The Founders’ views on Faith

Were the Founders religious?

By Dr. Peter A. Lillback

Faith mattered greatly to our Founders.  Consider, for example, the words of the First Continental Congress in 1774:

THAT it is an indispensable duty which we owe to God, our country, ourselves and posterity, by all lawful ways and means in our power to maintain, defend and preserve these civil and religious rights and liberties for which many of our father fought, bled and died, and to hand them down entire to future generations.

Many contemporary historians and media figures have trouble, however, speaking of what our Founders called “an indispensable duty which we owe to God”.  The reason is that many of our contemporaries no longer believe what our founders believed.  As a result they usually misunderstand our courageous forbearers.  Or even worse, many modern and post-modern writers and reporters suppress, delete, expunge or outright deny our Founders’ cherished spiritual commitments.  Consequently, some contemporary media communicators, such as Will Bunch with MediaMatters (“Beck pushes distorted view of George Washington’s Christianity to No. 1”) seek to refute those who celebrate, defend and advocate our Founders’ views of faith by ridicule and reductionism.


George Washington’s Sacred Fire

By Peter A. Lillback

But a sure sign of a weak case is when a critic begins with ridicule.  The immediate move to the ad hominem is a sure sign of the lack of substance.  Thus Bunch sighs over a little known leader and an unknown outfit that dared to produce an overweight, too long, too old book about a too long dead figure (Washington).  Why its tragic success in sales has offended the sales of the more worthy books by Larsson and Meyer.  And to top these weighty arguments, such a book cannot possibly be worth reading since it was commended by a controversial television personality with a four letter last name.  This is just not fair in the rules of best-sellers!  Bunch’s contempt is so great, that he couldn’t bring himself to mention the name of the book (George Washington’s Sacred Fire), allowing “Beck” the leader of the American “jihad” to do his dirty work for him.

But we can forgive a writer that simply wants to add some good humor to his otherwise substantive critique.  But this is really where the serious part begins.  What is surely the worst fallacy of Bunch’s critique is that he never gets around to engaging George Washington at all. Instead, this article served up by MediaMatters seems to reference everyone else than Washington himself.  The reductionism we have here is that George Washington is gagged and reduced to silence.  His own witness is considered unworthy of even being heard.

It is precisely for such scholarly treason that this “3.2 pound…1,208 page” book entitled George Washington’s Sacred Fire was written.  As important as Thomas Jefferson and Gouverneur Morris are to American history, George Washington is far more important for understanding George Washington’s personal beliefs than anyone else.  Is it significant to note that Gouverneur Morris was publicly embarrassed for his attempt to present an overly familiar knowledge of Washington by Washington himself?  Is it relevant that Thomas Jefferson was never an intimate of George Washington, having resigned in protest from Washington’s cabinet to creative a rival political party that opposed Washington’s principles?  Should we ask a district attorney to cross examine the double hearsay quote that Bunch hangs his case on, “Dr. Rush tells me that he had it from Asa Green that….”?  Such pitiful evidence certainly shouldn’t matter in scholarship.  I doubt that it should matter in media either.  Well shouldn’t we at least listen to what a noted scholar like Philander D. chase believed, or, to the wit and insight of such an unprejudiced and objective group such as The Americans United for Separation of church and State have to say?  Well perhaps.  But shouldn’t we just take the time to listen to the Founders themselves?   Is this asking too much of the media?  Is this asking too much of scholars?  What if it takes 1,208 pages and 3.2 pounds to summarize it all?  Can that be swept away into irrelevance by a two page critique that never once quotes a relevant text from George Washington himself?

But if I’m going to complain, at least I ought not to be guilty of the scholarly and media crimes that I condemn.  So let’s take a moment and let the Founders speak.  Let’s hear them as they speak about whether faith mattered to them, even if it doesn’t matter any more to the media.  And then, let’s make sure we hear from the man who in his day at least was first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his country.  Those who so eulogized Washington certainly never imagined that 200 years after his death this man for the ages would be reduced to not even mattering in the media as exemplified by a disrespectful sobriquet of “a figure who’s been dead for two centuries”. 

Be that as it may, it is unmistakably clear for those who will read the original sources, and not blindly rely on the unsubstantiated historical revisionism that so often passes as scholarship today, that faith mattered greatly to our Founders.  How do we know that?  They told us so.  Consider just a few examples of what could easily number in the thousands.  What would you think of a Congress that called on the entire nation to entertain a Day of Prayer, Fasting and Humiliation with words like these?

In March 1776, the Continental Congress agreed to the following resolution for appointing a fast:

In times of impending calamity and distress; when the liberties of America are imminently endangered by the secret machinations and open assaults of an insidious and vindictive administration, it becomes the indispensable duty of these hitherto free and happy colonies, with true penitence of heart, and the most reverent devotion, publickly to acknowledge the over ruling providence of God; to confess and deplore our offences against him; and to supplicate his interposition for averting the threatened danger, and prospering our strenuous efforts in the cause of freedom, virtue, and posterity.

