Faith of our Fathers 

We frequently hear it said by conservatives that we have gotten away from the religion of our founders and the ideals which made us great -- meaning those of fundamentalists.

But a close examination of the words and actions of such leaders shows just the opposite.

Our early settlers knew the years of fighting and misery in England and Europe that had been caused by different religious factions, and were determined to have something better here.

Our presidents have included several Unitarians, and some men who never joined any church. Others did not become a church member until after their term in Washington, so that their religion would not be a matter of public comment.

From the beginning of the Republic, leaders of different faiths favored the separation of church and state, which is now under attack.

From the beginning, Georgia was a religious mixture. The trustees in London had meant it to be Anglican. But a ship with 42 Hebrews aboard arrived in Savannah from England in July, 1733, only a few months after James Oglethorpe had landed.

The Trustees were furious, and urged him not to allow the Jews to settle here. But Oglethorpe needed settlers, as an epidemic had already killed more than ten percent of his little flock.

His physician, William Cox, had been among the first to die. Aboard the good ship William and Sarah was Dr. Samuel Nunes Ribero, who had served in Lisbon as the doctor to the Grand Inquisitor. Then he escaped with his family by pretending to go on a picnic, and heading instead for London.

Dr. Nunes was a specialist in infectious diseases, and set about bettering sanitary conditions in the colony, saving many lives. He may be considered Georgia’s first public hero.

A group of Lutherans, refugees from Catholic Salzburg, arrived a few months later. Oglethorpe directed them up the Savannah River to a place which they named Ebenezer. Since they spoke German, they were soon friends with the Jews, some of whom were German.

Then came the Puritans from New England to settle at Midway, the Scottish highlanders at Darien, and the Moravians. When the American Revolution came, these settlers were among its most loyal patriots.

Thus we have the Puritan’s Liberty County, the only one in the state honoring an ideal rather than a person. Chatham County was named for William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham, who spoke out against the war in Parliament.

The Salzburgers called their county Effingham, after an English nobleman who resigned his commission in the British Army rather than serve in America.

The Jews stoutly supported the Rebellion, with the men enlisting in the Continental Army. Their families fled to Charleston while Savannah was occupied, because the British considered them all dangerous rebels.

Effingham County was also occupied, and the British there worried that the German-speaking women might entice the Hessian soldiers to desert. They called them “more dangerous than the men.”

Later, when George Washington became the president, the congregation of Mickve Israel sent him a letter of congratulation. His warm reply concluded, “may every denomination participate in the spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.”

Even George would be a poor model for the fundamentalists. He was christened an Episcopalian, as were others of his social class in plantation Virginia.

But William A. DeGregorio, in his The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents, says of him, “Religion played only a minor role in his life. He had a moral code based on his own sense of right and wrong, and followed it rigidly. He rarely referred to God in his writings, but rather to Providence. He strongly believed in fate, that some things were simply meant to be.”

One of Washington’s favorite writers was Thomas Paine, an agnostic. Paine had kept the patriotic fervor alive in the war’s darkest hours, with such phrases as “These are the times that try men’s souls.” He also said, “The world is my country, all mankind are my brothers, and to do good, is my religion.”

The Bill of Rights was ratified during Washington’s first term in office, with its first amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion.

Our second president was John Adams, a Unitarian. He rejected the idea of the Trinity, and hated rigid Calvanism. He had little use for organized religion and said that he saw his duty as “doing no wrong, but all the good I can.”

Adams was followed by Thomas Jefferson, a religious liberal. He never joined any church and considered himself a Deist, with his own moral code.

Above all, he considered religion a wholly personal matter, and favored the absolute separation of church and state.

These liberal views won him an international reputation.

But he was denounced as an atheist by Anglican churches, which had enjoyed state support. On the other hand, his ideals were hailed by the Baptists, who did not want their tax money to go to any other church!

Jefferson explained that to him the issue was not whether God exists, but that all views on the subject should be tolerated.

“It does me no harm,” he said, “for my neighbor to say there are 20 Gods, or none. It neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg.”

