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.”