Why is it that my thoughts are so oft drawn to the intersection between religion and politics? I’ve been reading (more accurately listening to) Joseph J. Ellis’s book on the post-revolutionary founding of the United States: Founding Brothers. As I scan the historic countenances of our national forefathers, I’m always watching for evidence in their writing to indicate their true religious convictions. Truly, men of such deep and far-reaching thought must occasionally turn their minds to their personal destinies beyond death. And I’m not disappointed:
John Adams was known to his contemporaries for his strong Christian convictions. Most of his peers appear, in the sheen of history, silently annoyed by the professions of faith and morality that sounded so much like the New England puritan that, in fact, he was.
George Washington hasn’t fully emerged from the mists of time to tell me of his deepest inclinations. Known to be a Mason, he displayed firm character in battle, reservation in politics, and a vexing willingness to hold his tongue in the 1790 debates on slavery. His faith appears to be deep. So deep, in fact, that remaining evidences of it emerge mostly from speculation, it seems.
Thomas Jefferson had a quirky, murky inner life. He seemed to hold very true to the deistic Masonic belief in a god. He was known to have edited the gospels (with scissors!) to bring them more into line with his own beliefs. He once said, “I tremble for my country when I consider that god is a just god, and that his justice cannot sleep forever.” He was referring to the coming blight of slavery, which he seemingly abhorred just slightly less than the idea of a rift in the Union, and it’s not clear whether he was referring to Virginia or the United States of America when he referred to his country. His approach to religion seems best summed up by the following quote from the 1995 movie, “The Usual Suspects“: “I don’t believe in God, but I fear him.”
Benjamin Franklin, though born in Boston to puritan parents, started his life as a committed Atheist. He seems to have lost his faith in Atheism as he matured and saw more of the world than most in his generation. But that doesn’t mean he actually converted wholesale to bible-believing Christianity. He, too, seems to line up more with Jeffersonian deism. At one point, he actually edited the Lord’s Prayer for grammar, brevity, and better adherence to his own views. Later in life, he would attend and listen to the preaching of George Whitefield. He appreciated the preacher’s effects on him to such an extent that his later visits to the man’s meetings saw him carrying only that sum of money he was willing to part with in the collection. But he stopped just short of a wholesale conversion, probably thinking himself too tempered and measured to let his emotions decide such matters for him.
When I admiringly examine these men, who have become heroes to me for various reasons, I am sometimes tempted to despair. Taken collectively, their views seem to merge into the sort of ‘publick religion’ argued for by John Meacham in his fascinating book, “American Gospel“. They don’t seem at all the sort of Christian men I’ve heard described in debates on school prayer and abortion law. Some have told me that linguistic differences account for this phenomenon. They say that when these men use words like ‘Providence’, they were obliquely referencing such concepts as ‘a saving knowledge of and personal relationship with Jesus Christ’. I’m willing to partially concede this point, as linguistics have changed. But not fully.
My reasoning stems from the words and example of another man, their contemporary. He was a little-known Quaker who never signed the declaration of independence or graced the world’s stage in any meaningful way. But he did keep a journal, his version of a blog, if you will.
John Woolman died in 1774, before the American States earned their independence with blood, cleverness, and some darn good diplomacy. He started his working life as a shop clerk and eventually became a traveling speaker amongst the Society of the Friends, or the Quakers. His message was that of emancipation of slaves, and his appeal (like his journal) was entirely spiritual. He refers directly to Christ as his saviour and God as his heavenly Father. His understanding of his own sin is very personal, unlike Jefferson’s references to god’s wrath against his nation’s injustices. A man of such humility that he seems to intentionally play down his own importance in world events around him, he stands in this regard in direct comparison with Franklin, who, for all his wisdom, seldom denied his ego or his libido. Woolman’s faith seems to resonate through the pages of history with the mystical faith of Paul of Tarsus (who wrote several letters with which you may be familiar).
The Quakers were pacifists who largely sat out the American revolution. It’s worth noting that they brought the issue of slavery to the forefront of the national consciousness in 1790, three years after the U.S. Constitution was signed, by petitioning congress for the end of the detestable practice. Congress’s first reaction? In so many words, “What credibility have these pacifists who refused to shed their own blood to the secure the freedom with which they now speak?” That’s a refrain that echoes still today, even in my neighborhood. But their message against slavery was a clarion call that emanated from their own consciences, and in the back of their minds they surely heard the unadulterated voice of John Woolman urging them to obey their God.
Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis
The First American, The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by H.W. Brands
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin (unfinished work)
1776 by David McCullough
John Adams by David McCullough
American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation by John Meacham
The Journal of John Woolman taken from the Harvard Classics (my copy published 1909)
The Depths of My Own Murky Mind by Andrew Shinn