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Founding-Fathers

The Ploys of Revisionists

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Also See America’s Unchristian Beginnings?

When revisionists attempt to concoct support for their usually unpopular viewpoint, they often vilify figures  past or present who embrace the position they reject. This tactic was evident in 1995's onslaught of media articles claiming that America's success was due to its long-standing tradition of secularism.

For example, Steven Morris's Los Angeles Times article, "America's Unchristian Beginnings" {3} (picked up by wire services and reprinted in scores of newspapers across the nation), was loaded with deliberate falsehoods to "prove" America's Founders were purely secular. For instance, concerning John Adams, Morris claimed:

    Late in life, he wrote, "Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been upon the point of breaking out, 'This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it!!!' "

The Rest of the Story
This statement appears in Adams's letter to Thomas Jefferson on April 19, 1817, in which Adams recounted a conversation between Joseph Cleverly and Lemuel Bryant; a schoolmaster and a minister he had known. Disgusted by the petty religious bickering displayed by those two, Adams declared to Jefferson:

    Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!" But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell. [4]

In reality, revisionists like Steven Morris (and especially those from the Society of Separationists or the American Atheist Society) deliberately reverse Adams's position. Not only did Adams declare that it would be "fanatical" to desire a world without religion (and that such a world would be "hell"), but on May 5, 1817, Jefferson wrote back to Adams and said that he agreed!

What makes revisionism so effective is that few citizens actually take time to confirm revisionists' claims or to proclaim to the public the real facts.

Speaking for Themselves

Since the goal of Morris and others like him is to "prove" that people of faith have no precedent for being involved in politics, he characterizes the Founders' general religious beliefs with the same false summary that most revisionists; both in academia and media; often proclaim:

    The early presidents and patriots were generally deists or Unitarians, believing in some form of impersonal Providence but rejecting the divinity of Jesus and the relevance of the Bible.

Yet, the Founders' own declarations in their last wills and testaments 5 disprove those assertions and speak loud and clear that the great majority of our Founders were indeed believers in Jesus Christ. For example:

    First of all, I . . . rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ for a pardon of all my sins. Samuel Adams, Signer of the Declaration.

    To my Creator I resign myself, humbly confiding in His goodness and in His mercy through Jesus Christ for the events of eternity. John Dickinson, Signer of the Constitution.

    I resign my soul into the hands of the Almighty who gave it in humble hopes of his mercy through our Savior Jesus Christ. Gabriel Duvall, U.S. Supreme Court Justice; selected as delegate to Constitutional Convention.

    This is all the inheritance I can give to my dear family. The religion of Christ can give them one which will make them rich indeed. Patrick Henry.

    I render sincere and humble thanks for His manifold and unmerited blessings, and especially for our redemption and salvation by his beloved Son. . . . Blessed be his holy name. John Jay, Original Chief-Justice U.S. Supreme Court.

    I am constrained to express my adoration of . . . the Author of my existence . . . [for] His forgiving mercy revealed to the world through Jesus Christ, through whom I hope for never ending happiness in a future state. Robert Treat Paine, Signer of the Declaration.

    I think it proper here not only to subscribe to . . . doctrines of the Christian religion . . . but also, in the bowels of a father's affection, to exhort and charge them [my children] that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, that the way of life held up in the Christian system is calculated for the most complete happiness. Richard Stockton, Signer of the Declaration.

These wills represent only a few examples from many with the identical tone. Furthermore, the personal writings of numerous other Founders contain equally strong declarations. Notice:

    My hopes of a future life are all founded upon the Gospel of Christ and I cannot cavil or quibble away [evade or object to]. . . . the whole tenor of His conduct by which He sometimes positively asserted and at others countenances [permits] His disciples in asserting that He was God. [6] John Quincy Adams.

    Now to the triune God, The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be ascribed all honor and dominion, forevermore p; Amen.[7] Gunning Bedford, Signer of the Constitution.

