The Founders on Religion

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Americans have debated the relationship of religion and government since before the birth of their nation. Americans often use the words of the Founders to support their position on the relationship of church and state. Hutson’s book provides ample evidence that the views of the Founders are complex, and that it is problematic to use quotes from them as proof texts for any particular position. A study of this book makes it clear that there is little consensus among the Founders when it comes to the topic of religion.

This book is valuable to specialists and nonspecialists alike who want to form an accurate picture of the religious convictions of the Founders. The views of the Founders provide food for thought for historians and all who want to reflect on the role of religion in American society in the light of their thinking.

James H. Hutson presents the religious views of the Founders on a wide range of themes in their own words. This collection of quotations provides a comprehensive picture of what the Founders thought about religion. In contrast to books on the Founders’ religious views that quote them selectively in order to support a particular agenda, Hutson provides a large collection of complete quotes that illustrate the depth and diversity of the Founders’ religious beliefs.

Hutson presents material that has not been seen by many specialists. He has found new sources that allow for an improved understanding of the Founders’ religious views on a variety of topics.

Hutson has already established himself as the foremost authority on the religious views of the American Founders. He wrote or edited three other books on religion and America’s founding generation prior to the appearance of The Founders on Religion. In Forgotten Features of the Founding: The Recovery of Religious Themes in the Early American Republic (2003), Hutson challenges assumptions long held by many American historians about the importance of religion in early American history. He argues that the percentage of the population who regularly attended church services at the time of the American Revolution was approximately 70 percent, not 10 percent, as other historians have claimed. In Religion and the New Republic: Faith in the Founding of America (2000) and Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (1998), Hutson discusses the role of religion in the American colonies’ fight for independence and in the Founders’ understanding of the role and limits of religion for the well-being of the American republic.

In The Founders on Religion, Hutson quotes both the famous members of America’s founding generation as well as those whose renown has diminished with time. Hutson includes, in addition to those of the first four presidents, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, statements from other well-known Founders, such as Benjamin Franklin, scientist and first American ambassador to France; Alexander Hamilton, aide-de-camp to Washington and principal author with Madison of the Federalist papers; Patrick Henry, governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War; and John Jay, first chief justice of the United States. Figures quoted who have become lesser known over time include: Elias Boudinot, president of the Confederation Congress and director of the United States Mint; Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress; Benjamin Rush, influential physician and social reformer; and John Witherspoon, president of Princeton University and member of the Continental Congress. Hutson also includes quotes from two prominent women: Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, and Martha Washington, wife of George Washington.

The quotes are presented alphabetically by topic and are arranged alphabetically within each topic by the Founders’ last names. Although many of the topics are not obviously religious in character, the Founders’ strong interest in the spiritual and philosophical dimension of life inspired spiritual reflection in them. The quotes present the Founders’ religious perspectives on subjects as diverse as addiction, animals, children, crime and punishment, death, education, marriage, patriotism, reason, republicanism, slavery, and women. Other topics have more obvious religious implications and...

(The entire section is 1772 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Library Journal 130, no. 18 (November 1, 2005): 82.