Unitarian Presidents: The Architects of American Democracy

Updated on October 14, 2018
CatherineGiordano profile image

Science, philosophy, politics, and religion are frequent topics for writer and public speaker Catherine Giordano.

The United States is more correctly said to be based on Unitarian values than on Christian values.
The United States is more correctly said to be based on Unitarian values than on Christian values. | Source

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.

Unitarian values were the building blocks for the architects  of the United States of America..
Unitarian values were the building blocks for the architects of the United States of America.. | Source

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.

The Faiths of the Founding Fathers
The Faiths of the Founding Fathers

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?

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Author's Note:

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.


Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Catherine Giordano

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      • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

        Catherine Giordano 

        3 months ago from Orlando Florida

        Thank your for this quotation from Jefferson. It shows that Jeffrson thought that each person should make his own decisions about religious belief, even if it led to no belief at all.

      • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

        Catherine Giordano 

        3 months ago from Orlando Florida

        Thank you for your comment illustrating Jefferson's views about religion.

      • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

        Catherine Giordano 

        3 months ago from Orlando Florida

        Joseph Priestly was a very influential clergyman at the time of the formation of the United States. He was well-known as a political theorist, and physical scientist who made several important scientific discoveries.

        He was one of the early adopters of Unitarianism, founding the first Unitarian church in Britan (The Essex Street chapel).

        He preached that the Anglican church and the other traditional Christian churches of his time were based on a "corrupted" understanding of the Bible.

        He moved from England to the United States to escape religious persecution.

        Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, in particular, were influenced by his religious and political philosophy. Priestley's political views were based on his Unitarian faith.

        I did not included Priestley in the article due to space considerations, so I am glad that you brought him up in the comments section.

      • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

        Catherine Giordano 

        3 months ago from Orlando Florida

        Thank you for these extensive quotes from John Adams that show his enlightened view or religion and his belief that the new nation should embody rational thought and not religious dogma.

        P.S. I am excited by the documentary you are working on. I can't wait to see it.

      • profile image

        Thomas Ellingwood Fortin 

        3 months ago

        OK, one more here, then I have to go, this is some more context of the famous Jefferson quote you used, enjoy!

        "....Your reason is now mature enough to examine this object. In the first place, divest yourself of all bias in favor of novelty & singularity of opinion... shake off all the fears & servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely 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.....

        ...Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you... In fine, I repeat, you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither believe nor reject anything, because any other persons, or description of persons, have rejected or believed it... I forgot to observe, when speaking of the New Testament, that you should read all the histories of Christ, as well of those whom a council of ecclesiastics have decided for us, to be Pseudo-evangelists, as those they named Evangelists. Because these Pseudo-evangelists pretended to inspiration, as much as the others, and you are to judge their pretensions by your own reason, and not by the reason of those ecclesiastics. Most of these are lost...”

        ~Thomas Jefferson, Letters of Thomas Jefferson, Letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, advising him in matters of religion, 1787

      • profile image

        Thomas Ellingwood Fortin 

        3 months ago

        Speaking of Atheists, here is an interesting comment,

        "I have ever judged of the religion of others by their lives.... It is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read. By the same test the world must judge me. But this does not satisfy the priesthood. They must have a positive, a declared assent to all their interested absurdities. My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest. The artificial structures they have built on the the purest of all moral systems, for the purpose of deriving from it pence and power, revolt those who think for themselves, and who read in that system only what is really there."

        ~Thomas Jefferson, letter to Mrs. M. Harrison Smith, August 6, 1816. From Gorton Carruth and Eugene Ehrlich, eds., The Harper Book of American Quotations, New York: Harper & Row, 1988, p. 492.

      • profile image

        Thomas Ellingwood Fortin 

        3 months ago

        Here is the mostly complete quote from John Adams you requested. In our film in development, AN AMERICA RELIGION [being produced for broadcast on the PBS series, The American Experience,] I am going to show the foundations of the liberal ideals of our Republic as found in Unitarian, Universalist, and radical reformation thought, and the ideals of the Age of Reason, out of which modern Unitarianism was born.

