Founding Period
Search Timelines:

Time Period
1783  - 1791
Description
It wasn't long before America's earliest leaders realized the original Articles of Confederation weren’t strong enough to unify the individual states. On Sept. 17, 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia signed the U.S. Constitution 'in order to form a more perfect union,' as its preamble states. The Constitution called for three branches of government -- legislative, judicial and executive.

In 1789, Congress elected George Washington, the general who had led the successful fight for independence, as the first president of the United States. Two years later, in 1791, Congress approved the Bill of Rights, 10 constitutional amendments specifying fundamental rights of Americans. The First Amendment guaranteed the freedom of religion, fulfilling the dream of what Puritans had sought more than a century earlier and setting the stage for future debates over the separation of church and state.
Interactive Timeline(s)
Prominent Religious Events and People in American History
Social Movements and Religion
Religious Minorities (Non-Christian)
Race/Ethnicity and Religion
Women and Religion
Baptist Religious Events and People in American History
Catholic Religious Events and People in American History
Methodist Religious Events and People in American History
Presbyterian Religious Events and People in American History
Narrative
It wasn't long before America's earliest leaders realized the original Articles of Confederation weren't strong enough to unify the individual states. On Sept. 17, 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia signed the U.S. Constitution 'in order to form a more perfect union,' as its preamble states. The Constitution called for three branches of government -- legislative, judicial and executive.


In 1789, Congress elected George Washington, the general who had led the successful fight for independence, as the first president of the United States. Two years later, in 1791, Congress approved the Bill of Rights, 10 constitutional amendments specifying fundamental rights of Americans. The First Amendment guaranteed the freedom of religion, fulfilling the dream of what Puritans had sought more than a century earlier and setting the stage for future debates over the separation of church and state.

The Religion of the Founding Fathers

When discussing the religion of the Founding Fathers, it is important to distinguish religious affiliation from personal religious beliefs, as most identified with the churches of their upbringing but held beliefs that differed substantially from the doctrine of their affiliations. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Jay were Virginians born and baptized into the Church of England, later known as Episcopalianism after the independence of the Colonies. Given that most Virginians were associated with the Church of England, it was the prominent religion of the signers of the Declaration of Independence (60.7 percent) and the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention (47.5 percent), despite Episcopalianism only composing 15 percent of the American religious landscape at the time. John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were from New England and came from Puritan backgrounds. All, except Franklin, continued to attend services at least occasionally, marrying under their church’s auspices and being buried by their clergy.

However, the personal religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers resembled the popular school of thought at the time known as deism, which maintains that God exists but remains less involved in the everyday affairs of humans. This belief system emerged from the Enlightenment, which emphasized human reason over superstition. Morality and ethics were a greater focus than the doctrines of a particular church for most deists. Most of the Founding Fathers, with the exception of the more orthodox Christian John Jay, displayed deistic tendencies, even if they remained generally reticent on the discussion of their personal beliefs.

The juxtaposition between affiliation and personal beliefs led to unique interactions between the Founding Fathers and organized religion. When Washington attended services, he would stand during prayer instead of kneel like other churchgoers and never took communion nor was he ever confirmed. After Washington died and stories emerged exalting his piety, Washington’s own pastor said, "Sir, he was a deist," in response to the discussion of Washington’s faith. Jefferson became notorious for his "Jefferson Bible," a manuscript in which he cut and pasted numerous sections of the New Testament that contained Jesus’ moral teachings but excluded sections containing miracles or passages depicting Jesus as divine. When Franklin was asked about his faith from Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale University, he responded:

"As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity...I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as it probably has, of making his doctrines more respected and better observed; especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the unbelievers in his government of the world with any particular marks of his displeasure."

Thus, while the Founding Fathers appear to have a respect toward organized religion and interacted with it occasionally, they, like the God of their deism, remained somewhat distant.

Photographs

The Signing of the Constitution- Architect of the Capitol

George Washington portrait- National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired as a gift to the nation through the generosity of the Donald W Reynolds Foundation

Independence Hall, Philadelphia- Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-18122

The Constitution of the United States, page 1- National Archives and Records Administration

Bill of Rights- Library of Congress, LC-USP6-360A
Book/Journal Source(s)
Holmes, David L., 2006. The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. New York: Oxford University Press.
Pyle, Ralph E. and James D. Davidson, 2003. The Origins of Religious Stratification in Colonial America. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42 (1): 57-75.
Van Doren, Carl, 1938. Benjamin Franklin. New York: The Viking Press.
Web Source(s)
http://www.history.com
http://www.ushistory.org
Web Page Contributor
Sandi Dolbee
Affliated with: Former Religion and Ethics Editor, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Bookmark and Share