The Founding Fathers Discuss Religion

SETTING: Philadelphia in 1779

CHARACTERS: Benjamin and Julia Rush, Dolly and James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.


BENJAMIN RUSH: I can scarcely believe my good fortune in getting all of you together at the same time here in Philadelphia.

JULIA RUSH: And at our house. It is such a pleasure to see all of you again. It must be six years since you and I had a chance to visit, Dolly.

DOLLY MADISON: It was just before you left Maryland, I believe, at the end of the war.

B. RUSH: Mr. Franklin, it is a great honor to welcome you to our home. All my life I have admired your work in science, philosophy and politics. And most especially, your diplomacy. Your contribution to the Constitutional Conference here two years ago was most admirable.

FRANKLIN: Thank you, Dr. Rush. By the time a man is approaching eighty, he should have achieved a little wisdom and skill in getting people to resolve their differences. I find it helps to realize that none of us is infallible. I admit I was of some use in bringing about an agreement, but of course the real credit for forging out a workable yet principled constitution should go to our good friend here, Mr. James Madison.

JAMES MADISON: Nevertheless, it could not have been done without those speeches of yours, Ben.

FRANKLIN: That may be. But let us not forget that there are other diplomats here tonight. John Adams was as influential as I in the Peace Negotiations in Britain six years ago. And Thomas Jefferson. I have heard good things only recently about your work for us in Europe, Thomas. How long were you there, by the way?

JEFFERSON: Five years. An interesting and fruitful time, but long enough for the girls and me to be away from our own country.

B. RUSH: And what are your plans now?

JEFFERSON: I suppose that I am free to tell you, as my appointment has just been made official this week. I am to serve as our first Secretary of State for foreign affairs.

SEVERAL: Congratulations. Good news for all of us.

J. MADISON: I cannot think of a better person for the job than the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence. Some of us feared that you might retire again to Monticello and that we would lose you from public life.

JEFFERSON: It appears that I will be heavily involved in affairs of state, at least for a while. Although the idea of retirement in Virginia to contemplate religious and philosophical issues has considerable appeal for me. What about you, James?

J. MADISON: For me also, although I suppose that not a few of us here will find ourselves involved in the political life of our country for some time to come.

JOHN ADAMS: In fact, at the risk of being a trifle immodest, we might even say that you have gathered here a number of the present and future leaders of the nation, Ben. Do you agree?

B. RUSH: True, but I hope you will not be offended when I tell you that it was not for your expertise in politics that I have invited you here tonight.

D. MADISON: Oh? This gets more and more interesting. Pray, why are we together here in your lovely home on this fine summer evening?

B. RUSH: I am beginning to feel like a devious manipulator of some kind, so I had best be out with it at once. What I would like us to discuss tonight is not political, but philosophical affairs. Not diplomacy, but morality.

FRANKLIN: I, for one, have no objection to that. All my life I have talked about morality. I even published Poor Richard's Almanack as a guide to good living for ordinary people. One might even say that moral issues are something of a passion with me.

ADAMS: And with me, Ben. In fact, my particular religious position tends to emphasize good works here on earth.

J. RUSH: Would you tell us something about your religion, Mr. Adams?

ADAMS: It is a liberal variety, with roots in both Christianity and Renaissance Humanism. It is developing rapidly in England and Europe, and is recently being called Unitarianism in England. We emphasize the use of reason, respect for others' religious beliefs, and what one might call morality in human affairs.

J. RUSH: Is that not the religion of Joseph Priestley in England --- the scientist who is under attack by the Church of England at the present time?

FRANKLIN: Yes indeed. I happen to have received a letter from our mutual friend, Thomas Paine, who is in England now, as you know. Thomas tells me that Priestley is suffering severely for his views. He is leading a campaign of the liberal Dissenters for abolition of laws giving special privileges to the Church of England and denying full freedom to other religious groups. Priestley's Unitarianism is considered the ultimate heresy there right now. He is being accused as well of disloyalty and treason, because he has written in support of the American and French revolutions. Thomas is worried. He says that Priestley is a marked man.

J. MADISON: What about Tom Paine himself? I understand that since the first volume of his Rights of Man has been printed in England he also is being accused of treason.

FRANKLIN: He mentioned the possibility of going to France, if the situation becomes too dangerous. Tom says he suggested it to Priestley as well, but, so far, Priestley refuses to be run from his own home and country, simply for daring to question the prevailing political and religious beliefs.

