I had originally intended to deliver this sermon two weeks ago, during Fourth of July weekend, but instead Mike Timko stepped up to this podium and delivered a wonderful talk about Charles Dickens. But since we’re still in the anniversary month, I think it’s still appropriate to discuss the faith of our founding fathers.
Two hundred thirty years ago, the Second Continental Congress, a body that included representatives of the thirteen colonies of Great Britain on the East Coast of the North American continent, passed a momentous declaration. It was a hot, stinking humid Thursday afternoon at Philadelphia – a day a lot like today. Using the words penned by Thomas Jefferson and refined by his committee over a three-week span, the Congress declared that "these united Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States." The document was headlined, "The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America."
Jefferson, of Virginia, worked with other representatives like Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania and John Adams of Massachusetts. These men, along with Continental Army general George Washington, possessed more in common than a belief that they would fare better as directors of independent states than as subjects of an oppressive monarch. They were also at the vanguard of religious liberalism – the movement we Unitarian Universalists embrace as our own.
At the time of the American Revolutionary War, none of these individuals would have called himself a Unitarian. The term was only starting to come into general use. The prevailing churches in the colonies at the time were the Church of England, understandably, and the Presbyterian churches that embraced Calvinism. But these founding fathers, while generally accepting that there was a God, saw themselves as free to reject orthodoxy. More importantly, they worked to ensure that the rest of the citizens of the new republic that took shape in the 1780s would have a similar freedom.
Benjamin Franklin has been called America’s first Renaissance man. Born in Boston in 1706, he seldom made appearances at his parish church, preferring quiet study to a public display of religiosity. "I was scarce fifteen," he wrote, "when, after doubting by turns of several points, as I found them disputed in the different books I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself." Franklin did use the term "God" on occasion in his speech and writings, but it was the God of the classic Unitarian: he rejected the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, though he did regard Jesus as a great moral teacher.
Most profoundly, Franklin rejected the Calvinism of many sermons of the day. Human beings were not depraved, weak, morally destitute beings. Rather, we were free, rational people with the inherent capability to make good choices. And it was these good choices that would be the measure of a man, not a blind, arbitrary faith. For Franklin, creeds without deeds were worthless. According to a letter he wrote to John Huey, Franklin believed his God looked favorably upon "real good works, works of kindness, charity, mercy, and public spirit; not holiday keeping, sermon reading or hearing, performing church ceremonies, or making long prayers, filled with flatteries and compliments, despised even by wise men, and much less capable of pleasing the Deity."
Following the Declaration of Independence, each of our newly independent states had to draft a constitution by which it would conduct its affairs of state. Franklin, by now a resident of Philadelphia, stayed in the City of Brotherly Love to serve at the constitutional convention for the newly styled Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The writers of this constitution came up with the following oath that would be required of every holder of political office: "I do believe in one God, the Creator and Governor of the Universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked; and I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration." Franklin was unsuccessful in removing that oath, although he did win a compromise over the status of Roman Catholics. The document also contained a general statement of religious freedom and tolerance.
Eleven years later, Franklin was at the forefront of the convention that drafted a new constitution for the United States, establishing a republican government to replace the weak confederation that had originally been established. Franklin, who had spent significant time in Europe prior to his return to America, was one of several of the founding fathers who recognized the importance of not having a state religion. While the Declaration of Independence had invoked the Deity, the Constitution made no reference to God, or to Christianity in any form. While Article VI requires that all executive, legislative, and judicial officers must bind themselves "by oath or affirmation" to support the Constitution, it continues, "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." An amendment passed in 1789, the year before Franklin died, states that "Congress shall make no law regarding an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Thanks, Ben.
I cannot leave the subject of Ben Franklin without quoting a dictum that sums up his religious views. He said: "Vicious actions are not hurtful because they are forbidden, but forbidden because they are hurtful." The laws of God do not exist just because God willed them out of thin air, but because they make sense.
Nicholas Gier, of the University of Idaho, wraps up a wonderful treatment of Franklin’s religious views by contrasting the Calvinist view, expressed by Jonathan Edwards as symbolized by God’s arbitrary use of thunder and lightning, with Franklin’s experiment of flying a kite, with a key on a string, in a thunderstorm. Gier writes, "Edwards’ world was an irrational one in which people found themselves unfree, dependent, and humbled; but people were self-reliant, inquisitive, and proud in the rational world of Ben Franklin."
If Franklin was America’s first Renaissance man, Thomas Jefferson redefined the concept. Had he taken to scholarly pursuits instead of political life, he could have been a professor of classics, political science, philosophy, or theology. As it was, he founded the University of Virginia just a few miles from his home at Monticello in Charlottesville.
As we’ve already seen, Jefferson, born in 1743, was the chief architect of the Declaration of Independence. In that document, he had the colonies "appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions." The final pledge of support came "with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence." So Jefferson believed in God, all right. But which God?
