Founding Fathers On Religion

Our Founding Fathers had many interesting things to say about religion.  The United Kingdom by that time had become a monarchy that was the head of the Anglican Church, and America’s founding fathers and their parents and grandparents had fled England and other areas of Europe due to pressure from religious persecution.  Not just from the Anglican Church, but also from the political power of the Catholic Church.

When the colonies revolted, they weren’t just revolting from the British crown, but from the overbearing seats of religious power in Europe.  They strived to make America a nation where all people of any religion can practice freely and where the government would never be controlled by any one religion, nor force any member of society to prove loyalty or subjugation to any one religion.

At a time when blasphemy laws were still prevalent in Europe, the colonies were attempting a freedom from and of religion that up to that point had not been seen before in the known world.

The complications and mixed feelings about government and religion can often be felt in the political writings, private letters, and public speeches given by our founding fathers.  While they were all in some way believers of some denomination of Chrisitianity or adherents to what was then becoming a popular movement known as Deism, these colonial men of legend had both good and bad things to say about organized religion.

Here you can read a collection of quotes amassed from various founding fathers, including from those who served as president.  Additionally there are links to books and articles by and about the more prominent figures that spoke openly about religion, including Thomas Jefferson’s version of the New Testament that he created in the early 1800’s, wherein he removed all the things he thought unrealistic such as the miracles and other mystic events surrounding Jesus.


Thomas Jefferson:

“To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by Locke, Tracy, and Stewart. At what age of the Christian church this heresy of immaterialism, this masked atheism, crept in, I do not know. But heresy it certainly is.”
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, Aug. 15, 1820

“Shake off all the fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for 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.”
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787

“Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man.”
-Thomas Jefferson

“A professorship of theology should have no place in our institution”
-Thomas Jefferson

“The priests of the different religious sects… dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight, and scowl on the fatal harbinger announcing the subdivision of the duperies on which they live.”
– Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Correa de Serra, April 11, 1820

“Religions are all alike – founded upon fables and mythologies.”
– Thomas Jefferson

“Ignorance is preferable to error, and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing than he who believes what is wrong.”
-Thomas Jefferson (Notes on Virginia, 1782)

“Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782

“But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782

“Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, in reference to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom

“I concur with you strictly in your opinion of the comparative merits of atheism and demonism, and really see nothing but the latter in the being worshipped by many who think themselves Christians.”
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Richard Price, Jan. 8, 1789 (Richard Price had written to him on Oct. 26th about the harm done by religion and wrote “Would not Society be better without Such religions? Is Atheism less pernicious than Demonism?”)

“I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.”
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Francis Hopkinson, March 13, 1789

“I am for freedom of religion, and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another.”
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Elbridge Gerry, 26 January 1799

“They [the clergy] believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough, too, in their opinion.”
-Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Rush, Sept. 23, 1800

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Danbury Baptist Association, CT., Jan. 1, 1802

“Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person’s life, freedom of religion affects every individual. State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion. Erecting the “wall of separation between church and state,” therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society. We have solved … the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries.”
Founding Father Thomas Jefferson: in a speech to the Virginia Baptists, 1808

“History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.”
-Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, Dec. 6, 1813

“The whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.”
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, January 24, 1814

“Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law.”
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814

“In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814

“If we did a good act merely from love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? …Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.”
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814

“Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp, 30 July, 1816

“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 purest of all moral systems, for the purpose of deriving from it pence and power, revolts those who think for themselves, and who read in that system only what is really there.”
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Mrs. Samuel H. Smith, August, 6, 1816

“You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.”
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Ezra Stiles Ely, June 25, 1819

“As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurian. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.”
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Short, Oct. 31, 1819

“Man once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind.”
-Thomas Jefferson to James Smith, 1822.

Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him [Jesus] by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being.”
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Short, April 13, 1820

“I can never join Calvin in addressing his god. He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was Daemonism. If ever man worshiped a false god, he did.”
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823

“And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerve in the brain of Jupiter. But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823

“It is between fifty and sixty years since I read it [the Apocalypse], and I then considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams.”
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to General Alexander Smyth, Jan. 17, 1825

“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Roger C. Weightman, June 24, 1826 (in the last letter he penned)

Thomas Paine:

“Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law. Take away the law-establishment, and every religion re-assumes its original benignity.”
– Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, 1791

Charles Pinckney:

“The legislature of the United States shall pass no law on the subject of religion.”
– Charles Pinckney, Constitutional Convention, 1787

Noah Webster:

“The American states have gone far in assisting the progress of truth; but they have stopped short of perfection. They ought to have given every honest citizen an equal right to enjoy his religion and an equal title to all civil emoluments, without obliging him to tell his religion. Every interference of the civil power in regulating opinion, is an impious attempt to take the business of the Deity out of his own hands; and every preference given to any religious denomination, is so far slavery and bigotry.”
– Noah Webster, calling for no religious tests to serve in public office, Sketches of American Policy, 1785

