Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The Founding Fathers and Universalism

I have written at some length about the religious beliefs of the leading founding fathers (primarily Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson and Madison). We’ve already established that none were orthodox Christians, that all of them shared a common perspective that Gregg Frazer has best described as theistic rationalism. There’s one other aspect of their perspective that I thnk is important and I’m going to call that universalism, for lack of a better term at this point. And by universalism I do not mean merely the notion that all people will be saved and reconciled to God after they die (though I think they all likely believed that as well); I mean the belief that there was only one God and that all religions were speaking of that God even if their own cultural biases and traditions were laid over the top in terms of dogma and ritual.

One piece of evidence for this is that they typically used non-specific names for God that were minimalist enough that all religions could view them as speaking to their own particular religion. Thus in the Declaration of Independence you get phrases like Nature’s God and Creator and Divine Providence. George Washington, in particular, had a large number of phrases that all worked to the same effect, as a sort of lowest common denominator deity, including the great governor of the universe, the supreme disposer of all events, and the Almighty ruler of the universe. Thomas Jefferson likewise spoke of the Great Governor of the world.

Another piece of evidence for this is that these men often used the preferred terminology for God of the people they were addressing. This was true even of religions that were not of the Abrahamic variety, religions which were very different like the beliefs of the American Indians at the time. When speaking to the Indians, these men routinely spoke of the “Great Spirit”, which they viewed as merely another title for the one God that they all believed in. In an 1803 letter to the Choctaw Indians, for example, Thomas Jefferson closed his letter thusly:

But we thank the Great Spirit who took care of you on the ocean, and brought you safe and in good health to the seat of our great Council; and we hope His care will accompany and protect you, on your journey and return home; and that He will preserve and prosper your nation in all its just pursuits.

LIkewise in an 1806 letter to the Cherokee Nation, he spoke even of praying to the Great Spirit:

My children, I thank you for your visit and pray to the Great Spirit who made us all and planted us all in this land to live together like brothers that He will conduct you safely to your homes, and grant you to find your families and your friends in good health.

George Washington had already set this tone in his administration a decade earlier, closing a letter to the Cherokee Nation in 1796 by saying, “I now send my best wishes to the Cherokees, and pray the Great spirit to preserve them.” Washington was a Master Mason, of course, and one of the tenets of Freemasonry is that all religions are more or less the same, all valid ways to God.

James Madison used the same convention and went so far as to say identify the Great Spirit as the creator of us all in an 1812 letter:

The Great Spirit has given you, like your white brethren, good heads to contrive, and strong arms, and active bodies. Use them like your white brethren of the eighteen fires, and like them, your little sparks will grow into great fires. You will be well fed, dwell in good houses, and enjoy the happiness for which you, like them, were created.

It seems clear that, for these leading founders, their theistic rationalism demanded a universal deity that was called by many different names. They all rejected claims of revelation as well, which I think speaks to the fact that they believed in a “lowest common denominator” deity, one that all religions could agree on in its few basic characteristics. I suspect this is what Adams had in mind when he spoke of “primitive Christianity”, the very bare core of beliefs that Christianity has in common with other monotheistic religions – the notion of one God who created the universe and everything in it.

All else that we needed to know about God was, to their way of thinking, discernable through the application of reason alone with no need for direct revelation. Thus, we see Jefferson urging his nephew, Peter Carr, to take everything in the Bible and in all other books and subject it to the tests of reason. All that seems contrary to reason and logic is to be discarded, everything that stands up to scrutiny is kept. Reason, not faith, was their ultimate concern.

Comments

  1. #1 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 29, 2006

    And by universalism I do not mean merely the notion that all people will be saved and reconciled to God after they die

    And not in the way that Abe Lincoln was converted to Christianity after his death.

  2. #2 kehrsam
    November 29, 2006

    These usages are pure syncretism, which only goes to show that none of these men were Christians in any strong sense of the word. Sometime in the next century I expect Worldnutdaily to get the memo.

  3. #3 Julia
    November 29, 2006

    You make an important point here. These religious beliefs were certainly not Christian in the sense meant by modern fundamentalists, and yet they’re not really Deist either.

