With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Did You Know that Half the Declaration's Signers Had Divinity School Training?

No phrase has been more egregiously misapplied than Thomas Jefferson’s infamous “wall of separation between church and state,” a line he used in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802.This line, along with references to the supposed lack of Christian faith among the Founders, has for decades fed the fires of the American leftists in their drive to excise any references to God and/or Christ from the public square. Yet how “ir-religious” were these Founders?

It is worth beginning at the beginning and to note that entire colonies were established precisely to serve as religious sanctuaries for various denominations of the Christian church, with Pennsylvania a Quaker state, Maryland a Catholic state, and Massachusetts a Puritan state. Moreover, the supposedly “deistic” Jefferson wrote Virginia’s Sabbath law, and far from wishing to move America away from her Christian roots, Jefferson’s Bill for “Establishing Religious Freedom” in 1786 was expressly designed to move the nation toward a less-Anglican, more Protestant base. These words hardly sound like those of a man committed to atheism or even “deism”: “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” and “all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind . . . .” Jefferson wanted to extend the Gospel by “its influence on reason alone,” not coercion. Nevertheless, that hardly supports the notion that Jefferson lacked faith in God, or, for that matter, the Gospels.

What is completely ignored in the debates about “religious freedom” is that every one of the groups fighting the tax assessments for public funding of ministers desired “religious freedom” within a Christian tradition, and none, in their wildest dreams, would have suspected the concept of religious freedom would be used to justify the removal of Christian crosses from public squares, the elimination of prayers in school, or the removal of copies of the Ten Commandments from courtrooms. In the minds of these groups, the threat of tyranny by an Anglican Church would have been a far lesser evil than the complete removal of Christianity from the public square.

There was certainly no separation of church from our Founding statesmen. Half the Declaration’s signers had some sort of divinity school training, and while John Adams was the most overtly pious, even the supposed non-believers among the Founders, such as Benjamin Franklin, found the need to turn to God in times of trouble. During the Constitutional Convention's most contentious moments, it was Franklin who not only offered a prayer but who added:

Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance [emphasis added].

Do these words sound like those of a “deist” who thinks human ability sufficient for the challenges of the day? Franklin not only went on to quote scripture a la Adams, but stated flatly that “God governs the affairs of men” (emphasis Franklin’s).

Modern historians, steeped in the “feelings” and emotions of people, demand more evidence of the “inner man” from the Founders. But faith, to all of them, was a deeply private issue, lest one come up short against another. Whether or not George Washington prayed in the snow, or whether or not declarations such as Franklin’s were for “public consumption,” it is abundantly obvious that these men spoke of God, the Creator, the Lord, the Divine (capital “D”) relentlessly. Even if it were true that, initially, such pronouncements were intended for the ears of others, it nevertheless bespeaks a Biblical law that “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17). By constantly speaking faith, they consistently built up their own. Non-believers might see hypocrisy; believers would see confession and optimism, whereby one “calls those things which do not exist as though they did.” (Romans 4:17).

The omnipresence of Christianity in America provided an undergirding to everything the Founders said and did. It was so common that most people, aside from an ultra-pious man like John Adams, did not delve deeply into the implications of their faith for every daily interaction. Yet how can one escape the fact that virtually all of the Republic’s early universities were founded by denominations with the intent of advancing the cause of Christ---and not some generic “Creator”? How does one reconcile the evidence of a long and tortured spiritual journey of Abraham Lincoln, who only “surrendered all” after Gettysburg? How can the divinity school training of so many early giants---and many later presidents, who studied theology formally---be cavalierly swept aside? And all this in a young nation in which the path to power and fame was anything but the clergy!

Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state clearly did not apply to a wall separating church and statesmen, for it was assumed by all that men of poor character could not govern. The unstated assumption beneath that was that character came from God, and faith, not from man’s own works. They spoke of character without ceasing: Alexander Hamilton stated that he would “willingly risk my life, though not my character, to exalt my station.” But of course, Hamilton had gotten that training from a New Jersey minister, who funded his education. Jefferson wrote in his Bible, “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus. I have little doubt that our whole country will soon be rallied to the unity of our creator.” Jefferson, we might add, was the chairman of the American Bible Society. Patrick Henry, in 1776, stated, “It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great Nation was founded not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For that reason alone, people of other faiths have been afforded freedom of worship here.” The First Continental Congress authorized the purchase of 20,000 Bibles in 1777 from Holland---a fact that anti-religious websites deliberately misrepresent. Indeed, the most common argument against the faith of the Founders is an argument from silence. Yet that speaks more about their view of what was properly discussed in public---even in private letters---than it does their lack of Christian faith.

Had the Founders been subject to the incessant polling we suffer from today, three things are clear: 1) They would have overwhelmingly, if not unanimously, characterized the United States as a Christian nation (leaving aside what each interpreted that to mean); 2) They would have overwhelmingly, if not unanimously, thought it imperative that leaders display the type of character that sprang from Christianity; and 3) They would have almost certainly unanimously agreed that the “wall of separation” was to prevent one Christian denomination from dominating, and was never intended to be a wedge between the government and Christianity. Even the so-called “Deists” among them would be horrified at the actions taken under the guise of protecting “religious liberty,” when in fact they are usually efforts to attack religion. I’d wager that had they seen the perversions of their intended protection of Christianity, more than a few would have uttered, “Oh, my God!”