This Broadway hit has a lot to say about our founding fathers, including their relationships with God.
A scene from the broadway production of Hamilton with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Center: Daveed Diggs playing Marquis de la Fayette/Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton Production | Joan Marcus
A hip-hop musical, in and of itself, seems like a bit of a contradiction. And one that tells the story of America’s first treasury secretary and his deadly, contentious relationship with our third vice president? It sounds downright ridiculous. But Hamilton has defied the odds and emerged as not only a successful Broadway show, but one of the most talked about pieces in theater history.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the show’s book and lyrics and who stars as the titular politician, has made headlines the world over for his brilliant story of our nation’s founding fathers, told through a mixture of rap, R&B, jazz and pop music. Hamilton itself has drawn attention for its diverse ensemble of primarily black, Latino and Asian actors cast to portray Aaron Burr, George Washington and many other prominent early political figures. “This is a story about America then,” Manuel has explained, “told by America now.”
Since it opened on Broadway in July 2015, it’s broken box office records, attracted celebrities and dignitaries, and been showered with accolades and praise. In the last six months alone, Hamilton has won a Grammy, a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and has been nominated for a record-breaking 16 Tony nominations. It’s been heralded for its forward-thinking approach to storytelling, its commitment to diversity, and its ability to reignite interest in history across generations.
|Little has been written about another, less-obvious, theme in Hamilton: faith.”|
Fans and critics have examined the lessons in Hamilton, from holding fast to our principles to the origins of central banking in the United States. But little has been written about another, less-obvious, theme: faith. At first blush, Hamilton is a purely secular piece of theater. But its opening line alone shows us that the musical has many layers: Aaron Burr asks the audience, “How does a b—–d, orphan son of a w—e and a Scotsman dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence in poverty and squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
This incendiary—even offensive to some—first line sets the tone for Hamilton in more ways than one. It offers up a subtle and often overlooked examination of the role faith played in its characters’ revolutionary lives. A close examination of the lyrics reveals more than one beautiful and surprisingly personal lesson about faith, a faith that transcends religion and secularism, and makes the show accessible to an even larger audience.
Faith was a seminal part of our founders’ lives—and in ways we don’t always hear about
Religion was an integral part of our founders’ belief systems, which means it was also an integral part of our nation’s founding. Lin-Manuel Miranda, drawing heavily from Ron Chernow’s biography, Hamilton, incorporates their ideologies as he tells their stories. In fact, one of the most poignant lines in the show comes from George Washington: he informs Hamilton—his right-hand man and protégé—that he’ll be stepping down as commander in chief so the United States can continue to evolve under new leadership. To make his point, he quotes the Bible. “Like the scripture says,” he sings. “Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid. They’ll be safe in this nation we made.” (Micah 4:4)
Washington’s assertion speaks to his deep faith on multiple levels: as a servant of both his country and his God, he craves his own time to reflect on his life and purpose. He’s sure that God will continue to protect the nation he fought so hard to build after he’s gone. It’s a beautiful and simple example of the way that spirituality shaped our first president’s choices.
And Washington isn’t the only founding figure to reference religion. Charles Lee and the ensemble chorus with him pray aloud that hell or heaven “lets them in” before a duel. Thomas Jefferson tells his fellow cabinet members that he prays for the future (mostly asking that Hamilton will never run for president). These references blend into the complex tapestry of the musical. Together, they illustrate a key point about our founding fathers’ beliefs: their personal relationships with God likely influenced the way they governed.
Faith is fluid and not always easy—even for the most brilliant minds in our country’s history
When we meet Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in the opening moments of Hamilton, the two men could not be more different. As their relationship evolves—from friendship to animosity—we see that the two men have very little in common. But one thing they do share is a contentious relationship with their faith.
Aaron Burr serves as Hamilton’s narrator and guide, but on a few occasions, he steps out of that role to reflect on his own life. Burr came from a religious family; his grandfather, he tells us, “was a fire and brimstone preacher.” But as his contempt for Hamilton’s success grows, it seems, his faith is shaken. “There are things that the homilies and hymns won’t teach you,” he sings, before cursing the man who has bested him at every turn. In his final moments on stage, he is a broken man, a cautionary tale for all of us about the consequences of succumbing to hubris.
Alexander Hamilton, too, suffers from a similar penchant for pride, and sings about his own relationship with God after his extramarital affair is discovered. In this dark time, Hamilton reveals a bitterness toward higher power: “When my prayers to God were met with indifference,” he says defiantly, “I picked up a pen. I wrote my own deliverance.”
|Living a spiritual life doesn’t mean we’re immune to periods of doubt, defiance, or even bad behavior—Hamilton shows us that even the most famous men in our nation’s history struggled to reconcile their faith with their actions.”|
But later, when his son Philip dies, Hamilton is forever changed. “I pray,” he confesses. “That never used to happen before.” This seems to indicate a transformation of his faith—something he once dismissed is now a vital part of his life.
Both Hamilton’s protagonist and villain represent common spiritual experiences. They have faith, but they question it. We, like them, turn to God in times of need and feel angry when it seems as though our prayers have gone unanswered. Living a spiritual life doesn’t mean we’re immune to periods of doubt, defiance, or even bad behavior—Hamilton shows us that even the most famous men in our nation’s history struggled to reconcile their faith with their actions.
Faith fits into the most secular and revolutionary forms of art
Hamilton is not meant to be a show about God, or faith, or the impact of religion in Revolution-era America. Due to its often unsavory subject matter, Hamilton may not seem all that approachable to those who consider themselves devoutly faithful. Yet there are moments where it zigs instead of zags—where its fervent energy falls away and we’re left with moments of quiet reflection.
Never is this more apparent than in the show’s closing moments, when Hamilton’s wife Eliza steps forward and tells the audience how she lived her life after her husband died. She devoted herself to public service, to helping to preserve her husband’s legacy, and to establishing “the first private orphanage in New York City.” She sings, “The Lord in His kindness. He gives me what you always wanted. He gives me more time.” It’s a powerful statement that reinforces Eliza Hamilton’s well-documented faith. But it also speaks to the imperative so many of us feel to do the most we can with the time that we have on earth.
Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Hamilton played by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Phillipa Soo. Hamilton Production | Joan Marcus
This is the beauty of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece. Hamilton is an innovative, secular musical; it’s a theatrical and sometimes exaggerated exploration of American history. It’s a celebration of creativity, perseverance and ingenuity. It’s also a humbling and deeply resonant reflection on life’s most difficult and rewarding journeys.
Faith isn’t a main theme in Hamilton, but it’s woven fluidly throughout both acts and many musical numbers. It’s a part of the story, one that fits seamlessly within the greater context of its message. Much like the founding fathers lived their lives—and much how we live our lives today.
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