What is it that filled the souls of many of America's founders with such passionate altruism that they were willing to risk everything they had, including their families, careers, and very lives, for an ideal? Was it their strong convictions in the teachings of Christianity and the Bible? Or was it something else?
People like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were avid readers of the great philosophers of the European Enlightenment. They treasured the ideas found in the works of such thinkers as Descartes, Voltaire, Bacon and Locke.
One of the cornerstone ideas of the Enlightenment was to give every idea and assumption the test of reason. When they applied reason to religion they found it necessary to strip it of revelation and they ended up with Deism. Deism is belief in God based on reason and nature. The differing alleged revelations of the various revealed religions are conspicuously absent from Deism. It is a natural religion as opposed to a revealed religion such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.
Deism first started to evolve when Edward Herbert of England wrote a book called Of Truth in 1624. His book took the position that belief in God can be based on reason, not just revelation.
In 1696 the Irish philosopher John Toland wrote Christianity Not Mysterious. This book claimed that both God and God's revelations were accessible to human reason and that the so called Christian mysteries are nothing but the manipulations of the clergy.
These two works broke the taboo of questioning Christian dogma, which was very courageous at the time, for this was the time of the Inquisition. People who questioned Biblical dogma could meet the same fate as Giordano Bruno who was convicted of being a heretic because he stated that Jesus is not the son of God, the earth is not the center of the universe along with several other facts. For exercising his God-given reason Bruno paid the heavy price the superstition of revealed religion demanded - he was burned alive. In addition, these books took the additional positive step of injecting the use of reason in religious matters. Later Deists were to completely reject any idea of revelation and base their ideas of God simply on the application of their reason on the creation. The order of nature to them was evidence of design. The design they detected in nature lead them to believe there is a Designer of nature, which is God.
In Peter Byrne's book NATURAL RELIGION AND THE NATURE OF RELIGION - THE LEGACY OF DEISM, it's stated the paramount difference between Deism/natural religion and revealed religion is, ". . . a distinction between a supposed set of divine truths specially communicated by God in history and a real system of truths available to all by the use of the unaided reason." This cornerstone of Deism was welcomed by people like Jefferson and Washington because it brought ideas of God current with modern science and knowledge.
The Enlightenment philosophers saw no need for the revelations, rituals, and dogmas of Christianity and the other revealed religions. And neither did key figures in American history.
Many sincere people believe that America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Even the powerful US Senator and former candidate for US President, John McCain said, "The Constitution of the United States established the United States of America as a Christian nation." He says this even though the Constitution does not! In fact, nowhere in the Constitution are the words "God" or "Christian" or "Jesus" ever even mentioned!
The Declaration of Independence mentions God but ONLY in Deistic terms! Nowhere in the Declaration is Jesus, Moses or the Bible ever mentioned. If America was founded as a Christian nation this would not be the case.
One important US document that not many people are aware of is the Treaty of Peace and
Friendship between the United States and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary. Article XI of this treaty (pictured at right) which was started in the administration of George Washington and which was ratified in the administration of John Adams reads, "As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion . . ." This makes it very clear that America was not founded as a Christian nation or on Judeo-Christian principles!
The reliance on reason that Deism demands enabled those who used it at the time of the American Revolution to overcome the Biblical prohibition against rebellion in political and governmental matters. This prohibition is found in Romans 13:1-2 which reads, "Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves."
One of those who employed Deistic principles was Benjamin Franklin. As a young man in Philadelphia he read some Christian books that were written in opposition to Deism. Franklin wrote in his autobiography: "Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle's Lectures. It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist."
Franklin goes on to say that he converted a couple of his friends to Deism. These converted friends latter wronged him and he felt that their lack of honesty and integrity in their dealings with him was due to their lack of Christianity. He wrote that "Revelation had indeed no weight with me, as such;. . .", but he felt the average person needed the reward/punishment mentality of Christianity. The World Union of Deists takes the position on this subject that people are born good, and that the ungodly and cruel depictions of God in the "holy" books of the "revealed" religions is a major reason for people acting inhumanly and not doing what is right. This is in line with Deists such as Thomas Paine and Elihu Palmer.
A fellow committee member with Ben Franklin on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson held deep Deistic beliefs. He even thought Jesus to be a Deist.
In a letter to Benjamin Rush dated April 21, 1803 Jefferson wrote, "To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other."
Jefferson went on to write in this same letter, "Jews. Their system was Deism; that is, the belief in one only God. But their ideas of him and of his attributes were degrading and injurious. He" (Jesus) "corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only God, and giving them juster notions of his attributes and government."
Thomas Jefferson's Deistic mind would not let him accept the Biblical Book of Revelations. According to Charles B. Sanford's book THE RELIGIOUS LIFE OF THOMAS JEFFERSON, Jefferson described the Book of Revelation as, ". . . merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams."
In fact, Jefferson thought the Bible to be so violent and degrading to the image of God and to the true teachings of Jesus he literally cut and pasted the gospels, removing reference to supernatural assertions such as the virgin birth and the resurrection, and came up with what he called THE LIFE AND MORALS OF JESUS OF NAZARETH, but is now more commonly referred to as THE JEFFERSON BIBLE. This treatment Jefferson gave to the Christian scriptures demonstrates his rejection of the claim that they are divinely inspired.
When Thomas Jefferson gave advice to his nephew Peter Carr regarding religion, Jefferson wrote: "RELIGION. Your reason is now mature enough to examine this object. In the first place divest yourself of all bias in favor of novelty and singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, and the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand shake off all the fears and servile prejudices under which weak minds are crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear."
Thomas Jefferson must have sincerely held his Deistic beliefs in order to offer this Deistic advice to his nephew.
Like his contemporary