American Deism

Deism’s Influence on the Founding Fathers and Constitution of the United States

This lecture will discuss Deism, its history, philosophy and how its meaning has changed somewhat in the present day.  We shall be focusing on the influence of Deism on many of the significant Founders of the United States in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. We shall glance at 18th Century Unitarianism, also, because it was an important influence on some of our Founders, particularly Thomas Jefferson.  I shall be speaking about the beliefs of Ethan Allen (1738- 1789) Thomas Paine (1737- 1809,) Benjamin Franklin (1706- 1790) George Washington (1732- 1799) Thomas Jefferson (1743- 1826,) and James Madison (1751- 1836.)  Their thinking was nonconventional with regard to orthodox Christianity.  All of them embraced some form of Deism.

Most of the Founders were influenced, as well, by their study of the classics of Ancient Greece and Rome. Reading the classics was de rigueur for most American schoolboys at that period, and that course of studies continued through their university years.  They found compelling philosophy in the classics, and were exposed to ideas for living ethically and affirmatively. The Founders studied plans from classical writers concerning the formation of societies that were just and stable. 

The Bibliography at the end of the written lecture, “American Deism” lists two volumes which are excellent guides to the encounter of the Founding Fathers with the classics, which is beyond the scope of this lecture.

Before I begin, I would like to take a few minutes to speak about the egregious and by now, ubiquitous myth, about our country’s faith-based constitutional beginnings.  The falsehood has originated with members of the Religious Right. Such a notion has had too much purchase the last thirty years or more in this nation. There have always been Conservative Christians who have supported such nonsense, but during the last thirty years, several men have emerged who have propagated the myth so successfully that it has reached and influenced our American mainstream. I would like to talk about one of these men, probably the most effective of all the equivocators.

David Barton (b. 1954) is an Evangelical Christian minister whose career has been, in large part, the revisionist attempt to persuade Americans that the United States Constitution is based on Christian principles and is meant to protect the church from the state much more than the state from the church. It is quite easy to find information about Mr. Barton on the Web, so I shall only mention that he holds his degree from Oral Roberts University.  Among his many organizational affiliations, Barton is also the founder and president of Wallbuilders, which publishes and sells his books and videos.  Wallbuilders propagates Barton’s views that the modern idea of separation of church and state was not the Founders’ intent.  Wallbuilders claims that the First Amendment’s religion clauses were intended to protect monotheistic religions exclusively, and quite possibly, only Christianity.

 In Barton’s book, The Myth of Separation (1989,) he argues that it was Christians alone who were intended to hold office in the United States, and not Jews or members of other sects.  Barton finally “jumped the shark,” in popular parlance, with his 2012, The Jefferson Lies. Lies was voted “the least credible history book in print” by users of the History News Network Website.  In addition, a group of ten conservative Christian professors read the book and gave it generally poor reviews, maintaining that Barton had misstated facts about Jefferson.  In August of 2012, Thomas Nelson, the volume’s Christian publisher, withdrew the book, stating “it had lost confidence in its details and that some historical details in it had not been adequately supported.” Many secular people are familiar with Barton’s organizational affiliations, and with his opinions.  For those who are not, I hope to encourage you to research his record.

Barton is not the only propagator of such untrue statements concerning our Founders and our Constitution.  It is quite troubling that these people’s falsehoods, picked up by various media sources, have spread beyond the conservative Christian community to the larger public.  The latest reliable poll I have found was in 2009 by the First Amendment Center, which stated that 55% of Americans think the Constitution actually established America as a Christian nation, while 65% believe the American Founders intended America to be a Christian nation.

The people and organizations that began this canard have been quite successful propagating it. Most public school students have been exposed to the proper concept of separation of church and state, and yet many Americans have accepted the false version from the Christian Right.  We from the secular community must be more effective exposing these people and their agenda.

We have allowed people like David Barton to thrive and become arbiters of what our Constitution and First Amendment means and what our Founding Fathers meant when they drafted these principles. Ten conservative Christian professors were necessary to expose The Jefferson Lies.  We nonbelievers need to enlist the help of authentic scholars and to reach the media more effectively. We have truth on our side and we must broadcast it conclusively.  I hope each time a volume appears claiming the United States was founded as a Christian nation that it will be exposed definitively by the secular community and not by the Christians.

Now I shall return to the subject of this lecture, Deism, and its influence on the principles of some of the Founding Fathers of the United States.  Deism is not atheism, but a stripped down theism.  From the late 17th Century on, Deist thinking emerged in Europe, influenced by the scientific breakthroughs of Isaac Newton, the physicist, by the writings of Francis Bacon, the propagator of the scientific method, and by the political/philosophical works of John Locke.

Newton was the discoverer and reporter of many cosmic laws which he obtained by close observation of nature. Bacon insisted that observation and experience, rather than abstract principles, were the way to obtain the true foundation of human knowledge.  John Locke, the author of the “Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689-1690,) maintained that human experience and rationality, rather than religious dogma and mystery, were the touchstones with which to evaluate the validity of beliefs. He believed that a religious test of truth was whether or not it made sense to human reason.  Although all three of these thinkers were Anglicans of varying degrees of belief, they helped open up new ways of thinking about religion, science, politics and society.

