John Adams was the first president of the United States who was definitely Unitarian. He and others of his particular version of that creed rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, considering it a corruption of original Christian belief. They believed Jesus (peace be upon him) to be sent or commissioned in his work by God, a purely human entity.
In modern-day U.S. politics, right-wing conservative Christians regularly refer to the Christian roots of the nation in pushing their agendas. Partly in response, David L. Holmes wrote The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, which is partially summarized below.
It is true that most of the three million American colonists were at least nominally Christian. Most were Protestant or “unchurched”, while there were also a fair number of Roman Catholics and Jews as well as a few uncounted Muslims and people of other faiths. Religious beliefs and practices of the colonists were quite diverse – from the Sandemanians (whose dietary obligations were highly similar to Muslim Halal or Jewish Kosher rules), to the Shakers (who were awaiting the imminent Second Coming of Christ), to the Universalists (who believed all humans would ultimately be saved and who denied Trinitarian views), to the pacifist Moravians, to the Quakers (who held that all men and women were equal before God, opposed formal worship and existence of clergy, and eschewed all military service).
Mennonites avoided the then-common baptism of infants and only baptized converted, believing adults. Still common today, Mennonites held that religious belief was something chosen in adulthood and not something bestowed by one’s lineage. They also advocated strongly for separation of church and state. In Maryland and Virginia, one could find the Brethren, who shunned swearing oaths, bringing civil suits in courts, or bearing arms. These and the other numerous sects were contrasted with the mainline or state churches that were largely brought over from the colonists’ countries of origin. In Europe, it had long been tradition for most countries to have official state churches, such as the Church of England or Anglican Church, that one was born into and inherited membership in just as one inherited his/her citizenship of that country. Nine of the thirteen colonies had adopted a “state church” of some form. Of those that did not, many guaranteed religious freedom to a point. For example, Rhode Island guaranteed freedom of belief to all except outspoken atheists and, for a time, Roman Catholics. Maryland passed a religious toleration act that offered protection for any person who professed belief in Christ. On the large, New England was noted for Calvinist and Baptist leanings. However, the Calvinist ideologies that salvation comes entirely from God (with works being irrelevant), and that all are tainted with the Original Sin of Adam and Eve, did not sit well with many. Benjamin Franklin, an elder to most of the Founding Fathers, maneuvered in the complex religious scene of the day with a fair degree of tolerance for diverse religious views, as did many. He regularly printed the Evangelical Methodist teachings of the impressive orator George Whitefield, and counted him as a friend, while holding markedly different religious views himself.
Most universities were church-affiliated and were primarily institutions for religious training. Virtually all of the Founding Fathers were college educated and had far more instruction in the Bible than nearly all Americans today. It was not at all uncommon for them to have studied the Bible for years upon years, in Hebrew and Greek as well as English. The future leaders of the new country were often heavily influenced by the teachings of the institutions they attended – and thus, a great many of them had Deist leanings, due to the influence of a popular movement that spread through many of the university faculty in the second half of the 18th century. Deists believed in God while denying the divinity, incarnation and atonement of Jesus Christ, and were distinctly Unitarian – rejecting the Christian concept of a Triune God. Deism churches exist today in the narrowed version called the Universalist Unitarians. One of the strongest Deists whose writings greatly influenced the American political movements of the day was Thomas Paine. He wrote a pamphlet from a jail in France called The Age of Reason that contributed to the spread of Deism amongst the college-educated in the United States. Using a Bible borrowed from James Monroe, Paine ridiculed Judeo-Christian beliefs and attacked Christianity for negative influences in history, such as the Crusades and the Inquisition. He went so far as to claim that God never sent any revelation or prophets to mankind and considered much of the Bible to be mere poetry, fables, mythology and collections of songs. This put him in the camp of “infidel” according to orthodox Christians in America and led to a personal rebuke in a letter from his friend Samuel Adams, who had Orthodox leanings.
While many of the Founding Fathers had Deist leanings, most did not go so far as Thomas Paine had. Most continued at least modest participation in the churches they were born into, though a great many of them declined to be consecrated in the churches as adults – which would have confirmed them as believers in the church doctrine – and also declined to participate in communion, a rite which they may have found to be too contrary to their own personal beliefs. Benjamin Franklin published a wide variety of writings from different authors, but in his Poor Richard’s Almanack, he was noted for publishing Deistic aphorisms. While he earned the concern of his community for his lack of church attendance and distinctly Deist views of Jesus Christ, he displayed belief in God and encouraged his daughters to go to church. He described his creed thusly: “I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe: That he governs the World by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another life, respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion. I have…some Doubts as to his [Jesus’s] Divinity, tho’ it is a Question I do not dogmatize upon…”
George Washington was distinctly silent about his religious views, but he did apparently avoid communion and consecration as a matter of conscience – considering himself unworthy, holding religious views different enough from the church that he considered it to be immoral for him to participate. He would avoid attending church on days that communion would be held. Initially, he would go, but leave once communion started, until a church leader stated it was a bad example, to which he responded by simply not going to church at all on days of communion.
