This morning I read an excellent essay by Jonathan Den Hartog on the religious beliefs of John Jay–Founding Father, Federalist, diplomat, Supreme Court justice, and promoter of Christian voluntary societies. I have been talking a bit about Jay in my U.S. survey course this week and I am trying to write part of a chapter on his religious beliefs for my book on Christian America, so the timing could not have been any better.
Den Hartog’s essay appears in a valuable new collection entitled The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life (Notre Dame, 2009), edited by Daniel L. Driesbach, Mark David Hall, and Jeffry Morrison The book sets out to examine the religious beliefs of those men and women who the editors call “The Forgotten Founding Fathers.” While I think the title is a bit of a stretch (can we really say that Samuel Adams, Abigail Adams, Thomas Paine, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and Patrick Henry are “forgotten?”), it offers a study of the religious beliefs of the so-called “Founders” that takes us beyond the usual suspects: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington. In addition to Samuel Adams, Abigail Adams, Paine, Jay, and Henry, the book includes essays on Oliver Ellsworth, Edmund Randolph, Roger Sherman, and Mercy Otis Warren. I am looking forward to reading some of these essays. The editors of this volume have done a real service for those of us who think, teach, and write about religion and the American Revolution. Mark Noll writes the book’s foreword.
After reading Den Hartog’s essay in this book, it is hard not to see Jay as one of the most self-consciously Christian “Founders.” He clearly connected his orthodox Protestant beliefs to the moral good of the new United States and even advocated for a “Christian nation.” (Although for Jay this meant an orthodox PROTESTANT Christian nation. He actually went out of his way at times to prevent Catholics from participating in the political life of the country). Jay’s religious roots were Calvinist (Huguenot), but he spent most of his religious life in the Anglican Church. If you read Jay’s religious rhetoric, especially during his stint later in life when he served a number of Christian voluntary societies, he sounds very, very evangelical. He regularly wrote about the workings of “Providence” in the world. (Den Hartog explains that when Jay wrote about “Providence” he meant it in an orthodox Christian way, as opposed to the more rationalist views of “Providence” employed by Washington, Franklin, or Adams). In fact, Jay even used this language of Providence in Federalist Paper #2 where he connected national unity to the plan of God.
Den Hartog’s essay is the best thing I have ever read on Jay’s religion. I know that Jay is an important player in Den Hartog’s current book project on Federalist religion–a book I am eager to read.