The word, Deism, was most likely first used by Richard Burton in his 1621, Anatomy of Melancholy, an interesting study of what we now term, Depression.  The word was then used by Lord Hubert of Cherbury (1583- 1648,) called “The Father of Deism” by many scholars, in his 1624 volume titled De Veritate. In 1730, Matthew Tindal wrote what has been termed the “Deist’s Bible,” Christianity as Old as Creation.  During the 18th and 19th Centuries, Deism swept through continental Europe, the British Isles and the American colonies, particularly among the educated classes. The Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II, and Frederick the Great of Prussia were believers in the Deist creed. Since it embraced guidance through reason rather than dogma or doctrine, Deism never became a uniform or organized movement. Its principles were liberating, but it was a spare philosophy that sometimes makes it difficult to classify certain Deists. We must look at Deists along a spectrum of belief and unbelief, as some of them renounced Christian beliefs more than others. Deism’s radical wing thought that Christianity was a hindrance to morality and social justice, while the more conservative members believed that religion was necessary to preserve society’s morality and order.   

Deism was personified by Anthony Collins, Voltaire, and Thomas Paine.

Collins wrote many books and tracts in the early 18th Century, in which he defended the use of reason.  David L. Holmes states that Collins “found fraud in one part of the Church of England’s statement of faith, attacked clergy of all denominations, argued that the Bible should be approached in a spirit of free inquiry, and denied any relationship between the Old Testament prophesies and the life of Jesus of Nazareth.” 

Voltaire was a brilliant author and philosopher of the French Enlightenment. (See for the written lecture and link to the talk, titled “An Atheist Perspective on the Enlightenment, Parts One and Two.)  His writing helped spread Locke’s ideas on religion and political tolerance throughout Continental Europe. Voltaire satirized competing philosophical systems and argued for the use of reason and common sense. Witty and sharp penned, he also savaged established religion.  Thomas Paine was an important writer and influence on the emerging American Revolution against British rule in the early 18th Century. (For more on Paine, see Part Two, The Radical Enlightenment, at We shall be discussing his thinking and work shortly.

What were the tenets of Deism?  In general, Deism was an embrace of the idea of a creator who had designed the universe.  If you will recall from my earlier lectures on Design, (Please see “What is Atheism?”) some people believed that such a complex universe, with immutable laws and a plethora of beings, presupposed a designer of all phenomena.  They thought that humans had unique attributes, reason and intellect, that would allow them to correctly apprehend god. Deists placed confidence in reason and the study of nature, rather than Scripture, revelation of religious truth, or dogmatic religious doctrines, to give them an understanding of the world and their place in it. The Bible was seen as a fictional narrative, showing obvious signs of human counterfeiting and alteration, and not a source of any sort of genuine revelation. 

There were many Deists who continued to believe in an afterlife of some sort. However most did not attempt to define it, choosing to place their trust in the Designer’s disposition of them after death. Most of them believed that the Designer revealed himself in nature, many of them giving credence to the idea that god and nature are one.  This type of thinking led to a description of nature as “all loving, and “All Lovely,” “all Divine,” or “righteous and immortal.” About god, Thomas Paine said: “God, there is a word of god, there is revelation.  The word of God is the creation we behold.”

We must keep in mind that Darwin’s work on evolution had not yet changed the idea of creation with its startling alternative explanation of natural processes. Deists thought they could study and understand the imprint of the maker by observing what they believed was the world he created. We moderns, seeing the effect of tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis and other natural occurrences, are much less inclined to accept the idea of nature as all good. But many Deists were more realistic and nuanced concerning nature and natural evils.  Voltaire’s work, Candide, in 1759, mocked the idea that “whatever was, was right,” believed by philosopher Leibniz.

Many Deists continued to respect Jesus’ moral teachings, even though they rejected the notion of his divinity.  They placed an emphasis on ethical principles and behavior and demonstrated a strong opposition to all forms of tyranny.  For the most part, Deists rejected the explanations of existence as depicted in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament, and in Christian creeds. Many Deists, as I have said, believed that the omnipotent and “Supreme Architect,” one of their terms for the deity, created both the earth and human existence.  Many of them also believed that this unchanging power had then left the earth to take place as it would without interference, according to the laws he had put into place.

However, there were Deists who some scholars call Christian Deists.  I cannot accept this term as a proper designation. I prefer to see Deists as located on disparate points on a spectrum of belief and unbelief. But such “so-called” Christian Deists believed that the Supreme Providence loved his creation and was still interested in the earth and humans, although they did not believe the creator intervened with miracles or other supernatural means. Those Deists, who were reluctant to abandon Christianity, went to church, prayed and some even believed Jesus was some sort of savior.  David L. Holmes states “that certain clergy in Christian churches in France, the British Isles, Germany, America and other countries held Deistic views in the 18th Century.  Deists were even found in some Roman Catholic pews and pulpits in Maryland.”

Many contemporary Deists embrace similar concepts to the ones just enumerated.  They reject the conventional word for faith because of its centuries old connection with the abrogation of reason in order to accept miracles, original sin, faith healing, the Biblical account of creation, and so on.  They do place trust in some sort of Intelligent Design, because they think that the observed structures in nature, especially complexity, require an Intelligent Designer. They do not believe one needs faith to accept the concept of a creator, as reason can discern the creator’s works.

After the gift of life, Deists prioritize the gift of reason and believe most of the world’s evils are caused by its misuse or neglect.  Some of them pray, but only in thanks and appreciation rather than in supplication. There are contemporary Deists who believe the Supreme Providence intervenes in human and earth affairs, while many others do not.  Modern Deists trust in their god to dispose of them after death in his own wisdom. 

