In this week, when our nation celebrates the Declaration of Independence, signed 243 years ago on Thursday, perhaps we may do well to recall some of the religious foundations that rest behind the men who signed that famous document.
In our own day and age it has become fashionable to assert that the United States was never a Christian nation. On Feb. 26, 2015, the online news source, Huffpost righteously declared, “The facts of our history are easy enough to verify. Anybody who ignorantly insists that our nation is founded on Christian ideals need only look at the four most important documents from our early history – the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Federalist Papers and the Constitution – to disprove that ridiculous religious bias. All four documents unambiguously prove our secular origins.”
As a historian, this author must reply, “well … sort of, kind of.” It is certainly true that the Founders of this nation did not wish to establish a national religion. The Federalist Papers, which hold no binding legal force, certainly called for the separation of church and state and the Constitution does not mention God or religion. In the Declaration of Independence, however, religion is referenced four times, referring to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” it appeals to the “Supreme Judge of the world,” as well as “the Creator,” and “divine Providence.” The Articles of Confederation of 1777, speaks of the “Great Governor of the World.” To be clear, these are not Christian references and it could be argued that they are merely rhetorical flourishes. This said, we should view our Declaration of Independence in its historical context.
Of the 56 men who signed the Declaration, the great majority, perhaps all, identified themselves as Christians, and all but one were Protestants. Four were either present or former ministers, and a number of the signers were the sons of clergy. At least half of them had studied “divinity” at their various universities. The denominations breakdown runs as follows: 32 of the signers, well over half, were Episcopalians, or Anglicans, the old state Church of England. There were 13 Congregationalists, 12 were Presbyterians. There were two Quakers, two Unitarians, and one Roman Catholic.
It also should be noted that there are difficulties in pinning down people’s religious beliefs. Then, as now, a person might claim membership in a denomination and even financially support it, but it does not follow from that that they believed every single thing that church teaches. Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia were both members of the Episcopal Church but also identified themselves as deists. Likewise, John Adams and Robert Paine of Massachusetts were members of Congregationalist churches and also identified as deists. Certainly, Episcopalian brothers Richard and Francis Lee of Virginia did not believe in the divine right of kings.
The question of which of the signers were Christian ministers is subject to debate because in colonial times men could become ministers, with or without a formal ordination ceremony, and then leave that job for another. John Witherspoon of New Jersey was certainly an ordained minister at the time of the signing in 1776, as well as president of the College of New Jersey, today known as Princeton. Witherspoon was a native of Scotland as well as a direct descendant of the famous 16th century reformer, John Knox.
Signer Robert Treat Paine of Massachusetts would go on to serve as a Congregationalist military chaplain in Washington’s revolutionary army. Lyman Hall of Georgia had been a Congregationalist minister before the American Revolution, but had been removed from his office on grounds of his “moral character” so he went on to become a doctor. A number of the signers were very active or even held offices in their various churches. Francis Hopkinson of Pennsylvania was the choir director and director of music at the prestigious Christ Church in Philadelphia. There he worked with the assistant rector, the Rev. John Ross, who was father in law to the famous flag maker, Elizabeth “Betsy” Ross, who was incorrectly credited with designing the famous flag. Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania would found one of the first Sunday schools in the new Republic. James Wilson of Pennsylvania had been trained as a minister in Scotland, but immigrated to America and became a lawyer instead and taught the Biblical origins of civil law.
The only Roman Catholic, Charles Carroll, was in one sense an odd inclusion to the mix of signers, given the anti-Catholic feelings of the day. He was one of the best educated of the signers, having studied with the Jesuits both in the British colonies and in France. He was also the wealthiest of the signers, having over two thousand pounds, or about a half-billion dollars in modern currency. The Revolution would have been hard pressed without his financial contributions to the cause. Before the Revolution, he was one of the first to declare that the path to independence could not be won by diplomacy and discussion but only by armed revolution. He was the last of the signers to die in 1832. To note, his first cousin, John Carroll, was the first United States Catholic bishop, and later Archbishop of Baltimore.