D. MADISON: Mr. Adams, you say you are a Unitarian also. Have you suffered in this country because of your beliefs?

JOHN ADAMS: Not really. Although I must admit that I do not discuss them openly. By the way, there is in New England a form of religious liberalism -- called Arminianism - which is not as radical as Priestley's Unitarianism, and appears to be more acceptable to many Americans. Like Priestley, the Arminians do not believe in Hell, Original Sin, and the Trinity. But Priestley's Unitarians put more stress upon the human nature of Jesus than the American liberals do. It is this last point that (understandably) seems to arouse the ire of the Christian churches.

B. RUSH: Julia and I belong to a somewhat similar religious movement. It is called Universalism. It stresses not so much the unity of God, but the unity (within diversity) of all humanity. And it holds out the promise of universal salvation.

D. MADISON: No Hell?

J. RUSH: Hell? No. But a Heaven possible for all humans, rather than only for a select few that are "saved".

FRANKLIN: Both these approaches are reasonably congenial to me, so long as they admit to the capacity of humans to understand themselves and the world in which they live, without resort to miracles and revelations. My belief has always been that reason and the senses should be used not only in studying the nature of things, but in discovering as well what is "good" or of supreme worth for humanity.

J. MADISON: You sound exactly like Priestley. But I agree. And let us remember to emphasize the importance of freedom to choose what one believes to be of goodness and worth. Montaigne once said that Christians were never so happy as when killing others for their beliefs.

D. MADISON: But is that really fair? Surely we have seen the last of that phase of Christianity.

JEFFERSON: I wish I could feel confident about that. It is exactly ten years since the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was passed, during my term of office as Governor of that State. James, you recall how hard you had to work to get it through.

J. MADISON: Yes. And I think that we can both be very proud of that piece of legislation. Its principles are established as the law of the entire country now.

ADAMS: You have set an example for all of us, and perhaps for other countries as well.

JEFFERSON: And yet...and yet...I still do not feel comfortable about expressing my religious opinions in public, especially not in Virginia. I consider myself a Priestley Unitarian, by the way, and a very lonely one. I understand that my musings on religion in my book, Notes on Virginia, have created a storm of protests and some rather vicious name calling.

FRANKLIN: I suppose we must expect that. After all, we are challenging the very foundations of the way most of our fellow citizens have defined themselves since birth! However, it is good that we can find kindred spirits on an evening like this. We seem in considerable agreement here, where religious matters are concerned. Would you say that we all think that freedom of religion is a necessary condition; that good people living good lives is the goal of religion; and that a combination of reason and sense is the best means of determining what is good or of worth for humanity?

B. RUSH: We might agree that far. There are bound to be different views on issues around the existence and nature of God represented among us, but perhaps we can ignore that. My question now is to what degree is the general public likely to be in tune with us? How many of our neighbors would agree that we should be ignoring doctrinal differences and concentrating on how to live good lives?

J. MADISON: Do you have a particular reason for asking that?

B. RUSH: Yes I do. The Universalist movement is planning a convention this year. Julia and I would like to see it become broader. We would like to send out a call for all Christians to come together and frame a common religious platform based on reason and good works. Then perhaps we could issue a declaration on an American approach to religion in keeping with our position on human rights.

JEFFERSON: Are you thinking of a governing statement about morality and religious attitudes that could guide our nation's ethical stance in the future, much as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are intended to do in the legal and civil realm?

J. RUSH: That is it, exactly.

FRANKLIN: It is an appealing vision, Dr. Rush. Your suggestion would be a large step in the right direction. You youngsters should give it a try. But I fear that it will not be accomplished in my lifetime, and perhaps not even in yours.

ADAMS: A religion for all Americans. No --- more than that--- a religion for all mankind, based on ethical principles rather than myths and superstition: principles that apply to all because of our common humanity and occupation of the earth. I believe that, in some far-off century our descendants will achieve it, or else our kind shall perish from this earth because of its absence.

J. RUSH: On that mixed note of hope and foreboding, perhaps we could all move into the dining room for dinner.

(A "playlet" excerpted from Pat Duffy Hutcheon, On the Shoulders of Giants: A Senior-level R.E. Curriculum for Unitarian Universalist Churches, 1987.)