The Founding Fathers, Christianity & Deism
DEISM is a philosophy maintaining that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that the universe is the product of a creator. According to deists, the deity seldom, if ever, intervenes in human affairs or suspends the natural laws of the universe.
Deists typically reject supernatural events such as prophecy and miracles, tending instead to assert that a god (or “the Supreme Architect”) does not alter the universe by intervening in it. This idea is also known as the clockwork universe theory, in which a god designs and builds a universe, but steps aside to let it run on its own.
Deism became prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries during the Age of Enlightenment—especially in Britain, France, Germany and America among intellectuals raised as Christians who found they could not believe in supernatural miracles, the inerrancy of scriptures, or the Trinity… but who did believe in one God. Deistic ideas influenced many leaders of the American and French Revolutions.
Deism and the founding of The United States
In the United States, Enlightenment philosophy (which itself was heavily inspired by deist ideals) played a major role in creating the principle of religious freedom, expressed in Thomas Jefferson’s letters and included in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
American Founding Fathers, or Framers of the Constitution, who were especially noted for being influenced by such philosophy include Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Cornelius Harnett, Gouverneur Morris, and Hugh Williamson. Their political speeches show distinct deistic influence.
Other notable Founding Fathers may have been even more directly deist. These include James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Ethan Allen, and Thomas Paine (who published The Age of Reason, a treatise that helped to popularize deism throughout the USA and Europe).
Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography,
“Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle’s lectures. It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist.”
For his part, Thomas Jefferson is perhaps one of the Founding Fathers with the most outspoken of Deist tendencies — though he is not known to have called himself a deist, generally referring to himself as a Unitarian. For example, his treatment of the Biblical gospels which he titled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” — but which became more commonly known as the “Jefferson Bible” — exhibits a strong deist tendency of stripping away all supernatural and dogmatic references from the Christ story.