Skip to main content

The Religion of James Monroe

ISSUE:  Autumn 2003

James Monroe, fifth president of the United States, was born on April 28, 1758, in a home four miles from the birthplace of George Washington. He was the eldest son of Spence Monroe, a moderately prosperous planter in Westmoreland County. After studying in a classical academy, Monroe entered the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1774. As political tension with Great Britain mounted, Monroe became active in the revolutionary cause. Entering the Continental Army in 1776, he was quickly commissioned a lieutenant. He participated in battles in New York and New Jersey, wintered with Washington at Valley Forge, and was seriously wounded in the Battle of Trenton. Though he actually crossed the Delaware River in an advance guard several hours before Washington, he is depicted in Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting Washington Crossing the Delaware as standing behind Washington and carrying the colors. In 1780 Monroe left the army as a colonel to study law at William and Mary and in Richmond under Thomas Jefferson, who became a lifelong friend, political mentor, and neighbor.

In the next decades Monroe practiced law in Fredericksburg and served in the Virginia House of Delegates and on the Council of the State of Virginia. He gained additional political experience in the Congress of the Confederation and as minister to France during the Washington administration. With Jefferson and James Madison, he helped to organize the Democratic-Republican party. He became known for his administrative ability, for his decision-making ability, and for his ability to build consensus.

After one term as governor of Virginia, Monroe was catapulted to national fame by his role in the Louisiana Purchase. Following additional terms as minister to France, Great Britain, and Spain in the Jefferson administration, and as secretary of state and secretary of war under James Madison during the War of 1812, he was elected fifth president of the United States in 1816. His two terms as president are noted for the Era of Good Feelings, the Missouri Compromise, the establishment of the Indian Territory, the purchase of Florida, and especially the Monroe Doctrine.

In 1786, when he was 28, Monroe married 17-year-old Elizabeth Kortright of New York City. In 1799 he built and moved to the plantation of Highland (renamed “Ash Lawn” by a later owner and now known as “Ash Lawn-Highland”) in Albemarle County, Virginia. It was adjacent not only to Jefferson’s Monticello but also to the plantation of Colle owned by Philip Mazzei, an Italian-American patriot, vintner, and author closely associated with Jefferson. After serving two terms and leaving the presidency at the age of 67, Monroe gave up his dream of retiring to Highland. Selling it to satisfy his creditors, he settled on his plantation of Oak Hill in Loudoun County, Virginia. Elizabeth Monroe, whose increasingly fragile health had provided another reason for moving closer to Washington, died in 1830. Ten months later, on July 4,1831, Monroe died in New York City at the home of his younger daughter, Maria Hester Gouverneur. He became the third American president—Jefferson and John Adams were the other two—to die on July 4.

To discuss the religion of Monroe and the Founding Fathers means to discuss religion in the United States of their time.

Like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, James Monroe was born and baptized in what Virginians of the time called the Church, the Church of England, the Established Church, or the Church of Virginia. The independence of the 13 colonies prompted the American members of the Church of England to rename their church and to discard the word “England.” In its place, they adopted in the 1780s the term Episcopal (essentially meaning “we have bishops”) and renamed their denomination The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. The name traced back to the tumultuous Commonwealth period in English history, when clergy and laity who desired continued rule by bishops used that term for themselves. In later centuries the term Anglican (from the Latin for “English”) came into common use to describe churches in any country that held the faith and practice of the Church of England. This article will use the terms Church of England, Established Church, and Anglican interchangeably for all references to the colonial period, but will generally employ the word Episcopal when discussing the same church after the independence of the United States.

Throughout the colonial period, the Church of England was the established church of colonial Virginia. Colonial Virginians were born into the Anglican faith just as they were born into English citizenship. The Virginia General Assembly legislated for its established church, supported it through taxation, and protected it against competition. State churches represented the norm in European Christianity beginning in the fourth century. Nine of America’s 13 colonies had established churches. Congregationalism (or the faith of the Puritans) was established in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Anglicanism was established in the lower counties of New York, as well as in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. It was strong, however, only in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina.

A form of Christianity that claims to blend the best of Christian teachings and practice from the periods of the apostles, church fathers, and Reformation, Anglicanism emerged from the English Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. Like Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, it kept a hierarchical ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons and maintained a formal style of worship. Like those churches, its members also used a mass book, or book of prayers and rites. Titled the Book of Common Prayer, it was intended to reproduce the worship and teachings of early Christianity.

