In September of 1800, in the furies of Thomas Jefferson’s initial presidential campaign, the Federalist Gazette of the United States editorially branded the 57-year-old Virginian as “an enemy to pure morals and religion, and consequently an enemy to his country and his God.” This biting observation teaches us at least two things: (1) that in 1800, religion was a lively and passionate concern among Americans; and (2) that in a political campaign, not every word is to be swallowed whole!

In fact, Jefferson was a religious man, as were the other founding fathers—Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison. Though none could be considered orthodox Christians (all were products primarily of the Enlightenment), none of them was “an enemy to God.”

Freethinking Moralist

The Boston-born sage of Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), was the most lovable of the founders. Wise, witty, gregarious, curious, ingenuous, Franklin won admirers both at home and abroad. Though sometimes claimed by the Presbyterians or Episcopalians, Franklin can be rightly classified—with all our other founders—only as a deist or freethinker. That is, he would construct a creed for himself, not recite one created by others. He would test all by the mark of common sense and find his revelation not in the Bible but in Reason and Nature (always capitalized by Enlightenment thinkers).

On these grounds, Franklin strongly affirmed the existence of God, the freedom of human beings to make their own choices, and the potential value of institutional religion as a teacher and enforcer of a high moral code. But churches that focused exclusively on dogma and ignored morals infuriated Franklin. He denounced and satirized them and emphatically separated himself from them.

Faith was the proper path to virtue, not a diversion from being “a good parent, a good child, a good husband, or wife, a good neighbor or friend, a good subject or citizen, that is, in short, a good Christian.” Faith was the instrument, not the end.

Puritan Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, knew of Franklin’s deist leanings, but wanted, if possible, to pin down the nimble-footed freethinker to some basics. In friendship Stiles asked for some kind of creedal confession, however limited. Franklin, who said that this was the first time he had ever been asked, on March 9, 1790, readily obliged:

“Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the universe: that he governs the world by his providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we can render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal and will be treated with justice in another life respect[ing] its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever sect I meet with them.”

In addition, Stiles wanted to know specifically what Franklin thought of Jesus: Was Franklin really a Christian or not? Franklin responded that Jesus had taught the best system of morals and religion that “the world ever saw.” But on the troublesome question of the divinity of Jesus, he had along with other deists “some doubts.” It was an issue, he said, that he had never carefully studied and, writing only five weeks before his death, he thought it “needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opport[unity] of know[ing] the truth with less trouble.” It would be difficult to burn a heretic like that.

Simple Religion—And Mysterious

Of the five founders, George Washington (1732–1799) had the least to say about religion. Like most members of the Virginia gentry, he was baptized, married, and buried in the Anglican (Episcopal) church. But he wore his denominational labels lightly and kept his private religion strictly private. “In politics as in religion,” he wrote in 1795, “my tenets are few and simple.”

As president for two terms, he did not altogether avoid the language of religion, but it was a public or civil religion that he addressed, doing so in a language that demonstrated no great passion. When he chose to speak of God, it was in terms like “the Grand Architect,” “the Governor of the Universe,” “the Supreme Dispenser of all Good,” “the Great Ruler of Events,” and even “the Higher Cause.” Nothing here suggested a warm or personal relationship.

Moreover, Washington studiously avoided referring to the person and ministry of Jesus. When in 1789 some Presbyterian leaders complained to Washington about the Constitution’s absence of any reference to “the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent,” the nation’s first president calmly replied, “The path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction.”

Washington’s aloofness and broad tolerance added to his enormous appeal as the nation’s leader, but they leave us in the dark as to what he specifically believed about God.

Adoring the Wisdom that Directs

Born in Braintree (Quincy), Massachusetts, John Adams (1735–1826) grew up in the sheltering fold of New England Congregationalism. But when many of those churches turned toward liberal Unitarianism, Adams turned with them. That movement, coupled with the Enlightenment (to which Adams in France was fully exposed) ensured that he also would become a freethinker.

Orthodoxy busied itself with theological and sectarian disputes, Adams observed, all of which weakened its impact and reduced its attractiveness. Modern priests, whether “popistical or Presbyterian,” demonstrated little tolerance and less charity. It was simply not the case and never would be, Adams fervently declared, that only Calvinists would get to heaven. These days every church, every sect, thinks that it alone has the “Holy Ghost in a phial [vial].”

On the other hand, John Adams extolled the sovereignty of God in language of deepest feeling. Whenever he spent any time thinking of the enormity and grandeur of the universe, the Milky Way, and the “stupendous orbits of the suns,” he said, “I feel an irresistible impulse to fall on my knees in adoration of the Power that moves, the Wisdom that directs, and the Benevolence that sanctifies this wonderful whole.” In acclaiming God’s greatness, Adams also recognized his—and humankind’s—finiteness. “Worm! Confine thyself to thy dust. Do thy duty in thy own sphere.”

