison, none of these heroes is a recognizable Christian. And even about Madison there are certain doubts. The point is that by emphasizing as “representative men” the members of this elite group of deists and secularists, modern interpreters of the First Amendment are thereby released to ignore the distance between the very English/Whig/prescriptive world of the Framers and the favorite political nostrums and simplifications of the contemporary intellectual community. To describe the Framers out a larger body of evidence taken from the entire generation to which they belong—of the 150 to 200 principal Founders of the Republic—is to acquire another view of their composite character, especially with reference to the original American tradition concerning liberty, the state, and religion.
As I have come to know through my own work, the concept of the Framers as ordinary Christians, as members in good standing of the various Christian communions found in early America, is supported by the recorded patterns of their lives. What I propose in the way of a collective portrait draws upon evidence from the usually ignored 95 percent of that group—ignored because they are not precursors of the present dispensation in law, ethics, and public policy. The assumption that this majority was likely to agree to totally secular institutional arrangements in the very structure of American politics contradicts almost everything we know about human nature, as well as the most self-evident components of Christian teaching concerning the relation of the magistrate to the ultimate source of his authority in God. They could not be both practicing Christians of their time and the source of the High Court’s present understanding of the establishment clause.3
Bradford quotes from various primary source documents to make his case, citing writings and activities of—and this is not an exhaustive list—Patrick Henry, John Jay, George Mason, General William Livingston, Edmund Pendleton, Elias Boudinot, Roger Sherman, Richard Bassett, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Abraham Baldwin, Luther Martin, John Dickinson, Alexander Hamilton, David Brearly, William Samuel Johnson, John Witherspoon and William Few.
Of course, the most unmistakable Christian evidence of orthodoxy comes in references made by the Framers to Jesus Christ as Redeemer and Son of God. These are commonplace in their private papers, correspondence, and public remarks—and in the early records of their lives. As a sample of such piety we should include the ars moriendi as practiced by Patrick Henry and the parting admonitions preserved in the wills of John Jay and George Mason….
Such declarations are so frequent in the papers of the Framers as to belie the now familiar theory that our Republic came into being in a moment of absolute tolerance, or religious neutrality qua indifference or deistic rationalism embraced by most of the leaders of England’s erstwhile colonies in North America. And not all of this evidence is relegated to wills or very private documents…
Other varieties of unmistakable proof of Christian commitment appear in the acts and languages of Framers who do not always speak directly of their Redeemer but who nonetheless behave as no deist would: who in some fashion to the vigor of their orthodoxy, most impressively in decisions that they make without undue calculation. Expressions of Christian hope are commonplace in the papers of the Framers…
The variety of surviving Christian witness in the papers and sayings of the Framers is indeed astonishing.3
This republic we have in these United States of America providentially came into being through the efforts of Englishmen living in the New World who possessed a Christian understanding of personal responsibility and accountability to God, of the nature of man and the drive for power, and of the nature of integrity and character. The specific historical and religious heritage of this nation yielded in men the substance of thinking that gave birth to the structure of our government.
Here is additional information from a Department of State website.
The Continental-Confederation Congress, a legislative body that governed the United States from 1774 to 1789, contained an extraordinary number of deeply religious men. The amount of energy that Congress invested in encouraging the practice of religion in the new nation exceeded that expended by any subsequent American national government. Although the Articles of Confederation did not officially authorize Congress to concern itself with religion, the citizenry did not object to such activities. This lack of objection suggests that both the legislators and the public considered it appropriate for the national government to promote a nondenominational, nonpolemical Christianity.
*The links are no longer at the Department of State’s site, but the texts have been moved to the quote at the Library of Congress.
1Russell Kirk, Foreward, Founding Fathers: Brief Lives of the Framers of the United States Constitution, xii.
2M. E. Bradford, Introduction, Founding Fathers: Brief Lives of the Framers of the United States Constitution, xvi.
3M. E. Bradford, “Religion and the Framers: The Biographical Evidence,” Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution. These are quotes I had saved several years ago. I don’t have my copy of the book with me at this time, so I’m unable to give you the exact page numbers. I’ll add them as I am able.