They believe in moral and ethical behavior for its own sake, and do not worry about an afterlife.  They are not members of other religions.

I have talked about Unitarian-Universalism in the lecture on Transcendentalism last month, which is posted on We shall mention it briefly during this talk because of its influence on Thomas Jefferson. Let us keep in mind that early Unitarians rejected the Trinity and most believed Jesus was not divine.  But they rooted their faith in the belief in miracles and continued to celebrate The Lord’s Supper, or communion.  It was a very different religion in many ways from contemporary Unitarianism, with its embrace of many faiths.

Now let us return to the early years of American Deism.  Deism was influential in our country from about 1725 through the first several decades of the 19th Century.  In the years following the American Revolution, Deism became popular at many universities, a cutting edge movement that overcame Christian orthodoxy at Yale, Harvard and other schools.  In Virginia, the College of William and Mary was the educational center for Deism.  New England did not have, for the most part, the complicated and complex religious situation of the Southern States. The Anglican religion was strong in New England and Virginia, although in America it was called the Episcopal Church. Many of the Founders were baptized and brought up as Anglicans.

 The Founders we are discussing in this lecture would not have been personally familiar with Roman Catholicism, Baptist, Methodist, or African American religions. I emphasize personally because they would have known something of these religions’ histories and political thinking.  

The First Great Awakening, the American religious revival of 1730-1740, was not germane to the Founders’ personal philosophies, although Franklin knew Whitefield personally, admired his oratory and published his sermons and journals. But Franklin held markedly different religious views than orthodox Christianity. Deism was the religion that was very much in ascendency when the Founders were young men and it was the religion that many of them embraced.

The first Deist publication in the United States was written by Ethan Allen, a hero of the American Revolution.  Allen was born into a New England farming family.  In the 1760’s he became friends with a physician, Thomas Young, and both men explored the Deist ideas and philosophy of John Toland, an Irish freethinker and 18th Century author. Allen and Young began a book on Deism together, but it was unfinished when Young moved.  Later, Allen would use some material from the early manuscript when he came to write his own Deist volume.

Allen was the putative leader of the Green Mountain Boys, many of whom marched with him to Fort Ticonderoga when the Revolutionary War began.  They captured the Fort from the British in 1775. A march into Canada that same year caused Allen to be captured as a British prisoner and he endured terrible hardships before being released.  George Washington praised Allen’s valor; and Allen wrote a book about his ordeal, called Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen’s Captivity, in 1779, which was widely read. When the Revolution succeeded in 1781, Allen was active politically for some years but eventually retired from political life.  He decided to complete the book he and Young had begun years before. He was already unpopular in some circles because of his outspokenness.

He knew the publication of his ideas would increase his social marginalization, as he was already under suspicion as a skeptic concerning religion. But he was a combative and tough man and proceeded to put his views on paper.

The book was not popular, as Allen was a rather poor stylist.  It was called Reason, the Only Oracle of Man, and was published in 1784 at Allen’s own expense.  It was an edition of about 1500 copies, of which only 200 or so had been sold when a fire destroyed the rest.

In Reason, Allen put forth the ideas that would become standard Deism up to the present day.  He maintained that god was the first cause of the universe and that such a deity may be logically inferred from the consistency of the laws of nature.  He found god and nature nearly equivalent.  He also rejected the Mosaic Biblical account of creation, arguing that the Bible was a historical account, having nothing to do with spiritual revelation. Allen firmly rejected revelation and dismissed most religions, deriding each one’s insistence that its creeds were ultimate truth.  He denounced miracles, as well, which being exceptions to the laws of nature, were, he argued, unbelievable.  Allen eschewed the belief in demonic possession that was rampant at the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and 1693. He noted that the delusion of witchcraft was so prevalent that the people who were executed for practicing sorcery confessed to their guilt.  Those poor accused victims had succumbed to the popular delusion.  Allen did not spend much time on the devil; he merely mocked the vast numbers of people who believed Lucifer existed.  The Shakers did not go unscathed either, from Allen’s pen; he mocked many of their beliefs.

Allen, as one would expect, denied Jesus’ divinity.  He concluded that those who throw off the fetters of their education and remove obstacles to speak about god in a rational manner are “sure to be stamped with the epithet of “irreligious,” “infidel,” “profane,” and the like.  He lived quietly and comfortably until he died, with no religious ceremony. Fred Whitehead says of him: “Having defied the King, he was not going to accept the King’s tyrannical god.” His unpopular book was the forerunner of the one that would influence American thought, by a better writer.

This writer was Thomas Paine, or Tom Paine, whose Common Sense, 1776, helped to popularize and persuade not only the wealthy elite but the ordinary populace of America that independence from England was the best course for our country. Joel Barlow, the author of the Treaty of Tripoli, wrote that “The great American cause owed as much to the pen of Paine as to the sword of Washington.” Paine’s life was so filled with accomplishments, inventions, revolutions, imprisonment, politics and writing, that this lecture on American Deism must confine itself to his great Deist work, The Age of Reason, 1794.

Paine was hopeful that reason might prevail as the guiding principle in America. He said: “…in America I saw the exceeding probability that a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion.” The Age of Reason was a popular volume that caused a rise in Deism in America.  Part One of The Age of Reason discusses Paine’s particular arguments and his personal tenets.  Parts Two and Three are detailed analyses of sections of the Christian Bible in order to demonstrate that it is fictional narrative, not historical or spiritual truth. 