But like Protestant churches, the Church of England held that Holy Scripture—not the teachings of popes or church councils—was the final authority for Christian belief. It accepted the authority of the early General Councils and emphasized the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds as standards of orthodox faith precisely because it believed their teachings were true to Scripture. Like the Continental Protestant churches and unlike Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, it believed that churches could and did err in their teachings.

Anglicanism can best be viewed as what Queen Elizabeth I of England and her theologians desired it to be. They attempted to make the Church of England a middle way—or via media—between Roman Catholicism and Calvinism, the two interpretations of Christianity that contended for control of England in the Reformation period. Their decision did not emerge simply from a sense of compromise; Elizabeth—who had strong theological convictions— and her theological advisors believed that the Anglican middle way reproduced the Christianity of the early centuries. Anglican theologians asserted that Roman Catholicism had added too much man-made doctrine to Christianity. But they also believed that the teachings of the Swiss Reformer John Calvin, or Calvinism—which had won over Scotland and was embodied in England by the Puritans—had subtracted too much that was important to Christianity. With England divided between these views of Christianity, and with many citizens desiring only an end to conflict, Elizabeth and her advisors tried to steer a middle course patterned upon early Christianity.

Finding the middle course is one thing and keeping to it is another. Thus it was not surprising that the Church of England quickly developed parties, or factions. The high-church party wanted the national church to tack more towards Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. The low-church party wanted to move Anglican faith and practice closer to Reformation faiths of Calvinism and Lutheranism. Largely, however, the Church of England remained what it had become during the reign of Elizabeth I—a church more Catholic than the Continental Protestant churches, but one substantially more Protestant than the Catholic churches centered around Rome and Constantinople. It claimed to be a unique synthesis of Catholicism and Protestantism.

Anglicanism came to Virginia in 1607, first at Jamestown and then in ever-widening settlements along Virginia’s rivers and newly created roads. Whenever settlers moved too far from existing courthouses and parishes, the General Assembly of Virginia simply established new counties and new parishes. Parishes were geographical districts, perhaps 150 square miles in size, containing two to four Anglican churches, a minister called a rector, and a governing body of self-perpetuating laymen called a vestry headed by two church-wardens. Gradually Virginia became dotted with parishes containing substantial churches of Gothic or Georgian design. By the start of the American Revolution, Virginia’s Established Church had some 250 churches spread over 100 parishes stretching as far west as Kentucky.

All of this is essential background for the religion of Monroe. Born into an Anglican family, Monroe was baptized in Washington Parish in Westmoreland County. He studied at Campbelltown Academy, a noted academy run by the Rev. Archibald Campbell, the rector of Washington Parish; secretary of state and chief justice John Marshall was one of his classmates. He went to an Anglican college, the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, where the president and faculty were clergy of the Established Church. There Monroe was required to attend not only daily morning and evening prayer in the College chapel in what is today the Sir Christopher Wren Building but also Sunday worship at neighboring Bruton Parish Church.

When Congress moved to New York City, Monroe met and married an Episcopalian, Elizabeth Kortright. Their marriage occurred at her home parish of Trinity Church on Wall Street. The couple raised their two daughters—Eliza and Maria Hester—as Episcopalians. While practicing law in Fredericksburg, Monroe attended St. George’s Episcopal Church and briefly served as a vestryman of St. George’s Parish. Even after the disestablishment of the Episcopal Church in 1784, holding such an office continued to be part of the normal expectation of members of the Virginia gentry. He served on the board of visitors of William and Mary, where membership in the Episcopal Church was almost a prerequisite for service. While president of the U.S., he occupied the President’s Pew in St. John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, opposite the White House. Its rector officiated when Maria Hester was married at the White House in 1820.

When Monroe died in 1831, he was buried from Trinity Church, the principal Episcopal church in New York City. The Episcopal bishop of New York and the rector of Trinity Church conducted the service from the Book of Common Prayer. In the same month the Episcopal bishop of Virginia conducted a memorial service for Monroe in Virginia. In 1858 his coffin was disinterred from its burial vault in a private cemetery in Manhattan and moved to the Episcopal Church of the Annunciation on West 14th Street in Manhattan, where the public could view it. The coffin was then moved by steamer to Richmond and reinterred with pageantry in Hollywood Cemetery. A Presbyterian minister delivered the prayer of commitment.

