You are familiar with the charges. If you engage in any conversation about the role of Christianity in the generation of the Founding Fathers, you will inevitably hear it said, "Most of the Founders were deists, not Christians."
There is a reason that this view is so widely held. It has been the standard historical interpretation for at least two generations. For decades, school children have heard their teachers and texts recite this mantra in the same way their teachers had been instructed in college.
Most friends of Patrick Henry College are also familiar with the pioneering work of Christian writers who have thoroughly researched America's past to paint a more accurate picture of the generation that laid the cornerstone of our nation. But if you ever try to use such sources in an open debate, the charge will be made (regardless of any sense of fairness) that our sources are the writings of activists, not historians.
You can imagine my excitement upon finding an incredible book documenting the religious history of the early years of the American republic that cannot be criticized using the standard establishment party line that it is a biased or unprofessional source.
James Hutson (B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in history -- all from Yale University) is the Chief of the Manuscript Division for the Library of Congress. Dr. Hutson is the author of Religion and the Founding of the American Republic. His scholarship is thorough and unbiased. His analysis is fresh and insightful. And his commitment to truth is apparent to all who read this fine work.
So what does an author with those credentials say about the role of deism in the generation of the Founders?
He accurately describes Benjamin Franklin as a deist. Thomas Jefferson is portrayed in depth, and there were periods of his life when he was essentially a deist. But Hutson notes that during his presidency, Jefferson called himself a Christian (even though I've never heard anyone claim he was born again), and he faithfully attended church -- church held in government buildings, I might add. Regarding George Washington, Hutson finds little evidence of deism and says, "Judging from his public conduct, he was a loyal Episcopalian." Hutson's conclusion: "Evangelism demolished deism in eighteenth-century America."
As I read through Dr. Hutson's book, I repeatedly felt affirmed in the mission and goals of Patrick Henry College. We have deliberately sought to adopt much of the thinking and many of the good characteristics of the Founding Fathers as we chart a course for training national and cultural leaders for the twenty-first century.
Some states went so far, Hutson notes, as to require voters and officeholders to profess a belief in heaven or hell before they could be trusted with the privileges of citizenship. While I would not embrace the details of that requirement today, it is a remarkable statement of the value that was placed on Christian conviction as a key to national success.
2. THE ROLE OF SCRIPTURAL THINKING IN MAJOR POLITICAL DECISIONS
of Hutson's remarkable pieces of scholarship is his
of the role of Christianity in the American Revolution. Some have
it was irrelevant. Others have claimed religion caused the American
The author is more careful. He writes:
is difficult to overemphasize Congress's concern for the
condition of the armed forces, for the covenant mentality convinced it
that irreligion in the ranks was, of all places, the most dangerous,
God might directly punish a backsliding military with defeat,
in the process American independence.
As a constitutional attorney, I value Hutson's in-depth analysis of the topic of religious liberty. Often, the generation of the Founders is treated as if they were all of one mind both in doctrine and in the concept of religious freedom. Moreover, it is often portrayed as if religious freedom, which was scarce at the landing of the Puritans in Massachusetts, was somehow frozen in time in the seventeenth century until the Enlightenment gradually took over and promoted it.
However, Hutson's rich and detailed descriptions of the various evangelists and denominations reveal that it was children of the Great Awakening, not the followers of the Enlightenment, who were most responsible for the advent of true religious freedom in America.
notes that the majority of the backers of Jefferson's
Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom were Baptists and other
who had suffered persecution at the hands of the Virginia Anglicans and
who believed that the best way for the government to promote the
faith was to leave it alone. He notes the disparity between the true
of those who won the victory for Jefferson's bill and those of
He says of the Supreme
Court's current use of Jefferson's words
views of the 1780's:
is also careful to point out that although many Christians
argued against government endorsement of an official religion, they did
not advocate a separation of Christian morality from the legislative
For example, a committee of various Baptist associations informed the
Assembly of Virginia in 1785 that:
The evangelicals who opposed the established denominations on issues of government funding for religious institutions did so out of a conviction that the official organs of the institution of the church should be separate from those of the government. However, all denominations joined in the nearly universal belief that there should be a unity of religion and patriotism, Hutson notes.
This is a truly great book.
I asked a handful of PHC students to react to my impressions of Religion and the Founding of the American Republic.
Vinci, a junior from Ohio, served as the legislative
for the Home Educators Association of Virginia during the recent
session in Richmond. Not only did he track bills of concern to home
but he also did an outstanding job for Patrick Henry College by
a bill which could have given the State Council on Higher Education
discretion in regulating private colleges. He wrote the following:
Marianne Wasson, a junior from Lawrence, Kansas, was one of the student directors
of a recent performance of
Shakespeare's As You Like It. Her
performance matches her performance on the state -- Marianne is
on the list of Presidential Scholars with a GPA of over 3.75. She made
Freshman Kyle Pousson, originally from Louisiana, resides here in
Loudoun County with his family. Kyle was a member of our moot court
which performed exceptionally well at the national tournament at the
of Texas at Arlington. Kyle and his partner placed third in the nation.
More importantly, they stood firm in refusing to argue in favor of
rights even when pressured by the judges to do so. Kyle wrote:
It is difficult in our politically correct culture today to openly profess our Christian faith. Equally challenging is our behavior and the important decision that result from our faith. This is especially true in the political arena where we are confronted by the tension between our principles and the political necessity of compromise. This requires a steady hand, great wisdom, and a direct line to God. Most importantly it requires weighting the consequences, not just in the future earthly world, but also the weight our decisions bear in eternity. So many foolish decisions that cause our nation great pain could have been prevented had the leaders taken the time to consider the eternal value of their present decision. PHC is teaching me to consider the eternal consequences of my actions.
Chapin, a freshman from Oregon, was also a member of our
moot court team. Daniel's current apprenticeship project is to develop
an outline for a book on Government, written for high school students.
He has already caught the vision for teaching others what he has
Daniel commented on the role of Scripture in political decision making:
Sometimes we tend to focus
on the objective evidence of
And we are very glad for two recent strong indicators of our success:
I trust that you will catch a glimpse of my excitement as you read about these students. It is fairly easy to demonstrate that we have young people with a lot of God-given talent that has been nurtured by their parents and now by their professors. But we believe that the long-range success of Patrick Henry College will be demonstrated when these students graduate and take their convictions and a consistent life of faith into the public square.
John, Marianne, Kyle, Abigail, and Daniel are truly representative of the student body as a whole. They have vision. They have commitment. And they have tremendous potential so long as they remain faithful.
I hope that you are now excited about two things: Dr. Hutson's book, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic; and the potential impact (on our nation and our world) of dedicated young lives.