    You have been instructed from your childhood in the knowledge of your lost state by nature p; the absolute necessity of a change of heart, and an entire renovation of soul to the image of Jesus Christ p; of salvation thro' His meritorious righteousness only p; and the indispensable necessity of personal holiness without which no man shall see the Lord. [8] Elias Boudinot, Revolutionary Officer and President of the Continental Congress (to his daughter).

    You do well to learn . . . above all the religion of Jesus Christ. [9] George Washington.

    [D]on't forget to be a Christian. I have said much to you on this head and I hope an indelible impression is made. [10] Jacob Broom, Signer of the Constitution (to his son).

    On the mercy of my Redeemer I rely for salvation and on His merits; not on the works I have done in obedience to His precepts. [11] Charles Carroll, Signer of the Declaration.

    I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ. [12] Thomas Jefferson.

    I think the Christian religion is a Divine institution; and I pray to God that I may never forget the precepts of His religion or suffer the appearance of an inconsistency in my principles and practice. [13] James Iredell, U.S. Supreme Court Justice under President George Washington.

    My only hope of salvation is in the infinite, transcendent love of God manifested to the world by the death of His Son upon the Cross. Nothing but His blood will wash away my sins. I rely exclusively upon it. Come, Lord Jesus! Come quickly! [14] Benjamin Rush, Signer of the Declaration.

    I believe that there is one only living and true God, existing in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, the same in substance, equal in power and glory. That the Scriptures of the old and new testaments are a revelation from God and a complete rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him. [15] Roger Sherman, Signer of both the Declaration and the Constitution.

    I shall now entreat . . . you in the most earnest manner to believe in Jesus Christ, for "there is no salvation in any other" [Acts 4:12]. . . . [I]f you are not clothed with the spotless robe of His righteousness, you must forever perish. [16] John Witherspoon, Signer of the Declaration

There are many other examples. (See Quotes)

 

Summary

The evidence is clear; the revisionists are wrong. Although there was some anti-organized-religion sentiment among the Founders (e.g., Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, Charles Lee, Henry Dearborn), those with such views were a small minority and, in fact, often were strongly criticized by others for those beliefs.

 

Endnotes

1. County of Allegheny v. ACLU; 106 L. Ed. 2d 472 at 543, Kennedy, J. (concurring in part and dissenting in part).
2. CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, November 28-29, 1994.
3. Steven Morris, "America's Unchristian Beginnings," Los Angeles Times, August 3, 1995, p. B-9.
4. John Adams, Works of John Adams, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1856), Vol. X, p. 254.
5. Copies of these wills are in our files and may be obtained from State archives and from historical societies.
6. The Select Writings of John and John Quincy Adams, Adrian Koch and William Peden, editors (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946), p. 292, to John Adams on January 3, 1817.
7. Gunning Bedford, Funeral Oration Upon the Death of General Washington (Wilmington: James Wilson, 1800), p. 18.
8. Elias Boudinot, The Life, Public Services, Addresses, and Letters of Elias Boudinot, President of Continental Congress (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, and Co., 1896), Vol. I, pp. 260-262.
9. George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Offce, 1932), Vol. XV, p. 55, to the Delaware Indian Chiefs on May 12, 1779.
10. From an autographed letter in our possession written by Jacob Broom to his son, James, on February 24, 1794, from Wilmington, Delaware.
11. From an autographed letter in our possession written by Charles Carroll to Charles W. Wharton, Esq., on September 27, 1825, from Doughoragen, Maryland. 12. Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Ellery Bergh, editor (Washington, D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), Vol. XIV, p. 385, to Charles Thomson on January 9, 1816.
13. James Iredell, The Papers of James Iredell, Don Higginbotham, editor (Raleigh: North Carolina Historical Commission, 1976), Vol. I, p. 11.
14. Benjamin Rush, The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush, George W. Corner, editor (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948), p. 166.
15. Lewis Henry Boutell, The Life of Roger Sherman (Chicago: A. C. McClurg and Co., 1896), pp. 272-273.
16. John Witherspoon, The Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon (Edinburgh: J. Ogle, 1815), Vol. V, pp. 276, 278, from "The Absolute Necessity of Salvation Through Christ," on January 2, 1758.

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