Unitarian Presidents: The Architects of American Democracy
Was the United States Founded on Christian Values?
The United States was intended to be a secular nation with each citizen free to follow his own conscience with respect to religion. Most of the founders of the United States of America self-identified as Christians, yet they were careful to respect religious freedom.
When it came to religion, the founders were a diverse group—among the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, there were Baptists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Quakers, Roman Catholics, Unitarians, and Universalists.
The Protestant Revolution allowed for an explosion of new Christian religions. Additionally, it freed every person to be his own theologian. It gave rise to a sort of “a-la-carte” religion.” A person could profess to be member of a particular religion while rejecting many of the doctrines of that religion and/or accepting the doctrine of another religion.
Many of the founders and the presidents of the first few decades of the new nation were not traditional Christians; they were no more than nominal Christians. Even when they were official members of a traditional church and professed Christian belief in their public life, their private belief, expressed in their letters and diaries, was quite different. Their private belief leaned towards Unitarianism.
If you take a close look, you will see that Unitarian values were clearly a major influence upon the founders and the first six presidents.
What is Unitarianism?
The Unitarian Church was a product of the Protestant Revolution and the philosophy of the Age of Enlightenment.
Unitarianism was founded in Europe. It is an offshoot of Christianity, but there are many differences. The most important difference is the lack of belief in the trinity; hence the name, “Unitarian.” They denied the divinity of Jesus, recognizing him only as a great teacher.
Unitarianism grew out of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century CE. It started in Poland and Transylvania in the 1560’s. The new religion spread into other parts of Europe and into England. In 1774, the first Unitarian congregation in England was founded.
At about the same time, the Universalist Church was founded. The Universalists were very similar to the Unitarians with respect to their beliefs and values. Like the Unitarians, they did not believe in the divinity of Jesus. Additionally, they introduced the concept of universal salvation, hence, their name, Universalism. Unlike the traditional Christianity of their time, Universalism declared that a loving God would not condemn anyone to an eternity in Hell.
It is important to note that during the 18th century both Unitarians and Universalists considered themselves to be Christian because the teachings of Jesus (although not the Biblical miracles) were an important part of their theology. It was the doctrines of the Christian church that they rejected. Many of the Unitarian and Universalist congregations rejected not only the trinity and the concept of damnation; they also rejected the virgin birth, the resurrection, original sin, predestination, and other mainstays of traditional Christianity.
As these new churches spread, their religious teachings varied slightly with some congregations having more traditional beliefs and others, especially the ones in the United States, taking a more humanist bent.
The ideas of the Enlightenment also gave rise to Deism. Deists, like the Unitarians and Universalists, reject the doctrine of the trinity. However, they go one step further because they believe that the God who created the world is no longer involved with human affairs. Consequently, there is no “Church of Deism.” Deism is more of a philosophical point of view than a religion.
The Unitarians, the Universalists, and the Deists differed a little in their theology, but they had a shared set of values—the Unitarian values that were based on the ideas of The Enlightenment.
What Are Unitarian Values?
Both Unitarianism and the Universalism are “liberal” and “humanistic” religions, which embody the ideals brought forth by The Enlightenment—the use of reason and the scientific method to advance individual liberty, religious tolerance, and human progress. They saw religion as a life-long search for truth and not as adherence to a hard-and-fast set of doctrines.
The Unitarian values (which were also the values of the Universalists and the Deists) can be summarized as:
- The use of reason in religion and the modification of religious belief to incorporate the findings of science.
- Religious freedom and the acceptance of diverse religions. (They opposed religious persecution, but ironically, they often suffered from it.)
- An optimistic view of humanity and the possibility of human advancement.
The Unitarian values led to an advocacy for religious freedom, the use of science and reason in human affairs, and an opposition to slavery.
These values became the “building blocks” for the “architects of democracy” as they founded the United States of America and guided her through her early years.
Who Were the Unitarian Presidents?
The founders and the first six presidents of the United States were extraordinary men; their views were liberal, even radical, for their time. Remarkably, the first six presidents of the United States were all Unitarians and/or Deists, either officially or by virtue of their private views.
- Some were official Unitarians because they belonged to a Unitarian Church (John Adams, John Quincy Adams).
- Some belonged to a Christian Church, but their personal religious views were more Unitarian or Deist than traditional Christian (George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe).
- And one, Thomas Jefferson, had no official affiliation with a church, but his views on religion tended towards Unitarian and Deist, and even outright atheism.
Since the majority of the people of their time and place were Christian, these early presidents often maintained a public pretext of Christianity. It is also important to note that for some, their religious views changed over time, moving closer to Unitarian and Deist views as they aged.
Let’s take a closer look at the religious views of these founders and presidents and how their values shaped the new nation.
