The Religion of Our Forefathers
By Mel Harkrader Pine
September 19, 2010
Unitarian Universalist Church of Loudoun
Last summer my wife Carol and I dropped our son Carl off for a week at skateboarding camp in Central Pennsylvania, in the heart of Amish country. After dropping him off, Carol and I spent the week in a driving vacation. As we returned to pick him up, for our last night of vacation, we selected a nearby B&B just because of its location and the availability of a room.
We didn’t realize we had found a place with a remarkable history. That B&B was in a town called Aaronsburg, PA. Back in 1949, this town of maybe 400 residents hosted a day of religious and racial understanding that drew some 40,000 people. Among the guests was the actor Cornel Wilde; diplomat and political scientist Ralph Bunche, who a year later would become the first person of color to win a Nobel peace prize; U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who was a strong activist for the establishment of a Jewish state in the Middle East; and Sir Mohammed Aly Zafrulla Khan, vice president of the UN General Assembly and minister of foreign affairs for Pakistan.
This celebration of religious and racial understanding was taking place just four years after the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, in an area of Pennsylvania populated by German descendents practicing German-influenced religions that were not in the U.S. mainstream. So what brought so many diverse and accomplished people to the town of Aaronsburg on October 23, 1949?
The answer lies in the town’s history. It was founded in 1786, two years before the U.S. Constitution went into effect, by Aaron Levy, who was one of the first prominent Jewish-American patriots. Levy was born in Amsterdam in 1742, came to America at an early age, and here became a merchant who helped finance the Revolution. He was a member of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, which was had its beginnings in 1745.
It was what Levy did in 1799 that led to the town named for him being chosen 150 years later, in the wake of World War II, to celebrate religious and racial understanding. He had earlier deeded the town to local German Protestants and donated the land for the newly formed Salem Lutheran Church. In 1799, he presented a pewter communion set to the church, an act whose symbolism is said to have bound the community together. And that act was honored 150 years later after a war against the Nazis.
I’ve been thinking about that story in recent weeks as increasingly I’ve heard voices calling to, in the words of one organization, “restore our nation to the original Christian values…” All the talk about returning America to its Christian roots started me wondering about what the founding fathers’ religious values really were.
Now it’s time for a couple of caveats. I talk about “forefathers” and “founding fathers” because it was men who held the political power – not just men, but male landholders of European ancestry.
A thorough study the religions of North America during the Revolutionary era would need to look first to the earth-centered religions of the truly Native Americans, and we’d need to consider the African-heritage spirituality of the more than half million slaves here at the time. Our first two hymns today were to honor the minorities and women who are less visible in the history books.
But for this sermon we’ll put aside the women, native Americans and African-Americans and focus just on the European-American… male… landholding… Revolutionary Era figures. The religious traditions and values of most of those men are not the ones meant by people who loudly proclaim their Christianity.
As we saw from the story of Aaron Levy, we were a more diverse place in the 18th Century – even if we focus on the landholding men – than a superficial view of history would reveal.
Looking for a reliable, nonbiased source on the religions of our founding fathers led me to adherents.com, a website maintained by Preston Hunter, a computer programmer in Texas with a passion for statistics on religious beliefs. According to his research, among the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, signed the Articles of Confederation, attended the Constitutional Convention of 1787, signed the Constitution, or served as senators or representatives in the First Federal Congress, there were:
— 18 whose religion is unknown
— 88 Episcopalians or Anglicans
— 30 Presbyterians
— 27 Congregationalists
— 7 Quakers
— 6 members of the Dutch Reformed or German Reformed Church
— 5 Lutherans
— 3 Catholics
— 3 Huguenots
— 3 Unitarians
— 2 Methodists
— 1 Calvinist
That’s out of a total of 204 individuals but about 8% are counted twice because they changed their religions during their lifetimes. More recently, by the way, Hunter made a similar list for the 535 members of the 109th U.S. Congress – more than twice as many individuals — and he still found only 3 Unitarians. We’re small but consistent.
All of the men Hunter identified as political leaders of the Revolutionary Era were Christians. (Unitarianism at the time was still a Protestant denomination.) But what sort of Christianity did these people practice? They were all products of the Age of Enlightenment. For many of them – probably most of them – their religious beliefs contained a good dose of skepticism toward traditional beliefs and elevation of the use of reason.
If you’re like me, when you think of the founding fathers, the first one who comes to mind is that guy on the one-dollar bill: George Washington, the father of our nation. Unlike many of the other founding fathers, Washington seldom spoke about philosophical or religious views, but he was baptized in the Church of England, later served on the vestry of his local Episcopalian church and invoked the name of God often in his writings.
However, his diaries indicate he attended church only every three or four weeks and that he at times attended religious services of other faiths. His ministers observed that he regularly declined Communion, and he quietly boycotted St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia after a sermon saying that those in high positions set a bad example by declining Communion. Some of his contemporaries have referred to Washington as a Deist, believing in God but not in much of the structure of organized religion.
