Brooke Allen vs. Michael Novak: Were the Founding Fathers Christian?

Historians in the News

[HNN Editor: Brooke Allen is the author of Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers. Michael and Jane Novak are the authors of Washington's God. Recently Allen and the Novaks have engaged in a feisty debate at Britannica Blog about the religious faith of the founders, here.]

It was sad to read Ms. Allen’s description of my daughter Jana and me as “Mr. And Mrs. Novak.” Of course, we could already see from her blog that she had not even taken into her hands our recent dispassionate study, Washington’s God. Meanwhile, other evidence in her blog showed that she had not bothered to look, either, at my own earlier book On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding. That left poor Ms. Allen arguing against a thesis of her own imagining, rather than against the actual argument of those two books.
For my part, I very much appreciate Ms. Allen’s own book, Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers, which takes up a perfectly sensible subject and handles it in a perfectly sensible way. Her thesis is that the major founders were not Christians but skeptics. Her method is to pick only six of them for closer study (Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Washington and Hamilton), all of whom, she judges, fit her thesis.

But the first two of these six are identified by nearly everybody, including me, as outliers who stand at the leftmost extreme of the founders – outliers, skeptics indeed, barely if at all Christian. The next two, Madison and Adams, at least by their public actions during their terms in office (whatever their post-presidential, private lives), show clear signals of Christian conviction and/or accommodation. Their case is more complex than Ms Allen faces. Consider simply Article III of the new Massachusetts Constitution drafted and defended by John Adams, mandating state support for religious schools throughout the commonwealth.

Concerning the last two, Hamilton and Washington, there is a preponderance of evidence on the side of the influence of Christian faith upon their practice as public servants. As Washington’s speechwriter, for instance, Hamilton wrote some of the most vividly biblical addresses and public proclamations that General and (later) President Washington ever delivered. Similarly, no one who actually analyzes the public speeches and proclamations of the latter can plausibly make the case that Washington was merely a deist. The evidence of his emphasis upon a biblical God who forgives sins, who guides events and who as a matter of undeniable experience intervened often on the American side (the side of liberty) during the War of Independence, a Creator who is owed not only private worship, but also a whole nation’s worship and gratitude — and several other such biblical motifs – is simply far too strong.

In other words, Ms. Allen makes matters too easy for herself by cherry-picking her founders – and even then, in four out of six cases, she fails to convince.

Another major problem with her thesis: “We the People of the United States,” not solely Ms. Allen’s skeptical six, ratified the Constitution, and thus were in an important but unconventional sense founders of this nation. A goodly portion of these founding people, admittedly, were unchurched and skeptical, but the public speech of nearly all of them was far more biblical, even Christian, than one is likely to hear today in newsrooms or on college campuses. The title of her book shows that Ms. Allen does not really believe that most of the American people at the time of the founding were “not Christians” but “men of the Enlightenment,” in the way that she portrays Jefferson and Franklin.

A further problem is that, if Ms Allen had expanded her researches to all the main official “founders,” say, the eighty-eight men who signed either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, her portrait would have been hugely different. If she had examined the public religious speech of the eighty-two of these that she simply ignored, she would have been led far beyond Jefferson and Franklin. Had she studied Benjamin Rush, who some thought the smartest and most learned man in the colonies, or John Witherspoon, leading congressman, the President of Princeton and easily the most influential academic in the history of the United States, or Charles Carroll, one of the two largest funders of the war of independence, or James Wilson, or John Dickinson, or Samuel Huntington, or Sam Adams, or many another, she would have drawn a portrait almost the reverse of the one she actually produced.

To be sure, if one imagines an extreme spectrum, with the totally skeptical, anti-Christian, or even unmistakably non-Christian few at the one end, and the devoutly and publicly Christian cohort at the other end, it is not clear that anyone qualifies for the pure extreme positions at either end. That is one reason why I call my own tentative and exploratory study of the religious beliefs of the top 100 founders On Two Wings. (To reach 100, I suggest adding to those 88 mentioned above some further outstanding public figures of the era such as Abigail Adams, Tom Paine, George Mason and others)....

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James Renwick Manship - 10/18/2007

So many anti-Christian academics (those who consider it "un-scholarly" to acknowledge the predominant role of Christian thought in the founding of this Constitution "in the year of our Lord..." and our One Nation Under God) dismiss the obvious as irrelevant, or meaning other than what is written. Is such "intellectual honesty"?

A decade ago many modern academics labeled Washington as a "Deist". Go back a century and more and you find most scholars clear in their knowledge of Washington's Christian life.

The past 18 months have seen 6 books written on the Christian faith of George Washington. Most honest academics now acknowledge Washington was a devout Christian. The Novak's excellent book is one of those books.

Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Rush to say in part, "My opinions are very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing ..." and in the same letter wrote, "I am a Christian...".

Many anti-Christians and even denomination-centric Christians have embraced the non-Christian theory of Thomas Jefferson and so assume or presume to deny Jefferson's words or that Jefferson meant what he wrote.

The oft-cited, often maligned, and mostly misunderstood "Jefferson Bible" was in fact a "Bible Study" done IN THE WHITE HOUSE when PRESIDENT -- so much for "separation of church and state" for the purpose of preparing a Gospel Tract from the "Great White Chief" (president) to aid Christian Missionaries evangelize Indians to the Christian Faith.

If you would like to see the title page of that "Gospel Tract" prepared by President Thomas Jefferson while in the White House, go to the link:

The Jefferson Bible is basically a "Red Letter" New Testament -- just the words of Jesus -- in part because Jefferson wrote "If the Gospel had been taught as pure as it came from His lips, the whole civilized world would now be Christian..."

Many say Thomas Jefferson did not like or believe in the Miracles or the Virgin Birth so he cut out all reference to them in his "Jefferson Bible" (which others, not TJ, gave it that title).

The truth is that Jesus NEVER described the Virgin Birth and NEVER described the Miracles. In only one verse in Saint John, Jesus listed the Miracles, and Jefferson included that verse, so Jefferson did not deny or delete the Miracles.

Thomas Jefferson's manservant, Isaac Jefferson was interviewed for a personal recollections biography as a free black blacksmith in Petersburg, Virginia in a.d. 1845 and he said TJ read the words of Jesus every day of his life.

How many Christian preachers, priests, or pastors can make the same claim of daily immersion into the words of Jesus as former slave Isaac Jefferson said of Thomas Jefferson?

The "Separation of Church and State" has become a veil for the real agenda of "Segregation" - segregation of Church people and Christian principles from State policy. In the same way that segregation of blacks out of participation in the civic policy process is illegal, so should be the current process of trying to shame Christians into a "self-segregation" from participation in government policy making processes.

The Jefferson phrase used in a letter to the Danbury Baptists was in reference to the Baptist leader Roger Williams writings about Separation of the Church from intermeddling by the State to protect the "garden of the Church from the wilderness of the world...", not the other way around as in these modern times is interpreted. It is a biological reference, and cell walls are semi-permeable membranes, they allow one way transfer, but block transfer in the other direction so to protect the life inside the cell walls. That is the meaning of Wall of Separation.

Some say Thomas Jefferson may have been a Church Vestryman early in his life, but in later years abandoned his Christian faith. Yet three years before he died, in a.d. 1823, Thomas Jefferson selected the motto for the University of Virginia , one of three accomplishments in his life for which he prayed to be remembered ~~

"And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." -- the words of Jesus Christ.