In a recent discussion on facebook a friend posted a meme which purported to evidence that America’s founding fathers explicitly rejected the idea that America was a Christian nation. The meme was so wildly inaccurate and yet so seemingly conclusive that I was inspired to write a significant exposé and rebuttal.
First, let’s analyze the meme (seen below). Oh, how pesky a thing is context! The first quote by Jefferson is lifted from a letter he wrote to Thomas Cooper (in 1814), enclosing his notes from law school (in 1763 or 64). The sentence quoted is part of a discussion of Anglo-Saxon common law previous to 686 A.D! Nice try by the meme author suggesting that this was Jefferson’s opinion about United States law (c.f., Jefferson’s letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, from Monticello, February 10, 1814).
Similarly, the “in every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty” quote comes from a letter by Jefferson to Horatio G. Spafford where they are discussing English law books, and the influence of England on the new generation of Americans. Jefferson prefaces his comment with this sentence, “I join in your reprobation of our merchants, priests and lawyers for their adherence to England & monarchy in preference to their own country and it’s constitution.” When Jefferson discusses priests he has in mind Roman Catholic priests (he adamantly opposed state churches like the Vatican, or like in England), and declares that they “perverted the purest religion ever preached to man…” He is by no means criticizing Christianity, but rather the corruption of Christianity.
What’s wrong with the John Adams quote? Well, for starters he never said it. I could go on, but perhaps that’s enough.
Thomas Paine, was so beloved by our nation’s founders that 6 people attended his funeral. Yes, he was an atheist and ridiculer of Christianity… his views post the pamphlet “Common Sense” were overwhelmingly rejected by Americans.
How about the James Madison quote? Well, at least it is accurately attributed! But it does not mean what it is purported to represent. Again, the quote comes from a personal letter written by Madison to Edward Livingstone in 1822, and Madison closes his letter in this manner:
“We are teaching the world the great truth that Govts. do better without Kings & Nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Govt.”
In other words, was Madison opposing religion? Not by any means (the many quotes from him supporting religion make the use of a quote from him in an attempt to deny the Christian character of America laughable), he was arguing that it is improper for civil government to sponsor religion, but he recognized like the rest of our founders that the form, nature, structure and success of our nation depended upon the presumptions of Christian belief for its defence, and in the belief and practice of its people.
Was our nation founded as Christian? You tell me…
In July 1775 the Continental Congress called for a day of prayer and fasting. At the bottom of the original Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress ordered copies of the Declaration first be sent not to town clerks or newspapers but to parish ministers, who were “required to read the same to their respective congregations, as soon as divine service is ended, in the afternoon, on the first Lord’s day after they have received it.”
After Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, George Washington issued the following missive:
“The General congratulates the army upon the glorious event of yesterday.… Divine service is to be performed tomorrow in the several brigades and divisions. The commander in chief recommends that the troops not on duty should universally attend with that seriousness of deportment and gratitude of heart which the recognition of such reiterated and astonishing interpositions of Providence demand of us.”
During the colonial period the average citizen listened to some 7,000 sermons in their lifetime. There was no TV, no Internet, often no newspaper; the colonial sermon was the dominant societal influence. Historians gauge that its influence on culture was so great that even contemporary television and internet are less influential than was the sermon on colonial America.18th century America was a deeply religious culture that self-consciously lived “under the cope of heaven.” Contemporary events were seen not so much from the human vantage point as from God’s. The overwhelming majority of colonists were Calvinists who saw all events as part of God’s providential design. The Christian ministers’ influence was so powerful that the British called them “the black-robed regiment.”
The American Revolution was an indisputably religious occurrence. On January 30, 1749–the 100th anniversary of the execution of Charles I–Jonathan Mayhew preached a sermon titled “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-resistance to the Higher Powers,” which was typical of most sermons preached throughout the colonies. In it Mayhew comes to the conclusion that rulers have “no authority from God to do mischief,” and that “It is blasphemy to call tyrants and oppressors God’s ministers.”
Referring to Romans 13:1-7 as his text Mayhew writes:
“Let us now trace the apostle’s reasoning in favor of submission to the higher powers, a little more particularly and exactly. For by this it will appear, on one hand, how good and conclusive it is, for submission to those rulers who exercise their power in a proper manner: And, on the other, how weak and trifling and unconnected it is, if it be supposed to be meant by the apostle to show the obligation and duty of obedience to tyrannical, oppressive rulers, in common with others of a different character.”
During his retirement John Adams reflected on the origins of the American Revolution and credited Mayhew’s sermon as a primary source of shaping public opinion.
