Our Nation’s Christian Heritage
As an adjunct to my series on Freedom of Religion in the United States this piece covers a few interesting aspects related to our founding and subsequent development as a Christian Nation. Although this information could have been provided directly in context with the Freedom of Religion episodes, there is merit to providing it as a standalone piece in response to the current challenges to the veracity that we were founded as a Christian nation and that we are yet today a Christian nation. For those of you following the Freedom of Religion in the United States series you may consider this as Episode 5(a). And for those of you who have not yet started reading the Freedom of Religion Episodes, episodes 1 to 4 will take you from the landing of the pilgrims up to about 1802 in the saga of the establishment and attacks on Religious Freedom in our country.
Introduction – The United States was founded as a Christian nation and remains one today.
There is little doubt that upon its founding America’s people and its founders believed in God and were a Christian nation. That we were a Christian nation remained unquestionably true for one hundred and fifty years after our founding. And now although under attack, especially in the last few decades by individual atheists, atheist groups, gay rights organizations and rulings by liberal judges, that remains true today. This reality is evidenced in terms of: (1) the principles upon which the United States was founded, (2) the dominant religion of its people, and (3) the basis of the civil laws under which it operates and the associated judiciary rulings handed down for more than 150 years. So despite the “running scared of legal repercussions” actions by school administrators and elected officials and President Obama’s unsubstantiated, and erroneous statement in 2009,that, “We no longer consider ourselves a Christian nation”, America remains, to this day, a Christian nation.
Christianity was the dominant religion in America upon its founding and remains the dominant religion.
At the time America declared its independence in 1776 the colonies were overwhelmingly Protestant Christians. The book Myth of Separation between Church and State by Dee Wampler cites that 98% of the 2.5 million population in 1776 professed to be Protestant Christians. Most of the remainder were Catholics. This matches with the estimate was that there were 35,000 Catholics in the U.S. in 1776 (1.75%). Jewish historians estimate that in 1776 that there were 2,500 people of the Jewish religion ( 0.1% of the population) in the colonies. There were a few Muslims (brought in as bondsmen or slaves), and there may have been a few Hindus, Buddhists and peoples of other religions but the number was so small as to be “politically” insignificant and for the most part went unrecorded.
The dominance of Protestant Christian denominations is also reflected in the societal practices and laws of the day. Although not enforced, many states had laws which required such things as church attendance on Sunday and other “Sunday” laws, which were enforced, that dictated acceptable Sunday activities (e.g. shops could not be open on Sunday). Further, Protestant domination was reflected in the voting laws of most states where Catholics, Jews and atheists were excluded from voting as well as from holding public office. These relatively “harsh”, intolerant attitudes were a carryover from the mind-sets of the initial colonizers (Puritans) and the imposed Anglican “state church” in the Crown Colonies, and do not reflect the much more tolerant (even subservient and submissive) attitudes of Christians that subsequently developed in America. We became a tolerant Christian nation, applying the first amendment, “free exercise of religion clause” to all the world’s religions, despite the narrow extent and context that existed when it was composed. *
A walk around our nation’s capital and reading the writings on the monuments gives testimony to the faith, trust, and reliance on God that was shared and lived out by our nation’s founders and leaders.
There are two other significant, aspects related to “religion” of the 1700 and 1800’s which provide insight into our Christian heritage and its subsequent aberrant exploitation. These are:
- The nature of the “Protestant” Church in Colonial America and the impact of the Great Awakenings
- The appellation of “deist” ascribed to several of the founding fathers.
