In the Founders’ Words: the Essential Role of Religion in Public and Civic Life

To properly understand the following quotes, you need to read them with the understanding that the proper context for every one of these citations is to explain the essential connection between religion in our public and civic lives and the preservation of a free and self-governing society. In every one of the following passages, the founders are boldly asserting that God guided the founding of this nation because the founders sought to build it upon His eternal principles of Natural Law, and that anyone who would attack those principles should be seen as what they are: an enemy of both their nation and liberty. And pay special attention to the section where the founders viciously attacked Thomas Paine’s “Age of Reason.” Thos words will reveal what the founders really thought about the spirit that now permeates our society, and affirms their warning that this spirit will yield the very decay we are now suffering.

One last note: in all the words I read from the founders, I never once found anything written by their hand that contradicts the sentiments expressed in the following words – not once!

The highest glory of the American Revolution was this; it connected, in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity… The United States of America were no longer colonies. They were an independent nation of Christians.

–John Quincy Adams, President of the United States: July 4, 1821 from The Pulpit of the American Revolution by John Wingate Thornton 1860, America’s God and Country, William Federer, p.18

The Declaration Of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer’s mission upon earth and laid the cornerstone of human government upon the precepts of Christianity.

–John Quincy Adams, July 4th, 1837, An Oration Delivered Before the Inhabitants of the Town of Newburyport, at the 61st Anniversary of The Declaration of independence, America’s God and Country, William Federer, p.204

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The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity. I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.

–John Adams

We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

–John Adams, Address to the Military, October 11, 1798

It is the duty of all men in society, publicly, and at stated seasons, to worship the SUPREME BEING, the great Creator and Preserver of the universe. And no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained, in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshipping GOD in the manner most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience; or for his religious profession or sentiments; provided he doth not disturb the public peace, or obstruct others in their religious worship.

–John Adams, Thoughts on Government, 1776

The idea of infidelity [non-belief in God] cannot be treated with too much resentment or too much horror. The man who can think of it with patience is a traitor in his heart and ought to be execrated as one who adds the deepest hypocrisy to the blackest treason.

The Papers of John Adams, Robert J. Taylor, ed., (Cambridge: Belknap Press [Harvard University], 1977-89) vol. VI p 348 to James Warren on Aug. 4, 1778

Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited! Every member would be obliged in conscience, to temperance, frugality, and industry; to justice, kindness, and charity towards his fellow men; and to piety, love, and reverence toward Almighty God…. What a Eutopia, what a Paradise would this region be.

This was, in fact, the basis for the system of government in America, as Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson on June 28, 1813:

The general principles, on which the Fathers achieved independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite….And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all these Sects [denominations of Christianity] were United: . . . Now I will avow, that I then believe, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System.

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If men of wisdom and knowledge, of moderation and temperance, of patience, fortitude and perseverance, of sobriety and true republican simplicity of manners, of zeal for the honour of the Supreme Being and the welfare of the commonwealth; if men possessed of these other excellent qualities are chosen to fill the seats of government, we may expect that our affairs will rest on a solid and permanent foundation.

–Samuel Adams, letter to Elbridge Gerry, November 27, 1780

Let each citizen remember at the moment he is offering his vote that he is not making a present or a compliment to please an individual — or at least that he ought not so to do; but that he is executing one of the most solemn trusts in human society for which he is accountable to God and his country.

–Samuel Adams, in the Boston Gazette, April 16, 1781

[T]he importance of piety and religion; of industry and frugality; of prudence, economy, regularity and an even government; all … are essential to the well-being of a family.

–Samuel Adams, letter to Thomas wells, November 22, 1780

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–Elias Boudinot, Served as President of Congress, signed the Peace Treaty of Paris to end the War for Independence, framer of the Bill of Rights, and respondent to Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason with The Age of Revelation (The Life, Public Services, Addresses, and Letters of Elias Boudinot, J. J. Boudinot, editor (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1896), 1:19, 21, speech in the First Provincial Congress of New Jersey.

