Liberals and Atheists cannot refute Christian Heritage of America

Faith of Our Forefathers
Religion and the Founding of the American Republic

In response to widespread sentiment that, to survive, the United States needed a stronger federal government, a convention met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 and on Sept. 17, 1787, adopted the Constitution of the United States. Aside from Article VI, which prohibited religious tests for federal office holders, the Constitution said little about religion. Its reserve troubled those Americans who wanted the new instrument of government to give faith a larger role and those who feared that it would do so. This latter group, worried that the Constitution did not prohibit the kind of state-supported religion that had flourished in some Colonies, exerted so much pressure on the members of the First Federal Congress that they adopted in September 1789 the First Amendment to the Constitution, which, when ratified by the required number of states in December 1791, forbade Congress to make any law “respecting an establishment of religion.”

The first two Presidents of the United States were patrons of religion — Washington was an Episcopal vestryman and Adams described himself as “a church going animal.” Both offered strong rhetorical support for religion. In his Farewell Address (September 1796) Washington called religion, as the source of morality, “a necessary spring of popular government,” while Adams claimed that statesmen “may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.”

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the third and fourth presidents, are generally considered less hospitable to religion than their predecessors, but evidence shows that, while in office, both offered religion powerful symbolic support. During his two administrations (1801-1809), Jefferson was a “most regular attendant” at church services in the House of Representatives at which, surviving records show, evangelical Christianity was forcefully preached. Madison followed Jefferson’s example, although unlike Jefferson, who road on horseback to church in the Capitol, Madison came in a coach and four. Jefferson permitted church services to be conducted by various denominations in government buildings, such as the Treasury and the War Department. During his administration, the Gospel was also preached in the Supreme Court chambers. It is, in fact, accurate to say that on Sundays in Washington during the Jefferson and Madison administrations the state became the church.

Recently, scholars have contended that Jefferson adopted a more positive view of Christianity in the 1790s as a result of reading Joseph Priestly’s arguments that many of the miraculous features of Christianity to which Jefferson objected were not authentic, having been added at a later time by a self-interested priesthood. Whatever the reason, after becoming president in 1801, Jefferson began making statements about the social value of Christianity.

Religion and the Constitution

When the Constitution was submitted to the American public, “many pious people” complained that the document had slighted God, for it contained “no recognition of his mercies to us … or even of his existence.” The Constitution was reticent about religion for two reasons: many delegates were committed federalists who believed that the power to legislate on religion, if it existed at all, lay within the domain of the state, not the national, governments. Second, the delegates believed that it would be a tactical mistake to insert such a politically controversial issue as religion in the Constitution. The only “religious clause” in the document — the proscription of religious tests as qualifications for federal office in Article Six — was, in fact, intended to defuse controversy by disarming potential critics who might claim religious discrimination in eligibility for public office.

Religion and the Bill of Rights

Although there were proposals for making the ratification of the Constitution contingent on the prior adoption of a bill of rights, supporters of a bill of rights acquiesced with the understanding that the first Congress under the new government would attempt to add to it a bill of rights.

James Madison took the lead in steering a bill of rights through the First Federal Congress, which convened in the spring of 1789. The Virginia Ratifying Convention and Madison’s constituents, among whom there were large numbers of Baptists who wanted freedom of religion secured, expected him to push for a bill of rights. There was considerable opposition in Congress to a bill of rights of any sort on the grounds that it was “unnecessary and dangerous.” The persistence of Madison and his allies nevertheless carried the day and on Sept. 28, 1789, both houses of Congress voted to send 12 amendments to the states. Those ratified by the requisite three fourths of the states became in December 1791 the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

Religion was addressed in the First Amendment in the following familiar words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” In notes for his speech, June 8, 1789, introducing the bill of rights, Madison indicated that a “national” religion was what he wanted to prevent and it is clear that most Americans joined him in considering that the major goal was to forestall any possibility that the federal government could act as several Colonies had done by choosing one religion and making it an official “national” religion that enjoyed exclusive financial and legal support. The establishment clause of the First Amendment meant at least this: that no one religion would be officially preferred above its competitors. What ever else it may — or may not — have meant is obscured by a lack of documentary evidence and is still a matter of dispute.

