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The Enlightenment philosophies, pursuits & methods; importance today; how it guides WO.The Enlightenment in the founding of the US, the Founding Fathers, key documents (Constitution, Bill of Rights & more).Religion & Faith--News, issues, analysis, commentary,  research.Society & Social Issues:  News, analysis, commentary, research on contemporary social problems. Education, all levels:  News, analysis, commentary & research on current issues in education.Protecting Children: News, analysis, commentary & research on issues affecting children today.Supreme Court, courts, legislation, judicial activism, judges gone wild, the ACLU agenda & more!World Observer site map/table of contents.

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The Birth of America
  • Early America
  • The Founders--The First Patriots
  • US Founding Documents

Early America

  • Colonial Life
  • Intellectual History
  • The Enlightenment in the Founding of America

Resources for Further Study



Quotes by America's Founders



Christian Conservatives to Host Controversial Scholar at Capitol Hill Forum: The Founders on Religion  Christian Newswire, 6.9.2006


Thomas Jefferson used many ideas that emerged during the Age of Enlightenment, especially those regarding individual rights, in the Declaration of Independence. His thoughts also influenced the writers of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Jefferson believed that the success of democracy depended upon the reasoned decisions of voters. He championed public education in United States politics. When Jefferson became the third United States president in 1801, he implemented many of his ideas regarding government and politics.

"Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost."
-- Thomas Jefferson, 1786



"Though the flame of liberty may sometimes cease to shine, the coal never can expire."  -- Thomas Paine, The Crisis, 1776


Patriotism, sculpture, Capitol




"So convenient it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do."
--Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 1791 

"Knowing that 'Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh in vain,' with fervent supplications for His favor, to His overruling providence I commit with humble but fearless confidence my own fate and the future destinies of my country."
-- President John Quincy Adams, inaugural address, March 4, 1825

"(George Washington) errs as other men do, but errs with integrity."
-- Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Giles, Dec. 31, 1795 

"Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle." óGeorge Washington


"Jefferson's religion," Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

By Gregory Tomlin
Sunday, May 28, 2006

Thomas Jefferson advocated government protection of religious practice rather than the protection of the government from the influence of Judeo-Christian principles.

When Miguel de Cervantes wrote "Don Quixote" in 1605, he employed a turn of phrase that has become a popular modern idiom: "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." The phrase has since evolved and been shortened, perhaps so much so that its original meaning has been obscured.

Cervantes was saying that one never knows if the pudding has been prepared correctly until it is tasted. Simply put, "Don't believe everything you read."

In the debate on separation of church and state, scholars from all sides have employed Thomas Jefferson in their arsenals, some citing his willingness to attend prayer services in federal buildings and others citing his contempt for organized religion and his opposition to the state's interference in his own religious thought life.

But just as Cervantes counseled, one should not judge the matter of Jefferson's opinions on religion or church-state separation before testing his thoughts, rather than the thoughts of men 200 years removed from his life and work.

Was Jefferson favorably disposed to Christianity? Did he believe that religious people should influence government? Was Jefferson a committed proponent of church-state separation and why? What did this son of the Enlightenment really mean when he wrote to Baptists in 1802 of the need for a "wall of separation" between the church and the state?

The opinions of the author of the Declaration of Independence -- a document that mentioned God on multiple occasions -- are most clearly manifest in his bill for establishing religious freedom in Virginia.

In the legislation (written in 1777, adopted in 1786), Jefferson wrote that coerced religious conformity only produces "habits of hypocrisy and meanness" leading to a corruption of true religion -- an act of offense to "its Holy author." Magistrates the world over, he wrote, had promoted false religion throughout history by compulsory taxation in support of churches.

Jefferson's motive for writing the act was, to the public, very simple: He believed that all men had the inalienable right to express their religious opinions and should not be forced to support a religious establishment, a common vestige of Old Europe. But the freedom to follow his own religious opinions, formed early in his life, was at stake in equal measure.