Let us enter on this important business under the idea that we are Christians on whom the eyes of the world are now turned… [L]et us earnestly call and beseech Him, for Christ’s sake, to preside in our councils. . . . We can only depend on the all powerful influence of the Spirit of God, Whose Divine aid and assistance it becomes us as a Christian people most devoutly to implore. Therefore I move that some minister of the Gospel be requested to attend this Congress every morning . . . in order to open the meeting with prayer.

 

If the Moral character of a people degenerate, their political character must follow. These considerations should lead to an attentive solicitude to be religiously careful in our choice of all public officers…and judge of the tree by its fruits.

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–Charles Carroll, signer of the Declaration and member of Continental Congress: The Life and Correspondence of James McHenry by Bernard C. Steiner 1907, from a letter from Charles Carroll, Nov. 4, 1800.

Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion, whose morality is so sublime and pure, which insures to the good eternal happiness, are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments.

 Rendering thanks to my Creator for my existence and station among His works, for my birth in a country enlightened by the Gospel and enjoying freedom, and for all His other kindnesses, to Him I resign myself, humbly confiding in His goodness and in His mercy through Jesus Christ for the events of eternity.

From the Last Will & Testament of John Dickinson, attested March 25, 1808. Much of this material is taken from http://www.Wallbuilders.com

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–John Dickinson, The Political Writings of John Dickinson (Wilmington: Bonsal and Niles, 1801), 1:111–112.

[Governments] could not give the rights essential to happiness… We claim them from a higher source: from the King of kings, and Lord of all the earth.

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Benjamin Franklin,

I’ve lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing Proofs I see of this Truth — That God governs in the Affairs of Men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his Notice, is it probable that an Empire can rise without his Aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that except the Lord build the House they labor in vain who build it. I firmly believe this, — and I also believe that without his concurring Aid, we shall succeed in this political Building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our Projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a Reproach and Bye word down to future Ages.

–in a Speech to the Constitutional Convention (28 June 1787);

To Ezra Stiles, 9 March 1790 (B 12:185-6):

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 endeavor in a few words to gratify it. Here is my creed. I believe in one God, the creator of the universe. That he governs by his providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render to 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 points in 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 his 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 corrupting 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 now, 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 consequences, as probably it has, of making his doctrines more respected and more 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 peculiar marks of his displeasure.

The Works of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Putnam’s, 1904)

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–Patrick Henry

Bad men cannot make good citizens. It is impossible that a nation of infidels or idolaters [those who do not believe in God] should be a nation of freemen. It is when a people forget God that tyrants forge their chains. A vitiated state of morals, a corrupted public conscience, is incompatible with freedom. No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue; and by a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.

…Virtue, morality, and religion. This is the armor, my friend, and this alone that renders us invincible. These are the tactics we should study. If we lose these, we are conquered, fallen indeed…so long as our manners and principles remain sound, there is no danger.

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— James Iredell, US Supreme Court Justice under Washington

I think the Christian religion is a divine institution and I pray to God that I may never forget the precepts of His religion or suffer the appearance of an inconsistency in my principles and practice.

–The Papers of James Iredell, Dan Higginbotham editor, Vol 1, p.14.

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–John Jay, 1st Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and President of the American Bible Society

By conveying the Bible to people thus circumstanced, we certainly do them a most interesting kindness. We thereby enable them to learn that man was originally created and placed in a state of happiness, but, becoming disobedient, was subjected to the degradation and evils which he and his posterity have since experienced.

The Bible will also inform them that our gracious Creator has provided for us a Redeemer, in whom all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; that this Redeemer has made atonement “for the sins of the whole world,” and thereby reconciling the Divine justice with the Divine mercy has opened a way for our redemption and salvation; and that these inestimable benefits are of the free gift and grace of God, not of our deserving, nor in our power to deserve.

–In God We Trust—The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers, p. 379.

In forming and settling my belief relative to the doctrines of Christianity, I adopted no articles from creeds but such only as, on careful examination, I found to be confirmed by the Bible.

–American Statesman Series, p. 360.