Jacob Duché Offering the First Prayer in Congress, Sept. 7, 1774

Jacob Duché Offering the First Prayer in Congress, Sept. 7, 1774, bottom pane of the Liberty Window, Christ Church, Philadelphia, after a painting by Harrison Tompkins Matteson, c. 1848

Washington’s Farewell Address

Washington’s Farewell Address is one of the most important documents in American history because the recommendations made in it by the first president, particularly in the field of foreign affairs, have exerted a strong and continuing influence on American statesmen and politicians. The Farewell Address, in which Washington informed the American people that he would not seek a third term and offered advice on the country’s future policies, was published in David Claypoole’s Philadelphia American Daily Advertiser on Sept. 19, 1796, and was immediately reprinted in newspapers and as a pamphlet throughout the United States. The Address was drafted in July 1796 by Alexander Hamilton (Washington also had at his disposal an earlier draft by James Madison) and was revised for publication by the president himself.

The “religion section” of the Farewell Address was for many years as familiar to the American people as Washington’s warning that the United States should avoid entangling alliances with foreign nations. The first president advised his fellow citizens that “Religion and morality” were the “great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens.” “National morality,” he added, could not exist “in exclusion of religious principle.” “Virtue or morality,” he concluded, as the products of religion, were “a necessary spring of popular government.”

Evangelicalism and the Emergence of the African American Church

Mrs. Juliann Jane Tillman, Preacher of the AME Church

Mrs. Juliann Jane Tillman, Preacher of the AME Church, P.S. Duval, 1844. Black churches were graced by eloquent female preachers from their earliest days, although there was, as in white churches, resistance in many quarters to the idea of women preaching the Gospel.

Scholars disagree about the extent of the native African content of black Christianity as it emerged in 18th century America, but there is no dispute that the Christianity of the black population was grounded in evangelicalism. The Second Great Awakening, beginning about 1800, has been called the “central and defining event in the development of Afro-Christianity.” During these revivals Baptists and Methodists converted large numbers of blacks; according to a contemporary estimate, there were by 1815 40,000 black Methodists and an equal number of black Baptists. Many African Americans were, nevertheless, disappointed at the treatment they received from their fellow believers, especially at the backsliding in the commitment to abolish slavery that inspired many white Baptists and Methodists immediately after the American Revolution. Blacks responded by trying to establish as much autonomy as possible within the Baptist and Methodist denominational frameworks.

When discontent could not be contained, forceful black leaders followed what was becoming an American habit of forming new denominations. In 1816, for example, Richard Allen (1760-1831) and his colleagues in Philadelphia broke away from the Methodist Church and founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which, along with independent black Baptist congregations, flourished as the century progressed. By 1846, the A.M.E. Church, which began with eight clergy and five churches, had grown to 176 clergy, 296 churches and 17,375 members.

The Mormons

Another distinctive religious group, the Mormons, arose in the 1820s during the “Golden Day of Democratic Evangelism.” The founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith (1805-1844), and many of his earliest followers grew up in an area of western New York called the “Burned Over District,” because it had been scorched by so many revivals. Yet the Mormon Church cannot be considered as the product of revivalism or as a splintering off from an existing Protestant denomination. It was sui generis, inspired by what Smith described as revelations on a series of gold plates, which he translated and published as the Book of Mormon in 1830. The new church conceived itself to be a restoration of primitive Christianity, which other existing churches were considered to have deserted. The Mormons subscribe to many orthodox Christian beliefs but profess distinctive doctrines based on post-biblical revelation.

Persecuted from its inception, the Mormon Church moved from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois, where it put down strong roots at Nauvoo. In 1844 the Nauvoo settlement was devastated by its neighbors, Smith and his brother being murdered in the havoc. This attack prompted the Mormons, under the leadership of Brigham Young, to migrate to Utah, where the first parties arrived in July 1847. The church has thrived since the removal to Utah and today is a flourishing, worldwide denomination.

Benevolent Societies

Benevolent societies were a new and conspicuous feature of the American landscape during the first half of the 19th century. Voluntary, ecumenical organizations devoted originally to the salvation of souls, but in due course to the eradication of every kind of social ill, the benevolent societies were formed by the pooling of resources of evangelicalism’s legions. The benevolent societies were the direct result of the extraordinary energies generated by the evangelical movement, specifically, by the “activism” resulting from conversion. “The evidence of God’s grace,” the Presbyterian evangelist, Charles G. Finney insisted, “was a person’s benevolence toward others.”

