3/12/13 - the separation of church and state boosted religion

In today's selection -- though America's founding fathers were not deeply religious -- in fact Thomas Jefferson had a hatred for organized religion -- the average American in the early Republic made sense of the world through religion. Despite the spread of rationalism during this period, "religion in America gained in authority precisely because of its separation from governmental power," a separation that had come from the Revolution, and that separation helped ignite a massive outpouring of religious enthusiasm:

"Cultivated gentlemen like Thomas Jefferson may have relied on the arts and sciences to help them interpret and reform the world, but that was not the case with most average Americans. Nearly all common and middling people in the early Republic still made sense of the world through religion. Devastating fires, destructive earthquakes, and bad harvests were acts of God and often considered punishments for a sinful people. As they had in the mid-eighteenth century, people still fell on their knees when struck by the grace of God. People prayed openly and often. They took religion seriously, talked about it, and habitually resorted to it in order to examine the state of their souls. Despite growing doubts of revelation and the spread of rationalism in the early Republic, most Americans remained deeply religious.

"As American society became more democratic in the early nineteenth century, middling people rose to dominance and brought their religiosity with them. The Second Great Awakening, as the movement was later called, was a massive outpouring of evangelical religious enthusiasm, perhaps a more massive expression of Protestant Christianity than at any time since the seventeenth century or even the Reformation. By the early decades of the nineteenth century American society appeared to be much more religious than it had been in the final decades of the eighteenth century.

"The American Revolution broke many of the intimate ties that had traditionally linked religion and government, especially with the Anglican Church, and turned religion into a voluntary affair, a matter of individual free choice. But contrary to the experience of eighteenth-century Europeans, whose rationalism tended to erode their allegiance to religion, religion in America did not decline with the spread of enlightenment and liberty. Indeed, as Tocqueville was soon to observe, religion in America gained in authority precisely because of its separation from governmental power.

"At the time of the revolution few could have predicted such an outcome. Occurring as it did in an enlightened and liberal age, the Revolution seemed to have little place for religion. Although some of the Founders, such as Samuel Adams, John Jay, Patrick Henry, Elias Boudinot, and Roger Sherman, were fairly devout Christians, most leading Founders were not deeply or passionately religious, and few of them led much of a spiritual life. As enlightened gentlemen addressing each other in learned societies, many of the leading gentry abhorred 'that gloomy superstition disseminated by ignorant illiberal preachers' and looked forward to the day when 'the phantom of darkness will be dispelled by the rays of science, and the bright charms of rising civilization.'

"Most of them, at best, only passively believed in organized Christianity and, at worst, privately scorned and mocked it. Although few of them were outright deists, that is, believers in a clockmaker God who had nothing to do with revelation and simply allowed the world to run in accord with natural forces, most, like South Carolina historian David Ramsay, did tend to describe the Christian church as 'the best temple of reason.' ... The Founders viewed religious enthusiasm as a kind of madness, the conceit 'of a warmed or overweening brain.' In all of his writings Washington rarely mentioned Christ, and, in fact, he scrupulously avoided testifying to a belief in the Christian gospel. Many of the Revolutionary leaders were proto-Unitarians, denying miracles and the divinity of Jesus. Even puritanical John Adams thought that the argument for Christ's divinity was an 'awful blasphemy' in this new enlightened age.

"Jefferson's hatred for the clergy and organized religion knew no bounds. He believed that members of the 'priestcraft' were always in alliance with despots against liberty. 'To this effect,' he said -- privately, of course, not publicly -- 'they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man, into mystery and jargon unintelligible to all mankind and therefore the safer engine for their purposes.' The Trinity was nothing but 'Abracadabra' and 'hocus-pocus ... so incomprehensible to the human mind that no candid man can say he has any idea of it.' Ridicule, he said, was the only weapon to be used against it."


Gordon Wood


Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815


Oxford University Press


Copyright 2009 by Oxford University Press, Inc.


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