During his lifetime, Monroe lived in six Virginia parishes— Washington (where he was born), Bruton (where he attended college), Henrico (where he studied law and served as governor), St. George’s (where he practiced law), St. Anne’s (when he lived in Charlottesville and for a quarter of a century resided at Highland), and Shelburne (when he retired to Oak Hill). Yet over the years Monroe’s biographers have rarely mentioned his religious views. Even those who have written books on the religion of the American presidents have found little to say when they have reached the religion of the fifth president of the United States. There is a reason for this dearth of material, and it is called Deism.

From the late 17th century on, a school of religious thought called Deism existed in England and on the Continent. It emerged from the Enlightenment, a complex movement of ideas marked by an emphasis on rationalism as well as a self-confident challenge of traditional political, religious, and social ideas. The scientific and philosophical work of three Englishmen—Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke—undergirded the Enlightenment.

A philosopher and lawyer, Bacon insisted that observation and experience—not abstract principles—provided the only true foundations of human knowledge. Applying Bacon’s methodology to science, Isaac Newton, the leading physicist of his time, concentrated on discovering and reporting immutable laws of nature. For Bacon a “first cause” created the universe, which operated according to natural laws. Locke, a philosopher, argued that human experience and rationality—rather than religious dogma and mystery— determined the validity of human beliefs. Locke’s test of truth was whether a belief made sense to human reason.

Bacon, Newton, and Locke were all Anglicans of varying degrees of orthodoxy. But their work and that of other philosophers and scientists provided the foundation for Deism’s new understanding of the universe and of human life. Thus Deism was Enlightenment religion. Although it emerged from the Judeo-Christian tradition and was viewed by many supporters as consistent with Christianity, it was essentially a new religion. And Western religion has never been the same since its emergence.

During the 18th century and into the 19th, Deism had adherents throughout continental Europe, the British Isles, and the American colonies. It became the creed of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II and of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Because it was guided by individual reason, the movement was neither organized nor uniform. Thus some Deists renounced Christian belief more thoroughly than others.

Personified in England, France, and America by such figures as Anthony Collins, Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet), and Thomas Paine, the movement’s most radical wing viewed Christianity as a barrier to moral improvement and to social justice. In successive books and tracts written early in the 18th century, Collins defended the use of reason, found fraud in one part of the Church of England’s statement of faith, attacked clergy of all denominations, argued that the Bible commanded free inquiry, and denied any relationship between Old Testament prophecies and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The keen-witted Voltaire satirized competing philosophical systems, argued for the use of reason as common sense, and spread Locke’s ideas on political and religious tolerance. Perhaps no writer has attacked dogmatic Christianity more effectively.

By political accident, Paine lived in Monroe’s home in Paris for a time while Monroe served as minister to France. Paine had left the United States to assist the French Revolution. Like other Founding Fathers, Monroe had been impressed by his patriotic writings during the Revolutionary War; Paine had especially befriended Benjamin Franklin but also Monroe, Jefferson, John Adams, and Washington (though he later broke with the last two).

Arrested on contrived charges during the Reign of Terror, Paine was one of many persons released from Paris prisons through Monroe’s adroit interventions. Long months in prison had left him in bad health, and the Monroes took him into their residence in Paris to convalesce. They expected that he would stay for a short time, but he became the man who came to dinner. For two years Paine recuperated with the Monroes and their first daughter and participated in their social circle. He and Monroe formed a close friendship that lasted until Paine’s death in 1809. It is inconceivable that Paine and Monroe did not discuss religion during this period, just as it is inconceivable that Monroe did not discuss religion with his mentor, Thomas Jefferson.

Written during 1793 and 1794, partially in the French jail and partially at Monroe’s home, Paine’s The Age of Reason (published in 1794—95) helped to popularize Deism in the United States. Paine wrote the second part (which deals with the Bible) using a King James Version borrowed from the Monroes. Because it mercilessly assaulted and lampooned Judeo-Christian beliefs, the book alienated many of his previous supporters. To orthodox American Christians, Paine became a villain and an “infidel”—a term that orthodox Christians began to use for Deists.

