The Faith of Our Fathers

by Greg Koukl

Was the faith of the Founding Fathers deism or Christianity? What does the answer mean for us today? Both the secularists and the Christians have missed the mark.

There’s been a lot of rustle in the press lately–and in many Christian publications–about the faith of the Founding Fathers and the status of the United States as a “Christian nation.” Home schooling texts abound with references to our religious heritage, and entire organizations are dedicated to returning America to its spiritual roots. On the other side, secularists cry “foul” and parade their own list of notables among our country’s patriarchs. They rally around the cry of “separation of church and state.” Which side is right? Oddly both, after a fashion.

Historical proof-texts can be raised on both sides. Certainly there were godless men among the early leadership of our nation, though some of those cited as examples of Founding Fathers turn out to be insignificant players. For example, Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen may have been hostile to evangelical Christianity, but they were firebrands of the Revolution, not intellectual architects of the Constitution. Paine didn’t arrive in this country until 1774 and only stayed a short time.

As for others–George Washington, Samuel Adams, James Madison, John Witherspoon, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, John Adams, Patrick Henry, and even Thomas Jefferson–their personal correspondence, biographies, and public statements are replete with quotations showing that these thinkers had political philosophies deeply influenced by Christianity.

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The Constitutional Convention

It’s not necessary to dig through the diaries, however, to determine which faith was the Founder’s guiding light. There’s an easier way to settle the issue.

The phrase “Founding Fathers” is a proper noun. It refers to a specific group of men, the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention. There were other important players not in attendance, like Jefferson, whose thinking deeply influenced the shaping of our nation. These 55 Founding Fathers, though, made up the core.

The denominational affiliations of these men were a matter of public record. Among the delegates were 28 Episcopalians, 8 Presbyterians, 7 Congregationalists, 2 Lutherans, 2 Dutch Reformed, 2 Methodists, 2 Roman Catholics, 1 unknown, and only 3 deists–Williamson, Wilson, and Franklin–this at a time when church membership entailed a sworn public confession of biblical faith. [John Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), p. 43.]

This is a revealing tally. It shows that the members of the Constitutional Convention, the most influential group of men shaping the political foundations of our nation, were almost all Christians, 51 of 55–a full 93%. Indeed, 70% were Calvinists (the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and the Dutch Reformed), considered by some to be the most extreme and dogmatic form of Christianity…

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RECOMMENDED APOLOGETICS RESOURCES FOR FURTHER READING:

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