Deist influences
in the colonies

Daily Reading for July 2

Continuing to belong to the Episcopal Church even when at variance with some of its central doctrines did not seem to discomfort the Deistically inclined founders such as Jefferson, for they liked its liturgy and the historic cadences of its language. The Anglican faith of Virginia differed from the New England Puritanism out of which Adams and Franklin emerged. Both Adams and Franklin changed their religious views and embraced a form of Deism. So, too, did Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. But all of these men, except Franklin, continued to worship at least occasionally in the church of their ancestors—and their wives and daughters were usually devout supporters of it. The Virginia founding fathers married under the church’s auspices, consigned their children to its care, and were buried by its clergy. The impress of their religious background remained strong, even though their questioning of certain of their church’s fundamental doctrines led them to Deism.

During the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, Deism had adherents throughout continental Europe, the British Isles, and the American colonies. Because it was guided by individual reason, the movement was neither organized nor uniform. Thus some Deists renounced Christian belief more thoroughly than others. “The Deists,” an American clergyman wrote, “were never organized into a sect, had no creed or form of worship, recognized no leader, and were constantly shifting their ground. . . so that it is impossible to include them strictly under any definition.” The cleric went on to attempt “as near a definition as possible”: “Deism is what is left of Christianity after casting off everything that is peculiar to it. The Deist is one who denies the Divinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement of Christ, and the work of the Holy Ghost; who denies the God of Israel, and believes in the God of nature.”

From The Faiths of the Founding Fathers by David L. Holmes (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Past Posts