The earliest and most important of the benevolent societies focused their efforts on the conversion of sinners to the new birth or to the creation of conditions (sobriety sought by temperance societies) in which conversions could occur. The six largest societies in 1826-27 (based on their operating budgets) were all directly concerned with conversion: the American Education Society, the American Board of Foreign Missions, the American Bible Society, the American Sunday-School Union, the American Tract Society and the American Home Missionary Society.

Three of these groups subsidized evangelical ministers, one specialized in evangelical education and two supplied evangelical literature that the other four used. In seeking to convert the American people, the benevolent societies were consciously trying to create, simultaneously, a moral and virtuous citizenry on which republican government was thought to depend. They proudly asserted that they were “doing the work of patriotism no less than Christianity.”

Plymouth settled by Pilgrims.

Massachusetts Bay Colony founded. Congregationalism planted in British North America.

Maryland founded. Roman Catholic Church planted in British North America.

Roger Williams expelled from Massachusetts. He founds Rhode Island as a haven for religious dissidents.

Jews, fleeing religious persecution in Brazil, arrive in New York City.

1659- 1662
Quakers hanged in Massachusetts, persecuted in Virginia; victims of the prevailing belief in enforced religious uniformity.

William Penn, leader of the Quakers, receives a charter for Pennsylvania; Penn establishes religious liberty in the Colony.

Members of German sects begin arriving in Pennsylvania, attracted by religious liberty.

English Parliament passes the Toleration Act, which improves the conditions of dissenters throughout the American Colonies.

The Great Awakening, a religious revival throughout the English-speaking world, invigorates and polarizes religious life in America.

Separate Baptists, a product of the Great Awakening, proselytize in the South.

Presbyterian Church, split by the Great Awakening into New and Old Sides, reunites.

First Methodist meeting (in New York City) in the American Colonies.

American independence declared.

Massachusetts Constitution adopted; state support of religion provided.

Methodist Episcopal Church established.

Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom passed by Virginia Assembly; state support of religion prohibited.

U.S. Constitution adopted; religious tests for public service under the federal government prohibited.

Protestant Episcopal Church established; ties with church of England cut; Presbyterian Church also established on a new footing.

Bill of Rights passed by Congress; proscribes congressional “establishment” of religion and congressional interference with the “free exercise thereof.”

Major revivals in Kentucky, which spread east and initiate a long period of evangelical dominance in American religion.

African Methodist Episcopal Church established.

Joseph Smith founds Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons).

Disciples of Christ established.

Massachusetts becomes the final jurisdiction to renounce state support of religion.

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America published, in which the famous French commentator observed that Americans considered religion “indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.”

A symposium celebrating the opening of the exhibition “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic” will be held in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building June 18-19. The free symposium, chaired by Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale University, will explore many of the issues developed in the exhibition.

Thursday, June 18

11:00 a.m.
“Religion in 18th Century America” — David D. Hall, Harvard Divinity School

2:00 — 5:30 p.m.
“How to Govern a City on a Hill: Religion and Liberty in the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution” — John Witte Jr., Emory University School of Law

“The Use and Abuse of Jefferson’s Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom: Separating Church and State in 19th Century Virginia” — Thomas E. Buckley, S.J., Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley

“Thomas Jefferson, a Mammoth Cheese, and the ‘Wall of Separation Between Church and State'” — Daniel Dreisbach, American University

Comment — Michael Crawford, head, Early History Branch, Naval Historical Center

Friday, June 19

10:00 a.m. — 12:30 p.m.
“Republicanism and Religion: The American Exception” — Mark A. Noll, Wheaton College

“Women and Religion in the Early Republic” — Catherine A. Brekus, University of Chicago Divinity School

Comment — Rosemarie Zagarri, George Mason University

2:00 — 4:30 p.m.
“The Influence of Christianity and Judaism on the Founders” — Michael Novak, American Enterprise Institute

“The Question of the Christian Nation Considered” — Jon Butler, Yale University

Comment — James Smylie, Union Theological Seminary, Richmond

Back to May 1998 – Vol 57, No. 5



  1. Rachel
    Posted April 29, 2009 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    It often astounds me how far away from God’s truth we have gone. But when there is a lack of a love for the truth – then everything contrary to God takes over.

    2 Th 2:9-10 The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved.

    Thanks for posting.


  2. Posted April 30, 2009 at 5:06 am | Permalink

    Interesting, I`ll quote it on my site later.

  3. Posted May 11, 2013 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    It’s wonderful that you are getting thoughts from this paragraph as well as from our discussion made here.

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