The Congress, therefore, considering the warlike preparations of the British Ministry to subvert our invaluable rights and priviledges, and to reduce us by fire and sword, by the savages of the wilderness, and our own domestics, to the most abject and ignominious bondage:  Desirous, at the same time, to have people of all ranks and degrees duly impressed with a solemn sense of God’s superintending providence, and of their duty, devoutly to rely, in all their lawful enterprizes, on his aid and direction, Do earnestly recommend, that Friday, the Seventeenth day of May next, be observed by the said colonies as a day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that we may, with united hearts, confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions, and, by a sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease his righteous displeasure, and through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness; humbly imploring his assistance to frustrate the cruel purposes of our unnatural enemies; and by inclining their hearts to justice and benevolence, prevent the further effusion of kindred blood.  But if, continuing deaf to the voice of reason and humanity, and inflexibly bent on desolation and war, they constrain us to repel their hostile invasions by open resistance, that it may please the Lord of Hosts, the God of Armies, to animate our officers and soldiers with invincible fortitude, to guard and protect them in the day of battle, and to crown the continental arms, by sea and land, with victory and success:  Earnestly beseeching him to bless our civil rulers, and the representatives of the people, in their several assemblies and conventions; to preserve and strengthen their union to inspire them with an ardent, disinterested love of their country; to give wisdom and stability to their counsels; and direct them to the most efficacious measures for establishing the rights of America on the most honourable and permanent basis–That he would be graciously please to bless all his people in these colonies with health and plenty, and grant that a spirit of incorruptible patriotism, and of pure undefiled religion, may universally prevail; and this continent be speedily restored to the blessings of peace and liberty, and enabled to transmit them inviolate the latest posterity.  And it is recommended to Christians of all denominations, to assemble for public worship, and abstain from servile labour on the said day.[1]

An example of the Christianity of our Founding Fathers in one of their Thanksgiving Proclamations can be found in the following dated November 1, 1777:

Forasmuch as it is the indispensable duty of all men to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with gratitude their obligation to him for benefits received, and to implore such farther blessings as they stand in need of; and it having pleased him in his abundant mercy not only to continue to us the innumerable bounties of his common providence, but also to smile upon us in the prosecution of a just and necessary war, for the defence and establishment of our unalienable rights and liberties; particularly in that he hath been pleased in so great a measure to prosper the means used for the support of our troops and to crown our arms with most signal success:  It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive powers of these United States, to set apart Thursday, the eighteenth day of December next, for solemn thanksgiving and praise; that with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor; and that together with their sincere acknowledgments and offerings, they may join the penitent confession of their manifold sins, whereby they had forfeited every favour, and their humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance; that it may please him graciously to afford his blessing on the governments of these states respectively, and prosper the public council of the whole; to inspire our commanders both by land and by sea, and all under them, with that wisdom and fortitude which may render them fit instruments, under the providence of Almighty God, to secure for these United States the greatest of all human blessings, independence and peace; that it may please him to prosper the trade and manufactures of the people and the labour of the husbandman, that our land may yet yield its increase; to take schools and seminaries of education, so necessary for cultivating the principles of true liberty, virtue and piety, under his nurturing hand, and to prosper the means of religion for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth "in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost. And it is further recommended, that servile labour, and such recreation as, though at other times innocent, may be unbecoming the purpose of this appointment, be omitted on so solemn an occasion."  [2]

By the way, these would have been the prayers that George Washington would have prayed with his chaplains in his revolutionary army thanksgiving and prayer services.

Well certainly a scoundrel like Benjamin Franklin would not have believed in such faith activities!  Well it has been known down through the ages that all human prayers are only offered by sinners, especially when they’re in a fox hole.  So consider what good old Ben, the senior citizen at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, had to say about the importance of prayer.

In the beginning of the Contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the Divine protection – 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 means of establishing our future national felicity.  And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend?  Or do we image we no longer need His assistance?

I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: that God governs in the affairs of man.  And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?  We have been assured sir, in the Sacred Writings that ‘except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it (Ps. 127:1).’   I firmly believe this, and I also believe that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builder of Babel.  We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages.  I therefore beg leave to move that, henceforth, prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessing on our deliberation be held in this assembly every morning. . .and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service.

Not only did James Madison record that in the minutes of the Convention, but George Washington who presided over the convention was there when this speech was offered by Mr. Franklin.