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–Thomas Jefferson

[Remember, Jefferson first used those words in that personal letter on January 1, 1802, while he was President. On December 3, 1803, nearly 2 years AFTER he wrote that letter, President Jefferson, as an official Presidential act, ordered the extension of the 1787 Act of Congress that designated areas of Federal land “for the sole use of Christian Indians and the Moravian Brethren Missionaries for the civilizing of the Indians and promoting Christianity”. That’s right, the actual language that Jefferson ordered to take place was “promoting Christianity” by the Federal Government. He ordered the same governmental promotion of Christianity to the Wyandotte Indians in 1806 and even again in 1807 to the Cherokee Indians.]

Religion, as well as reason, confirms the soundness of those principles on which our government has been founded and its rights asserted.

–letter to P. H. Wendover

The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man:

1. That there is one only God, and He all perfect.
2. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments.
3. That to love God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself, is the sum of religion.…

Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian.

—To Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse. (1822) The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Edited by Albert Ellery Bergh. 20 vols. Washington: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1907. (Memorial Edition) vol. 15, p. 383.

I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus—very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its Author never said nor saw. They have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man, of which the great Reformer of the vicious ethics and deism of the Jews, were He to return on earth, would not recognize one feature.

—To Charles Thomson. Bergh 14:385. (1816.)

[My views on Christianity] are the result of a life of inquiry & reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.

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–James Madison

It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it [the Constitution] a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.”

“It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.

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— John Marshal, argued, by some to be our greatest Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; a letter to Jasper Adams, May 9, 1833.

The American population is entirely Christian, and with us Christianity and religion are identified. It would be strange indeed, if such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity, and did not often refer to it, and exhibit relations with it.

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–James Monroe, 5th U.S. President

When we view the blessings with which our country has been favored, those which we now enjoy, and the means which we possess of handing them down unimpaired to our latest posterity, our attention is irresistibly drawn to the source from whence they flow. Let us then, unite in offering our most grateful acknowledgments for these blessings to the Divine Author of All Good.

–Monroe made this statement in his 2nd Annual Message to Congress, November 16, 1818.

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–Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, founding father

Blasphemy against the Almighty is denying his being or providence, or uttering contumelious reproaches on our Savior Christ. It is punished, at common law by fine and imprisonment, for Christianity is part of the laws of the land.

When the general convention met, no citizen of the United States could expect less from it than I did, so many jarring interests and prejudices to reconcile – The variety of pressing dangers at our doors, even during the war, were barely sufficient to force us to act in concert and necessarily give way at times to each other – But when the great work was done and published, I was not only most agreeably disappointed, but struck with amazement -Nothing less than that superintending hand of Providence that so miraculously carried us through the war could have brought it about.

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–Benjamin Rush, Signer of the Declaration of Independence and Ratifier of the U.S. Constitution

The only foundation for… a republic is to be laid in Religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.

The gospel of Jesus Christ prescribes the wisest rules for just conduct in every situation of life. Happy they who are enabled to obey them in all situations!

–The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush, pp. 165-166.

Christianity is the only true and perfect religion, and that in proportion as mankind adopts its principles and obeys its precepts, they will be wise and happy.

–Essays, Literary, Moral, and Philosophical, published in 1798.

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–Roger Sherman, founding father

You are further to declare that we hold sacred the rights of conscience, and may promise to the whole people, solemnly in our name, the free and undisturbed exercise of their religion. And…that all civil rights and the right to hold office were extended to persons of any Christian denomination.

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–Joseph Story, Supreme Court Justice and expert on American law, author of Commentaries on the Constitution, 1833

It was under a solemn consciousness of the dangers from ecclesiastical ambition, the bigotry of spiritual pride, and the intolerance of sects… that is was deemed advisable to exclude from the national government all power to act upon the subject.

It yet remains a problem to be solved in human affairs, whether any free government can be permanent, where the public worship of God, and the support of religion, constitute no part of the policy or duty of the state in any assignable shape. The future experience of Christendom, and chiefly of the American states, must settle this problem, as yet new in the history of the world, abundant, as it has been, in experiments in the theory of government.