Roger Sherman:

“Congress has no power to make any religious establishments.”
– Roger Sherman, Congress, August 19, 1789

Isaac Backus:

“God has appointed two kinds of government in the world, which are distinct in their nature, and ought never to be confounded together; one of which is called civil, the other ecclesiastical government.”
– Isaac Backus, An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty, 1773

Oliver Ellsworth:

“Some very worthy persons, who have not had great advantages for information, have objected against that clause in the constitution which provides, that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. They have been afraid that this clause is unfavorable to religion. But my countrymen, the sole purpose and effect of it is to exclude persecution, and to secure to you the important right of religious liberty. We are almost the only people in the world, who have a full enjoyment of this important right of human nature. In our country every man has a right to worship God in that way which is most agreeable to his conscience. If he be a good and peaceable person he is liable to no penalties or incapacities on account of his religious sentiments; or in other words, he is not subject to persecution. But in other parts of the world, it has been, and still is, far different. Systems of religious error have been adopted, in times of ignorance. It has been the interest of tyrannical kings, popes, and prelates, to maintain these errors. When the clouds of ignorance began to vanish, and the people grew more enlightened, there was no other way to keep them in error, but to prohibit their altering their religious opinions by severe persecuting laws. In this way persecution became general throughout Europe.”
– Oliver Ellsworth [Philip B Kurland and Ralph Lerner (eds.), The Founder’s Constitution, University of Chicago Press, 1987, Vol. 4, p.638]

Oliver Wolcott:

“Knowledge and liberty are so prevalent in this country, that I do not believe that the United States would ever be disposed to establish one religious sect, and lay all others under legal disabilities. But as we know not what may take place hereafter, and any such test would be exceedingly injurious to the rights of free citizens, I cannot think it altogether superfluous to have added a clause, which secures us from the possibility of such oppression.”
– Oliver Wolcott, Connecticut Ratifying Convention, 9 January 1788

Elbridge Gerry:

“No religious doctrine shall be established by law.”
– Elbridge Gerry, Annals of Congress 1:729-731

Edmund Randolph:

“A man of abilities and character, of any sect whatever, may be admitted to any office or public trust under the United States. I am a friend to a variety of sects, because they keep one another in order. How many different sects are we composed of throughout the United States? How many different sects will be in congress? We cannot enumerate the sects that may be in congress. And there are so many now in the United States that they will prevent the establishment of any one sect in prejudice to the rest, and will forever oppose all attempts to infringe religious liberty. If such an attempt be made, will not the alarm be sounded throughout America? If congress be as wicked as we are foretold they will, they would not run the risk of exciting the resentment of all, or most of the religious sects in America.”
– Edmund Randolph, address to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 10, 1788

George Mason:

“That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forebearance, love, and charity towards each other.”
– George Mason, Virginia Bill of Rights, 1776

“It is contrary to the principles of reason and justice that any should be compelled to contribute to the maintenance of a church with which their consciences will not permit them to join, and from which they can derive no benefit; for remedy whereof, and that equal liberty as well religious as civil, may be universally extended to all the good people of this commonwealth.”
– George Mason, Virginia Declaration of Rights, 1776

Samuel Adams:

“In regard to religion, mutual toleration in the different professions thereof is what all good and candid minds in all ages have ever practiced, and both by precept and example inculcated on mankind.”
– Samuel Adams, The Rights of the Colonists (1771)

James Monroe:

“It is only when the people become ignorant and corrupt, when they degenerate into a populace, that they are incapable of exercising the sovereignty. Usurpation is then an easy attainment, and an usurper soon found. The people themselves become the willing instruments of their own debasement and ruin. Let us, then, look to the great cause, and endeavor to preserve it in full force. Let us by all wise and constitutional measures promote intelligence among the people as the best means of preserving our liberties.”
– James Monroe, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1817

James Madison:

“And I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”
– James Madison, letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822

“Every new and successful example of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters is of importance.”
– James Madison, letter, 1822

“The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.”
– James Madison, an 1803 letter objecting to the use of government land for churches

“Experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”
– James Madison, “A Memorial and Remonstrance”, 1785

“What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not.”
-James Madison, “A Memorial and Remonstrance”, 1785

John Adams:

“As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?
– John Adams, letter to F.A. Van der Kamp, Dec. 27, 1816

“l almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved – the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!”
– John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson

“What havoc has been made of books through every century of the Christian era? Where are fifty gospels, condemned as spurious by the bull of Pope Gelasius? Where are the forty wagon-loads of Hebrew manuscripts burned in France, by order of another pope, because suspected of heresy? Remember the ‘index expurgatorius’, the inquisition, the stake, the axe, the halter and the guillotine.”
– John Adams, letter to John Taylor