There is not much new philosophy in the book, nor any development away from the major issues and tenets of Deism.

But one must keep in mind the elegant and streamlined style of Tom Paine, who was, in addition to his many talents, one of the most successful publicists of his day.  Here is what one historian and biographer of Paine has to say of the author’s works: “{They} forged a new political language, designed to bring politics to the people, using a clear, simple and straightforward style.”  Foner states that when Paine wrote The Age of Reason, he gave Deism a new, aggressive, explicitly anti-Christian tone.  He did this by employing vulgar (that is popular language,) an irreverent tone and even religious rhetoric.

By using rhetoric and repetition, and cleverly leaving some issues half-answered, Paine tempted his readers to complete the arguments he raised on their own. By his consistent use of “we,” he drew his readers in, and still does to this day, by making them feel that they and Paine are engaged in a shared enterprise.  Davidson and Scheick state that Paine used anecdote, irony, parody, satire, feigned confusion, folk matter, concrete vocabulary… and appeals to common sense.” He wanted readers to be stimulated by his texts into thinking for themselves.

As for his intellectual background in Deism, he claimed to have read very little about it.  Yet in The Age of Reason, one can see the influence of Hume, Spinoza, Voltaire and the English Deists on his thinking. In the circles he moved, he would have been exposed to the ideas of all the aforementioned thinkers, but the great strength of his book was to make such complex concepts accessible to many people, and not just the educated class. 

All his works, including The Age of Reason, were markedly lacking in classical allusions, which many of the Founders and other educated writers of the time were accustomed to use. Paine did not have a college education. While his family was comfortable, he did not have the typical gentleman’s education, which most likely would have inclined him to write in a more rarified and less accessible style.  Paine drew on a tradesman’s experience, using ideas from science to medicine.  He had what some indignant critics called an “impudent voice”. It was, and delightfully so.  His tone was self-confident; he trusted to his own judgment.  He was believed in himself and the truth of what he was saying.

Paine opened The Age of Reason with his personal creed, which he expanded as he progressed, informing his readers about the major tenets, or themes, of his text.  He stated a firm belief in a creator god, which or who he hoped would extend happiness to him after death.  He adjured the “creeds professed by the Jewish, Roman, Greek, Turkish, Protestant and any other church “which he could think of. He believed that churches were a human invention, meant to terrify and enslave mankind, while monopolizing power and profit.  He stated in ringing tones which echo down the centuries: “My own mind is my church.”  Note how near the early Deists were to a secular stance.  With the coming of Darwin and other scientific breakthroughs, a Deist America might have been able to scissor god from the philosophy’s other tenets.  They were so admirable, these early Deists, and so near the truth that there was no creator.  They protected those American citizens who came after them by forming an admirable government that established no state religion and protected the right of every person’s conscience to choose.

Paine made clear that he considered virtue to consist of being just, merciful, kind and trying to bring happiness to others.  His emphasis on ethical behavior was and is a sine qua non of Deism.  Once again, one may see how near early Deism was to our contemporary humanism. Paine’s impressive opening creed was firm in its insistence, regrettably, of belief in a creator god, but replete with his skepticism concerning conventional ideas of an afterlife, along with other supernatural claims, an animus against conventional churches and religions, belief in consideration for others and insistence on each person’s right of conscience.  Later he would attack miracles as well.

Revelation was also savaged in The Age of Reason, disposed of as the experience of one person only, and therefore hearsay to everyone else, who, as a consequence, “are not obliged to believe it.” The only unchanging evidence of god and his works, Paine argued, was the natural world.  He insisted, along with many thinkers, then and now, that the same rules of logic and evidence applied to secular texts should also be applied to the Bible.

In Part Two, Paine used the interior evidence gleaned from the Bible itself to disprove it.  He denied that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, stated that the Old Testament must be false because it portrayed a tyrannical god, and called the Bible, “a book of lies, wickedness and blasphemy, for what can be greater blasphemy than to ascribe the wickedness of man to the orders of the Almighty.”

Paine did not spare religious institutions either, castigating priests because of their greed for wealth and power, and their opposition to scientific investigation.

 Scholars point out that “Paine transformed the millennial Protestant vision of the rule of Christian faith into a vision of a secular utopia.” He emphasized the possibilities of progress and human perfectibility that could be achieved by humankind, without god’s aid.

It is impossible to do justice to the rich and troubled life of Thomas Paine in one short lecture.  The Radical Enlightenment at discusses his radical political ideas and theories. He was imprisoned for months in 1793 by the Jacobins while he wrote the second part of The Age of Reason. He came very near to being guillotined. When James Monroe became the American Minister to France, he worked to secure Paine’s release in 1794.  Paine was seriously ill, with a perforated ulcer.  He recuperated at Monroe’s home in France for two years, still writing, before he returned to America.  He was not popular or welcomed on his return, because of the efforts of his political enemies and rumors that he was a drunk and an atheist. However, the stories of his sad, neglected end are overdone.  He was not an alcoholic, had $12,000 in the bank when he died, which was a large sum for the times, and did not convert to Christianity at death, yet another canard begun by Christians.

I encourage everyone to read Common Sense and The Age of Reason. They are both splendid foundational texts in politics and religion.  The history of modern secularism and the life of Thomas Paine are intertwined and inseparable.  His works are still in print and influential. 