In 1787, Jefferson wrote a letter to his nephew, Peter Carr. It contained two fundamental points with regard to religion. The first concerns the role of reason: "Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of God." The second deals with the Bible, and it follows from the first. Critically examine the claims of the Bible and determine whether they are reasonable. If they are, they can be accepted; if not, they can be excluded as myth.
Following his own advice, Jefferson came away still a believer in God, but he had no use for the idea that Jesus had anything more than "human excellence." He rejected the ideas of the virgin birth or the Trinity. Writing to James Smith in 1822, he said, "The Athanasian paradox that one is three, and three but one, is so incomprehensible to the human mind, that no candid man can say he has any idea of it." Hmmm, I wonder whether Jefferson was at Baltimore when William Ellery Channing delivered his sermon on Unitarian Christianity three years earlier. But it hardly matters: Jefferson’s views on the subject were already clear. He wrote a letter to Moses Robinson in 1801, saying, "The Christian religion, when divested of the rags in which they have enveloped it, and brought to the original purity and simplicity of its benevolent instructor, is a religion of all others most friendly to liberty, science, and the freest expansion of the human mind." Put simply, Jefferson was a Christian who despised Christianity. This is why he took various editions of the Bible, cut them up, and pasted the relevant bits back into a scrapbook that is known today as the Jefferson Bible. (Shameless plug: A handy edition of the Jefferson Bible is published by Beacon Press, the publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association.)
Like Franklin, Jefferson despised the teachings of Calvin. Following a bitter battle for the presidency in 1800 and Jefferson’s two subsequent terms in office, Jefferson and his rival John Adams became quite cordial correspondents, speaking often of religion. In an 1823 letter to Adams, Jefferson accused Calvin of creating "a religion of demonism". Jefferson contended, "It would be more pardonable to believe in no God at all, than to blaspheme Him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin."
Mind you, Adams agreed wholeheartedly with this assessment. Adams, eight years Jefferson’s senior, also experienced an epiphany at a young age. One of his early diary entries speaks of his disenchantment with the evangelical preachers of his day. He writes, "… and Sundays are sacrificed ‘to the frigid performances’ of disciples of ‘frigid John Calvin.’ " Adams was a firm believer that Christian discipline and Christian morality were two different things.
If you were here at CUC for my sermon in April on Gnosticism and the Gospel of Judas, you recall that I closed with the words, "If being a Christian means following Jesus and the wisdom he has passed along to us over twenty centuries, I am proud to call myself a Christian." That statement would have been right up Adams’ alley. He believed that anyone practicing Christian morality should be called a Christian, even though that person may not believe in Christ’s deity or in the Trinity. Adams wrote to Jefferson in 1813, "Yet I believe all the honest men among you are Christians, in my sense of the word." Adams’ sense of the word might not have jelled with that of many entrenched preachers in New England, but it sure works for me.
Professor Gier writes of Adams, "He thought that we should study the other religions of the world thoroughly and accept these other views if they could prove themselves in the court of reason and common sense." In that sense, Adams was well ahead of his time. He would fit in brilliantly in one of today’s Unitarian Universalist congregations, where we uphold the principle of respect for all of the world’s religions. It’s no wonder that his son, President John Quincy Adams, was a Unitarian himself.
"My religion," Adams wrote a few years before his death, "is founded on the love of God and my neighbor; on the hope of pardon for my offenses; upon contrition; upon the duty as well as necessity of supporting with patience the inevitable evils of life; in the duty of doing no wrong, but all the good I can, to the creation of which I am but an infinitesimal part."
Writing to Jefferson on May 5, 1817, Adams, giving expression to the matured conviction of eighty-two eventful years, declares, "This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it." To this radical declaration Jefferson replied:
"If by religion, we are to understand sectarian dogmas, in which no two of them agree, then your exclamation on that hypothesis is just, ‘that this would be the best of worlds if there were no religion in it’."
We recall from our history lessons that Adams followed George Washington into the chief executive’s seat. Washington, the Virginia surveyor and gentleman who probably never chopped down a cherry tree in his life, was a deist at best. Deism has often been described as the belief that "God wound the clock, released the works, and walked away." None of the arguments about the Christian religion appealed to Washington, who didn’t even abide any prayers for his soul’s eternal repose when he was on his deathbed. Joseph J. Ellis, a Washington biographer, wrote in 2004 that "the historical evidence suggests that Washington did not think much about heaven or angels; the only place he knew his body was going was into the ground, and as for his soul, its ultimate location was unknowable. He died as a Roman Stoic rather than a Christian saint."
Washington was nominally an Anglican, like many of his contemporaries. As President, he would occasionally be seen at church, but he took no stock in rituals like the Lord’s Supper. Pastor James Abercrombie once criticized him directly from the pulpit for not setting an example by kneeling in prayer or taking part in Communion.
