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Professor Stone centers his analysis of what he conceives to be the “distorted version of history that has become part of the conventional wisdom of American politics in recent years” on the religious views of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Paine, so that’s where I’ll concentrate my efforts. Keep in mind, however, that America’s founding rests on more than the views and actions of these five men. In this article, we’ll look at Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams.
Benjamin Franklin went through something of a religious pilgrimage in his long life. There is little doubt that in his early years, he was quite the religious skeptic. His moral life left a lot to be desired as well. He read the writings of English deists as a young man, but “later experience and reflection caused him to retreat somewhat from the thoroughgoing deism of his early life. . . . Indeed Franklin’s views on providence and prayer were quite inconsistent with the deistic conception of an absentee God who does not and who could not, in consistency with the perfection of his work of creation and his impartial nature, interfere in the affairs of men.”
It was Franklin who addressed the Constitutional Convention by reminding those in attendance of “a superintending Providence” in their favor that brought them to their unique place to make history. He cited Psalm 127:1 to establish his point: “Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.” He went on to say something very non-deistic: “God rules in the affairs of men,” and without God’s “concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel” (Gen. 11:1– 9). It was Franklin and Jefferson who called for the phrase “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God” to be placed on the Great Seal of the United States:
Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity.
Franklin also declared, “Man will ultimately be governed by God or by tyrants.” I suspect that if some politician used similar religious terminology today, he would be denounced by the press as a “religious fundamentalist,” dismissed as a “theocrat” and dangerous to the Republic by the ACLU, and excoriated by Professor Stone for having a “disturbingly distorted version of history.”
Thomas Jefferson kept most of his religious views private, and his “separation of church and state” language was not used until 1802, nearly 15 years after the drafting of the First Amendment. It’s unfortunate that it has become substitute language for the actual wording of the First Amendment and distorted its meaning. Jefferson’s views on Christianity were hardly credible for someone of his intellect and erudition. Like Professor Stone, Jefferson picked from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke what suited his rationalistic presuppositions. Convenient, but hardly the work of a scholar. Nevertheless, for all of his anti-biblical statements and beliefs, Jefferson understood that “no system of morality would work for the common man or woman ‘without the sanction of divine authority stampt upon it.’”
Professor Stone appeals next to John Adams who he identifies as a Unitarian. We find the following from Adams’ Diary dated July 26, 1796:
The Christian religion is, above all the Religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern Times, the Religion of Wisdom, Virtue, Equity, and humanity, let the Blackguard [Thomas] Paine say what he will; it is Resignation to God, it is Goodness itself to Man.
Adams expressed his religious views on numerous occasions, but his call for a National Fast Day on March 6, 1799, is the most expressive. In it he described the Bible as “the Volume of Inspiration” and acknowledged “the growing providence of a Supreme Being and of the accountableness of men to Him as the searcher of hearts and righteous distributer of rewards and punishments.” The Proclamation recommended the following:
[That April 15, 1799] be observed throughout the United States of America as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that the citizens on that day abstain, as far as may be, from their secular occupation, and devote the time to the sacred duties of religion, in public and in private; that they call to mind our numerous offenses against the most high God, confess them before Him with the sincerest penitence, implore his pardoning mercy, through the Great Mediator and Redeemer, for our past transgressions, and that through the grace of His Holy Spirit, we may be disposed and enabled to yield a more suitable obedience to his righteous requisitions in time to come; that He would interpose to arrest the progress of that impiety and licentiousness in principle and practice so offensive to Himself and so ruinous to mankind; that He would make us deeply sensible that “righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people [Proverbs 14:34].”
Professor Stone reduces the religion of John Adams, based on a letter he had written to Jefferson, as “captured in the phrase, ‘Be just and good.’” Jefferson had expressed a similar sentiment: “fear God and love thy neighbor.” A question remains: What determines what’s just and good? Jefferson and Adams were living at a time when Christianity prevailed, and it was Jefferson who appealed to the gospels to make his case for his “wee little book” on morality. Both men borrowed the capital of Christianity to make their cases for morality. But there were other letters that Adams had written to Jefferson on the subject of religion: “The general principles, on which the Fathers achieved independence, were . . . the general principles of Christianity” and “Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite society, I mean hell.”