Why is this significant? Because even Thomas Paine and his wild best-seller Common Sense, argued in sermonic prose for a biblically-based revolt. He concludes:
“These portions of Scripture are direct and positive. They admit of no equivocal construction. That the Almighty hath here entered his protest against monarchical government is true, or the Scripture is false.”
Paine was later revealed to be a radical deist and eventually an atheist, but in the pre-Revolutionary period whether his personal views changed or he simply hid his opinions, Paine knew his audience well, and recognized that only biblical motivation would bring them to arms.
We might speak of Peter Muhlenberg, a Lutheran-trained Anglican minister who was present at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia when Patrick Henry gave his immortal cry, “Give me liberty or give me death!” Muhlenberg was so moved, he enlisted under Washington before returning to his own congregation to give his final sermon. After reading from Ecclesiastes 3:1, Muhlenberg said, “There is a time to preach and a time to pray, but there is also a time to fight, and that time has now come.” He then threw off his clerical robe to reveal the uniform of a militia colonel, and began recruiting the men of his congregation, who became known as the “German Regiment.” Peter eventually rose to the rank of major general, and returned to Philadelphia after the war as a hero to spend the rest of his life in local and national politics.
Perhaps we should speak of Rev. John Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. He moved to America in order to become president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). Witherspoon wrote, “There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost and religious liberty preserved.” While Witherspoon was not present during the writing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, his presence was felt heavily through James Madison, who had been his student at Princeton. Witherspoon retired from Congress in 1782.
Consider this letter from John Adams to his wife, Abigail, describing the powerful religious sentiments that undergirded the first Continental Congress.
When the Congress met, Mr. Cushing made a motion that it should be opened with prayer. It was opposed by Mr. Jay of New York and Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina because we were so divided in religious sentiments—some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Anabaptists, some Presbyterians, and some Congregationalists—that we could not join in the same act of worship.
Mr. Samuel Adams arose and said that he was no bigot and could hear a prayer from any gentleman of piety and virtue who was at the same time a friend to his country. He was a stranger in Philadelphia but had heard that Dr. Duche deserved that character, and therefore he moved that Mr. Duche, an Episcopal clergyman, might be desired to read prayers to Congress tomorrow morning. The motion was seconded and passed in the affirmative.…
Accordingly next morning he appeared with his clerk and his pontificals [vestments], and read the Psalter for the seventh day of September, which was the 85th Psalm. You must remember this was the next morning after we had heard the rumor of the horrible cannonade of Boston. I never saw a greater effect produced upon an audience. It seemed as if Heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that morning. After this, Mr. Duche, unexpectedly to everybody, struck out into extemporary prayer, which filled the bosom of every man present:
“Be Thou present, O God of Wisdom, and direct the counsel of this honorable assembly. Enable them to settle all things on the best and surest foundations, that the scene of blood may be speedily closed, that order, harmony, and peace may be effectually restored, and truth and justice, religion and piety, prevail and flourish among the people. Preserve the health of their bodies and the vigor of them in this world, and crown them with everlasting glory in the world to come. All this we ask in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ, thy Son and our Savior, Amen.”
Washington was kneeling there, and Henry, Randolph, Rutledge, Lee, and Jay, and by their side there stood, bowed in reverence, the Puritan patriots of New England, who at that moment had reason to believe that an armed soldiery was wasting their humble households.… They prayed fervently for America, for Congress, for the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and especially for the town of Boston [whose port had been closed and in which British troops were being quartered].
And who can realize the emotions with which they turned imploringly to Heaven for divine interposition. It was enough to melt a heart of stone. I saw the tears gush into the eyes of the old, grave, pacifist Quakers of Philadelphia.
Or the congressional designation of the first day of thanksgiving:
IN CONGRESSNovember 1, 1777
FORASMUCH as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for benefits received, and to implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of; And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence, but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defence and Establishment of our unalienable Rights and Liberties; particularly in that he hath been pleased in so great a Measure to prosper the Means used for the Support of our Troops and to crown our Arms with most signal success:
It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive powers of these United States, to set apart THURSDAY, the eighteenth Day of December next, for Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise; That with one Heart and one Voice the good People may express the grateful Feelings of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor; and that together with their sincere Acknowledgments and Offerings, they may join the penitent Confession of their manifold Sins, whereby they had forfeited every Favour, and their humble and earnest Supplication that it may please GOD, through the Merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of Remembrance; That it may please him graciously to afford his Blessing on the Governments of these States respectively, and prosper the public Council of the whole; to inspire our Commanders both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty GOD, to secure for these United States the greatest of all human blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE; That it may please him to prosper the Trade and Manufactures of the People and the Labour of the Husbandman, that our Land may yet yield its Increase; To take Schools and Seminaries of Education, so necessary for cultivating the Principles of true Liberty, Virtue and Piety, under his nurturing Hand, and to prosper the Means of Religion for the promotion and enlargement of that Kingdom which consisteth “in Righteousness, Peace and Joy in the Holy Ghost.”