His ideas were never meant to be “freedom from religion,” as some critics now claim. Rather, they were meant to give smaller groups, such as the Baptists, a chance to grow without state interference.

Jefferson was elected president in spite of a hate campaign that warned that with him in Washington, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced.” And we think our presidential campaigns get pretty rough!

After leaving the White House, Jefferson founded the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, designing the buildings and drawing up a course of study which omitted “religious instruction.”

He was followed by James Madison, an Episcopalian, who had earlier opposed a tax to support the Episcopal Church in Virginia.

In Congress, Madison was a strong supporter of the Bill of Rights, and helped bring about its passage.

Then we had John Quincy Adams, another Unitarian, and son of John Adams.

After leaving the presidency, Adams felt that he still had much to do. Known as “The president who wouldn’t quit,” he became the only former Chief Executive to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He strongly opposed the Mexican War and the annexation of Texas.

But his greatest victory was over the Gag Rule, which had been passed to keep anti-slavery petitions from being introduced in Congress. This rule was finally repealed in 1844, through his efforts, and he read Abolitionist petitions into the Congressional Record.

He also took the legal case of the slave mutineers who had taken over the Spanish ship Amistad, in order to free themselves. He won that fight before the Supreme Court in 1841, and earned the title “Old Man Eloquent.”

Adams suffered a fatal stroke on the floor of the House in 1848 while casting a loud vote “No!” to the proposal to decorate some generals of the Mexican War.

At this, his clergyman and friend Theodore Parker said, “We have lost a noble fighter for our inalienable rights.”

Another Unitarian president was Millard Fillmore, of Buffalo, N.Y. As a state assemblyman, he had tried to abolish a New York law requiring witnesses in court to swear a belief in God.

Fillmore was a friend of the reformer Dorothea Dix, whose main cause was better treatment of the mentally ill. He did all that he could to help her in this work. He backed her plan for asylums in every state, and saw one for members of the military established near Washington.

The presidents who never joined any church included Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, U.S. Grant, and Chester A. Arthur.

When Lincoln came on the political scene, he was charged with being “an open scoffer” at religion. He replied that it was true that he belonged to no church.

However, he said, “I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or any denomination. I do not think that I could support any man for office who was an open enemy of, or scoffer at, religion. No man has the right to thus insult the feelings of the community in which he may live.”

Teddy Roosevelt was of the Dutch Reformed faith, but attended many churches. His favorite Biblical passage was “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only.”

He was another firm supporter of the separation of church and state. He even considered it both unconstitutional and sacrilegious to have “In God We Trust,” on U.S. coins.

While president, he tried unsuccessfully to have that removed. Roosevelt was also known as the Great Conservationist, who established the first national wildlife refuge. He was the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1906, for mediating a treaty between Japan and Russia.

After him came William Howard Taft, who wrote, “I am a Unitarian because there is much of the orthodox creed to which I cannot subscribe. But I am not a scoffer at religion. I recognize the elevating influence which it has had, and will have, in the history of mankind.”

During his campaign, he refused to engage in “a dogmatic discussion of creed,” with those who had called him an atheist.

John Kennedy, our first Catholic president, seldom spoke of his religious beliefs. He favored family planning, and opposed federal aid to parochial schools.

“I believe,” he said, “in the absolute separation of church and state.”

His opponent was Richard Nixon, a Quaker who had rejected the idea of pacifism to enlist in the Navy during World War II. He also loved to play poker!

With leaders such as these, it is difficult to see how some neoconservatives can depict our country as moving forth with a single voice, a single religion. Such a simplistic view would have to ignore the beliefs of the Jews, the Deists, Unitarians, and many others.

Even former President Jimmy Carter would be suspect. He favors the ordination of women, and has said that he does not adhere to a completely literal interpretation of the Bible.

To us, it would seem that the “Faith of our Fathers” was always one which stood for the rights of the individual. Above all else, it believes that the separation of church and state must be maintained for the good of the country and all its citizens.

Margaret W. DeBolt is a Savannah writer whose books include Savannah Spectres and Other Strange Tales, and Savannah, a Historic Portrait.

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Margaret DeBolt


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