KANSAS CITY – Historian Thomas Kidd serves as a distinguished visiting professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary here. He is the author of several books about the founding era of the United States, including God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution; Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots; Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father; George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father; and The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. As the nation celebrated its independence earlier this month, I spoke with Dr. Kidd about the role of faith among the American revolutionaries and Founding Fathers of the United States.
Ben Hawkins (BH): How would you describe the impact that Christian beliefs had on the revolutionary era and founding of the United States?
Thomas Kidd (TK): “So, the major founding fathers are a mixed bag as far as their personal faiths. Franklin and Jefferson definitely are in the sort of Deist/Unitarian camp. Washington and Madison and Hamilton tend to be kind of quiet about their own faith. Adams is Unitarian. You really have to go down to people like Patrick Henry, John Jay and Roger Sherman to find orthodox traditional Christians – and in Sherman and Jay’s case, evangelicals. It’s important to remember that there were thousands of other people involved in the founding, and lots and lots of them were traditional Christians, many of whom had been converted in the Great Awakening.
“So, the five or six Founding Fathers whose faiths that we obsess about are not really representative of the American people in 1776. But if you back up even more broadly than that, it’s easy to see that Christian, or at least theistic, principles made a huge impact on the way that the Founders thought about politics and human nature and good government. So, they all believed that people were not naturally good. They believed in at least a somewhat flawed human nature, and that’s why you had to have divided branches of government. My favorite expression of this is when Madison said in the Federalist Papers that if men were angels, no government would be necessary; and men aren’t angels, so you’ve got to account for that when you’re framing the best kind of government. They almost all believed that if you’re going to have a Republic that you need a virtuous people, and the way that they understood virtue was mostly informed by Christian standards of morality, Judeo-Christian standards of morality: don’t lie, cheat and steal and so forth. …
“And well, for the Founding Fathers, where does virtue come from? Education can help and so forth, but they think – even someone like Jefferson thinks – that for most average people that virtue comes from their faith. And in his first inaugural address, he said one of the bulwarks of the Republic would be our shared faith, which almost exclusively meant Christianity.
“So, even someone like Jefferson who was personally a skeptic, Unitarian type, could see that Christian morality is essential to the life of the Republic. I think that sometimes focusing so exclusively on the faith of these five or six Founders and what they personally believed – I mean, that’s a subject I’m interested in, of course. But it doesn’t necessarily tell you what those Founders believed about how the Republic was going to work. And that’s where I think you see a stronger evidence about the influence of religion, which for almost everybody meant Christianity and the influence of that on the American founding.”
BH: In your book, God of Liberty, you described a few core beliefs that, during this era, brought together people who had sometimes divergent beliefs about God and faith. But they agreed on these core religious beliefs – one of them being their emphasis on religious liberty. Tell me about that.
TK: “The spectrum of religious and cultural diversity in 1776 was not as wide as it is today, but it is surprising to see people like Jefferson, who is so beloved by so many evangelicals because of the issue of religious liberty. Baptists (at the time) knew that he was not a traditional believer, but they – Baptists, in particular – were so tired of being persecuted by the American colonial governments … that they were delighted to have someone like Jefferson, even though his personal faith might be iffy. They loved him for his championing of religious liberty.
“Jefferson and Madison, likewise, could never have gotten what they were able to achieve on religious liberty, without the support of tens of thousands of evangelicals who were clamoring for an end to the official state denominations. So I’m most struck by religious liberty, and it’s most pertinent, I think, to Baptist history. That was a cause that brought together people from basically the two extremes of the religious spectrum in 1776, which would roughly be deists on one end and these evangelicals at the other.”
BH: Did the First Great Awakening, which took place roughly in the 1730s and 1740s, have any impact on the Revolution and the founding of the United States?
TK: “Yes, it did. A lot of the effect was indirect. It was a kind of conditioning effect. When you think about the Great Awakening, it’s not just the biggest religious upheaval, but it’s the biggest social and cultural upheaval in the British colonies before the American Revolution. … The Great Awakening substantially influences what America is in 1776.
“The ideas about virtue are energized by the Great Awakening. The importance of virtue and this sense of pervasive Christian commitment is stronger after the Great Awakening than it is before it.
“The most direct contribution that the Great Awakening makes to the American Revolution is the cause of religious liberty – again, because a lot of the revivalist itinerants and churches were persecuted by the colonial governments and their established churches. … So, there are evangelicals by the mid-1740s, in the quiet stages of the Great Awakening, who are already articulating the idea that we need to get the government out of the business of playing favorites in religion so that we evangelicals, awakeners, can preach the gospel in freedom.”
BH: What can we learn from the American Founders as we look at our own age and at some of the challenges we are facing in 2020?
TK: “I think that (the Founders) would say that the answer for rank and file Americans in a time of turmoil and stress like we’ve been going through – the best thing that regular citizens could do – is just to be public-spirited in a Christian way. And so, that’s a lot of what they had in mind when they talked about needing a virtuous Republic to function. If you don’t have (citizens in the Republic who live virtuously), then you’re going to have a military strong man or something come in and tell you what to do. And so, I think they would just go back to the lesson of the need for virtue, public-spiritedness and loving your neighbor.”
BH: And what did they mean by “public virtue”?
TK: “They’re thinking of it in terms of neighborliness, a love-your-neighbor type of ideal. They would contrast it with, say, someone who is just out to make money, looking to aggrandize yourself. Of course, they don’t have any problem with people being successful business people, but they thought a higher level of virtue is to think about your responsibility to your neighbor, which all of them would have seen as a Christian principle. And so, by all means make money and look out for your own interests, but if you do it at the expense of your neighbor, then that’s when it becomes a problem.”