The Age of Reason denied “that the Almighty ever did communicate anything to man, by any mode of speech, in any language, or by any kind of vision.” Paine termed Christianity “a fable, which, for absurdity and extravagance is not exceeded by any thing that is to be found in the mythology of the ancients.” The book’s hammer-like approach to the Bible is displayed by its treatment of two verses in the Gospel of Matthew. The passage (Matthew 27:52—53) depicts deceased followers of Jesus rising from their graves and going into Jerusalem after the crucifixion:

The writer . . . should have told us who the saints were . . . and what became of them afterward . . .whether they came out naked . . . or . . . full dressed, and where they got their dresses; whether they went to their former habitations, and reclaimed their wives, their husbands, and their property, and how they were received; whether they . . .brought actions of crim. con. against the rival interlopers; . . .whether they died again, or went back to their graves alive, and buried themselves. . . .

Other Deists tried to reconcile Deism with Christianity. Viewing themselves as Christians, they attended church, prayed, and assigned a high role to Jesus. Certain clergy in the Christian churches of France, the British Isles, Germany, America, and other countries held Deistic views in the 18th century. Deists were found even in Roman Catholic pews and pulpits in Maryland.

Regardless of where they fell on the Deist spectrum, many Deists continued to respect the moral teachings of Jesus without believing in his divine status. But the tendency of Deism was to emphasize ethical endeavors and to replace the Judeo-Christian explanation of existence with a religion of reason and nature. In the understanding of the typical Deist, a rational “Supreme Architect”—one of a variety of terms Deists used for the deity—created the earth and human life. But this omnipotent and unchangeable creator-architect then withdrew to let events on earth take their course without further interfering.

Just as a ticking watch presupposes a watchmaker, so Deists thought that the rational, mechanistic harmony of nature revealed a deity. Governed by reason—which Paine called “the most formidable weapon against errors of every kind”—the human mind possessed the ability to comprehend the natural laws God had initiated. In the 17th century, a forerunner of Deism—Edward Herbert, first Lord Herbert of Cherbury—formulated what have become known as the classic five points of Deism. Herbert stated that (1) there is a God; (2) he ought to be worshiped; (3) virtue is the principal element in this worship; (4) humans should repent for their sins; and (5) there is a life after death, where the evil will be punished, and the good rewarded.

Herbert (whose brother, interestingly enough, was the orthodox Anglican cleric and devotional poet George Herbert) technically lived too early to be termed a “Deist.” But his reduction of the essence of religion to these five points and his rejection of revelation have caused many to view him as the forerunner, or father, of the movement. Herbert’s five-point program, of course, is far from atheism, for he was more assured of the existence of a God of the living and the dead who ought to be worshiped than are some who occupy church or synagogue pews today. For that reason, Theodore Roosevelt’s later description of Thomas Paine as “a filthy little atheist” was incorrect. For Paine, who actually wrote his book as an antidote for the atheism that was sweeping revolutionary France, Christianity was the infidel, and he was the faithful believer. Declaring The Age of Reason his “profession of faith,” Paine wrote: “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.”

Yet if a reader cannot call Deism “atheistic,” it is equally impossible to call the movement “Christian.” For Deists repeatedly called into question any teaching or belief of Christianity that they could not reconcile with human reason. On this basis many Deists dismissed the doctrines of the Trinity, the incarnation, the virgin birth, and the resurrection. In addition, they found the concept that God revealed himself to humanity through the Bible faulty when subjected to rational analysis. Because they believed that only an imperfect God would suspend his universal laws to perform “irrational” acts, they dismissed biblical miracles. Paine found the doctrine of the atonement—the Christian teaching that Christ died on behalf of sinful humanity—so irrational that he declared he could not fathom how anyone in possession of full faculties could honestly believe in it.

Moreover, most Deists differed from the Judeo-Christian tradition in their concept of God. Judaism and Christianity asserted that a God named Yahweh had revealed himself to Moses at Mt. Sinai. This God was the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, the kings, the prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, and Paul the Apostle. He was a God whom the Bible depicts as acting in history and hearing prayers. In place of this Hebrew God, Deists postulated a distant deity to whom they referred with terms such as “the First Cause,” “the Creator of the Universe,” “the Divine Artist,” “the Divine Author of All Good,” “the Grand Architect,” “the God of Nature,” “Nature’s God,” “Divine Providence,” and (in a phrase used by Franklin) “the Author and Owner of our System.” Examples of this wording are found in the Declaration of Independence.