In other words, the father of our nation seems to be closer to today’s Unitarian Universalists than to today’s Episcopalians or other Christian faiths. And the more I looked into this for other founding fathers the more I found it to be the case.
Would you like to guess who said the words at the top of the order of service? “Of all the tyrannies that affect mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst.” The answer is Thomas Paine, who also said: “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. My own mind is my own Church. Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all.”
I’d love to hear what he would say today to the idea of returning to the Christianity of the founding fathers. Here are a few others:
James Madison: “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.”
John Adams: “The divinity of Jesus is made a convenient cover for absurdity. Nowhere in the Gospels do we find a precept for Creeds, Confessions, Oaths, Doctrines, and whole cartloads of other foolish trumpery that we find in Christianity.”
Benjamin Franklin: “I think vital religion has always suffered when orthodoxy is more regarded than virtue. The scriptures assure me that at the last day we shall not be examined on what we thought but what we did.”
You know the name Joseph Priestley because our UU district is named for him. He discovered oxygen and invented soda water. I’m not sure which of those is more important. But more to the point he helped found Unitarianism in England before he migrated to the U.S.in 1794. He believed in the free and open exchange of ideas, but here’s what he had to say in his autobiography about Ben Franklin: “It is much to be lamented that a man of Franklin’s general good character and great influence should have been an unbeliever in Christianity, and also have done as much as he did to make others unbelievers.” So here’s a Unitarian wishing that Franklin were more Christian.
There must have been some founding fathers who sound like today’s Christians, but the only one I could find was Patrick Henry, so I guess it’s no accident that the Christian college in Purcellville is named for him.
I’ve saved Thomas Jefferson for last because I’m sure you all know that we claim him. We’re in the Joseph Priestley District of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the one to the south of us is the Thomas Jefferson District. But the only Unitarian or Universalist churches of his day were in the Boston area, and he described himself in ways that on the surface seem contradictory. He does in one letter call himself a “Unitarian by myself.”
What does seem to be clear about him is his respect for Jesus as a teacher but his rejection of Christ as divine and his contempt for what he calls “orthodox Christianity.” He wrote a version of the New Testament in which he removed what he saw as the supernatural parts and left in the teachings of Jesus. We also know that one of his proudest accomplishments was authoring the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which supports the freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state.
Patrick Henry tried to use “Jesus Christ” instead of “Almighty God” in the preamble to the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom and was overwhelmingly voted down. Jefferson said that meant that the legislators wanted the law “to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammadan, the Hindu, and Infidel of every denomination.”
So where does all of this take us? It’s hard to be certain what others believed and how they worshipped more than 200 years ago, but it seems to be a reasonable conclusion that returning us to the religion of our founding fathers would lead to the biggest boost of UU membership in history. It would also contain a heavy dose of respect for diversity.
And yet in the years after 9/11 the voices proclaiming this a Christian nation and calling for the return of its prominence seem to be getting louder. It’s easy to become fearful that we’re heading toward a period of intolerance that will be ugly for us and an embarrassment to our descendants. That indeed is what the Islamic militants want. Osama bin Laden and his allies detest any separation of church and state. They don’t believe in a difference between the secular and the sacred. So it’s especially ironic that some in the U.S. want to follow their lead.
But one week ago several of us from this church attended an event at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society to mark 9/11, honor law enforcement and first responders, and strengthen acceptance of one another. I was impressed by what I heard from the community – the neighbors of the ADAMS center — that night, as well as by the many stories of interfaith respect and cooperation. That evening came back to mind as I listened the other day to Jon Stewart announcing his Rally to Restore Sanity.
If you somehow have failed to hear about it, Stewart will hold his rally on the National Mall on October 30 for the 70% or 80% of us who don’t want to call each other Hitler, who don’t want to tell each other to rot in hell, who don’t want to burn anyone’s holy books or carry an assault rifle to a rally or dress in outlandish costumes to disrupt a meeting.
Maybe he is right and it’s only the crazy fringes making the noise we hear so much on the news programs. Maybe the vast majority of us are like the speakers I heard at the ADAMS center who do indeed want to accept each other and honor each other the way Aaron Levy and the German Protestants did in 1799. Maybe those are the roots the vast majority of us want to return to.
It’s reasonable to fear the fanatic minority. We can’t disregard the danger a loud minority can pose. But maybe we can all gain strength by understanding that the real Middle America is made up of people who want to retain that sense of unity we experienced in the first days after 9/11, when…
We reached out to each other as never before,
We sang all together, sang and sang more.
Peace, Salam, Shalom.
There were about 300 Jews in Newport, RI, when George Washington came to visit in 1790. The city had been devastated in the Revolutionary War and Washington was making a goodwill visit. A leader of the Jewish congregation sent the President a warm and eloquent letter before the visit, and I want to use a sentence of Washington’s reply as the benediction. It’s directed at Jews, but I believe that Washington meant it for all:
May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.