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From Samuel Adams to Thomas Jefferson, the founding fathers often had very different ideas about God and how the church should relate to the state. But they largely agreed that days of prayer and fasting were good for the country. On this Day of Prayer, CT spoke to James H. Hutson, who compiled The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations, about what the founders thought about prayer. Hutson is chief of the manuscript division at the Library of Congress.

What was the religious mood among the founding fathers?

It was like Joseph's coat, various colors and hues. We had people all the way from fervent evangelical Protestants to Deists.

So you wouldn't say there was an explicit Christian influence among the founders?

Probably most of them considered themselves Christians. Even Jefferson said explicitly several times that he was a Christian. He probably meant that he was a Unitarian, but very few people would have denied that they were Christians of some sort.

Days set aside for prayer have a long tradition in this country. Tell me about John Adams proclamation of days of prayer and fasting.

That was an old practice that went back to the Continental Congress. They proclaimed thanksgivings and days of fasting and humiliation twice a year from at least 1776 to 1783. The state governments did it constantly. Jefferson, when he was governor of Virginia also proclaimed a day. He didn't do that as President, however.

Washington proclaimed one, too. He was requested by Congress to proclaim a thanksgiving at the end of the first session of Federal Congress in 1789.

By the time Adams did it, the political temperatures had heated up a bit, and the Republicans—that would be Jefferson's party—opposed this on the grounds that this was ...

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May 2006

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