Faith of Our Founding Fathers

Speaker: Mike Diggs

Dedication of Chalice

We now join with Unitarian Universalists all over North America as we dedicate our chalice with these words by Richard M. Fewkes:

The Light of Truth

May the Light of Truth illumine our minds,
May the Spark of Love set our hearts on fire,
May the Flame of Freedom burn brightly within us,
Now and always.

Reading and Meditation

Our first reading this morning is by Frederick Douglass:

“Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightening; they want the ocean without the awful roar of its waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand; it never did and it never will. Find out what people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice that will be imposed upon them. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those people whom they oppress.”

Our second reading this morning is from “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” authored by Thomas Jefferson, and passed by the Virginia Assembly in 1786.

“Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

I invite you to pause for a moment of reflection, prayer, meditation, or to just enjoy the peace of silence.

Opening Words

These opening words are from a 1822 letter to Benjamin Waterhouse , by Thomas Jefferson: “Now, which of these is the true and charitable Christian? He who believes and acts on the simple doctrines of Jesus? Or the impious dogmatists, as Athanasius and Calvin? Verily I say these are the false shepherds foretold as to enter not by the door into the sheepfold, but to climb up some other way. They are mere usurpers of the Christian name, teaching a counter-religion made up of the deliria of crazy imaginations, as foreign from Christianity as is that of Mahomet. Their blasphemies have driven thinking men into infidelity, who have too hastily rejected the supposed author himself, with the horrors so falsely imputed to him. Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian. I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.“

Presentation: Faith of Our Founding Fathers

God Bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Thru the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America, My home sweet home.

Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” is my least favorite of the American patriotic songs. It’s very easy to see why – the first word of the title of the song. I also don’t care for the sentiment of that title. I prefer the sentiment being sold as a bumper sticker now – “God Bless Everyone – No Exceptions.”

“God” shows up in many places in America. My favorite patriotic song is “America the Beautiful”, but even it has the line “God shed his grace on thee”. “The Defense of Fort McHenry” – now better known as “The Star-Spangled Banner” – doesn’t mention God until the fourth verse, with the line “And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’” How many people today even remember that the National Anthem has four verses?

Although it first appeared on Union coins in 1864, “In God We Trust” did not become the National Motto until 1956. The phrase “under God” was not added to the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954, at a time when we were fighting “the Godless Commies”.

Most of the Founding Fathers were Deists, Unitarians or similar faiths that believed that God does not directly influence the world or order its events. They believed in rational thought, in personal responsibility for our actions, and the need to protect the innocent.

To understand how we got to the Separation of Church and State that we currently enjoy, as least theoretically, let’s examine the faiths of five of the Founding Fathers: the first 3 presidents, George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, and two more whose writings and work helped inspire and guide the Revolution: Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine.

Over two hundred years after his death, scholars are still arguing about the faith of George Washington. Was he an orthodox Christian, since he belonged to and supported several Anglican Congregations? Or was he a deist – there is no record that he ever took Communion as an adult at any of the churches he attended. Some have even called Washington a NeoPagan, although this is well before that term began to be used.

Although Washington often spoke of God and Providence, he rarely mentioned Jesus, Christ, or Christianity. According to Thomas Jefferson, when Washington left the presidency, several members of the clergy were offended by Washington’s failure to use these terms. They tried to trap Washington into professing as a Christian, but he skillfully avoided the question in his response.

Washington was a Freemason, and he often made reference to the “Great Architect of the Universe” – a neutral Masonic style of referring to God.

Recent scholars range from Dr. Peter Lillback, who claims that Washington was an orthodox Christian of his period, to Peter Henriques and Gerry Scott Smith, who in separate works label Washington as a Theistic Rationalist. They define this as a hybrid belief system somewhere between strict deism and orthodox Christianity, with rationalism as the predominant element.

Quoting from a letter Washington wrote to the members of the New Church of Baltimore: “We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition, and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart. In this enlightened age and in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest offices that are known in the United States.”

John Adams was raised a Congregationalist and became a Unitarian when most Congregationalist churches in the Boston area became Unitarian. Adams was not a deist, but he used deistic terms in his speeches and writing. He believed in the essential goodness of the creation, but did not believe in the divinity of Christ or that God intervened in the affairs of individuals. He also believed that regular church service was beneficial to man’s moral sense.

Since most of us are familiar with the Unitarian viewpoint, I won’t linger any longer with Adams, but I offer this quote from his 1814 letter to John Taylor: “The priesthood have, in all ancient nations, nearly monopolized learning. Read over again all the accounts we have of Hindoos, Chaldeans, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Celts, Teutons, we shall find that priests had all the knowledge, and really governed mankind. Examine Mahometanism, trace Christianity from its first promulgation; knowledge has been almost exclusively confined to the clergy. And, even since the Reformation, when or where has existed a Protestant or dissenting sect who would tolerate A FREE INQUIRY?”

Thomas Jefferson was foremost a scientist, but he was forced by his times to become a politician. He was raised an Anglican at a time when it was the established religion of the Virginia colony, and the only one supported by Virginia tax money. While at William and Mary College, Jefferson was exposed to and inspired by the writings of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke. Under their influence, and that of several of his professors, Jefferson converted to the Deist philosophy. He believed in one God, and saw Jesus as a great moral teacher. He did not believe Jesus to be the promised Messiah or the Incarnate Son of God. He did express a general agreement with his friend Joseph Priestley’s Unitarian form of Christianity, and he probably did become a Unitarian.

When Patrick Henry attempted from 1784 to 1786 to assess taxes in Virginia to support churches, Jefferson and James Madison combined to oppose him. In 1786 the Virginia Assembly passed the “Bill for Religious Freedom” which was read from earlier, and written by Jefferson. He sought what he called a “wall of separation between Church and State.”

While president, Jefferson compiled via cut and paste – scissors and glue, not a computer – his own condensed version of the Gospels. He omitted Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, divinity and resurrection. He called his work “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”, but we know it today as the Jefferson Bible.

In a 1825 letter to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, Jefferson wrote: “I am anxious to see the doctrine of one god commenced in our state. But the population of my neighborhood is too slender, and is too much divided into other sects to maintain any one preacher well. I must therefore be contented to be an Unitarian by myself, although I know there are many around me who would become so, if once they could hear the questions fairly stated.”

Benjamin Franklin had been baptized and educated in a Presbyterian Church based on the doctrines of John Calvin. Franklin’s wife, Deborah, retained a life-long association with Christ Church, Philadelphia. Franklin later in life rarely attended Sunday services but commented that “…Sunday being my studying day, I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that He made the world, and governed it by His providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter.”

One of Franklin’s enduring beliefs was in the respect and tolerance of all religious groups. Referring to his experience in Philadelphia, he wrote in his autobiography, “new Places of worship were continually wanted, and generally erected by voluntary contribution, my Mite for such purpose, whatever might be the Sect, was never refused.”

Although Franklin’s parents had intended for him to have a career in the church, Franklin became disillusioned with organized religion after discovering Deism. “I soon became a thorough Deist.” He went on to attack Christian principles of free will and morality in a 1725 pamphlet, A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain.

Franklin sought to cultivate his character by a plan of thirteen virtues, which he developed at age 20 (in 1726) and continued to practice in some form for the rest of his life. His autobiography lists his thirteen virtues as:

1. “TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”
2. “SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”
3. “ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”
4. “RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
5. “FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”
6. “INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”
7. “SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.”
8. “JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”
9. “MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
10. “CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.”
11. “TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”
12. “CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”
13. “HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

In March 1790, a month before he died, Franklin wrote the following in a letter to Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University, who had asked him his views on religion:

“As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble….”