James Madison was raised to be an Episcopal clergyman, but as he aged he became increasingly unorthodox in his views and seemed to have some Deistic leanings while remaining relatively engaged in the Episcopalian faith. He strongly supported Thomas Jefferson’s Act for Establishing Religious Freedom and was one of the chief proponents for its inclusion in the Bill of Rights. He maintained a low religious profile, particularly as his political career grew.
James Monroe was also Episcopalian. His earliest writings and speeches show resolute belief, but religious references all but disappear from what survives of his words as he aged. In giving life advice to his nephew, he declined all mention of God or religion, in distinct contrast to the tone of his earliest words while a soldier in the Continental Army. In writings to family on the death of his two-year old son, he also made no mention of God or religion – a practice which even John Adams and Thomas Jefferson engaged in, as was common at the time in an era when death of young children and of wives in child-bearing were all too common. Monroe was a noted Freemason, as was Benjamin Franklin, which required monotheistic belief and was open to Muslims, Jews and Christians. He used phrases such as “The Grand Architect” to refer to God on occasion, as did many other Founding Fathers – a phrase that stems from the rituals of Freemasonry.
John Adams was the first president of the United States who was definitely Unitarian. He and others of his particular version of that creed rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, considering it a corruption of original Christian belief. They believed Jesus (peace be upon him) to be sent or commissioned in his work by God, a purely human entity. The Unitarians claimed their beliefs predated and were more pure and original than that established at Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. when the Trinity became official doctrine. Adams claimed that Unitarianism of this type had developed in New England around 1750, largely amongst the upper-class and college-educated. He wrote that humans should study nature and use reason to learn about God, and railed against religious superstition and despotism.
Thomas Jefferson was a noted true Renaissance Man, highly educated, and from an Anglican background. At William and Mary, he copied enormous amounts of writings from Deistic thinkers that influenced him to clear heterodoxy. He wrote, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god,” and opposed state churches with words influenced by Joseph Priestly’s History of the Corruptions of Christianity, such as, “millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned…” Thus, by comparison, many of the public considered John Adams to be the “believer” between the two of them in the election of 1800. He believed priests and monarchs had corrupted the original teachings of Jesus, and included among these Paul the Apostle, Athanasius, Augustine of Hippo, popes, John Calvin, and many more. He described himself as un-Christian by most definitions of the day: “I am a Christian in the only sense in which I believe Jesus wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines…” Jefferson read the Bible often and deeply, but rejected much of it. He did not see Jesus as a savior and denied miracles attributed to him. He boldly used scissors and a razor to cut out of his Bible what he thought were the corruptions of men – including all reference to miracles of Jesus, writings of Paul, stories of the resurrection, and other such mentions. What remained were Jesus’ ethical teachings and parables. He believed the writers, or “biographers”, as he called them, of the New Testament had tainted it with “so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being”. He claims that the Trinity was “incomprehensible jargon”, “hocus-pocus phantasm of a god like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads”, and “a deliria of crazy imaginations, as foreign to Christianity as is that of Mahomet”. The Jefferson Bible – also called The Life and Morals of Jesus, has been published numerous times and is readily available in print and on the Internet today. Unlike the staunchest Deists, Jefferson did believe in God’s influence or interference in the lives of men and also in a Hereafter. He held hope that Unitarianism would spread and kill out Trinitarian-ism in the United States. “I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of only one God is reviving, and I trust there is not a young man now living who will not die a Unitarian.”
In some contrast to these Founding Fathers, most of their wives and daughters were relatively orthodox in their religious views. They were denied college education or membership in Freemasonry, which were the primary avenues through which Deism spread, and it seems they were never or rarely discouraged from church attendance, belief and participation by their spouses. Some of them did become Unitarians, and some left the faith of their upbringing with marriage. Dolly Madison left the faith of her family of Quakers in order to marry her husband James, and while she maintained ties with them, she was considered a heretic along with her sister Lucy, who left to marry George Washington’s nephew. She notably missed the female religious orators known in the Quaker faith, but at other times wrote rather un-fondly of her religious upbringing.
Similarly, other Founding Fathers were undoubtedly Orthodox in their beliefs, such as Samuel Adams and John Jay. The overarching point of Holmes’ research is to suggest that the nuances of religion in America at the time of the nation’s founding were different than those of today. The Founding Fathers established freedom of religion with good reason, in order to accommodate a diversity of views, and give primacy to reason and liberty over coercion and oppression that they often associated with state religions and ruling clergy. Almost universally, they believed in God, but many of them believed in a Unitarian God rather than a Triune God. They held vastly differing views about the role of God in the world and in the nature of Jesus, but they worked, sometimes messily, to accommodate that diversity into the founding of the nation.