What Were the Religious Views of George Washington?
The first president of the United States, George Washington, served two terms from 1789-1797. He had previously served as commander of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and was unanimously elected as president of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. He is often called “The Father of His Country.”
He was nominally an Anglican, but his views tended towards Deism. He often used deistic terminology like “Providence” and “Destiny” when referring to God.
He sometimes attended church services with his wife, but refused to kneel for prayers or to take communion. He exhibited great religious tolerance and held no prejudice towards any religion (Christian, Muslim, or Jewish).
Washington viewed religion as necessary for good moral behavior, but he didn’t accept all Christian dogma. In his public utterances, he avoided the “hellfire and brimstone” terminology of the Christianity of his time.
Historians agree that Washington was deeply rooted in the ideas, values, and modes of thinking of the “Age of Enlightenment”
"We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition.”— George Washington--1793 in a letter to the Members of the New Church
What Were the Religious Views of John Adams?
John Adams was the second president of the United States (1797-1801). He had been a delegate to the Continental Congress. He was the nation’s first Vice President.
Adams had a lifelong relationship with First Parish Church of Braintree (now Quincy). The Church was founded in 1636 as a Puritan church, but in 1639 it became Independent. In 1750, it became a Unitarian church. Adams considered himself to be a Christian and often attended services at other churches, but he preferred Unitarian churches.
He also expressed a belief in universalism and a desire to purify Christianity of superstition (miracles) and corruption. However, like George Washington, he was very religiously tolerant.
"The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my religion."— --John Adams, 1816 in a letter to Thomas Jefferson
What Were the Religious Views of Thomas Jefferson?
Thomas Jefferson was the third president of the United States (1801-09). He was the also second Vice President of the United States. He is widely regarded as the principle author of the Declaration of Independence.
Thomas Jefferson was raised as an Anglican, but, as an adult, he rarely attended church. At various times, he referred to himself as a theist, a deist, a rational Christian, and a Unitarian.
Jefferson rejected the doctrines of the trinity, the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, and the miracles of the New Testament. His beliefs might best be described as part deism and part Unitarianism. Although Jefferson was opposed to the rituals and doctrines of organized religion, he was devoted to the teachings of Jesus.
Jefferson created what has come to be known as the “Jefferson Bible.” In 1820, he used a razor to cut and paste sections of the gospels to compile his own book, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. He eliminated all references to miracles; the book focused solely on the sayings and teachings of Jesus.
Jefferson was influenced by the Unitarian theology of Joseph Priestly, a prominent figure in the Unitarian church. In 1822, in a personal letter, Jefferson wrote, “I trust there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.”
The famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence—“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”— clearly demonstrates Unitarian values.
You can also see the influence of deism in the Declaration of independence. Phrases such as “Creator,” “Nature’s God,” “Supreme Judge”, and “Divine Providence” represent the type of language used by Deists.
Jefferson was a strong advocate for the separation of church and state. He was the author of the 1786 Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom instituting separation of church and state in Virginia. In 1802, in a letter to the Danbury Baptists who feared persecution for their religious belief, Jefferson wrote the phrase that has become so well-known today to reassure them that there is "a wall of separation between church and state.”
"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 blind-folded fear.”— Thomas Jefferson--1787 in a letter to Peter Carr
What Were the Religious Views of James Madison?
James Madison served as the fourth President of the United States (1809-1817). He was a delegate to the constitutional convention and is often called “The Father of the Constitution" for his important role in drafting the the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Madison had a very religious Presbyterian upbringing and attended a Presbyterian college, Princeton. However, as a young man he was an avid reader of deist tracts.
Madison avoided making many public pronouncements about his own religious beliefs in his public life and during his presidency. However, during The War of 1812, Madison issued four proclamations for a “National Day of Fasting and Prayer” to entreat God to help the United States win the war. He did this because Congress requested it and because he thought it would serve to unify public opinion in favor of the war. A clue to his thinking may be found in the text of the Proclamation where only those “so disposed” were asked to participate.
Some think Madison leaned towards deism; others saw him as a faithful Christian. It is difficult to determine his beliefs, because he contradicts himself. He appeared to become less religious in his later years.
Madison was a strong advocate for separation of church and state and religious liberty. He even opposed the appointments of a chaplain for Congress and the armed forces, fearing that official chaplains would cause religious disharmony.
"Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprize every expanded prospect."— James Madison--1774 in a letter to William Bradford
What Were the Religious Views of James Monroe?
James Monroe was the fifth president of the United States (1817-1825).
Monroe was raised in The Church of England. As an adult, he attended Episcopal churches.
It is difficult to determine Monroe’s personal religious beliefs because no letters survive either from him or about him in which his religious beliefs were discussed. He also seldom made public pronouncements about religion. Some historians see "deistic tendencies” because his few references to God reflected a belief in an impersonal God.
