I posted something on Facebook today that received fairly positive comments. All were positive actually. But some did question my premise that the American seedbed of liberty was planted and cultivated by the colonial church. This is a premise I have long held and I am going to take a few minutes to share a few things I have learned.
Before I jump in, I wish to note that there is a caveat to my premise, and that caveat will be revealed at the end of this short dissertation.
First, let me begin by explaining that I have been studying America’s Christian history since the early 1980’s. If you wish to learn more about my journey, I have a collection of short blog posts laying out my journey. If you are interested, they fall under the title of The Quest.
For well over thirty years now I have been reading, studying, and examining the founding of our nation, from the Pilgrims and Puritans, right on up through the writing of the Constitution. I have countless books on the subject in my library, many of which are reprints from that era. I have not read them all in toto, but I have read enough to come away with the unshakeable belief that, despite the many claims that America was founded by Deists, there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I am currently working on a book titled Constitutional Apologetics: Discovering Judeo-Christian principles in our Nation’s Founding Documents.
- George Washington. One of the books in my personal library is titled George Washington’s Sacred Fire. I’m not saying it is the final word on Washington’s core beliefs, but it certainly provides ample evidence of Christian faith in the man. His strong character is likewise evidence. Frequent references to “Providence” in his writings, and his service as a vestryman, along with neighbor George Mason, at Pohick Church (Episcopal) lend more evidence to his Christian faith.
- James Madison. Madison is credited with writing the Constitution of our United States. While not overtly expressive of his Christian faith, he held to strong, core, Christian beliefs. In The Political Philosophy of James Madison, another volume in my personal library, author Garret Ward Sheldon makes the case that it was Madison’s deeply Protestant education that led him to understand the Christian principles of liberty – particularly “the tyranny of the majority” – which led Madison to fight for a republican form of government (read republic as opposed to democracy). Under the soon-to-be president of Princeton John WItherspoon – the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence – Madison received a strong Judeo-Christian worldview vision, rooted in Biblical principles.
- Benjamin Franklin. Franklin is the American poster child for deism. And I am not at all disputing his deistic beliefs. But a deist does not believe that God is involved in human affairs. Why then was it Franklin who asked for prayer at the Constitutional Convention of 1787? His request, after many conversations and discussions, eventually led to the idea of appointing a chaplain to both the House on the Senate of the newly formed government. It is also a little known fact that Benjamin Franklin was a huge supporter and friend of George Whitfield, the tireless and fiery preacher whose ministry, along with that of Jonathan Edwards, fueled the First Great Awakening. None of this proves that Franklin was a Christian, but he certainly understood the importance of religion in the life of a nation – especially in his later years.
Having explained all of that, and honestly it isn’t worth all that much on the big scale, I am now going to tell you why my belief that our nation grew out of a Christian seedbed is unshakeable. And it has not a wit to do with these three men. Let’s look at some Biblical principles found in our nation’s core political ideas.
- Transcendence. Is there a sovereign God who rules over all? The Declaration of Independence testifies that as God-created beings, no one can be alienated from their most basic human rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” God is the court of highest appeal, sitting in judgment over everything, even the state. This Christian idea in pre-Constitution America, came from the writings of Christian leaders William Blackstone and Samuel Rutherford who fueled the minds of our Founders with Biblical ideas.
- Individuality. Nowhere in the world, or in human history, has the primacy of the individual been so celebrated and respected as in America. That God made us in His image and that He redeemed us by offering His own Son, is evidence that the individual is more important to God than any state or kingdom of institution of man. Our Founders understood this and that’s why we have a separation of powers and a Bill of Rights (see below).
- Self-Government. In the personal sphere, self-government is quite simple. Every individual is charged with the responsibility of governing and managing their own life. Management responsibilities include our relationships, our personal health, our finances, our time, our skills and talents, and our overall behavior. Our Founders understood and often proclaimed that America would only survive if she remained a moral and religious people, and if personal virtue were in practice on a large scale. Only moral, religious and virtuous people can govern themselves. Ancient Israel was given opportunity to govern themselves, under the Ten Commandments. They failed and ended up with kings, “like the other nations.” When internal, personal, self-government fails, external government kicks in. Like Ancient Israel, we Americans have failed. Now the individual is shrinking as the state grows.
- Liberty of Conscience. Many refused to accept the new Constitution unless a “Bill of Rights” was attached to it. Virginian George Mason was one of them. Virginian Patrick Henry was another. During America’s colonial period, this land became a refuge for millions escaping religious persecution in Europe. This is where the idea of “tolerance” first originated in America. But note it wasn’t a tolerance for wickedness or sinful behavior, only a tolerance for the many sects or expressions of the Christian faith and to a lesser degree, the Jewish faith. Note: at the time of our founding, 98% of Americans were Protestant, 1-½% were Catholic, and ½% were Jewish. Liberty of conscience is protected by the first amendment.
- Separation of Powers. For thousands of years, until Christ arrived to be precise, ancient Israel functioned under three primary forms of leadership. They were the prophets, the priest and the kings. These three ministry offices served as checks and balances to one another. Power was held in check and not held solely in the hand of one party. In Isaiah 33:22, we read, “For the Lord is our judge, Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king …” What do you see here? I see our three branches of government. Our founders understood this principle and sought to protect the individual from the tyranny that occurs when too much power gets concentrated in one place.
I could go on. In fact I am writing a book about this (see above). But I don’t have time here to tell you about Covenantalism, Republicanism, Federalism, and several other Biblically-rooted American ideas, like the ones above, found in Holy Scriptures. Nor do I have time to tell you about the many early state and local government constitutions and governing documents that reference Jesus Christ, God and the Holy Scriptures. Nor do I have time to report on the countless other writings and documents from our new nation’s earliest decades where Christian thought and principle were found in abundance in almost every corner of the country.
The truth is, and I know this from my many years of personal research, that the Colonial American church did indeed lay in these foundational principles and ideas long before The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution came into existence. This was the seedbed from which our political liberties emerged.
Caveat. I promised a caveat and here it is.
Despite our strong Christian beginnings, the seeds of our eventual failure were also present at our founding. Slavery, the betrayal and mistreatment of the native American, and later, the foolish notions of the “White Man’s Burden” and “Manifest Destiny,” all created cracks in our foundation (I’m switching metaphors here) which is now crumbling to pieces before our eyes.
“What have you given us?” asked the woman in the late Philadelphia summer of 1787 as Benjamin Franklin stepped out onto the cobblestone street from what would become Constitution Hall.
“A Republic, Madam, if you can keep it,” came his reply.
We have not