Over the years I have been fascinated with the ongoing "Christian Nation" debate between secularists and religious conservatives. Watching this virtual tug-o-war over America's founding heritage is not only entertaining but enlightening. And though I find several kernels of truth in both camps, I am convinced -- based on my own study of the period and the studies of scores of professional historians -- that the founding of America -- at least from a religious perspective -- is anything but cut and dry. In reality, the truth lies somewhere between where the Christian nationalists and the secularists stand. This fact, however, does not dissuade the extremists on either end of the debate. The question of whether or not the Founding Fathers were Christians in the orthodox Trinitarian sense or not has continued to rage for generations. For many Christian nation apologists, this argument is paramount to their overall thesis. Proving that the founders, or at least the majority of founders, were orthodox Christians -- i.e. that they believed in the Trinity, incarnation, the Bible's infallible nature, etc. -- would in essence add credence to their notion that America was indeed founded as a Christian nation. In contrast, those of the secular persuasion maintain that by disproving the orthodoxy of the founders -- especially the key founders -- they effectively punch enough holes into the Christian nation argument, thereby proving that America was founded as a secular nation.
One of the more interesting tidbits of debate in this ongoing saga centers on the religious nature of the various universities of the founding era. After all, these universities became the central "breeding grounds" for the development of the clergy in their respective denominations. As a result, virtually every single religious denomination endeavored to establish their own university, which was then dedicated to the instruction of their future clergy. In his book, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, David Holmes explains the nature and development of these universities:
Readers can gain a good indication of where religious groups were concentrated in colonial America by looking at its colleges. Because religious groups established all but one of the ten institutions of higher education in the colonies, the schools tended to be located where a denomination had strength. Thus in New England, Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth were Congregationalist, though Harvard later became Unitarian (a denomination that emerged from the liberal wing of Congregationalism). In Rhode Island, where several churches had strength, Baptists founded the College of Rhode Island (now Brown University). Since colleges were small, there were probably fewer than one thousand college students in America at any time. The colleges had the primary purposes of producing ministers and educated laity for their denominations, though in time all accepted members of other churches.Since the overwhelming majority of colonial universities were established by a particular religious denomination, Christian nation supporters maintain that those who attended such universities would naturally have received a heavy dose of religious instruction, thus increasing their devotion to Christian orthodoxy. In fact, David Barton, a popular Christian nation apologist, has seized upon the perceived orthodoxy of these various universities to defend his claim that 52 of the 55 signers to the Constitution were orthodox Christians. Barton defends this claim by pointing to the fact that roughly 27 of the signers attended one of the various universities of their day. As a result, Barton insinuates that these signers were, as a result of their education, prone to embrace and defend orthodox Christian teachings. This assertion has gained such wide notoriety among Christian nation advocates that even a former presidential candidate mentioned it in the course of a debate.
Upon entering the most northern of the middle colonies, New York, the visitors would have learned that the only college in the colony -- King's College (now Columbia University) -- was an Anglican institution. Its existence testified to the status of the Church of England as the colony's established church, though only in the area of densest population from Staten Island to Westchester County (14-15).
A large number of historians, however, are not convinced. For example, the Late Clinton Rossiter, professor of history at Cornell University had the following to say on the perceived orthodoxy of the founders:
Although it had its share of strenuous Christians ... the gathering at Philadelphia was largely made up of men in whom the old fires were under control or had even flickered out. Most were nominally members of one of the traditional churches in their part of the country ... and most were men who could take their religion or leave it alone. Although no one in this sober gathering would have dreamed of invoking the Goddess of Reason, neither would anyone have dared to proclaim his opinions had the support of the God of Abraham and Paul. The Convention of 1787 was highly rationalist and even secular in spirit (The Grand Convention, pp. 147-148).In addition, Chris Rodda, author of the book, Liars for Jesus and passionate "Barton-debunker" gives the following rebuttal to Barton's claim:
All this means, of course, is that twenty-seven of the signers of the Declaration went to college -- twenty at a total of five different American colleges, and seven in Europe. Twenty-four definitely received degrees; three don't appear to have graduated. Almost all of the twenty-seven studied either law or business, and one studied medicine.Despite the criticism, David Barton and others remain steadfast in their assertion that the majority of the founders were orthodox in their Christian belief, and that most received such instruction from the major universities of their day. But just how orthodox were these colleges?
