The God Of The Founding Fathers: Nature’s God

REV. JAMES V. SCHALL, S.J.

The “nature’s God” of the American founding was the Christian God, at least in the ethical sphere. In the founders’ view, America was to be a country that was vitally religious but not officially concerned with the theological particulars of any specific religion.

With few exceptions, the early American settlers from Europe were Christians. During the 18th century, when the American colonies separated from England, the Founding Fathers spoke of "nature and nature's God" in the Declaration of Independence. Many who signed the Declaration and, subsequently, the United States Constitution, were Protestant Christians, some of whom founded Bible societies in their spare time.

Several of the most famous founders, including Thomas Jefferson, who coined the phrase "nature's God," were more concerned about ethics than religion. They saw Jesus as a model of ethical probity. Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Rush on April 22, 1803, "[Jesus'] parentage was obscure; his condition poor, his education null; his natural endowments great; his life correct and innocent: he was meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, & of the sublimest eloquence."

Jefferson rejected divine revelation; that is, he had a problem with miracles. His view was rather dogmatic: He thought that a "scientific" view of causation precluded miraculous events. But he did subscribe to the philosophical "argument from design." Jefferson believed that complexity of the universe implied an intelligent creator. In this respect, he was not unlike today's "intelligent design" theorists, who find the universe to be so overwhelmingly orderly that it is difficult to conclude that creation could have taken place by chance, even over a long period of time.

"Nature's God," as Jefferson and the other founders conceived of Him, was the cause or source of a natural order that included a human order, a law of nature that applied to human affairs. Many of the founders were learned men, good men. Reading them today, one is struck not by their lack of interest in God questions, on moral questions, but rather by their overwhelming concern with those questions. Most had considerable sympathy for Christian theology. But they were worried about religious controversy. They thus wanted to privatize religion for political reasons. They wanted to get people to live together without worrying about their theological differences. But paradoxically, they did not think this "living together" was possible without an ethic that looked very much like the Christian ethic of the New Testament.

So in a sense, the "nature's God" of the American founding was the Christian God, at least in the ethical sphere. In the founders' view, America was to be a country that was vitally religious but not officially concerned with the theological particulars of any specific religion. The historian Henry Steele Commager, in his book The American Mind, amusingly wrote, "Confident that God was vitally concerned with their affairs, [the earliest Americans] solicited His participation in their most trivial activities, inviting Him, as it were, to give a weekly editorial commentary on the vagaries of their society." The earliest Americans found a way to have God in their daily lives without having to argue over exactly who He was.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J. "The God Of The Founding Fathers: Nature's God." Crisis 19, no. 3 (March 2001): 34.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.

THE AUTHOR

James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of numerous books in the areas of social issues, spirituality and literature including Roman Catholic Political Philosophy, Another Sort of Learning, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Copyright © 2001 Crisis




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