However, sometimes the absence of evidence is evidence.
- People in public life who are ardent Christians are usually proud to proclaim their religious faith at every opportunity.
- Letters survive from friends of Monroe in which they offer condolences upon the death of his daughter and his wife. These letters do not use the terminology or ideas of Christianity as they attempt to console him. Apparently, the people who knew him best did not feel that religion would be appropriate.
- Another indication that the people who knew Monroe best were aware of his lack of traditional Christian faith can be found in the eulogies given at his funeral services. The eulogists spoke about him as a great statesman and patriot, but they did not mention his religious faith.
Other signs pointing to Monroe’s deism are found in the fact that he studied law under Thomas Jefferson and his close friendship with Thomas Paine—both men known to be Deists.
What Were the Religious Views of John Quincy Adams?
John Quincy Adams was the sixth president of the United States (1825 to 1829).
John Quincy Adams was a Unitarian like his parents, John and Abigail Adams. However, he struggled throughout his life to develop a cohesive system of belief.
At times, he rejected Unitarianism because he wanted to believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. He seems to have wanted more from religion than just a “system of morals”. He sometimes found Unitarianism too optimistic, but at the same time he rejected the intolerance of the fundamentalist religions.
He liked sermons on moral conduct, but found those that dwelled on the theological doctrines such as human depravity, predestination, and vicarious atonement to be offensive.
As he matured, it appears Unitarianism won out. In 1821, he was one of the 27 founding members of the First Unitarian Church of Washington. His deep interest in the study of theology and the Bible indicates that, in the best Unitarian tradition, he was a dedicated seeker after religious truth.
Who Were the Other Unitarian Architects of Democracy?
The Continental Congress (1787) included delegates from the 13 original colonies that became part of the United States who met to write and debate the Constitution of the United States. When the delegates voted to accept it, the United State was officially founded.
Some of the presidents mentioned above were delegates to the Continental Congress. Others never became president, but nonetheless served to bring Unitarian values to the new country.
Two of the most prominent influential men who helped shape the values of the new nation were Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine.
- Benjamin Franklin, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, wrote in his autobiography that at age 15 he read a book written in opposition to Deism, but the book had the unintended effect of turning him towards Deism. He was a member of the Presbyterian Church and often made positive references to religion, but he was, in his own words “a thorough deist.”
- Thomas Paine was the author of the very influential book, The Age of Reason in which he laid out the case for Deism.
This is one of the most enlightening books about the role of religion in the founding of the United States that I have ever read. It was the mainstay of my research for this article. The author. David L. Homes, has written a very readable, yet scholarly book. It is well organized so you can flip to just the chapter you are most interested in, but I recommend reading it from front to back to get a true historic perspective.
Were Any of the Other Presidents Unitarians?
There are four other presidents that are not among the presidents of the first decades who were either official Unitarians or men that we could cite as “honorary” Unitarians.
Two official Unitarians
- Millard Fillmore, the 13th president (1850-1853), joined a Unitarian church after his marriage and continued to be a committed member of a Unitarian church throughout his life.
- William Howard Taft, the 27th president (1909-1913) was raised as a Unitarian and attended a Unitarian Church all his life.
Two honorary Unitarians
- Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president (1861 to 1865), was influenced by the popular Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker and had positive interactions with the Universalists. Lincoln was an admirer of the deists Thomas Paine and Voltaire and was one of the first to read the works of Charles Darwin. Although raised as a Southern Baptist, he was not a member of any church as an adult. He seldom publicly spoke of God and then only in vague terms.
- Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States (2009-2017), attended Unitarian-Universalist Sunday school as a child so his character was most likely shaped by the values he learned there. He was not raised in a religious household, and although he has described himself as someone who came to the Protestant Church in his adult years, he has never been a regular churchgoer.
Please take this poll.
What is your view about the role of religious belief in the founding of the United States of America?
The founders and the early presidents all said many contradictory things about religion, sometimes because their views changed and sometimes because their private and public statements differed. It is also possible that they were victims of double think--believing two contradictory things at the same time. I imagine it was very hard for any person of that time to stand in opposition to the beliefs of the very powerful churches.
I tried to sift through all the contradictions for arrive at the truth. However, a certain amount of speculation is required. Also, to be honest, like everyone else I have bias and so, there is possibly some "cherry-picking" on my part. Consequently, it is gratifying to see that my views are close to those of David L. Holmes, a prominent scholar of the history of religion.
Unitarians and Universalists on Stamps: (The website provide brief bios with a section on the religious belief of the person
Holmes, David Lynn (2006). The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. US: Oxford University Press.
© 2018 Catherine Giordano