“The priesthood have, in all ancient nations, nearly monopolized learning. And ever since the Reformation, when or where has existed a Protestant or dissenting sect who would tolerate A FREE INQUIRY? The blackest billingsgate, the most ungentlemanly insolence, the most yahooish brutality, is patiently endured, countenanced, propagated, and applauded. But touch a solemn truth in collision with a dogma of a sect, though capable of the clearest proof, and you will find you have disturbed a nest, and the hornets will swarm about your eyes and hand, and fly into your face and eyes.”
-John Adams, letter to John Taylor

“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 in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.”
– John Adams, “A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America” 1787-1788

“Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind.”
– John Adams, “A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America” (1787-88)

“We should begin by setting conscience free. When all men of all religions shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and power we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society.”
– John Adams, letter to Dr. Price, April 8, 1785

Benjamin Franklin:

“Lighthouses are more useful than churches.” – Benjamin Franklin

“If we look back into history for the character of the present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution. The primitive Christians thought persecution extremely wrong in the Pagans, but practiced it on one another. The first Protestants of the Church of England blamed persecution in the Romish Church, but practiced it upon the Puritans. They found it wrong in Bishops, but fell into the practice themselves both there (England) and in New England.”
– Benjamin Franklin

“You desire to know something of my religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it. But I cannot take your curiosity amiss, and shall endeavour in a few words to gratify it. Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His providence. That He ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render Him is doing good to His other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them…

As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the Truth with less trouble. I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as probably it has, of making his doctrines more respected and better observed; especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the unbelievers in His government of the world with any particular marks of His displeasure…

I shall only add, respecting myself, that, having experienced the goodness of that Being in conducting me prosperously through a long life, I have no doubt of its continuance in the next, without the smallest conceit of meriting it… I confide that you will not expose me to criticism and censure by publishing any part of this communication to you. I have ever let others enjoy their religious sentiments, without reflecting on them for those that appeared to me unsupportable and even absurd. All sects here, and we have a great variety, have experienced my good will in assisting them with subscriptions for building their new places of worship; and, as I never opposed any of their doctrines, I hope to go out of the world in peace with them all.”
– Benjamin Franklin, letter to Ezra Stiles, President of Yale, shortly before his death; from “Benjamin Franklin” by Carl Van Doren, the October, 1938 Viking Press edition pages 777-778 Also see Alice J. Hall, “Philosopher of Dissent: Benj. Franklin,” National Geographic, Vol. 148, No. 1, July, 1975, p. 94

“It is pity that good works, among some sorts of people, are so little valued, and good words admired in their stead. I mean seemingly pious discourses, instead of humane, benevolent actions. These they almost put out of countenance by calling morality, rotten morality; righteousness, ragged righteousness, and even filthy rags, and when you mention virtue, pucker up their noses; at the same time that they eagerly snuff up an empty, canting harangue, as if it were a posy of the choicest flowers”
– Benjamin Franklin, 1758, to his sister, Mrs. Jane Mecom, Works, Vol. VII., p. 185

“My parents had early given me religious impressions, and brought me through my childhood piously in the dissenting [puritan]way. But I was scarce fifteen, when, after doubting by turns of several points, as I found them disputed in the different books I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself. Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle’s lectures. It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough deist”
– Benjamin Franklin, “Autobiography,” p.66 as published in *The American Tradition in Literature,* seventh edition (short), McGraw-Hill,p.180

George Washington:

“If I could conceive that the general government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded, that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.”
– George Washington, letter to the United Baptist Chamber of Virginia, May 1789

“Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by a difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought to be deprecated. I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far that we should never again see the religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society.”
– George Washington, letter to Edward Newenham, October 20, 1792

“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… In this enlightened Age and in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest Offices that are known in the United States.”
– George Washington, letter to the members of the New Church in Baltimore, January 27, 1793

Thomas Jefferson : Writings : Autobiography / Notes on the State of Virginia / Public and Private Papers / Addresses / Letters (Library of America)

The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth

Thomas Jefferson: A Strange Case of Mistaken Identity

Thomas Jefferson

Read More about James Madison and John Adams:

James Madison:

https://ffrf.org/news/day/dayitems/item/14257-james-madison

https://www.au.org/church-state/march-2001-church-state/featured/james-madison-and-church-state-separation

John Adams:

https://www.masshist.org/publications/apde2

http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/adams-the-works-of-john-adams-10-vols

https://ffrf.org/news/day/dayitems/item/14623-john-adams

Famous works by Thomas Paine:

Rights of Man (Dover Thrift Editions)

The Age of Reason – Thomas Paine (Writings of Thomas Paine)

Common Sense (Dover Thrift Editions)

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