James H. Hutson, chief of the manuscript division of the Library of Congress, edited The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations (Princeton, 2005). The book, unlike some earlier, less scholarly collections of Revolution-era sayings, is organized by topic rather than by proper name, allowing easier searches. Stan Guthrie, a CT senior associate editor, spoke with Hutson about the religious beliefs of the Founders and their relevance for today.
What are people's biggest misconceptions about the Founders?
One is that there was a monolithic point of view on certain religious topics. There was a wide variety of opinion on a wide variety of subjects. But the subjects on which there was a kind of consensus emerged very clearly in the book. I have found no one among the Founders who didn't believe in Providence being actively at work, who didn't believe that religion was vital for social well-being, who didn't believe in liberty of conscience.
Some say that the Founders were mostly Deists, others that they were really born again Christians.
"Deism" is a very slippery term. It generally means somebody who does not believe in revealed religion. It's more correct to say that some of the Founders certainly had liberal views. John Adams talks about being a liberal Christian and admitted to being a Unitarian. Jefferson certainly was [a Unitarian]. Madison was accused of being a Unitarian. Washington's views were very closely held. He did not take Communion in the Episcopal Church, though he attended regularly and was a vestryman. Franklin would be the closest to being a Deist.
Most of the leading people were not, I suspect, what you would call in today's terms "evangelical Christians." Some of them, however, were very deeply orthodox Christians, ...