However, Washington proves himself as a religious liberal in other ways. As general during the Revolution, he once prohibited his troops from burning the Pope in effigy on Guy Fawkes Day. One time, he put an advertisement out for servants, and he said their religious persuasion was of no moment. He would accept good workmen, be they "Mohametans, Jews, Christians of any sect, or atheists."
In 1796, President Washington accepted the Treaty of Tripoli, of which the 11th Article opens, "As the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion …" It was ratified by Congress in 1797 and signed by President Adams. Washington was very content with the Constitution as drafted by Franklin and the other Framers. He didn’t talk of God. While Jefferson’s Declaration does refer to the "Creator", Washington often referred to "Providence" as a guide, rather than a specific God interacting with a specific person. To Washington, the entire Patriot movement was inspired by providence.
Paul Boller wrote in his George Washington and Religion in 1963, "If Washington was a Christian, he was surely a Protestant of the most liberal persuasion." Bird Wilson went farther in an 1831 sermon, mocking the Father of Our Country: He said that Washington was "no more than a Unitarian."
During the religious fervor of the 1950s that got the words "under God" added to the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" added to our currency, a new prayer room was created at the U.S. Capitol. One of the relics in this room is a stained-glass window of Washington in prayer at Valley Forge. Interesting that this icon should have been chosen – as Washington himself didn’t kneel during prayer during his rare visits to church. To paraphrase some comedian, if Washington could see that window, he’d be rolling over in his grave. After all, his adopted daughter once wrote, "He was not one of those who act or pray ‘that they may be seen of men.’ He communed with his God in secret."
Some among you may be wondering how I got this far into a sermon about our founding fathers without addressing the issue of slavery. After all, Washington and Jefferson are well known to have been slave owners. We all heard the stories a few years ago about the descendants of Jefferson and Sally Hemings.
Jefferson in 1814 wrote, "My opinion has ever been that, until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed and clothe them well, protect them from ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, and be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them."
At one time, the man who wrote that "all men are created equal" owned 170 slaves, 70 of whom worked at Monticello. He inherited about twenty from his father in 1764, and 135 more from his father-in-law, John Wayles, in 1774. Wayles had been directly involved in the importation of enslaved Africans into Virginia – a practice that Jefferson himself wrote the act to ban four years later. However, his further efforts to restrict slavery were repelled by his fellow plantation owners. He privately pitched an emancipation plan – which largely entailed resettling slaves outside the United States.
In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson advanced the "suspicion" that blacks were inferior to whites. He said that freeing "persons whose habits have been formed in slavery is like abandoning children." As he slid deeper into debt in his waning years, Jefferson sold nearly one hundred slaves, and only freed seven, all of whom were skilled artisans he believed could survive as freedmen. After his death, most of his remaining slaves were sold at auction.
Washington is also difficult to get a good read on when it comes to the practice of slavery. He seemed to know that slavery was an evil; he commented to many, including the Marquis de Lafayette, to that effect. On the other hand, he was an active slave trader, organizing at least one lottery in which children were the prize, thus tearing families apart forever. But as his life went on, he felt remorse for his actions. Perhaps had he acted on this impulse while he was still in office, we might have been spared some of the agony that continues to this day. As it was, he composed a will in February 1799, ten months before his death, which emancipated the slaves at Mount Vernon upon Martha’s death.
Our first President was also, like Jefferson, faced with political pressure to maintain the slave system. As a politician, he downplayed his holdings when he visited northern cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, where the abolitionist movement was taking hold. Washington knew, though, that he likely could not keep the nation together if he pushed for abolition. While he could set his own personal example, he let stand the status quo – and sixty years after his death, the nation was torn apart anyhow.
For further reading on this intriguing and difficult subject, I recommend a volume I’ve only had the chance to skim. Henry Wiencek wrote a book in 2003 titled "An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America". Wiencek delves a lot deeper into Washington’s politicking, his marriage into a slave-owning family in order to advance his own career, and the changes that led him to arrange for the manumission of the property he held.
As an aside, much of New Jersey continued to be worked by slave labor until well into the 19th century. Up to the Revolution, slaves were about 12 percent of New Jersey’s population. Yet free blacks were prohibited from owning land in the colony. In 1741, two slaves who had been setting fire to barns were burned at the stake. This occurred at a place I’m sure you’ve heard of. It’s called Hackensack.
New Jersey banned slave importation in 1786 and passed "An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery" in 1804, but disenfranchised blacks in 1807 and didn’t prohibit the export of slaves to other states until 1818. As late as 1860, 18 "apprentices for life" were reported in New Jersey, listed as "slaves" on the federal census.
But enough of that aside. Our forefathers were far from perfect. Certainly the men of Virginia could have done a better job understanding the evils of slavery. Yet in their overall religious outlooks, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, and Washington were all well ahead of their time. If you ask my opinion, it’s a shame Jefferson’s forecast, issued in an 1822 letter, did not come true. Jefferson wrote, "There is not a young man living in the U.S. who will not die a Unitarian."