Calvinist 'dogma'

As a precocious child in the Fredericksville, Va., parish, Jefferson sat under the tutelage of a Scottish churchman steeped in Calvinism, a man he later described as completely "uninspired" in his educational methods. Jefferson showed his contempt for Calvinist theology -- and its teaching that God predestines some to heaven and others to hell -- when he described it as a collection of "metaphysical insanities" and "demoralizing" and "atrocious" dogma.

Jefferson favored ethical systems of thought over religious dogma. He believed, as the Greek philosopher Epicures wrote, that happiness was the goal of life. Happiness could come only through moral and noble living rather than through self-indulgence. The finer things of life, such as art, literature, good wine and philosophical conversation, were permissible as long as they were consumed with restraint, self-discipline, and moral judgment.

Jefferson once advised, "Do not bite at the bait of pleasure till you know there is no hook beneath it."

As he was attracted to Epicurean philosophy, he also was attracted to Stoicism and its emphasis on subduing emotion. Merging these two philosophies, Jefferson argued that one should never overindulge in any activity and never allow emotion to supersede rational judgment. From this philosophical base, he pursued a government based on moral and political restraint.

Some religious ideas, however, did shape Jefferson's views on governing. He believed in the idea of a generally benevolent society. That theory of state he drew from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

So enamored with Jesus' teachings, and yet so convinced that the Nazarene was not divine, Jefferson carefully excised any references to miracles, claims of divinity and accounts of Christ's resurrection from the Gospels to construct his own pamphlet on the "pure morals of Jesus of Nazareth." He condensed the four Gospels to 17 concise chapters.

Revering Locke

Rejected by the orthodox, Jefferson still valued Judeo-Christian ethics, the source of most Western political doctrine. He often read the works of John Locke, who wrote of the need for the influence of Christianity in the formation of government. Jefferson saw those who ruled with such principles in mind as valuable to government in expanding a generous and moral society.

In 1814, Jefferson wrote to a friend: "God has formed us moral agents ... that we may promote the happiness of those with whom he has placed us in society by acting benevolently towards all." And that was the sum total of what God required in the pursuit of righteousness, in Jefferson's wayward understanding of Christianity.

With his own religious views outside the mainstream, Jefferson was keenly interested in protecting his right of dissent. He found a ready ally in Baptists, who in spite of their ardent Trinitarian faith agreed that all men should have the right to believe as they wish, even if in error.

Wrote John Leland, a Baptist contemporary of Jefferson, in 1791: "Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men, than it has with the principles of mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three gods, no god, or twenty gods; and let government protect him in doing so."

Leland advocated the protection of government for religious worshippers. But would one such as Jefferson, who supposedly advocated separation of church and state, be so bold as to say such a thing?

The 'wall,' dissected

Yes, he was so bold. In fact, this desire is at the heart of Jefferson's belief that a necessary prerequisite to a free church in a free state was a "wall of separation" between the two. When the two are separated, both are protected. When the two are entangled, both suffer.

Though Jefferson's phrase about the wall of separation in his 1802 letter to Baptists in Danbury, Conn., has earned him much criticism and praise, interpreting the phrase requires a proper understanding of historical context and the lineage of this noble ideal of religious freedom.

When Jefferson wrote the letter, the state of Connecticut still had a Congregational establishment (as did Massachusetts), even though the First Amendment had been adopted at the federal level. As president, Jefferson wanted to extend disestablishment to the state level, believing that what was good for the federal government was good for the states.

Jefferson's federal government was the example. He resisted instituting federal religious holidays, such as a day of thanksgiving or fast days, for this reason. Religious proclamations and worship on whatever day the people wished was a right, he wrote, that could never be safer than in the hands of the people "where the Constitution has deposited it."

But disestablishment did not mean that government and religious bodies would have no relationship. The government was to serve as a guardian, establishing no church, making no law with regard to religion, offering no support of it and ensuring that churches would always be free to preach, teach and minister as they wished.

Jefferson did not fear Christianity and any influence that Christian people might have on government. He did not fear religious debate. Thus, he advocated government protection of religious practice rather than the protection of the government from the influence of Judeo-Christian principles.

