Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Deism and the Founding Fathers

How many times have you heard that the Founders were Deists? Personally, I lost count long ago. I read it in books; I hear it on TV; I see the assertion on blogs.

It's everywhere, and it's complete hogwash.

I define the Founders as those who:

--signed the Declaration of Independence
--signed the Articles of Confederation
--attended the 1787 Constitutional Convention
--signed the Constitution of the U.S.A.
--served as Senators or Representatives in the First Federal Congress (1789-1791)

(* Including the members of the pre-Declaration Continental Congresses also is perfectly legitimate, though I don't have specific statistics on those individuals. These and the rest include some overlap.*)

Let's take the Declaration, first:

56 signers

26 Episcopalians/Anglicans
10 Congregationalists
11 Presbyterians
1 Catholic

Several who switched denominations or beliefs in later life:

2 Congregationalists/Unitarians
2 Quakers/Episcopalians
2 Episcopalians/Deists
1 Episcopalian/Congregationalist
1 Episcopalian/Presbyterian

The Articles of Confederation:

48 signers

18 Protestant, denomination unknown
12 Episcopalians
9 Congregationalists
4 Presbyterians
1 Catholic
1 Huguenot
1 Lutheran

Two who switched denominations or beliefs in later life:

1 Episcopalian/Deist
1 Quaker/Episcopalian

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention, and signers of the Constitution:

55 delegates/signers:

20 Episcopalians/Anglicans
10 Presbyterians
6 Congregationalists
2 Catholics
2 Methodists
2 Dutch Reformed
1 Lutheran

Several who switched denominations or beliefs in later life:

3 Episcopalians/Presbyterians
2 Presbyterians/Episcopalians
2 Quakers/Episcopalians
1 Congregationalist/Episcopalian
1 Episcopalian/Deist
1 Episcopalian/Congregationalist
1 Huguenot/Presbyterian/Episcopalian
1 Quaker/Lutheran


The Declaration of Independence: 56 signers; 2 Deists.
The Articles of Confederation: 48 signers; 1 Deist.
Constitutional Convention delegates/signers of the U.S. Constitution: 55 people; 1 Deist.

Even if we include Unitarians in the Deist category, this gives us 4 of 56 men who signed the Declaration and were Deists, which is Deism at its highest representative numbers. Furthermore, though 18th Century American Unitarianism denied Trinitarianism--specifically the divinity of Jesus Christ--it adhered to Christianity in all other regards, such as ethics, behavior, and culture. By today's standards, I think classifying Unitarians with the Watchtower Society and Mormonism is more accurate than placing them under the rubric of Deism, but I suppose the point is arguable.

So it's quite clear that the vast majority of the Founding Fathers were members of orthodox Christian denominations, not Deists. The numbers are neither debatable on this particular issue, nor even close.

Thus, the pertinent question arises: whence the origin of the idea that the Framers principally were Deists? I think the question has two answers. First, some people are liars; their goal is the belittlement of Christianity, in general, and the obscuration of Christian influence on the formation of the United States of America, in particular. Second--and more prevalent--is the reality that we have fumbled and dropped much of our history in a well of ignorance. Knowledge once accepted as true now has become controversial--not because we know more than in days of old, but because we know less.

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