When Alexander Hamilton was born back in 1755, he was already behind the eight ball. Whispers of illegitimacy plagued him from birth as the product of a common law marriage between James Hamilton and the notorious Rachel Faucette (the only woman imprisoned at St. Croix’s Fort Christiansvaern for committing adultery). His father was no better. Known as the black sheep of the family, James Hamilton deserted his wife and children when Alexander was 10. Several years later, Alexander transitioned from bastard to orphan when his mother died.
In a true rags-to-riches story, Hamilton’s ascent out of poverty and into the political limelight reveals that miracles do happen. Recently, his incredible life has been recounted in the hit musical Hamilton. Inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography on the first treasury secretary, composer Lin-Manuel Miranda brilliantly captures the highs and lows of this orphan boy who became a war hero, architect of America’s financial system, and George Washington’s confidante and indispensable aide. Chernow’s storytelling powers are formidable, and point, perhaps unbeknownst, to the greatest Storyteller of all.
In the hundreds of pages that inspired the musical, a reverberant theme resounds throughout: that God loved this destitute orphan and opened doors for him. His rise parallels the story of a shepherd boy who became king. And like King David, General Alexander Hamilton had his own adulterous affair, political coup, and preventable tragedies. Yet God’s tender heart and longsuffering kindness were woven throughout Hamilton’s 49 years on this earth.
That God loved Alexander Hamilton is undeniable. But did Hamilton love God? Historians of the Revolutionary period are often asked about issues of faith. Did the Founding Fathers believe in God? Were they really Christians? For Alexander Hamilton, the answer was yes. Records indicate that Hugh Knox, a Presbyterian minister in St. Croix, influenced Hamilton at a young age. Knox’s sermons and passion for God seemed to have affected Hamilton on a fundamentally core level. Hamilton’s own desire to pursue godly living was ignited in St. Croix, and he carried this aspiration with him when he set sail for New York to further his education.
As a student at King’s College (Columbia University today), his fellow classmates commented on Hamilton’s sincere heart for worship and that he often went above the prescribed prayers and mandatory chapels. Chernow writes that Robert Troup, Hamilton’s classmate at King’s, confessed he had “often been powerfully affected by the fervor and eloquence of [Hamilton’s] prayers” and that Hamilton “was a zealous believer in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.”
Like most faith journeys, Hamilton’s ebbed and flowed between skepticism and belief. But at the end, his verdict was clear: “I have examined carefully the evidence of the Christian religion, and if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity, I should rather abruptly give my verdict in its favor.”
Hamilton’s analytical mind sought for proofs of religion and not merely emotional satisfaction. He studied A View of the Evidences of Christianity in search of reasonable answers to an elusive faith. As a child of the Enlightenment and relentless pursuer of the truth, Hamilton despised religious fanaticism and searched for “logical proofs.” With the legal mind and intellectual tenacity he applied to the US Constitution and Federalist papers, Hamilton surveyed the Scriptures and religious evidence. “I have studied [Christianity] and I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man,” he concluded.
To make such a declaration was not easy. Enlightenment ideals had swept into the colonies decades earlier, and Deism contended against traditional Christianity in fundamental ways. The world that Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers inhabited was a vastly different one than the Puritans’ of yore. From the time that John Winthrop famously charged his fellow Puritans to shine as a “Citty upon a Hill” in 1630, almost 150 years had passed by the time of the Revolution. Much like our society is unrecognizable from the one during the Civil War (which took place about 150 years ago), Puritan traditions had largely vanished by the time the British and colonists went to war.
The first three American presidents and fellow Founding Fathers, George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, each went through their own personal faith journeys in the same Enlightenment-fused world. Historians have yet to reach a consensus on these Founders’ faiths, as some attest that they were Deists, some claim that they were committed Christians, and others argue that they fell somewhere in between. Whatever the verdict, an interesting theme may be noted in the spiritual lives of these Founding Fathers: their childhood experiences of religious matters seem to have influenced their outlook on God for their lifetimes.
George Washington’s upbringing in an Anglican home, led by a spiritually mindful mother, secured a religious anchor throughout his days. Washington’s nephew purportedly saw the first president kneeling with an open Bible both in the mornings and evenings for personal devotions; and prayer seemed to be a vital component of Washington’s life. Perhaps these were disciplines that he learned as a youth. Although Washington was generally private about religious affairs, he was a committed Anglican and served as vestryman and warden at Pohick Church. Yet, he seemed to spurn Holy Communion and rarely mentioned “Jesus Christ,” preferring the name of “Providence” to describe God. Washington was convinced that Providence beckoned mankind to participate in human affairs, but still retained sovereignty. And Providence was anything but passive, as Washington firmly believed that God personally attended the creation of the United States.
Washington’s successor, John Adams, was born into a devout Christian family and raised to carry on Puritan traditions. The second president of the United States never wavered away from his faith, nor did he ever see any conflict in being both an independent thinker and committed Christian. As David McCullough recounts in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Adams regularly boasted of his Puritan ancestry, sometimes bordered on legalism (he often refused to travel on the Sabbath), and occasionally cast stones against those he deemed less spiritual than himself. For example, Adams made it a point to highlight Jefferson’s nontraditional religious convictions when they both vied for the presidency. Other Federalists, the party of Adams, caught on and printed in newspapers a stark choice: “God and a Religious President” or “Jefferson and no God.”
Certainly Jefferson was not an atheist, even though the political mudslinging might suggest otherwise. Jefferson’s upbringing indicates that his childhood years focused primarily on culling his intellectual abilities and religious instruction was more of an academic, and not personalized, endeavor. Jefferson was classically trained and fluent in Greek and Latin at a young age and attended boarding school at the age of nine. Jefferson seemed to have a strained and distant relationship with his mother, but adored his father. Peter Jefferson, unfortunately, died when Thomas was 14. The elder Jefferson taught his son many virtues before his death, but religious affection for Christ does not appear to be one of them. Although Jefferson called himself a Christian, he did not believe in the Trinity nor the infallibility of Scripture. As historian Joyce Appleby writes, he famously took a pair of scissors and cut out the “corrupted dross” in parts of the New Testament and created his own version of the Gospel.
For these three presidents, and Hamilton as well, their early religious experiences seem to greatly influence their theological inclinations as adults. These heroic men have gone on to inspire tomes of books, endless dialogues, and now, even musicals. In addition to their contributions to democracy and history, we see the power of their enduring faith. May our Founding Fathers be a reminder that illegitimate orphans can be world leaders, and that—despite the questions and challenges that come—young hearts are ripe soil to plant the love of our Savior.
Susan Lim is an assistant professor of history at Biola University. Her research interests include religious developments in America during the Colonial and Revolutionary periods. She resides in Irvine, California with her husband and two children.