And it is further recommended, that servile Labour, and such Recreation as, though at other Times innocent, may be unbecoming the Purpose of this Appointment, be omitted on so solemn an Occasion.
Extract from the Minutes,Charles Thomson, Secr.
Journals of the American Congress From 1774 to 1788 (Washington: Way and Gideon, 1823), Vol. II, pp. 309-310.
We would be remiss not to include something from George Washington.
“While just government protects all in their religious rights, true religion affords to government its surest support.” – George Washington
The Writings of George Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1932), Vol. XXX, p. 432.)
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. … And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. It is substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who, that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?”
Address of George Washington, President of the United States . . . Preparatory to His Declination (Baltimore: George and Henry S. Keatinge), pp. 22-23.
It is difficult to overestimate the influence John Adams had on our country.
“[I]t is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.”
The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown, 1854), Vol. IX, p. 401, to Zabdiel Adams on June 21, 1776.
“[W]e have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. . . . Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co. 1854), Vol. IX, p. 229, October 11, 1798.
We could draw from the influence of individual states…
“[I]t is impossible that any people of government should ever prosper, where men render not unto God, that which is God’s, as well as to Caesar, that which is Caesar’s.”
Fundamental Constitutions of Pennsylvania, 1682. Written by William Penn, founder of the colony of Pennsylvania.
“No free government now exists in the world, unless where Christianity is acknowledged, and is the religion of the country.”
Pennsylvania Supreme Court, 1824. Updegraph v. Commonwealth; 11 Serg. & R. 393, 406 (Sup.Ct. Penn. 1824).
We might turn to famous statesman…
“[I]f we and our posterity reject religious instruction and authority, violate the rules of eternal justice, trifle with the injunctions of morality, and recklessly destroy the political constitution which holds us together, no man can tell how sudden a catastrophe may overwhelm us that shall bury all our glory in profound obscurity.” – Daniel Webster
The Writings and Speeches of Daniel Webster (Boston: Little, Brown, & Company, 1903), Vol. XIII, p. 492. From “The Dignity and Importance of History,” February 23, 1852.
And we could assess the thoughts and writings of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
“The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.”
Benjamin Rush, Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical (Philadelphia: Thomas and William Bradford, 1806), p. 8.
“We profess to be republicans, and yet we neglect the only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican forms of government, that is, the universal education of our youth in the principles of Christianity by the means of the Bible. For this Divine Book, above all others, favors that equality among mankind, that respect for just laws, and those sober and frugal virtues, which constitute the soul of republicanism.”
Benjamin Rush, Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical (Philadelphia: Printed by Thomas and William Bradford, 1806), pp. 93-94.
I conclude (with reams of additional primary sources to draw from) that there is no possible way to honestly contest the factual evidence that America was founded because of her Christian presumption, upon her Christian principles, and to be a beacon of light for liberty and freedom among the nations, as a result of the outworking of Christian theology. There is no other alternative that can be honestly propounded after a survey of the available history/literature.
It’s 1775. The year 1787, with its novel constitution and separation of church and state is a long 12 years away. At the moment, you and your friends are just a bunch of outlaws. You’ve heard the debates in Parliament over taxation and representation; you’ve seen British troops enforce royal supremacy at the point of a bayonet. Your king, George III, and Parliament have issued a declaration asserting their sovereignty in “all cases whatsoever” in the colonies. You are, at least in New England, a people under siege with British troops quartered in Boston. You’ve dumped tea into Boston’s harbor in a fit of rage and had your port closed.
Who will you turn to now for direction? There are no presidents or vice-presidents, no supreme court justices or public defenders to call on. There are a handful of young, radical lawyers, like the Adams cousins, John and Samuel, but they’re largely concentrated in cities, while you and most of your friends live in the country. In many colonies, including Massachusetts, there are not even elected governors or councilors—they have all been appointed by the British crown and are answerable to it.
Where you turn is where you have habitually turned for over a century: to the prophets of your society, your ministers.
Harry S. Stout, “Preaching the Insurrection,” Christian History Magazine-Issue 50: Christianity & the American Revolution (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 1996).