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America’s Unchristian Beginnings : Founding Fathers: Most, despite preachings of our pious right, were deists who rejected the divinity of Jesus.

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The Christian right is trying to rewrite the history of the United States as part of its campaign to force its view of religion on others who ask merely to be left alone. According to this Orwellian revision, the Founding Fathers were devout Christians who envisioned a Christian nation.

Not true. 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.

* Thomas Paine, pamphleteer whose manifestoes encouraged the faltering spirits of the country and aided materially in winning the War of Independence: “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all.”

* George Washington, first President: He seems to have had the characteristic unconcern of the 18th-Century deist for the forms and creeds of institutional religions. Although he often referred to Providence as an impersonal force, remote and abstract, he never declared himself to be a Christian, either in contemporary reports or his voluminous correspondence.

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Washington championed the cause of freedom from religious intolerance and compulsion. When John Murray, a Universalist who denied the existence of hell, was invited to become an Army chaplain, other chaplains petitioned Washington to reject him. Instead, Washington gave him the appointment.

On his deathbed, Washington uttered no words of a religious nature and did not call for a clergyman to be in attendance.

* John Adams, second President: Drawn to the study of law but facing pressure from his father to become a clergyman, he wrote that he found among lawyers “a noble air and gallant achievements” but among the clergy, the “pretended sanctity of some absolute dunces.” 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!!!’ ” It was during Adams’ presidency that the Senate ratified the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which states in Article XI that “The Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” This treaty with the Islamic state of Tripoli had been written and concluded by Joel Barlow during Washington’s Administration.

* Thomas Jefferson , third President and author of the Declaration of Independence: “I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.” He referred to the Book of Revelations as “the ravings of a maniac” and in further criticism of the Bible he wrote: “The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ leveled to every understanding and too plain to need explanation, saw, in the mysticisms of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power and preeminence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them: and for this obvious reason that nonsense can never be explained.”

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* James Madison, fourth President and father of the Constitution: “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise,” he wrote. “During almost 15 centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”

* Ethan Allen , whose capture of Ft. Ticonderoga while commanding the Green Mountain Boys helped inspire the country to pursue the War of Independence: “That Jesus Christ was not God is evident from his own words.” Allen also wrote that he was generally “Denominated a deist, the reality of which I never disputed, being conscious I am no Christian.” Allen stopped his own wedding ceremony when the judge asked if he promised “to live with Fanny Buchanan agreeable to the laws of God.” Allen refused to answer until the judge agreed that the God referred to was the god of nature, and the laws those “written in the great book of Nature.”

* Benjamin Franklin, delegate to the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention: “As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion . . . has received various corruption changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.” He died a month later, a deist, not a Christian.


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