        A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America

        “Let the human mind loose. It must be loose. It will be loose. Superstition and dogmatism cannot confine it.”

        ~John Adams, Letter to his son and 6th US president, John Quincy Adams, November 13 1816

        “It was the general opinion of ancient nations, that the divinity alone was adequate to the important office of giving laws to men... and modern nations, in the consecrations of kings, and in several superstitious chimeras of divine rights in princes and nobles, are nearly unanimous in preserving remnants of it... Is the jealousy of power, and the envy of superiority, so strong in all men, that no considerations of public or private utility are sufficient to engage their submission to rules for their own happiness? Or is the disposition to imposture so prevalent in men of experience, that their private views of ambition and avarice can be accomplished only by artifice? —

        … There is nothing in which mankind have been more unanimous; yet nothing can be inferred from it more than this, that the multitude have always been credulous, and the few artful. The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature: and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had any interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the inspiration of heaven, any more than those at work upon ships or houses, or labouring in merchandize or agriculture: it will for ever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses. As Copley painted Chatham, West, Wolf, and Trumbull, Warren and Montgomery; as Dwight, Barlow, Trumbull, and Humphries composed their verse, and Belknap and Ramzay history; as Godfrey invented his quadrant, and Rittenhouse his planetarium; as Boylston practised inoculation, and Franklin electricity; as Paine exposed the mistakes of Raynal, and Jefferson those of Buffon, so unphilosophically borrowed from the Recherches Philosophiques sur les Américains those despicable dreams of de Pauw — neither the people, nor their conventions, committees, or sub-committees, considered legislation in any other light than ordinary arts and sciences, only as of more importance. Called without expectation, and compelled without previous inclination, though undoubtedly at the best period of time both for England and America, to erect suddenly new systems of laws for their future government, they adopted the method of a wise architect, in erecting a new palace for the residence of his sovereign. They determined to consult Vitruvius, Palladio, and all other writers of reputation in the art; to examine the most celebrated buildings, whether they remain entire or in ruins; compare these with the principles of writers; and enquire how far both the theories and models were founded in nature, or created by fancy: and, when this should be done, as far as their circumstances would allow, to adopt the advantages, and reject the inconveniences, of all. Unembarrassed by attachments to noble families, hereditary lines and successions, or any considerations of royal blood, even the pious mystery of holy oil had no more influence than that other of holy water: the people universally were too enlightened to be imposed on by artifice; and their leaders, or more properly followers, were men of too much honour to attempt it. Thirteen governments thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favour of the rights of mankind.”

        [John Adams, Preface to 'A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States of America', 1787]

      • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

        Catherine Giordano 

        4 months ago from Orlando Florida

        XaurreauX: Thanks for letting me know you liked it.

      • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

        Catherine Giordano 

        4 months ago from Orlando Florida

        FlourishAnyway: I knew about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson before I started my research, but I was surprised to discover how many of the other founders and presidents were not traditional Christians, and in some cases, maybe not even Christians at all. Thanks for your comment.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        4 months ago from USA

        My husband and I had this conversation recently, as he enjoys American history and we occasionally visit Monticello. Your analysis was thorough and I agree with it.

      • XaurreauX profile image

        XaurreauX 

        4 months ago

        Thanks for a great article!

      • CatherineGiordano profile imageAUTHOR

        Catherine Giordano 

        4 months ago from Orlando Florida

        Mary Norton. The Unitarians of today are that much different from those in the 18th century. I expect that you would find fewer calling themselves Christian and more calling themselves atheists, but the values haven't changed. If you would like to know more, please see my hub about UU. https://owlcation.com/humanities/An-Introduction-t...

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        4 months ago from Ontario, Canada

        I am not really familiar with the official Unitarian values so this is enlightening. Thank you.

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