    I think I would have put this a little differently:

    they believed in a “lowest common denominator” deity, one that all religions could agree on in its few basic characteristics

    I think it was not so much a defining of God by whatever was so non-specific that it could be found in all religions as it was an idea that all religions represent the efforts of some group or other trying to understand what God is and how human beings relate to God and those groups may therefore develop some overlap in understanding. For example, in writing to the American Indian nations, Jefferson clearly chose to emphasize those things he could reasonably be comfortable with and that he also believed his audience would recognize as familiar. But in working out that understanding, Jefferson would surely, it seems to me, have trusted his own reason regardless of whether it led it to a lowest common denominator which all religions could be said to have in common. Adams may also have had a little more in mind with “primitive Christianity” than beliefs that all religions would have accepted.

    I don’t think they necessarily believed that God really has only the characteristics that all religions agree on. I do think they believed there was an actual existing something that people of all religions were trying to understand, and that common effort would account for the fact that there were some beliefs in common, with details of stories and rituals and magic being individual add-ons representing cultural differences.

    But perhaps this really isn’t any different from what you were saying.

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    November 29, 2006

    Julia-

    I would agree with your assessment, you just said it much better than I did.

  5. #5 MJ Memphis
    November 29, 2006

    “They all rejected claims of revelation as well, which I think speaks to the fact that they believed in a “lowest common denominator” deity, one that all religions could agree on in its few basic characteristics.”

    Or *most* religions, anyway. The Dharmic religions wouldn’t exactly fit into this framework.

  6. #6 Jon Rowe
    November 29, 2006

    What are “Dharmic” religions? Hinduism? I can quote you John Adams where he stated Hinduism contained the same Truth as Christianity.

    Their theology may not have been sound, but it is what they believed.

  7. #7 mark
    November 29, 2006

    So various religions have certain beliefs or characteristics in common.
    Does this represent parallel evolution or convergent evolution?
    Does this suggest that there is something basic in the mind of man, that does not depend on having been conveyed via a holy scripture or tradition?

  8. #8 Alex
    November 29, 2006

    A bit off topic, but why do you Americans care what religion your founders were?
    Here in Australia your lucky if someone knows one of their names, let alone what religion they were. All I can remember was that most had silly beards.

  9. #9 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 30, 2006

    I can quote you John Adams where he stated Hinduism contained the same Truth as Christianity.

    I’d like to see that quote. Thanks.

  10. #10 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 30, 2006

    A bit off topic, but why do you Americans care what religion your founders were?
    Here in Australia your lucky if someone knows one of their names, let alone what religion they were. All I can remember was that most had silly beards.

    Yes, this is a very American issue. There is a theocratical movement within American Christianity which claims that America is a “Christian nation” and that advances in secularism have been a stepping away from our Christian origins. Despite the Founding Fathers (some of them had beards, some did not. They mostly all wore wigs and tights.) clearly writing their intent of “separation of church and state” into the constitution (the phrase itself is not from the constitution but from a letter by Thomas Jefferson), people in this movement insist that the founding fathers had no such intent. They wish to “restore” the mingling of government with religion (their religion of course) and institute Biblical law.

    If you want to scare yourself, run a search on “red heifer” and find out what the outermost fringe of this movement is up to.

  11. #11 Royale
    November 30, 2006

    You know, it is posts like these that are why this blog has become one of my favorites. Well done, I loved this essay.

  12. #12 Jon Rowe
    November 30, 2006

    In this post, I discuss a letter from Adams to Jefferson where Adams writes:

    Where is to be found Theology more orthodox or Phylosophy more profound than in the Introduction to the Shast[r]a [a Hindu Treatise]? “God is one, creator of all, Universal Sphere, without beginning, without End. God Governs all the Creation by a General Providence, resulting from his eternal designs — Search not the Essence and the nature of the Eternal, who is one; Your research will be vain and presumptuous. It is enough that, day by day, and night by night, You adore his Power, his Wisdom and Goodness, in his Works.”

    Also, in this post, I quote Gregg Frazer discussing that very letter where Adams calls all sorts of “terrestrial” religions and belief systems (many of them eastern and Pagan) “Christian.” Be sure to check out the comments where Dr. Frazer engages in a great little debate there.

  13. #13 Ed Brayton
    November 30, 2006

    Jon-

    Very good point about Adams. He often used the word “Christian” or its cognates, but he clearly didn’t mean actual Christianity by it. He was particularly fond of referring to the “general principles of Christianity” or to “primitive Christianity”, by which he clearly seemed to mean not only religious belief in general but almost anything he agreed with. He seems to have combined everything that he regarded as true from the ancient Greeks to modern enlightenment philosophy to religious ideas and combined them all in what he called a “general Christianity”. It makes his words very easy to misunderstand.