Here is Christopher Hitchens in The Rights of Man, 2006, on Paine.  “…in a time… when both rights and reason are under several kinds of open and covert attack, the life and writings of Thomas Paine will always be part of the arsenal which we shall need to defend.” He was a firebrand, and he helped light the fires that carried America to independence.

We are now ready to look at the religious views of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. But before we begin, I would like to discuss David L. Holmes volume, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. His most interesting chapter is titled “A Layperson’s Guide to Distinguishing a Deist from an Orthodox Christian.”  Holmes maintains that it is possible to distinguish a Deist from an Orthodox Christian by examining four points.  The first area of observation would be the activity of a Founding Father vis-à-vis religion.  If he belonged to a church, attended or was on the governing body of his church, Holmes would say it was more likely that the Founder was conventionally religious.  However, such activities were also social and concerned business as well, so activity is not definitive.  Regular attendance at church might indicate more orthodoxy. 

Secondly, and I believe this category makes a very compelling point, researchers should look at each Founder’s participation in what was then called ordinances, or what moderns call sacraments. Children in colonial times were baptized shortly after birth, so no Founder would have had any say in being baptized.  Having their own children baptized is not a significant clue, either, because their wives might have insisted on it.

Unfortunately, research has shown that the Founders’ wives and daughters were devout, so the baptism of their children would have been important to them.

What an inquisitive researcher should look for when trying to determine a Founder’s degree of orthodox religious commitment is if he was confirmed in his faith.  Both the Catholic and Anglican churches in America practiced confirmation, and bishops were readily available after the Revolution. Confirmation was an adult affirmation of the baptismal vows made on the behalf of the infant by godparents or parents. This reaffirmation by the young adult conferred full church membership.  If a Founder did not choose to be confirmed, one may infer that his views were not orthodox. In many Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches of the colonies, a member who was not confirmed could not receive communion, or participate in The Lord’s Supper. 

Holy Communion was not celebrated every Sunday, and in the Episcopal Church, it was often held after the first part of the services. The Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran Churches taught that god was in some manner present in the communion bread and wine, and therefore the sacrament was viewed by Deists as the most supernatural portion of the worship services.  It would have been the part of the service least connected to reason, the sine qua non of the Deists.  Holmes reports that some of the Founders, such as Jefferson, used the phrase “hocus-pocus” about the communion portion of the church service. It was a derogatory term for the repetition of Christ’s putative words to the Apostles. Jesus said to them: “hoc est enim corpus meum” or “This is my body,” and the phrase continued to be repeated by clergymen during the rite.

Even if the church did not preach that there was a real presence in the bread and wine, communion service was still considered vicarious participation by Deists. Holmes states that virtually all the churches included the lines: “This is my body, broken for you.” The phrase alluded to the concept of atonement, that Christ’s body and blood had been given up as a sacrifice for humans.  Deists did not believe in the doctrine of atonement, nor that Christ was in the bread and wine, or that Jesus was a savior or divinity. They refused to participate in superstition.

The third area Holmes emphasizes is that the active participation of a Founder in his church’s confirmation and communion was a definite sign of orthodoxy.  Not affirming, “I do,” in the confirmation ceremony was a sign of Deism, because non affirmation of Baptismal vows as an adult was rejection of orthodoxy. Another sign was not participating in communion, as I have said.  Devout members usually stayed for the communion portion of the service and took part in it.  Deists did not.

Holmes astutely classifies the fourth category as one of language, religious language. Deists with no Christian residuals, such as Thomas Paine, would refer to god as “Providence,” “Nature’s God,” or the “Creator, among other terms, but they took care not to use specific Christian terminology for the word, god. Those Deists who retained some lingering Christian sentiments usually used Deist terms for god, but would sometimes add Christian resonance to them, such as “Merciful Providence,” or “Divine Goodness.”  Sometimes they might go so far as to mention the name of Jesus, according to Holmes, or the terms “Supreme Being” or “Supreme Ruler of the world,” but would not go farther into orthodox nomenclature. 

Orthodox Founders were most likely to use terminology such as “Savior,” “Redeemer,” “or the Resurrected Christ.” Deists would never consider employing such Christian terms.  While these four tests or areas to examine are a service to researchers trying to understand where each Founder stood on the spectrum from Deism to Orthodoxy, there are other indications, often from the Founders’ letters and papers, or other printed work.

Let us turn now to our four Founders.  Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were not conventionally religious men, as far as we can ascertain, and most embraced some form of Deism.

A. Owen Aldridge, a biographer of Franklin, has discussed Franklin’s upbringing as a Calvinist.  Aldridge then speaks of the adult Franklin as a Deist, saying: “Franklin adopted much from Deism that would have alienated him from Puritanism, but nothing from Puritanism that would be incompatible with Deism.” Franklin was in the habit of calling the god he believed in, “The Providence.” He was an infrequent churchgoer. Since he liked ceremony and ritual, he did attend an Episcopalian church when he went.

Thomas Paine was Franklin’s protégé and Paine had hoped to encourage Franklin to become a proponent for Deism, but Franklin never did so. He was likely too cautious to offend the religious sensibilities of his countrymen.  It is interesting that he contributed to the construction budgets of all the religious buildings in Philadelphia, including the only synagogue.

Like most Deists, Franklin believed that morality consisted in doing well to one’s fellow man.

He thought that when people performed good works on behalf of humanity, they best served god.  He held the opinion that Jesus’ teachings exemplified the finest system of morals and religion in the world’s history.  He wrote that he was in some doubt about Jesus’ disputed divinity. But in his old age, he humorously added that he did not care to busy himself with the question as he expected to have the opportunity of knowing the truth.  In other words, he would find out when he was dead. Franklin was one of those Deists who thought an afterlife was probable, even certain. He also believed that his version of Providence intervened in human affairs at times, but he stopped short at calling such interventions, miracles. 

He died in 1790 with a picture of the Day of Judgment at his bedside.  Five weeks prior to his death, he was asked about his religious beliefs. Here is his answer: “Here is my Creed.  I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he governs the world by his Providence.  That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we can render to him, is doing good to his other children. That the soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another life, respecting conduct in this.  These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound Religion.”

Franklin was clearly a Deist with lingering Christian beliefs.  Holmes calls such thinking Christian Deism, but as I have said, I consider that too definitive a term. I prefer Deist, with residual Christian beliefs. The most important tenet that Franklin held, in concert with other key Founders and many Deists, was that religious tolerance was vital to a free society.  The Enlightenment and Deism were markedly important influences on many of the Founders’ strong belief in toleration.  Franklin was among that number.

Our first President’s religious beliefs are still in dispute among scholars in the 21st Century.  George Washington did attend an Anglican, or Episcopal Church, was known to pray privately, and prior to the American Revolution, read services to his soldiers when there was no clergyman present.  But it is important to keep in mind that, like Franklin, he believed that religion helped keep people and society in good order.  Atheists do not believe this notion in the least, finding religion a hindrance to morality. However, the idea that religion buttresses good behavior and improves morals is a common, if erroneous one, shared by many people.  Washingt0n also served as a vestryman at his Episcopal Church, but that office held civic and business duties as well as religious ones.  Books in the 1800’s by such writers as Mason Weems and Edward McGuire propagated the notion concerning Washington’s piety.  Weems also was the writer who added the story of the cherry tree to Washington’s life, which was a complete canard.

Here are some facts about Washington that will show him to have been a Deist.  Holmes calls him a Christian Deist, but once again, I prefer to say Washington was a Deist with some lingering Christian tenets. Washington attended church infrequently.  We know this to be a fact from the records of his diary and from the words of his adopted granddaughter, Nelly Custis.  In post revolutionary America, Episcopal churches celebrated the sacrament of Holy Communion four times a year and the ceremony would take place after the regular service. 

Nelly Custis reported that Washington always left with her before the Communion Service took place, sending the carriage back for Martha Washington, his wife, who was devout and who did take communion.  Washington was never confirmed.  These facts, along with others, place him in the Deist camp.

Washington’s references to god, in letters, speeches and so on, were markedly Deist in tone.  He spoke of god reverently, but lacking emotion, calling the deity “Providence,” “The Grand Architect,” and the “Great Ruler of Events.” He very seldom, perhaps never, used such words as “Father,” “Lord,” “Redeemer,” or “Savior,” and infrequently mentioned either Christianity or Jesus.  It has been noted that Washington might have had some difficulty differentiating Providence from the idea of destiny. Holmes maintains that Washington “seemed to view Providence as the actions of a benevolent, prescient, all-powerful god who created life and guided its development, but who remained at least partially distant and impersonal.”  Washington also appeared to take very little interest in theology or theological questions.  People who knew him did not report conversations with him about religion and faith.

But Washington was very important in helping establish freedom of conscience for all Christians, Jews, Deists and freethinkers, as well as members of other religions. He helped to establish religious liberty and toleration as central principles of the fledgling United States government. George Washington wrote a letter in 1790 to the Jewish congregation, founded in 1763, of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island to state:”Allowing rights and immunities of citizenship.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it were by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

 When the dispute about Washington’s beliefs broke out after his death, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Bishop White all disagreed with the fiction that Washington was pious.  One of the pastors of Washington’s church, who knew him well, answered a query about Washington and his beliefs with these words: “Sir, he was a Deist.” Washington seemed to take society as he found it, and dutifully, if infrequently, observed the worship of his Episcopal Church, where he had been brought up.  But he was a Deist in private belief.

Washington spoke about death stoically and with resignation, calling the possible outcome beyond the grave, in his opinion, “the world of spirits.” There were many people around Washington as he lay dying, his wife, physicians and personal servants, and yet it is on the record he never asked for an Episcopal clergyman, or any clergyman at all.  He took his own pulse, said: “Tis well,” and peacefully died in 1799.

There is an interesting question about the beliefs of the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson could never be considered an orthodox Christian by either his friends or political enemies.  There are scholars who identify him as a Unitarian and others who classify him as a Deist.  I maintain that he was a Deist. 

If you listened to the lecture on Lucretius (1st Century B.C.E.) and Epicureanism (please see how Lucretius made the Renaissance Modern at you will recall that Jefferson stated in a private letter that he was an Epicurean.  He had six copies of Lucretius’ On The Nature of Things in his private library, and many copies of works by Bolingbrooke, an 18th Century English Deist. It is impossible to do justice to Jefferson’s beliefs and his contributions to religious toleration in the United States in this brief lecture.  There is an excellent biography about him by Christopher Hitchens which you can find in the Bibliography under American Deism at 

Jefferson was the epitome of the Enlightenment man. He was baptized into the Anglican Church.  As a young man, he attended the College of William and Mary in Virginia.  His most influential professor, there, William Small, was a member of the Scottish Enlightenment. Small sparked the young Jefferson’s interest in what would be his lifelong passion for Enlightenment writers.  It is not a secret that Jefferson probably held extreme Deist views, but he never formally left the Episcopal religion.  An Episcopal clergyman presided at his funeral.

Here are some quotes by Thomas Jefferson from his writings.  “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket or breaks my leg.” He not only opposed established churches and religious coercion, but stated: “Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned.”

During Jefferson’s lifetime, his political enemies tried to brand him as an atheist, claiming that if Jefferson were elected, Christians would have to hide their Bibles as well as worship in secret.  And doesn’t that cry sound familiar in the present day? Jefferson was what many scholars have termed a “Restorationist.” Many Deists believed that a combination of forces had added false doctrines that had never been preached by Jesus to the Christian religion.  Restorationists endeavored to restore what Jesus believed and taught in its original purity.

In 1813, Jefferson wrote to John Adams that he had read Joseph Priestley’s 1782 History of the Corruptions of Christianity over and over again.  Priestley was the discoverer of oxygen and a founder of the Unitarian Society in London in 1791. Jefferson also read the Bible frequently.  He came to see Jesus as a great reformer and moral exemplar, but not a divinity, a savior or a miracle worker.  So our second President, with razors and glue, excised what he believed were corruptions from the New Testament.  His version was not published until about a century after his death, in 1895.  He ended the New Testament with Jesus’ death, and removed Paul’s letters, the book of Revelation, and the letters of Peter, John, James and Jude. He also excised all Jesus’ miracles and mentions of the supernatural.  He cut out, from all four Gospels, sections that spoke of Jesus’ Resurrection and other miraculous events, as well as indications of Jesus’ divinity. His version was titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, also known as The Jefferson Bible, and completedaround 1820.Jefferson sent a copy to his former secretary, William Short, describing himself as different from Jesus.

Jefferson told Short that Jesus was spiritual and believed in repentance, while Jefferson described himself as a materialist and a believer in good works for redemption.

Please see Atheist History- American at for more concerning the passage in Virginia of Jefferson’s “Act for Establishing Religious Freedom” in 1786, guaranteeing the right of freedom of conscience.  Additionally, Jefferson believed no government had the right to mandate religious authority.  He was anti-clerical, anti-bigotry, anti-Trinity and anti-mystery.  He said in a letter about the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom, of which he was the principal author, that the omission of the words, “Jesus Christ,” in the preamble was “proof” that “they (the American people) meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian, the Mahomedan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination.”

Jefferson wrote to his nephew to read and study all ideas and not to be worried if he ultimately decided there was no god.  He also established his own University, the University of Virginia, in 1819, which for years was a Deist institution, with no chaplain or religious curriculum.  Jefferson said of himself: “I am a sect by myself.” Christopher Hitchens said that this statement by Jefferson “may not allow him to be annexed by the materialist camp, but it keeps him from the clutches of all who prefer faith to reason.”

The final Founder we shall be discussing in this lecture is James Madison, our fourth President.  A few scholars believe Madison might have been an atheist, and some think he was a theist. 

While I would love to place such a champion for separation of church and state into the atheist camp, there is no proof that he embraced atheism.  Madison was very cautious and reticent concerning his true religious views.  It is to his actions we must turn to try to discern what he believed.

He was baptized by an Anglican clergyman and his mother was extremely devout. As a schoolboy, he was exposed to Enlightenment thought, and in college to the moderate and theistic “Scottish Common Sense Enlightenment,” so prevalent in the United States. (Please see An Atheist Perspective on the Radical Enlightenment, Part Two of my written and recorded lectures on the Enlightenment for a discussion about the Scottish Enlightenment and its influence in the United States.) Madison appeared to be an orthodox Christian as a young man.  But at the age of twenty-two, he witnessed the persecution and jailing of religious dissenters at Culpepper County, by his own Established Church.  From that time, he came down on the side of freedom of religion.  His position was that only liberty of individual conscience could guarantee civil and political liberty.  Madison fought for religious liberty all his life.

When Virginia adopted a new Constitution in 1776, Madison was responsible for insisting the new document ensure freedom of conscience and not merely toleration.  For more on the controversy concerning a proposal to have the citizens of Virginia pay for state subsidies to religious institutions, see Atheism and the Law at  It was James Madison who wrote the stirring 1758 “Memorial and Remonstrances against Religious Assessments,” which all Americans should read. His work was very influential in defeating the proposal.

Madison worked diligently to assure passage of Jefferson’s “Act for Establishing Religious Freedom” in Virginia in 1786, and then worked to make sure the principle was enumerated in the United States Bill of Rights, ratified by Congress in 1791.   He was a firm believer that separation of church and state was not only best for the state but for the churches and synagogues. During his presidency, Madison tried to keep religious language out of public proclamations, and when forced to include them, as during the War of 1812, he kept them as neutral as possible, because he believed religious practice should be an independent choice and a voluntary exercise.  He opposed the appointment of chaplains for Congress and the army and navy.

Writing in response to a letter, Madison stated: “The belief in a god all powerful, wise and good is so essential to the moral order of the world and to the happiness of man, that arguments to enforce it cannot be drawn from too many sources.”  That is a pragmatic statement, often uttered by people who are not believers, and not one of deep belief.  In that same letter, he called god, “Nature’s God,” a Deist term, and omitted any references to Jesus, the Bible, the Judeo-Christian tradition or the church. Many scholars have taken Madison’s response as indicative of Deist philosophy rather than Christian affiliation.

