America’s Founders were profoundly religious — but in their own ways

President Washington proclaimed America’s first national day of prayer and thanksgiving in 1789, President Lincoln fixed the annual November Thanksgiving Day during the Civil War, and President George W. Bush continues the tradition.

America’s Founders, however, didn’t agree on the idea.

President John Adams twice proclaimed national “fast days” but later thought he lost his bid for re-election in 1800 because those national observances were considered a Presbyterian project and thus resented by other denominations.

President Jefferson believed the states should decide whether to proclaim thanksgiving days because they exercised all powers not granted the federal government by the Constitution, which also barred a national “establishment of religion.”

It was “certainly proper” for the states to designate days to thank God “for any signal blessing” or seek divine aid “in any public calamity,” said John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States.

Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were the principal authors of “The Federalist Papers,” which interpreted America’s new Constitution. Hamilton said in 1797 that “a day of humiliation and prayer, besides being very proper, would be extremely useful” in contrasting America’s piety with the atheism of France, then its enemy. But Madison thought national prayer proclamations created “scandal” for religion by associating it with political animosities.

These thanksgiving thoughts appear in “The Founders on Religion” (Princeton University Press), a collection of quotations by 17 Revolutionary War leaders on 76 topics.

James H. Hutson, longtime chief of the Library of Congress manuscript division, said he edited the book to counter some conservatives’ misleading citations of the Founders.

Not that Hutson found them to be irreligious. All were immersed in the Bible and pondered religious questions, and many were notably orthodox.

Others invoked an undefined “Providence” or were liberals or skeptics. Benjamin Franklin, though never active in church as an adult, held a sincere, self-made faith. Jefferson rejected conventional creeds but regularly attended worship in the U.S. House chamber, and revered Jesus while rejecting his divinity.

Whatever their theologies, the Founders agreed that only God (or that capitalized “Providence”) could have made possible their new nation and that, as Adams put it, “religion and virtue are the only foundations” for democracy.

(A book of related interest: Public piety from the explorers to Bush is surveyed in “One Nation Under God: The History of Prayer in America” by Georgetown University’s James P. Moore Jr.)

Other cullings from Hutson:

Afterlife: Jefferson anticipated “a state of being of which I can know so little,” trusting in “him who has been so good for the past.” Franklin believed he’d enjoy “eternal as well as temporal happiness,” given by the loving “Being who gave me existence.” Adams couldn’t conceive that the benevolent and wise God created humanity “merely to live and die on this earth.”

Bible: Benjamin Rush, pioneer physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, advocated daily readings and said he never did this “without seeing something in it I never saw before.” Adams called the Bible “the best book in the world.”

God: Washington wrote, “No man has a more perfect reliance on the alwise and powerful dispensations of the Supreme Being than I have, nor thinks his aid more necessary.”

Israel: Jay predicted that the Jews “shall be restored to their country.” Elias Boudinot, president of Congress under the Articles of Confederation, said the Jews’ return was “expressly foretold by Christ, his prophets and apostles” to precede the Second Coming.

Jesus: Franklin deemed Jesus’ religion “the best the world ever saw or is likely to see.” Jefferson thought Jesus’ disciples had disfigured “the most benevolent the most eloquent and sublime character that ever has been exhibited to man.”

Slavery: Adams, Hamilton, Jay and other key founders — even slaveholders Jefferson and Patrick Henry — considered the system immoral.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
AP, via The Daily Camera, USA
Nov. 19, 2005
Richard N. Ostling

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday November 19, 2005.
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