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–George Washington

Do Not Let Anyone Claim The Tribute of American Patriotism If They Ever Attempt To Remove Religion From Politics.

No country upon earth ever had it more in its power to attain these blessings than United America. Wondrously strange, then, and much to be regretted indeed would it be, were we to neglect the means and to depart from the road which Providence has pointed us to so plainly; I cannot believe it will ever come to pass.

— letter to Benjamin Lincoln, June 29, 1788

No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.

First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789

The blessed Religion revealed in the word of God will remain an eternal and awful monument to prove that the best Institution may be abused by human depravity; and that they may even, in some instances be made subservient to the vilest purposes. Should, hereafter, those incited by the lust of power and prompted by the Supineness or venality of their Constituents, overleap the known barriers of this Constitution and violate the unalienable rights of humanity: it will only serve to shew, that no compact among men (however provident in its construction and sacred in its ratification) can be pronounced everlasting an inviolable, and if I may so express myself, that no Wall of words, that no mound of parchm[en]t can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.

— fragments of the Draft First Inaugural Address, April 1789

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~Daniel Webster, [Early American Jurist and Senator]

If we and our posterity reject religious instruction and authority, violate the rules of eternal justice, trifle with the injunctions of morality, and recklessly destroy the political constitution which holds us together, no man can tell how sudden a catastrophe may overwhelm us that shall bury all our glory in profound obscurity.

Finally, let us not forget the religious character of our origin. Our fathers were brought hither by their high veneration for the Christian religion. They journeyed by its light, and labored in its hope. They sought to incorporate its principles with the elements of their society, and to diffuse its influence throughout all their institutions, civil, political, or literary. Let us cherish these sentiments, and extend this influence still more widely, in the full conviction, that this is the happiest society which partakes in the highest degree of the mild and peaceful spirit of Christianity.

Our ancestors established their system of government on morality and religious sentiment. Moral habits, they believed, cannot safely be trusted on any other foundation than religious principle, not any government secure which is not supported by moral habits…. Whatever makes men good Christians, makes them good citizens.

If we abide by the principles taught in the Bible, our country will go on prospering.

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–Noah Webster, Founding Father, scholar, author of the first and still respected American Dictionary:

When you become entitled to exercise the right of voting for public officers, let it be impressed on your mind that God commands you to choose for rulers, ‘just men who will rule in the fear of God.’ The preservation of [our] government depends on the faithful discharge of this Duty; if the citizens neglect their Duty and place unprincipled men in office, the government will soon be corrupted; laws will be made, not for the public good so much as for selfish or local purposes; corrupt or incompetent men will be appointed to execute the Laws; the public revenues will be squandered on unworthy men; and the rights of the citizen will be violated or disregarded. If [our] government fails to secure public prosperity and happiness, it must be because the citizens neglect the Divine Commands, and elect bad men to make and administer the Laws.

The moral principles and precepts contained in the Scripture ought to form the basis of all our civil constitutions and laws. All the miseries and evil men suffer from vice, crime, ambition, injustice, oppression, slavery, and war, proceed from their despising or neglecting the precepts contained in the Bible.

[T]he Christian religion, in its purity, is the basis, or rather the source of all genuine freedom in government. . . . and I am persuaded that no civil government of a republican form can exist and be durable in which the principles of that religion have not a controlling influence.

The most perfect maxims and examples for regulating your social conduct and domestic economy, as well as the best rules of morality and religion, are to be found in the Bible…All the vice, crime, ambition, injustice, oppression, slavery and war, proceed from their despising or neglecting the precepts contained in the Bible.

The religion which has introduced civil liberty, is the religion of Christ and His apostles, which enjoins humility, piety and benevolence; which acknowledges in every person a brother, or a sister, and a citizen with equal rights. This is genuine Christianity, and to this we owe our free constitutions of governments.

–1832, History of the United States, Noah Webster, America’s God and Country, William Federer, p.678

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–Robert Winthrop, Speaker of the U. S. House

Men, in a word, must necessarily be controlled either by a power within them or by a power without them; either by the Word of God or by the strong arm of man; either by the Bible or by the bayonet.