Government, Jefferson believed, depended on God for existence and stability. In his second inaugural address, Jefferson noted that his fledgling nation's existence had so far been the result of the blessings of a merciful and benevolent God. He, too, implored God's blessings.

Jefferson believed that "institutional religion" and the state should be separated constitutionally. He would not serve as the nation's high priest, a role that many in the new nation seemingly wished the president to play.

However, the absence of Judeo-Christian principles from government was something he could not fathom. Without these principles, a completely secular government would have no moral or social restraint, as evidenced by the French as they moved from rebellion against raw power in 1789 to the murder of more than 30,000 clergymen, nobility and people of diverse political persuasions during the Reign of Terror two years later.

Separation of church and state never was meant to exclude religious ideas or people from government or even holiday Nativity scenes from capitol lawns.

The First Amendment never was meant to squelch religious expression. It intended to protect both church and state, and prohibit the ability of either power to coerce the other.

We owe a great deal to Thomas Jefferson, who did not limit religious expression in government in the manner in which recent court decisions have. We also owe him for his refusal to tip-toe toward establishment.

Gregory Tomlin holds a doctorate in church history. His master's thesis addressed the concept of liberty of conscience in the lives and writings of Thomas Jefferson and John Leland. This was written for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.






















US Capitol


















The Constitution



Free Online Videos on America's Founding:  View free online videos from Annenberg/CPB, broadcast on most PBS stations, covering the foundations of America:  the colonies, revolution, independence, the Constitution, and more.  Go here for video titles and descriptions.

American Philosophical Society

The Princess and the Patriot- Ekaterina Dashkova, Benjamin Franklin, and the Age of Enlightenment

PDF:  Timeline of the Enlightenment (PDF)

PDF: Press Release- Russia in the Era of Catherine the Great

PDF: What is/was the Enlightenment?

Dictionary of the History of Ideas (Univ. of Virginia Library e-doc)

CONSERVATISM   (perhaps move this ref to "About" or end of Enl)




Ashbrook Center Web Sites
Our web site for social studies teachers and students, featuring an extensive document library, information on our seminars and summer institutes for social studies tecahers, and an audio archive of previous teacher seminars.
A web site to accompany our Presidential Academy program which will lead selected secondary social studies teachers in a careful study of the pivotal turning points in American history memorialized by the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and the "I Have a Dream" speech.
Our web site to accompany Thomas G. West's fine book defending the American founders' views and actions on slavery, women's rights, property rights, voting rights, and other controversial issues.

Smithsonian:  Colonial America
offers primary sources and tools for using them in the
classroom. Use questions -- built around primary documents -- to explore the clashing views of revolutionary colonists and loyalist
colonists. Examine the political, religious, economic, and
social reasons for the Revolution.

Other Resources on the Web

Alliance Defense Fund radio clip: Thomas Jefferson
Alan Sears shares a mini-drama about what Thomas Jefferson really meant by the separation of church and state and how it has been distorted by the ACLU.  

Recently published The Founders on Religion disproves frequent claims that all those gathered at signing of US Declaration of Independence and Constitution were at best Deists and more probably atheists.  Read more 

Violating the Founders' Vision: The Catholic Charities Exemption Bill Threatens What this Country Stands For
Harvard Crimson, Loui Itoh, 3.15.2006

Harvard law student cites John Locke out of context and distorts Founders' philosophy to condemn religion and Catholic Charities and support homosexual and atheist indoctrination agendas.

God and the Founders
MSNBC, John Meacham, 4.10.2006
Battles over faith and freedom may seem never-ending, but a new book, 'American Gospel,' argues that history illuminates how religion can shape the nation without dividing it.






Jefferson, bust in Capitol




Benjamin Franklin, bust in Capitol










John Adams


John Jay, bust in Capitol


Patrick Henry

John Hancock, bust in Capitol




Faith of Our Founding Fathers - Paperback                                                           - By: Tim LaHaye

Religion in the Founding of America

The Myth of Separation Between Church and State

The Constitution and Religion


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Home About WO Enlightenment US Foundations News/Research News/Opinion WO Advocates Forums & Blogs Take Action WO Contents

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