Only one of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration was a minister. This was John Witherspoon, the president of Princeton University (at that time called the College of New Jersey). There were two others, William Williams and Robert Treat Paine, who did seriously study of theology at some point in their educations, but neither pursued the ministry as a career. Williams studied under his clergyman father for a time after college, but ended up becoming a merchant. Paine became a lawyer. As for the rest, they may have had to follow the religious rules of the colleges they attended -- mandatory chapel attendance, strict observation of the Sabbath, etc. -- but since their only options were to attend a denominational school and follow its rules or not go to college at all, no conclusions about their religious opinions can be drawn from this.
Historian Sydney Ahlstrom, author of the book, A Religious History of the American People, points out that a large number of these once highly orthodox universities underwent a religious metamorphosis, which adopted the "heretical" Unitarian teachings that were becoming quite popular at the time. With the rise of preachers like Charles Chauncy, Samuel Clarke, Richard Price and others, the traditional piety of American religion began to be challenged. As Ahlstrom points out:
The central doctrinal characteristic of this liberal movement was that which gave its early adherents the name "Arminian." They assaulted the Reformed or Westminster conceptions of God, man, and the divine-human relationship, stressing God's role as the Architect and Governor of the universe, though also placing an unmistakably Christian emphasis on his fatherhood...God's grace and mercy were needed, to be sure,; yet with regard to the nature of man and human ability, these liberal ministers showed perhaps a greater measure of confidence than any significant group of churchmen in the Reformed tradition. And what buoyed their confidence above all was the exhilaration of national independence, the economic and social advances of the American people, and the great destiny (already manifest) of this New World democracy. The idea prevailed that "this new man, this American" was a new Adam, sinless, innocent -- mankind's great second chance. Nowhere was it given so well-rooted a Christian interpretation as among these New England liberals, whose ideas on man were far more determinative than the ideas about the Godhead which later won the name "Unitarian." (391-392).As these new teachings made their way into the various universities of colonial America, a shift away from tradition Christian orthodoxy occurred. Ahlstrom notes that American universities began hiring more liberal instructors of theology, who themselves adhered more to the principles of Unitarianism than traditional orthodoxy. The Reverend William Channing's remarks capture just how prevalent Unitarian doctrine was becoming in America's universities. In a letter to his colleagues, Channing urged the continuation of Unitarian teaching in Boston colleges:
Let them learn the distinction between Trinitarianism and Unitarianism. Many use these words without meaning, and are very zealous about sounds. Some suppose that Trinitarianism consists in believing in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But we all believe in these; we all believe that the Father sent the Son, and gives, to those that ask, the Holy Spirit. We are all Trinitarians, is this is belief in Trinitarianism. But it is not. The Trinitarian believes that the one God is three distinct persons called the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost; and he believes that each is the only true God, and yet that the three are only one God. This is Trinitarianism. The Unitarian believes that there is but one person possessing supreme Divinity, even the Father. This is the great distinction; let it be kept steadily in view...I am persuaded, that under these classes of high Unitarians many Christians ought to be ranked who call themselves orthodox and are Trinitarians...as such is the prevailing sentiment of our Universities (Ahlstrom, 395-396).Even the case of James Madison reveals the changing nature in the religious teachings of American universities. From his youth, James Madison was raised in an orthodox Anglican home, where his father, James Madison Sr., was a vestryman in the church. When Madison was able to attend college, he and his family chose to send young James to the College of New Jersey (later Princeton). Instead of attending nearby William and Mary College, Madison chose to travel north and attend the College of New Jersey, because of its reputation for being “the principle training ground for American Presbyterian clergy” (Holmes, Faith of Founding Fathers, 92).
While attending college in New Jersey, Madison witnessed two evangelical revivals, which split the student body into two groups. Steven Waldman, author of Founding Faith, notes that these two groups (known as the Cliosophical Society and the American Whig Society) differed in how they perceived religion. The “Cliosophes” were more evangelical in their sentiments, while the American Whigs were more cerebral and Unitarian. Madison took part in the latter (Founding Faith, 96).
The fact that Madison favored an intellectual and Unitarian perspective on religion may suggest that the orthodox teachings of his youth were beginning to change. After all, Madison had begun to investigate the teachings of Deism while under the tutelage of Donald Robertson and Alexander Martin.
Whatever their actual religious leanings were, it is clear that American universities, just prior to the founding, were embroiled in a religious "revolution" of sorts, which overturned much of the traditional orthodoxy of the day. As a result, American universities became a breeding ground for "heretical" interpretations of Christianity, which may explain why some founders kept orthodoxy at a distance.