Thus Deism inevitably undermined the personal religion of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the world view of the typical Deist, humans had no need to read the Bible, to pray, to be baptized or go through a bar mitzvah, to receive Holy Communion, to attend synagogue or church, or to heed the words or ministrations of misguided clergymen or rabbis. But the more radical Deists went further than simply absenting themselves from religious rites. Instead, they criticized Christianity and organized religion in general not only for fostering divisive sectarianism but also for encouraging persecution and for stifling freedom of thought and speech throughout history. “Persecution . . .is always the strongly marked feature of all religions,” Paine wrote in The Rights of Man. As the French philosopher Denis Diderot’s hyperbolic words—”let us strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest”—indicate, Deists despised political and religious despotism. Their fundamental belief in reason and equality drove them to embrace liberal political ideals. Thus in the 18th century, many Deists advocated such 20th-century commonplaces as universal education, freedom of the press, and separation of church and state.

Today some aspects of Deism are continued in the United States in the Masonic order, in the Unitarian-Universalist denomination, in the Ethical Culture movement, in the historical-critical approach to the Bible, in the tradition of free thought, and to some extent in the Religious Society of Friends (or Quakers). But the spirit of rational inquiry, of skepticism about dogma, and of religious toleration that animated Deism has also influenced the religious views of many persons who occupy pews in mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches and in Reform and Conservative Judaism.

Among educated 18th-century Americans, the idea of reason as a liberator from the shackles of repressive religious and political systems won widespread acclaim. Deism began to spread in the colonies around 1725 and continued to do so until early in the 19th century. By the middle of the 18th century, it had gained sufficient adherents that orthodox clergy began to warn against the movement.

John Adams’s liberal minister at First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts, for example, became involved in a dispute with his orthodox Congregationalist colleagues in the 1750s. In the decades immediately following the Revolution, Deism became especially fashionable at American colleges. In those decades Enlightenment rationalism prevailed over Christian orthodoxy at Yale, Harvard, and other denominational colleges. Deism as a substantial movement lasted in the United States from roughly 1725 to approximately 1810.

In Virginia, the center of Deism was Monroe and Jefferson’s alma mater, the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, an institution where Washington also served as chancellor. “At the end of the century,” Bishop William Meade of Virginia, an orthodox Episcopalian, remembered in his Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia, “the College of William and Mary was regarded as the hotbed of infidelity and of the wild politics of France”:

The intimacy produced between infidel France and our own country, by the union of our arms against the common foe, was most baneful in its influence with our citizens generally, and on none more than those of Virginia. The grain of mustard-seed which was planted at Williamsburg, about the middle of the century, had taken root there and sprung up and spread its branches over the whole State.

In the 18th century, as today, students and young people generally embraced the popular ideas of their time. Thus it would be surprising if Deism had not influenced the Founding Fathers, for all were young men when it began to spread. Washington was born in the 1730s, Jefferson in the 1740s, and Madison and Monroe in the 1750s. Jefferson studied at William and Mary in the 1760s, Monroe enrolled at William and Mary in the 1770s, and though Washington never attended college, he moved in the circles of gentry who had been educated at William and Mary and at other colleges. Only Madison— who graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) in the early 1770s and considered entering the ministry while there— attended a college known for most of the 18th century for its Christian orthodoxy. Yet after Madison returned to Virginia from Princeton, his religious beliefs seem clearly to have moved in a Deistic direction. Bishop Meade, who knew the Madison family well, attributed James’s change to “his political associations with those of infidel principles, of whom there were many in his day.”

As these words indicate, most of the political leaders who advocated independence from Great Britain and who designed the new American government were in one way or another influenced by Deism. They did not hold identical views. Deism had wings, and the Founding Fathers should not be lumped together. But if census takers had set up broad categories labeled “Atheism,” “Deism and Unitarianism,” “orthodox Protestantism,” “orthodox Roman Catholicism,” and “Other,” and if they had interviewed Monroe, Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, they would undoubtedly have placed every one of these six Founding Fathers in some way under the category of “Deism and Unitarianism.”

The family papers of James Monroe are missing, as are the papers of his daughters. Tench Ringgold, a friend of Monroe during his later years, reported that Monroe burned his correspondence with his wife after her death. These family letters are the most likely places where Monroe would have discussed religious matters. But a substantial number of private letters of Monroe have survived, as have his public papers and writings, and they contain remarkably little about religion.

Monroe’s public statements and speeches are remarkably silent about religious matters. Neither his public utterances nor his writings—including his autobiography—cite the Bible, nor do they make references to Jesus Christ. In his first inaugural address, Monroe praises the concept of religious freedom, boasting that Americans may worship “the Divine Author” in any manner they choose. This same address declares that “the favor of a gracious Providence” has guided the United States. It concludes with Monroe declaring that he enters the presidential office with “fervent prayers to the Almighty that He will be graciously pleased to continue to us that protection which he [sic] has already so conspicuously displayed in our favor.” Monroe’s second inaugural address speaks of his “firm reliance on the protection of Almighty God.” When his speeches refer to the Deity, he uses only the stock Deistic phrases. No more than half of the numerous short speeches he makes while on his tour of the nation in 1817 contain religious references. Instead, Monroe talks about civic virtues.

Though many of Monroe’s published letters deal with political issues, they do make passing references to personal matters. Discussion of religion, however, is absent. Even the surviving personal correspondence of Monroe avoids religious issues. In Monroe’s time gentlemen customarily wrote letters of advice to children, including godchildren and children of friends. When they wrote to sons in college, for example, fathers might urge them to attend religious services. In one such letter, Jefferson begins by advising his nephew Peter Carr on books to read but then changes to advising him about scriptural interpretation and theological claims.

But nothing of the sort appears in Monroe’s extant letters of advice. When he wrote detailed letters advising his nieces and nephews how to live happy and productive lives, he included no comments about spiritual matters. When James Monroe, Jr.—the son of Monroe’s brother Joseph Jones Monroe—became unruly while at West Point, Monroe sent him a detailed letter full of advice. But the letter mentions neither God nor religion. Even though Monroe had many connections in New York, he did not counsel his nephew, as was customary in such letters, to see any noted ministers or to visit certain churches.

When his only son, James Spence Monroe, died at the age of 16 months in 1800, Monroe was clearly crushed. The funeral service and burial were at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, the family church when Monroe was governor. But the letters Monroe wrote to others about his little son’s death include no references to the consolation of religion. When his wife Elizabeth died in 1830, Monroe wrote to a number of their friends saying how devastating her death was, but failed to mention any religious beliefs that may have proved comforting. In contrast, when Adams and Jefferson exchanged letters upon the death of Abigail Adams, both spoke of the consolations of a future state where they would meet loved ones again.

Monroe’s known library included three copies of the Bible. Fewer than a dozen books in the library (some of which are plainly presentation copies) were theological or biblical. He knew Bishop James Madison—second cousin of President Madison, and perhaps the only Trinitarian cleric trusted by Jefferson—from their years together at William and Mary. But when Madison became first Episcopal bishop of Virginia in 1790 and Episcopalians could participate in the rite of confirmation for the first time, Monroe did not seek to be confirmed. Though he does not seem to have been anticlerical (as Jefferson was), he does not appear to have corresponded with Bishop Madison or to have initiated correspondence with other clergy.

During his decades at Highland, he may have attended Forge Church, a deteriorating colonial structure within easy riding distance from his estate. The Episcopal bishops never allude to him in their reports of visitations to the church, however, nor does Bishop William Meade’s Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia include the Monroes in his list of families who supported the Episcopal Church in Albemarle County. Jefferson never reports being accompanied by his neighbor Monroe when he attends services at the Albemarle County courthouse in Charlottesville. On his three-month national goodwill tour in 1817, Monroe visited ten states, going as far west as Ohio. He attended church at least six times, and probably more; the absence of any reference to church in notations about his Sunday activities does not rule out his attendance. Usually he attended Episcopal churches, but on several Sundays he went to the services of an Episcopal church in the morning and to those of another denomination in the afternoon.

When Monroe died, he left no deathbed statement. Instead, historians have only the assertion of a friend that Monroe died resigned to his fate. The eulogies by his contemporaries at his funeral commemorations in New York, Richmond, and Boston speak of Monroe in terms of patriotism and statesmanship; none even mentions his religious faith. Following Monroe’s death, writers did not circulate pious literature about his religious beliefs, as they did about Washington.

