Deism, a nonsectarian faith, which existed in a few subtle variations, was shared by Thomas Paine, many if not most of the Founding Fathers, and most European intellectuals of the late eighteenth century. Deism essentially held that God set the world in motion and then got out of the way; that is, God abstained from human affairs. This concept was popularized in the colleges of the period and in the all-male Masonic lodges. This was a complicated dynamic; many of the period's leaders considered religion a source of morality and several invoked religious (but notably little if any sectarian) terminology in their public speeches and state papers.
Though religion has played an important role throughout U.S. History, the nation's Founders by and large expressed many reservations about it, particularly Christianity. This must be understood in context; these men were breaking from an Old World monarchy that was inextricably intertwined with its state church. European monarchies across the continent assumed the same standard model of governmental power closely aligned with an established faith, and had done so for centuries. The Founders feared what George Washington called "the horrors of spiritual tyranny," as they guarded against all forms of tyranny. Thus they erected a form of government that incorporated religious liberty, so that Christians, members of other faiths, and non-believers alike could fully participate as American citizens. This new system required a degree of intellectual radicalism to conceive, let alone enact; and religious freedom had never before been enacted on such a large scale.
When Thomas Jefferson submitted his draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress, the members shortened its overall length by a fourth, but they added two references to God. Jefferson was openly anticlerical; he said that "I have ever thought religion a concern purely between our God and our consciences, for which we were accountable to Him, and not to the priests." He considered religion "a matter between every man and his Maker in which no other, and far less the public, had a right to intermeddle." Another future president, James Madison, was the author of an important text on religious liberty entitled "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments." James Monroe, the fifth president, was officially an Episcopalian but never sought to be confirmed in the church and was perhaps the least religious of all his contemporaries. He had remarkably little to say about religion in any of his public speeches or his private writings, and when he made a tour of the nation in 1817, he remarked more on civic virtues than religion; only half of his speeches contained any reference to religion. And George Washington himself never called for a minister or begged forgiveness upon his death bed, and throughout his life he never once referred to Jesus in any of his correspondence. None of this is to suggest that these men were anti-religion; many of them thought that organized faith helped to foster virtue among the citizens of the young country. But they never reached a consensus among themselves as to exactly what role religion ought to play in public life, especially when it did not seem to factor much into their private lives.
Thomas Paine, one of the most influential and popular authors during the Revolution, went on to publish the controversial book The Age of Reason, a critique of organized religion that he completed in 1796. Many Americans who had celebrated him as a patriot during the war subsequently denounced him as an atheist. Former President of the Continental Congress Elias Boudinot, a descendant of French Huguenots persecuted for their Protestant faith, wrote The Age of Revelation as a rebuttal to Paine's book. Yet any impromptu quiz of history students would quickly reveal which of the two names is more recognizable today.
Paine was not without a sense of faith (he wrote that everywhere nature manifested the existence of God), but as he argued, "my own mind is my own church." He thought that Christianity had abandoned a preexisting and self-evident "natural theology" and replaced it with a bunch of superstition. Though that did not apparently suffice for the many American critics of Paine, the fact remained that the United States had been established as a secular government. Even John Adams, a Unitarian and the son of a New England deacon, signed his name to a 1797 treaty that declared "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion." Adams was quite devout, and like other Unitarians, he did not believe in the Trinity, predestination, or the divinity of Christ. When he ran against Thomas Jefferson for president in 1800, and the members of his Federalist party attempted to make a political issue out of Jefferson's religious convictions, a frustrated Adams asked "What has that to do with the public?"3
The quest for freedom of religious expression was at the heart of the Pilgrims' seventeenth-century settlement of the New World. Britain had a long tradition of internal "Dissenters," Protestants in sects outside the Church of England who struggled for equal treatment against laws that made discriminated against non-Anglicans. Yet many of these devout Christians failed to incorporate other faiths—such as Catholics and Jews—in their quest for tolerance. In America, religious freedom was already exercised in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, but the Revolution took the concept of toleration to new levels; it prompted the development of a theory of religious liberty. Religious pluralism may have been previously tolerated as a fact of life in some colonies, but now revolutionary thinkers and leaders articulated a case for pluralism on principle, not out of necessity. Domestic anti-Catholicism was weakened (though certainly not destroyed) by wartime necessity; Americans did not so much look upon the Catholic French as suspicious papists but as valued allies who composed an indispensable part of the struggle for independence. Amidst the climate of religious liberty, new religious denominations proliferated, from the Universalists to the Free Will Baptists.
Religious figures were present throughout the Revolution, but they did not always make the best impression. Reverend Jacob Duche, an Anglican minister in Philadelphia, delivered a sermon entitled "The American Vine" on 20 July 1775 before the Continental Congress, where he had been appointed chaplain. Duche sought divine support for the rebellion, and argued that mankind would "fall upon each other with a violence and ferocity equal to that of beasts of prey" without the influence of God. Yet within the next two years, he denounced George Washington and fled as a loyalist to England.
The wives and children of America's most prominent men were some of the most religious figures of the founding generation. The country's first five presidents all married devout Christians (or their wives later became devout), and most of their children—or their daughters, at least—shared the fervent religiosity of their mothers. These women surely had their own reasons for embracing their faith so completely, but it is worth noting that as women, they would have been excluded from the colleges and Masonic Lodges where deism was discussed and propagated during the period. The first chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay, was very pious, as was Boston revolutionary Samuel Adams.
Regardless of the range of devotion on the part of this revolutionary generation, all students of history should guard against modern pundits who claim to be able to judge eighteenth century figures by twenty-first-century standards. One of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of history is the importance of placing figures and events within their context, rather than removing them as if in a vacuum to serve contemporary political agendas or religious (or atheistic) arguments. These figures deserve to be examined on their own terms and in the framework of their own time.
Despite the fervor for independence and the widespread distrust of centralized authority that it provoked, in old Puritan states like New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, old habits died hard. Congregationalist churches—the churches of the Puritans—had enjoyed state support since the first days of settlement. In fact, nine of the thirteen colonies—all but Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania—had "established churches." What's that, you ask? An established church receives financial support from taxpayers, and the government issues and collects the tax. The government recognizes and supports that one church alone as the state's official faith. Prior to independence, authorities in most colonies had tolerated dissenters—followers of sects such as the Methodists and Baptists—who were quickly taking in converts, particularly among the lower classes, and who pressed for religious liberty in the transition to republican government. They were tired of suffering the disadvantage vis-à-vis the state-sponsored churches.
The Massachusetts state constitution guaranteed freedom of worship, but also empowered the legislature to require towns to collect tax revenues to support local Congregational ministers. Such lingering connections between church and state were not repealed in the state until 1834. The Congregational church was not disestablished (that is, deprived of governmental support) in Vermont until 1807; in New Hampshire until 1817; in Connecticut until 1818; in Maine until 1820. In Virginia, on the other hand, Baptists applied pressure to argue their case that alliances between government and church authorities had historically led to oppression. Upon adoption of Thomas Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786, the state rejected all extant ties with the Protestant Episcopal Church (the successor to the Church of England). This set the precedent for the First Amendment to the Constitution that followed three years later.