Steven Waldman

Thumbnail image for founding faith ppbk.JPG2.JPG
The big American Religious Identification Survey that came out yesterday reported that 12% of the population believe in a higher power but not a personal God. So there are more Deists than Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists combined.
Would the Founding Fathers have been in that 12%? That’s a common question I got during my book promotion travels for Founding Faith (just out in paperback).
So were the Founders Deists?
First, a definition. A Deist was (more or less) someone who believed God created the laws of the universe but then receded from the action.
I argued in Founding Faith that none of the Founders I studied (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin) were Deists because while several of them rejected Biblical revelation, they all believed in a God that intervened history.
Washington ascribed his own survival to God’s intervention. When bullets went through is coat and felled his horse, Washington explained, “By the all powerful dispensations of Providence, I have been protected beyond all human probability or expectation.” He attributed many battle successes to the “God of Armies” and in his farewell orders on November 2, 1783, he wrote that the “singular interposition of Providence in our feeble condition were such, as could scarcely escape the attention of the most unobserving.”
After his election to the presidency in 1796, John Adams he told Abigail that the results reflected “the voice of God.”
And then there’s Ben Franklin who once actually called himself a Deist. Surely, he must have been. Not in my book. Consider this moment on June 28, 1787. The Constitutional Convention had been meeting for five weeks, and had hit a perilous deadlock.
The eighty-one-year-old Franklin already had mythic stature as philosopher, inventor, entrepreneur and scientist so it must have been stunning when this personification of the enlightenment explained to the illustrious lawmakers that the most important step they could take was not to debate or read or study… but pray.

“All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor….Have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance?…I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”

Not very Deistic of you, Dr. Franklin.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus