Religion was an integral part of the lives of "America's founding mothers," if only because the late 18th century featured a religious fever in many communities.
A look at the lives of these patriotic women reveals not only strong beliefs in God, but some struggles with interfaith issues too.
America was a melting pot for different religions.
For example, Betsy Ross, who sewed the first American flag, was a Quaker. She even attended a Quaker school. The problem came when she fell in love with John Ross, the son of an Episcopal assistant rector at Christ Church in Philadelphia. Since Quakers frowned on interfaith marriages, the two eloped. She eventually attended Christ Church with her husband where George Washington would often sit in a nearby pew.
Laura Collins Wolcott was another "Founding Mother." Oliver Wolcott wrote in a letter to his wife on April 10, 1776, some strong beliefs in America's divine destiny:
"It is most evident that this land is under the protection of the Almighty, and that we shall be saved not by our wisdom nor by our might, but by the Lord of Host Who is wonderful in counsel and Almighty in all His operations."
Below we offer short profiles of four of the nation's most notable Matriarchs.
— Lynn Arave
Raised in the Church of England, Martha Dandridge Curtis Washington remained devout throughout life to weekly church attendance and her Anglican/Episcopalian beliefs of duty to God and family.
She leaned heavily on her faith with the death of her first husband of eight years and the premature passing of their four children — two in childhood, one at age 17, the other at 27.
Raising her children and grandchildren in her religion, her daily routine included an hour of Bible study after breakfast and more Bible verses, prayers and hymn singing before retiring each night at 9.
Her faith took action during the Revolutionary War as she spent winters with her general husband, George, and his troops — darning socks, making bandages and uplifting their spirits.
One winter at her request, the boarded-up and abandoned Christ Church in Cambridge, Mass., was restored and reopened in time for a New Year's Day church service. Soldiers sung to the accompaniment of a viola and clarinet, since the organ pipes had long since been pulled to be used as ammunition.
Prior to her final communion and death in 1802, she spoke to her assembled grandchildren and other relatives of the value of religion as "the great comforter of the soul."
— Scott Taylor
Abigail Adams was passionate about ideals that some associate more with strong moral character than organized religion, though she also held definitive views on the nature of God.
Born Nov. 11, 1744, she was the daughter of the Rev. William Smith and Elizabeth Quincy. Her father was a liberal Congregationalist who did not preach the doctrines of predestination, original sin or the full divinity of Christ. Instead, he emphasized the importance of reason and morality in religious life — a philosophy that his daughter would adopt.
She was an advocate for the rights of women and the emancipation and education of slaves, enrolling at least one young servant boy in the local school despite the protests of neighbors.
Though she never had any formal schooling she became a prolific writer in regular correspondence with her husband, John Adams, as he was often away from the family farm for long periods of time as a major player in the Continental Congress.
Once, when a battle raged nearby, she wrote to her husband, "The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but the God of Israel is He that giveth strength and power unto his people."
Her beliefs were underscored in her activities and involvement as the nation's first lady during her husband's administration from 1797 to 1801, leading political opponents to refer to her as "Mrs. President."
She and her husband were active members of the First Parish Church in Quincy, Mass., which was Unitarian in doctrine.
In her correspondence she often wrote of her religious faith. In a letter to her son, John Quincy Adams, in 1816, she said, "I acknowledge myself a Unitarian — believing that the Father alone, is the supreme God, and that Jesus Christ derived his being, and all his powers and honors from the Father.
"There is not any reasoning which can convince me, contrary to my senses, that three is one, and one three."
In another letter to her daughter-in-law, Louisa, in 1818, she wondered "when will mankind be convinced that true religion is from the heart, between man and his creator, and not the imposition of man or creeds and tests?"
— Carrie Moore
Although little is written about the faith of Dolley Madison, she was widely regarded as a woman of patience, generosity and social grace.
She was born in 1768 and raised as a Quaker. She married at age 21, but three years later, both her husband and one of her two sons died of yellow fever.
Shortly after, Dolley met and wed James Madison, a politician and "Father of the Constitution" who would later become the fourth president of the United States. He was an Episcopalian, and she adopted his faith. As such, Madison no longer wore the plain clothes of a Quaker she had worn earlier. Her official White House biography said she dressed in fine fashions and had the social manners of a queen. One of her most memorable moments was when she saved several artifacts from being burned or stolen when the White House was ransacked during the War of 1812.
— Nicole Warburton
Phillis Wheatley was a slave who was brought to America from Gambia and then spirited north and educated. She was cut off from her own culture but was such a quick study that she was soon mastering the ways of Northern white women. She was a devoutly religious person and became known for her ability to sound the depth of spiritual matters in her poetry.
She was especially good at writing elegies, perhaps because of the traditions of her African tribe. When she wrote an elegy for the legendary evangelical Methodist minister George Whitefield, she found instant success as a poet. She knew Latin, read much and though she seldom touched on matters of race and politics, modern African-American authors see her as a founding mother not only of America, but of their own identity.
Because of her popularity as a poet, she was ultimately freed from slavery on Oct. 18, 1773. A strong supporter of independence, she met with Gen. George Washington in March of 1776. Phillis is remembered for many first-time accomplishments. She was the first African-American to publish a book, the first to earn a living from her writing, and the first woman writer encouraged and financed by a group of women. The following snippet is typical of her poetry:
But the west glories in the deepest red:
So may our breasts with every virtue glow,
The living temples of our God below!
Filled with the praise of him who gives the light
And draws the sable curtains of the night.
— Jerry Johnston