Bishop William Meade, an opponent of Deism, tried to assert that Madison had turned back to Christianity in his old age.  However, the senior associate editor of the James Madison Papers states: “In the entire Retirement corpus of Madison’s writings, what there was did not indicate in any way that Madison at the end of his life returned to the orthodox piety of his youth.”

Madison is on the record for musing on how people usually chose the option of assenting to an “invisible cause possessing infinite power, wisdom and goodness” rather than the “more negative one of the self-existence of the universe, and none of the positive attributes.” He stated that people ended up in two warring camps when they reasoned about god and god’s attributes. Notice the neutrality of his observation.  He was an observer, not a committed Christian.

Madison’s memoranda, written between 1817 and 1832, declare “the danger of silent accumulations and encroachments by Ecclesiastical Bodies not having sufficiently engaged attention in the United States…are the United States duly aware of the tendency of the precedents they are establishing, in the multiplied incorporations of Religious Congregations with the faculty of acquiring and holding property real as well as personal?” Madison, as president, had earlier opposed grants of public land to churches, tax exemption of religious entities, and mention of the deity in government documents and proclamations. Madison was soft in speech and slight of stature, but Ed Doer says of him that he made himself into one of the most important figures in the development of democracy and human rights.     

In the 18th Century, many Deists were advocates of universal education, freedom of the press and separation of church and state.  In the 19th Century, Deism waned as the uneducated portion of the citizenry was pandered to and comforted by the supernaturally bent and spiritually consoling Evangelical revivals.

There are continuing aspects of Deism in the United States to some extent in the Masonic Order, the Unitarian-Universalist denominations, the Ethical Culture Movement and the Quakers.  But more importantly, Deism helped establish the tradition of free thought and contributed to the essential historical/critical approach to the Bible of the 19th Century.  Tom Paine’s desire and hope that the citizens of the United States would adopt reason as their guiding principle has been delayed for too long.  However, there is new hope in the rapidly growing secular movement in this country.

I believe this lecture has made a strong case for the Deist beliefs of several of our Founders.  It has demonstrated other facts as well, such as the fact that many of our most important Founders were foes of religious persecution, sectarianism and the stifling of free speech and thought.  The lecture has made the case that Franklin, Jefferson and Madison were openly for separation of church and state.  Jefferson and Madison labored to achieve the separation of the two entities in our newly constituted republic. 

It is egregious that such persons as David Barton and his cohorts have been partially successful in misrepresenting the Founders’ beliefs and achievements concerning building a wall between church and state. A disgracefully large percentage of Americans no longer understand that this nation was never founded on Christian principles.  Why did our secular community allow this misapprehension to happen?  Why did ten conservative Christian professors have to be the ones to expose the faults of Barton’s The Jefferson Lies? I know that the Christian conservatives can outspend us and engage the media more readily.  Yet we need to be more aware and more pro active.

We are engaged in a continuing war with religion and must keep it out of our government and out of our lives.  Our Founders were deep thinkers, Enlightenment men and warriors for their principles.  I hope that the next time someone or some group, religious or otherwise, attempts to kidnap our Constitution and our country, we secular people will be as strong, as active and as noble as the Founders were when they combated King and Christianity.

Video of Lecture: American Deism

Lecture: American Deism


There are other excellent references listed in the Bibliographies following the written lectures of Atheism and the Law and Atheist History in the US.

For more references, please see the Bibliographies under the topics, Atheist History- American and Atheism and the Law at

Burchell, Kenneth W. Thomas Paine. In Tom Flynn, Ed. The Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.  588- 591.

Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin Books, 2010.

Cooke, Bill.  Deism. In Tom Flynn, Ed. The Encyclopedia of Unbelief.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 240-243.

Doerr, Ed. Benjamin Franklin. In Tom Flynn, Ed. The Encyclopedia of Unbelief.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.  340-341.

______. James Madison.  In Tom Flynn, Ed. The Encyclopedia of Unbelief.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 514- 517.

Ferguson, Robert A.  The American Enlightenment: 1750-1820. Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Ketchum, Ralph Louis. James Madison: A Biography. Virginia: University of Virginia Press: 1990.

Hitchens, Christopher.  Thomas Jefferson. In Tom Flynn, Ed. The Encyclopedia of Unbelief.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.  444- 446.

_______________. Thomas Jefferson: Author of America.  New York: Atlas Books/Harper Collins Publishers, 2005.

Holmes, David L. The Faiths of Our Founding Fathers.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Jacoby, Susan.  Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004.

May, Henry.  The Enlightenment in America.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Richard, Carl J. The Founders and the Classics. Cambridge; London: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Rinaldo, Peter M. Atheists, Agnostics and Deists in America.  Briarcliff Manor, New York: DorPete Press, 2000.

Schaff, Gregory. Franklin, Jefferson and Madison on Religion and the State.  Santa Fe, New Mexico: CIAC Press, 2004.

Walters, Kerry.  The American Deists. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1992.

_________.  Rational Infidels: The American Deists.  Durango, CO: Longwood Academics Press, 1992.

Whitehead, Fred. Ethan Allen. In Tom Flynn, Ed. The Encyclopedia of Unbelief.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 40-41.

Williamson, Audrey. Thomas Paine: His Life, Work and Times.  New York: St. Martins, 1973.

Winterer, Caroline.  The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life.  Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 2002.