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Faith and the Founders of the American Republic

Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall (eds)
Published by Oxford University Press in 2014

Reviewed by Matthew Hill, History, Liberty University

Much ink has been spilled in recent years rediscovering many “forgotten founders” and arguing for a more diversified range of ideas of the founders on church and state issues. Excessive devotion to the likes of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison as well as the modern image of a “wall of separation” between church and state have clouded the issue. It is not that their reputation is underserved, but neither their views nor Jefferson’s metaphor were representative of the whole. This particular work is the third edited volume in an ongoing series dedicated to exploring the Founding Fathers on religion and public life. Previous works in the series include Daniel L. Driesbach, Mark D. Hall, and Jeffry H. Morrison, The Founders on God and Government (2004) and Daniel L. Driesbach, Mark D. Hall, Jeffry H. Morrison, The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life (2009). This current volume consists of thirteen well-argued essays divided into two sections that first explore the general religious atmosphere of the revolutionary and early national period and then provide studies of individual founders. These collective essays continue to challenge oversimplistic interpretations of the founders’ views on religion which waver from seeing the founding as steeped in secularism or awash in Christian religiosity.

Individual essays make several compelling arguments toward this end. Darren Staloff argues that the role of deism has been overplayed. Although deistic beliefs were shared by some founders, it did not prevent the use of chaplains during the Revolutionary War, the inclusion of orthodox believers in the major conventions, or the continuation of state church establishments. Radicals were present to be sure, but more accurately Enlightenment and Christian principles overlapped and borrowed from one another what they found acceptable. It was largely this synthesis between Enlightenment rationalism and Christianity that explains the federal disestablishment of churches. Mark David Hall argues that Reformed contributions have been overlooked and the decline of religious devotion during the Revolutionary and early national period has been exaggerated. Reformed political thinking had a long pedigree and many founders were active in Reformed denominations. Although Jefferson’s “Creator” may sound ambiguous to modern ears, Hall argues that Reformed founders would not have understood it that way.

Likewise, David Dalin offers a particularly insightful essay on the largely favorable view that Washington, Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson had on Judaism, while Thomas Kidd, author of a longer work on Christians and Islam, discussed the ways in which Americans used anti-Islamic rhetoric in attacking their opponents. This squares with Denise A. Spielberg’s research in Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders (2013) in this growing body of literature. Furthermore, Robert Calhoon and Ruma Chopra discuss, in my judgment, a much-neglected area of research: the religious viewpoints of the Loyalists through a tripartite grid of “principled Loyalists,” “moderate Loyalists,” and “doctrinaire Tories.” Consistent with much historical writing, the “losing side” is too often neglected. Donald Drakeman, in an insightful essay, argues that contrary to widespread belief, that Antifederalists did not develop a coherent and unified theory on church establishments beyond supporting federal disestablishment and liberty of conscience.

Consistent with Staloff’s essay, Daniel Driesbach argues that biblical language saturated the founders’ rhetoric and speeches and argues that historians open to Christianity’s influences have underscored this fact. Even the more religiously skeptical incorporated theological language. Sometimes the usage was direct and sometimes indirect, such as in the form of biblical metaphors, similes, and allusions, but it was ever present. No one point of view “superseded” or “crowded out” another, but each coexisted alongside the other. Jonathan Sassi furthermore notes the complexity of religion and race in the colonial and Revolutionary periods and argues correctly that the two were inseparable and intertwined. The Bible became both a tool to reinforce racist stereotypes, and a theological weapon to argue for the common humanity of all peoples whether it be Native Americans or African-Americans.

Other contributions include essays on neglected founders. Gregg Frazier, for example, argues that Governor Morris is representative of the “theistic rationalism” that defies the simplistic deistic / orthodox categories overused by historians and presents a better way to understand the religious ambiguity of many founders. On a more conservative theological spectrum, Gary Scott Smith argues that John Hancock’s centralizing role at both the state and national levels deserves more attention. Similarly, Jonathan Den Hartog argues the same for Elias Boudinot, whose career stretched far into the early national period and is ripe for a full biography. Jane Colbert likewise helps resurrect the Quaker John Dickinson, whose latter career is often ignored due to his refusal to join the Revolutionary cause. Lastly, Joe Coker compares the church-state perspective of the celebrated Baptists, Isaac Backus and John Leland, whose names are virtually synonymous with disestablishment.

In conclusion, this work seeks to cast a wider net in explaining church-state relations in the American founding by not only resurrecting many “forgotten founders” but by reminding us that Enlightenment secularism coexisted alongside traditional Christian thought. For the founding generation, it was both an embrace of Enlightenment thought and traditional Christian thought that shaped their thinking. Put differently, neither Enlightenment rationalism nor traditional Christian thought was the only game in town. Also, it is important to remember that the founders’ views on religion were highly diverse, and even those who could be categorized in a theological grid differed on religion’s public role. It is also important to recall how much our own modern perspective often factors into historical interpretations. Despite the more secular tendencies of the modern Supreme Court, or the “Christian America” enthusiasts, one cannot simply cherry-pick any single quote or founder as representing the whole. The most one can say with a high degree of certainty is that most founders favored the federal disestablishment of churches in some form and equally envisioned a public role for religion. This work presents a cautionary tale in overgeneralizing about the founders’ religious convictions.

Cite this article
Matthew Hill, “Faith and the Founders of the American Republic”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:3 , 324-325

Matthew Hill

Liberty University
Matthew Hill is a Professor of History at Thomas Edison State College, Columbia International University, and Liberty University Online.