It may do for other countries, and other governments to talk about the State supporting religion. here, under our own free institutions, it is Religion which must support the State.

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–James Wilson, Signer of the Constitution; U. S. Supreme Court Justice,

Human law must rest its authority ultimately upon the authority of that law which is divine. . . . Far from being rivals or enemies, religion and law are twin sisters, friends, and mutual assistants. Indeed, these two sciences run into each other.

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–John Witherspoon, Signer of the Declaration of Independence, Member of the Continental Congress, President of Princeton College and Pastor.

There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.

–The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men, 1776

Shun, as a contagious pestilence, … those especially whom you perceive to be infected with the principles of infidelity [un-belief in God] or enemies to the power of religion. Whoever is an avowed enemy of God, I scruple not to call him an enemy to his country.

–Sermon at Princeton University, “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men,” May 17, 1776.

To promote true religion is the best and most effectual way of making a virtuous and regular people. Love to God and love to man is the subtance of religion; when these prevail, civil laws will have little to do.The magistrate (or ruling part of any society) ought to encourage piety … [and] make it an object of public esteem. Those who are vested with civil authority ought … to promote religion and good morals among all their government.

–The Works of John Witherspoon, (Edinburgh: J. Ogle, 1815), Vol. IV, p. 265, “Sermon Delivered at Public Thanksgiving After Peace”

He is the best friend of American liberty who is most sincere and active in promoting true and undefiled religion and who sets Himself with the greatest firmness to bear down profanity and immorality of every kind…God grant that in America true religion and civil liberty may be inseparable and that the unjust attempts to destroy the one, may in the issue tend to the support and establishment of both.

–Spoken in a sermon delivered May 17, 1776.

THE FOUNDERS’ REACTION TO THOMAS PAINE’S “AGE OF REASON”

The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue equity and humanity, let the Blackguard [scoundrel, rogue] Paine say what he will.

–John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, Ed., (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856) III:421, dairy entry for July 26, 1796.

Samuel Adams was not quite as cordial as Franklin: (to Paine, referencing “Age of Reason”)

[W]hen I heard you had turned your mind to a defence of infidelity [Atheism], I felt myself much astonished and more grieved that you had attempted a measure so injurious to the feelings and so repugnant to the true interest of so great a part of the citizens of the United States. The people of New England, if you will allow me to use a Scripture phrase, are fast returning to their first love. Will you excite among them the spirit of angry controversy at a time when they are hastening to amity and peace? I am told that some of our newspapers have announced your intention to publish an additional pamphlet upon the principles of your Age of Reason. Do you think your pen, or the pen of any other man, can unchristianize the mass of our citizens, or have you hopes of converting a few of them to assist you in so bad a cause?

William V. Wells, The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1865) III:372-73, to Thomas Paine on Nov. 30, 1802.

–John Jay, co-author of the Federalist Papers and the original Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was comforted by the fact that Christianity would prevail despite Paine’s attack:

I have long been of the opinion that the evidence of the truth of Christianity requires only to be carefully examined to produce conviction in candid minds, and I think they who undertake that task will derived advantages. . . . As to The Age of Reason, it never appeared to me to have been written from a disinterested love of truth or of mankind.

William Jay, The Life of John Jay (NY: J. & J. Harper, 1833) p. 80 from his “Charge to the Grand Jury of Ulster County” on Sept. 9, 1777.

–Zephaniah Swift, author of America’s first law book, warned:

[W]e cannot sufficiently reprobate the beliefs of Thomas Paine in his attack on Christianity by publishing his Age of Reason . . . . He has the impudence and effrontery [shameless boldness] to address to the citizens of the United States of America a paltry performance which is intended to shake their faith in the religion of their fathers . . . . No language can describe the wickedness of the man who will attempt to subvert a religion which is a source of comfort and consolation to its votaries [devout worshipers] merely for the purpose of eradicating all sentiments of religion.

Zephaniah Swift, A System of Laws of the State of Connecticut (Windham: John Byrne, 1796) II:323-24.

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