That duty demanded adherence to high moral standards. One should not concentrate on metaphysical causes and effects but on attending to one’s own duties. “Be good fathers, sons, brothers, neighbors, friends, patriots, and philanthropists, good subjects and citizens of the universe, and trust the Ruler with his skies.” Religion must never allow itself to become an evasion of moral duty but only a compulsion to it.

For this reason, Adams impatiently dismissed the doctrine of original sin: “I am answerable enough for my own sins,” he wrote in 1815, because “I know they were my own fault, and that is enough for me to know.”

Regarding the age-old debate between free will and predestination, Adams hesitated not at all: “If there is no liberty, there is no responsibility. No virtue, no vice, no merit or demerit, no reward and no punishment.” And that made a mockery of all justice, human or divine.

So Adams asserted the immortality of the soul, for the nature of rewards or punishments after death preserved the integrity and sanctity of the cosmic order. “A future state will set all right; without the supposition of a future state, I can make nothing of this universe but a chaos.” Indeed, Adams concluded, “If I did not believe in a future state, I should believe in no God.”

Seperating Religion and State

Greatly assisting Thomas Jefferson in the struggle for religious liberty, James Madison (1751–1836) made this crusade his lifelong concern. As a member of the Virginia legislature, of the House of Representatives, as secretary of state, and as president, Madison never relaxed his guard concerning possible breaches in the wall of separation. Jefferson coined the phrase; Madison championed the cause. From his well-known “Memorial and Remonstrance” (a 1785 petition arguing against Patrick Henry’s tax bill to support “the Christian religion”) to his reflections set down in retirement, Madison strongly preferred to leave all laws pertaining to religion to the only truly qualified authority in this area: “the Supreme Lawgiver of the universe.”

With respect to his own religious views, however, Madison’s convictions are more cloudy. When he entered the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1769, he came under the influence of President John Witherspoon and other Presbyterian members of the faculty. He read theology with some care, even after his graduation. But once he was caught up in the Revolutionary whirl, his interest in deeper religion evaporated. When asked in 1825 to explain his own views of the being and attributes of God, he replied that he had essentially ceased thinking about those subjects fifty years earlier.

The basic essentials of the deist creed—a belief in God, freedom, and immortality—may well have been Madison’s creed. He declined, however, to disclose his own beliefs. Religious truth was surely so important that no impediment should ever be placed in the path of anyone freely seeking to find and embrace that truth—but also so important that no one was obliged to allow others to invade the inner sanctum of the human soul.

A Sect Unto Himself

Well before Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) found himself in the midst of a mean-spirited presidential campaign in 1800, he had paid a great deal of attention to religion—primarily to its liberty. For seven years, 1779–1786, he fretted over the absence in his home state (Virginia) of a clear guarantee of religious freedom. Finally, his long-neglected bill became the Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom. Hearing of its passage while in France, he was delighted “to see the standard of reason at last erected, after so many ages during which the human mind has been held in vassalage by kings, priests, and nobles.” He was proud of his authorship of this law (of his writings, he wanted only this and the Declaration of Independence noted on his tombstone), but he was also proud the Virginia legislature “had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions.”

Jefferson also pushed for a bill on the national level that would offer similar guarantees of religious freedom, which helped bring about the First Amendment in 1789. And as president he placed his own famous spin on that amendment by employing the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state.”

Yet Jefferson also concerned himself with the content of religion in general, and of Christianity in particular. In his private correspondence, not in his public declarations, he argued for a Christian religion devoid of mystery and dogmatic absurdity, a religion that rallied around the Enlightenment standards of Reason and Nature.

For Jefferson, this meant primarily getting back to the simple ethical teachings of Jesus—those pure and primitive words before they were messed up by philosophers and theologians. The teachings of Jesus needed no priestly interpretation or subtle commentary. “Had there never been a commentator,” Jefferson wrote in 1821, “there never would have been an infidel.” Followers of Plato’s philosophy injected into Christianity clouds of “whimsies, puerilities, and unintelligible jargon.” Calvin “introduced more new absurdities into the Christian religion” than can readily be imagined. In sum, Jefferson said, “Our savior did not come into the world to save metaphysicians only.”

If Christianity could be cleansed of 17 centuries of corrupting tradition, the barnacles scraped off, the mysteries jettisoned, and the irrationalities tossed into a heap, then it would appeal again to an emancipated and enlightened world, even to Jefferson himself. With respect to the “genuine precepts of Jesus himself,” Jefferson observed in 1803, “I am a real Christian … sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others.”

But he rejected the divinity of Jesus (as he believed Jesus did) and denounced the idea of the Trinity as “mere abracadabra,” the saddest example of what happens when one trades “morals for mysteries, Jesus for Plato.” So perhaps he was more precise when he noted in 1819, “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.”

Edwin Gaustad is professor emeritus, history and religious studies, University of California, Riverside. He is author of Sworn on the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson (Eerdmans, 1996).