Of all the Founding Fathers I mentioned today, Thomas Paine is perhaps the least familiar. He alone of this group has no memorial or statue in Washington, DC, and some reviled him after the Revolution as an atheist. He has a claim to the title “The Father of the American Revolution” because of Common Sense, the pro-independence pamphlet he anonymously published on January 10, 1776; it quickly spread among the literate, and, in three months, 120,000 copies sold throughout the American British colonies. Paine’s original title for the pamphlet was Plain Truth; Paine’s friend, pro-independence advocate Benjamin Rush, suggested Common Sense instead.

The strength of Common Sense was not in the originality of its ideas, but in the simplicity of its style. Paine was a pioneer in a new style of political writing suitable to the kind of democratic society he envisioned. Common Sense rendered complex ideas intelligible to average readers, with clear, concise writing unlike the formal, learned style favored by many of Paine’s contemporaries. Many were shocked by Paine’s undisguised hostility to the British monarchy; the pamphlet labeled King George III as “the Royal Brute of Great Britain”.

In the early months of the war Paine published The Crisis pamphlet series, to inspire the colonists in their resistance to the British army. To inspire the enlisted men, General George Washington had The American Crisis read aloud to them. The first Crisis pamphlet begins: “These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.”

Paine described himself as Deist, saying: “How different is [Christianity] to the pure and simple profession of Deism! The true Deist has but one Deity, and his religion consists in contemplating the power, wisdom, and benignity of the Deity in his works, and in endeavoring to imitate him in everything moral, scientifical, and mechanical.”

I am forced by time restaints to to ignore many of the Founders, particularly James Madison, fourth president and principal author of the Bill of Rights. Most of the Founders, especially the movers who signed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, held similar views to the five I discussed today, or were influenced by them.

All of the Founders were of the Age of Enlightenment – that period of time when the religious rule of the Dark Ages was thrown off in favor of an Age of Reason. They were all well educated men for their time, and by today’s as well. They were well aware of the abuses inherent to the rule by monarchy and church that led to the Inquisition, and to the wide spread witch hunts of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, including Salem.

People had no rights, and were not allowed to defend themselves against the charges laid against them. To defend youself was, to the prosecutors of the witch hunts, to admit your guilt. Accusers made charges against anyone they did not like, often for a bounty promised for successful prosecution. Thousands died, all across Europe, and in Massachusets.

Almost none of the Founders were Catholic or Puritan, the religions that participated in the worst abuses. As mentioned before, many were Deists or Unitarians.

The Constitution and the Bill of rights were intended to protect America from the abuses of the Witch Hunts and similar injustices caused by the rule of kings and religions. By making government responsible to the people, not God or his “chosen” representatives, the Founders gave us a chance to leave behind the abuses of the past. I do not believe this would have been possible without the emergence of the Unitarian and Deist beliefs that flourished in the Age of Reason. I repeat from the earlier John Adams quote – “And, even since the Reformation, when or where has existed a Protestant or dissenting sect who would tolerate A FREE INQUIRY?”

We must remember that the United States of America is not a Christian nation. Christianity is not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights. Indeed, The Treaty of Tripoli of 1796, Article 11 says: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

The Founding Fathers gave us democracy, in a form never seen before in our world. Let us recall what Winston Churchill said about democracy, in a speech to the House of Commons in 1947 –

“Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Closing Words

The Bill of Rights is not a perfect protection of our freedoms, religious or otherwise. It has been subverted many times in its 219 year history.

Your best protection against future subversions is to exercise your franchise as an American citizen and vote in Tuesday’s election. I won’t presume to suggest who you should vote for – I think you all have made, or will make, your decisions based on rational reasons, not emotions, not religious or political dogmas.

If you haven’t already voted in advance – I did – you can still do so tomorrow morning at any of sixteen sites around the county. You can also vote from Six AM to Seven PM Tuesday, at your designated polling place.

The United States of America is a great experiment, completely without precedent in world history. Help keep the American experiment thriving by voting Tuesday.

Closing Words

From James 1:
Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers. Those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty and persevere, being doers who act– they will be blessed in their doing.

Amen, Ashay, Namasté, Shalom, and Blessed Be.