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 Republicansthat would be Jefferson's partyopposed this on the grounds that this was an undue, inappropriate promotion of religion by the President. I don't know that they used those exact terms, but they weren't happy with it.
There was also a fear of the Presbyterian Church trying to establish itself as the national religion.
The general assembly of the Presbyterian Church was meeting simultaneously on one of these occasions when Adams issued a proclamation. And people were jealous of the Presbyterian Church at that time because they thought it was "ambitious." That was the word they used.
People thought John Adams was a Presbyterian, but Adams was nominally a Congregationalist. Those two denominations were confounded very frequently. People thought this was some sort of scheme by the Presbyterian Church to establish themselves.
Why would Adams have asked for days of prayer and fasting?
There was what they called a quasi-war with France. The U.S. came close to having a war with France and that was alarming to Adams.
Ben Franklin decided he wanted to update the Lord's Prayer. Why did he do that?
He had several reasons. He wrote a long commentary explaining why he did it. Essentially he thought the language was archaic, and the meaning of some of the words had changed. So he was trying to do a Good News version of the Lord's Prayer.
I was surprised to see Franklin say during the Constitutional Convention, "I have lived, sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truththat God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?" Franklin then asked to start each day of the Constitutional Convention with prayer.
He pointed out that in the early days the Continental Congress and the Confederation Congress, in the dark days of the revolution, always began their sessions with prayer. He made this request for prayer at a particularly difficult and contentious time in the Constitutional Convention when it looked like the states might not be able to agree on anything and dissolve themselves. So the Convention was in some danger of dissolving. So Franklin asked for prayer every day.
The other delegates didn't agree to that. One reason was they didn't have any money. They couldn't pay [for a chaplain]at least that's one reason often cited. But the proposal was treated respectfully.
The founders talked a lot about Providence, but they meant it in various ways.
I think every one of them believed in Providence, including Jefferson. You see quotations from Jefferson about believing in an overruling Providence a superintending Providence. I think it would be hard to find anybody who did not believe rather strongly in Providence. At that time, and I'm not a theologian, there still may be two conceptions of Providence. There was what people called a general Providence and a particular Providence. The general Providence was the idea of a watchmaker, that God started up the universe and withdrew and just watched things. The particular Providence was that God was actively intervening in human affairs constantly.
The phrase Abigail Adams used in her letters was that a sparrow doesn't fall without the knowledge of God. I think most people, it's not quite clear, but most of them believed in a particular Providence.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Our holiday pages have more about the National Day of Prayer.
The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more