And, yes, even Thomas Jefferson, who was not as orthodox, active or spiritual as Washington, was not entirely disinterested in the things of faith.  Not only did he study the New Testament, worship on Sundays as President in the capitol building in what was then the Supreme Court Chambers during the work week, but he even composed prayers.  Under his administration Bibles and church buildings were purchased for the government’s work to bring Christian faith to the American aboriginal tribes.  In his first Address he declared:

Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own federal and republican principles. . . .enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them including honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.

Similarly in his Second Address, he said,

I shall now enter on the duties to which my fellow-citizens have again called me. . . .I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessities and comforts of life, who has covered our infancy with His Providence and our riper years with His wisdom and power, and to whose goodness I ask you to join with me in supplications that He will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils and prosper their measures, that whatever they do shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship and approbation of all nations.

But so you don’t have to read all 1208 pages tonight of George Washington’s Sacred Fire, I will simply share some salient quotes that reflect Washington’s faith.  These quotes, by the way, you’ll never find in most contemporary scholars.  Yet they appear in very public contexts throughout the life of General and President George Washington.

“While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion.  To the distinguished character of patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian.”  (General Orders, Valley Forge, May 2, 1778)

“You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ.”  (Speech to the Delaware Chiefs, New Jersey, June 2, 1779).

“I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow citizens of the United Sates at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation.”  (Circular to the Governors of all 13 States, Newburgh, New York, June 9, 1783). 

“I shall always strive to prove a faithful and impartial patron of genuine, vital religion.”  (May 29, 1789).

“May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from the Egyptian oppressors planted them in the promised land–whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation–shall continue to water them with the dews of Heaven and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.”  (To the Hebrew Congregation of Savannah, Georgia, May 1790).

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.  In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.  The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.  A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity.  Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice?  And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion.  Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”  (Farewell Address, September 17, 1796).

It seems that Washington really meant it when he wrote to a friend many years earlier, “on my honor and the faith of a Christian.” 

Clearly, faith mattered to our Founding Fathers.  So if truth matters to the media, and it must if Media is to really Matter, then the truth of George Washington’s words must really matter as well. 

So the question here is not the popularity of Glenn Beck in the media, but the media’s willingness to accept the truth of Washington’s beliefs measured by his own words placed in the context of his own life’s actions.  In this case it just so happens that truth, Beck and Washington align to the consternation of many in the media.  And that’s a matter for media indeed!

 



[1] Journals of Congress, March 1776, pp. 208-09.  Emphasis added by myself to highlight the explicit Christian message.

[2] Journals of Congress, November, 1777, pp. 854-55.  For other examples of days of fasting and prayer, compare Journals of Congress, June 12, 1775; December 11, 1776; March 1778; March 20, 1779; March 1780; March 1781; March 1782.  The last paragraph of the Proclamation in March 1782 is most remarkable because of the interest of the Congress in the expansion of the religion of Jesus Christ.  It says, ". . .that He would incline the hearts of all men to peace, and fill them with universal charity and benevolence, and that the religion of our Divine Redeemer, with all its benign influences, may cover the earth as the waters cover the seas." (Journals of Congress, March 1782, p. 138.)  The Thanksgiving proclamations can be found idem., November 1778; October 1779; October 18, 1780; October 26, 1781; October 1782; October 18, 1783; August 1784.  From these several Thanksgiving Proclamations, note the clear emphasis upon Christianity:  (1779), ". . .and above all, that he hath diffused the glorious light of the gospel, whereby, through the merits of our gracious Redeemer, we may become the heirs of his eternal glory. . . .prayer for the continuance of his favor and protection to these United States; to beseech him. . .that he would grant to his church the plentiful effusions of divine grace, and pour out his holy spirit on all ministers of the gospel; that he would bless and prosper the means of education, and spread the light of christian knowledge through the remotest corners of the earth. . . ."  (1780), ". . .to cherish all schools and seminaries of education, and to cause the knowledge of Christianity to spread over all the earth."  (1782), ". . . to testify their gratitude to God for his goodness, by a cheerful obedience to his laws, and by promoting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness."  (This was written by John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian Minister from New Jersey, a member of Congress and the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence.)  (1783), ". . .and above all, that he hath been pleased to continue to us the light of the blessed gospel, and secured to us in the fullest extent the rights of conscience in faith and worship. . . .to smile upon our seminaries and means of education, to cause pure religion and virtue to flourish. . . ."  (1784), "And above all, that he hath been pleased to continue to us the light of gospel truths, and secured to us, in the fullest manner, the rights of conscience in faith and worship."

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/April-Jordan/100001273312829 April Jordan

    Thank You for providing this valuable information, I use some of the quotes from this article to dispute a post on my husbands website, elwoodindiana.org, from a person at our local  library, where she states
     the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.
      your information was invaluable for helping me prove her otherwise. Thank You so much!!!  April