Also significant are the reminiscences of Bishop Meade, a patrician who knew the Virginia Founding Fathers well. When the bishop discusses their religion in his chronicles of the Anglican and Episcopal tradition in Virginia, he devotes considerable space to Washington, gives detailed information on the religious beliefs of Madison, and dismisses Jefferson’s views as “disbelief.” But in five mentions of Monroe—who had served with the bishop’s father on Washington’s staff during the Revolution—he says nothing about religion. Similarly, Monroe’s biographers rarely introduce the subject. “When it comes to Monroe’s . . .thoughts on religion,” Bliss Isely comments in his The Presidents: Men of Faith, “less is known than that of any other President.”

But one item is known about Monroe that may shed additional light on his religious beliefs: he was a Freemason. The ties between Deism and Freemasonry were close. Freemasonry claims ancient origins, but it probably originated in England in the 12th century as a secret religious society that guarded the secrets of the craft of masons. Over the centuries it developed into a secret international fraternity concerned with the moral and religious improvement of its members. From England it spread to France, Germany, Italy, and other countries. The movement took on a new character in the 18th century.

In Roman Catholic countries, the Masonic lodges tended to form an underground movement antagonistic not only towards Roman Catholicism but also towards organized religion in general. Hence from the 18th century until recent years, popes prohibited Roman Catholics from joining the Masons. In Protestant countries, Freemasonry tended to require a belief in a monotheistic God from its members and to advocate an undogmatic religion that claimed to represent the essence of all religions. Wherever Masonry went, its rituals used drama and allegory to emphasize its message but gave a preeminent place neither to the Bible nor to Jesus. A Muslim, Jew, or Christian—or anyone who could accept its statements about a divine being—could belong. When the Founding Fathers use such terms as “the Grand Architect” to speak of God, they are using language that comes directly from Freemasonry and not from the Bible.

A fraternal organization that provided a club for men at a time when clubbing represented a principal form of entertainment, Masonic lodges appeared in the American colonies early in the 18th century. Like Deistic belief, its lodges grew in popularity in the decades following the Revolution, and Deistic views were widespread in them. Masonic membership was common among leading figures in the Revolution. Franklin and the Marquis de Lafayette were both Masons. Washington not only took his oath of office on a Masonic Bible but also laid the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol using a Masonic trowel. Monroe became a Mason in 1775 while a student at William and Mary, joined the lodge in Fredericksburg while practicing law, and remained at least somewhat involved in the Masons throughout his life. During his second term as president, he was made an honorary member of the Washington Naval Lodge No.4.

As his Episcopal marriage, wedding, and funeral indicate, James Monroe maintained a life-long affiliation with the church in which he was raised. The Episcopal Church ministered to the Monroe family and claimed them as its own. But the surviving evidence indicates that Monroe was not a Christian in the traditional sense. Neither his private nor his public writings suggest that he ever experienced a sense of the mystery or awe that is at the heart of orthodox Christianity. No evidence exists to show that he was an active or emotionally engaged Christian. How the Anglican interpretation of Christianity influenced his character and personality, and what depths of religious feelings he may have experienced while attending worship, scholars may never know.

Like Washington, Monroe was neither a philosophical nor a highly intellectual man. A practical, problem-solving person, he was highly effective when he worked on practical matters. Unlike Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, he did not seem to spend extensive time considering why the universe was so. Franklin wrote a letter shortly before his death giving his views of Jesus; Adams typically went to his Unitarian church twice on Sunday and considered himself “a church-going animal”; Jefferson was on a religious quest all of his life; and Madison remained sufficiently interested in religious subjects that Jefferson asked him to draw up a list of theological books for the library of the new University of Virginia. But Monroe’s life fails to display any of these interests. Hence his personality traits may explain the lack of information historians have about his spiritual side.

James Monroe seems to have been an Episcopalian of deistic tendencies who valued civic virtues above religious doctrine. No one cared more for the identity of the new nation. His passion always seems to have been directed towards the cause of the United States. From his 18th to his 73rd year, he was almost continually in public service. “He had found [the nation] built of brick,” John Quincy Adams declared in his eulogy of Monroe, “and left her constructed of marble.” Reflective, tactful, practical, simple in his tastes, democratic in his convictions, James Monroe may have been the most skeptical of the early presidents of the United States.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading