The Founders and Religion

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The Founders and Religion

Within cultures, religion evidences a paradoxical character. It provides humans with meaning and purpose, thereby supporting social stability and maintaining the status quo. But it also offers notions of the ideal social order, thereby serving as an agent for social change. Both dynamics were at work during the American Revolution and the early Republic. Both buttressed the move towards independence, albeit in different ways.

puritanism and revolution

One clear understanding of religion's links to order and stability emerged in the New England Puritan colonies. Inherent in the Puritan worldview was the sense of deference that prevailed in the British social order. Just as ordinary folk should defer to those of higher rank, especially the monarch, all human life should demonstrate deference to God. Influenced by John Calvin (1509–1564), Puritans believed that those God elected to salvation should exercise political power; God could entrust only to them oversight of society. Magistrates became God's agents to maintain order; rebellion against them was thus rebellion against God.

By the mid-eighteenth century, countervailing forces complicated this sense of deference and order. The evangelical revivals of the Great Awakening represented one such force. Preachers such as Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) and George Whitefield (1714–1770), both Calvinists, unwittingly stressed the equality of all humans as sinners separated from God. Likewise, election to salvation evinced an equality rooted in divine grace. A commitment to social order remained, but with a difference. Deference was not automatic, as in the hierarchy sustaining monarchy, but due those who acknowledged their sin and testified to God's work in their lives.

Puritanism's evangelical dimension also nurtured the challenge to deference accompanying independence. Advocates of breaking with king and Parliament included many clergy. But the individualism of personal conversion resonated with larger democratic impulses, thus undermining Puritanism's Calvinist base and spurring rapid growth of more democratic denominations (for example, Baptists and Methodists) in the early Republic.

The second force centered on abuse of power. Even Puritans displeased by evangelical, emotionladen revivals believed all power had limits. When power became tyranny, rulers forfeited legitimacy. Allegiance to God superseded devotion to despotic power that rendered true worship impossible. Commitment to social order could require overthrow of demonic power. When leaders likened parliamentary tax policy to enslavement, the king became a symbol of oppression and revolution a sacred duty. Such thinking influenced founders like Samuel Adams, John Adams, and James Otis, though they were more inclined to emergent Unitarianism than to traditional Congregationalism.

reformed realism

Support for order alongside support for rebellion against Britain found a different basis in the Reformed Protestantism gaining ground in the middle colonies. The beliefs of New Jersey's John Witherspoon, the sole clergyman signing the Declaration of Independence, illustrate both aspects. Witherspoon, Scots by birth, espoused the evangelical Calvinism associated with middle colonies Presbyterians, but he tempered that with the philosophy called Scottish common-sense realism.

This heritage meant Witherspoon appreciated the primacy of personal religious experience that gave authority to individuals rather than institutions. He therefore believed that local congregations and not denominational authorities had absolute authority to choose pastors. He transferred this belief to the political sector when he endorsed American independence. Belief and common sense called for social change.

Yet when Witherspoon helped Presbyterians organize a denomination in the new Republic, he worked to secure assent to traditional doctrine and consent to a single church order and liturgy. Here Witherspoon's belief and use of common sense called for order and maintenance of the status quo.

enlightenment influences

The paradoxical dynamic of sustaining social order while planting seeds of social change likewise influenced those founders more directly affected by Enlightenment rationalism. Many, but not all, came from the southern colonies. There, legal establishment of the Church of England epitomized institutional ties between religious order and political stability, at least until independence. During the Revolution, many priests serving these churches remained loyal to the crown and took refuge in Canada, the Caribbean, or the mother country. Although their departure left Anglicanism in disarray, neither religious nor social disorder followed. Rather, a vibrant evangelicalism stood poised to fill the void left by the demise of colonial Anglicanism.

Enlightenment rationalism bolstered a different type of social change than had Puritanism or Reformed realism. Precepts of reason caused many, such as Benjamin Franklin (a nominal Presbyterian) and Thomas Jefferson (a nominal Anglican), to reject much traditional doctrine as superstition. They thought religious beliefs based on revelation or miracle lacked rational grounding and were therefore unreliable.

If orthodox belief was suspect, so was any legal tie between a particular denomination and the state. Although James Madison, his friend and collaborator, secured adoption of Jefferson's statute establishing religious freedom in Virginia in 1786, Jefferson embodied the Age of Reason's dislike of religious establishments and support for religious liberty. An agent for social change, rational religion helped erect what Jefferson later called a "wall of separation" between church and state.

At the same time, the religious style of Enlightenment advocates buttressed social stability in its conviction that religion, even when superstition, provided moral codes essential to public order. In his famous Farewell Address in 1796, George Washington, another nominal Anglican who served as a parish vestryman, argued that without religion, society lacked the moral foundation essential for harmony and stability. Pennsylvania's Benjamin Franklin remarked in his Autobiography that religion's value lay in making persons good citizens, not devotees of a particular denomination.

This commitment to morality had other implications for the public square. Some analysts brand founders influenced by rationalism as Deists because they jettisoned traditional views other than simple belief in a providential, creator God who left humanity to its own devices. Others regard them almost as twenty-first-century fundamentalists because they saw moral values as basic to society and were at least nominal church members. Neither view is entirely accurate. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and others of like mind believed religion and common life connected in a way similar to what their French contemporary Jean-Jacques Rousseau called civil religion. That is, they saw a Divine Providence undergirding the nation's destiny that was most obvious when citizens followed a common-sense moral code sustained by religious belief and practice. Differences of doctrine remained but counted for little. What mattered was moral living so social stability could prevail.

In the age of American independence, forces as diverse as Puritanism, Reformed realism, and Enlightenment rationalism reveal the complex ways religion maintains order. They also demonstrate how religion at the same time can promote social change.

See alsoAnglicans and Episcopalians; Baptists; Congregationalists; Deism; European Influences: Enlightenment Thought; Methodists; Philosophy; Presbyterians; Revivals and Revivalism .


Albanese, Catherine L. Sons of the Fathers: The Civil Religion of the American Revolution. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976.

Gaustad, Edwin S. Neither King nor Prelate: Religion and the New Nation, 1776–1826. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993.

Holmes, David L. The Religion of the Founding Fathers. Charlottesville, Va.: Ash Lawn-Highland, 2003.

Hutson, James H. Religion and the New Republic: Faith in the Founding of America. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.

Lambert, Frank. The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Charles H. Lippy

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The Founders and Religion

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