The “Protestant” Church in Colonial America and the impact of the Great Awakenings
Although a wide variety of Christian denominations or sects came to America and found acceptance in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and the mid-Atlantic states, the Protestant church, until the mid18th century, was primarily made up of “main line” denominations of Congregationalists and Anglicans along with Presbyterians, German Lutherans, and Baptists. Despite the restoration by Luther in the Reformation, of the concept of “grace” (the free gift of salvation through faith) and of a loving God who sent his Son to die for our sins, these denominations still largely focused on “salvation by good works”. These “works”, included the requirements of regular church attendance, strictly following creeds and participation in the sacraments. The Congregationalists Church services would have been characterized by emphasizing strict discipline and Anglican services by pomp and formal liturgy. What is often referred to as preaching of “fire and brimstone”, (i.e. – shape up or you will be condemned) was the order of the day. Church attendance and church membership was performed more on the basis of obligation and societal norms than on a strong emotional belief or faith. This situation changed markedly with the “Great Awakenings”. In simplest terms the “Awakenings” were the teaching and subsequent acceptance of what is now recognized as the essence of Christianity – “Belief in Christ as the Son of God who died on the cross for the sins of all, providing salvation to all those who accept Christ as their Savior.” (basically what the “evangelical” voters believe)
The first Great Awakening came about due to the “conversion” of a missionary, John Wesley. (Now that is really paradoxical!!) He and his brother Charles, were members of the Anglican Church in England and had come to Georgia as “missionaries”. While here, a Moravian bishop asked John Wesley if he “knew” Jesus. Wesley said, “yes, he knew that Jesus was the savior of the world”. “But do you know he has saved you?” asked the Moravian. John Wesley answered that he did not possess that knowledge. One evening two months later (in 1738), after returning to England, John Wesley underwent a “conversion” experience in which he came to realize that Christ had died for his sins and that he, “personally” was saved. He said “..my heart strangely warmed. I felt that I did believe in Christ, in Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
He along with his brother Charles, who had had a similar experience two days previously, founded the “Methodist” movement and along with Charles Whitefield came to America as evangelists, preaching the concept of the personal experience of salvation by the grace of God (not of salvation by doing good works). This more emotional, more heartfelt faith swept the colonies (1740 – 1780) and resulted in a religious revival. It is regarded as the single most transforming event in the religious history of the colonies. Charles Whitefield, who worked with the Wesleys came to preach in the colonies 7 times before his death in 1770. He was a renowned evangelist and orator who drew huge crowds. Here is a story about Ben Franklin’s experience.
“Benjamin Franklin, who later worked with Whitefield for 3 decades tells of the first time he went to hear him speak (Whitefield was in Philadelphia raising funds for an orphanage in Georgia). Franklin went to hear him, but had decided in advance that he did not intend to contribute to the cause. (He had in his possession a handful of coppers some silver dollars and five pistoles of gold.) After listening to Whitefield, Franklin began to soften and resolved to give him the coppers. His oratory was so good Franklin was ashamed of that decision and decided to contribute the silver as well. But when Whitefield finished so admirably as the plate came around Franklin emptied his pockets Gold and all!! “
Although the “Awakening” was initiated by these Methodists, the message, of personal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ through the revival format, caught fire in the Baptist Church as well. Even the Congregationalist denomination through the evangelist Jonathan Edwards was affected.
The Second Great Awakening took place during the period 1800 – 1830 and focused on spreading the message of personal salvation to the unchurched, through revivals and camp meetings, especially in the expanding frontier areas of Kentucky, Tennessee and southern Ohio.
Certainly the “great awakenings” invigorated religious worship in America (see the figure below on the growth of the number of congregations of each of a number of denominations), however, the most important effect was the change in the nature of the understanding being taught and lived by the people. There was in essence incorporation of the principles of the reformation. The Christian church in America moved away from a salvation through “good behavior and good works” emphasis and thrived as an evangelical church teaching and preaching the Gospel – salvation through faith in Christ. This personal involvement and personal commitment of the American people to their Christian faith, which evolved in the colonies beginning with the first Great Awakening, is the defining element of religion in America and allowed Christianity to be sustained over the centuries (unlike Europe where perhaps only 2% of the populous attend church).
Deism in Colonial America
A number of the founding fathers, (Franklin, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson being the most notable) have been described as Deist, often with the accompanying inference that America was not founded as a Christian nation. Deism, can be described as: “belief in the existence of God on the evidence of reason and nature only, and rejection of God’s subsequent involvement in the affairs of men”. It is an idea, belief or thought that arose during the “Age of Enlightenment” in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Deism is not an organized religion, in fact, one of the tenants of “true” Deism is that organized religion is not necessary. Painting these founders with a broad and dismissive “deist” brush does not provide an accurate picture of their founder’s thoughts on God and religion and on their thoughts on the role of God and religion in the formation and the future success of our form of government. And it certainly does not reflect the nature of their religious practices or the diversity of their opinions.
John Adams, a new Englander, regularly attended church throughout his life. His wife Abigail’s father was a Congregationalist minister and although that was the church he attended, his belief was Unitarian. Which in that day meant he thought of God as one (not three) with Jesus being raised up as divine by God. Hence the deist label for Adams, since many deists were Unitarian. Notwithstanding this one different theological point of view, Adams considered himself a Christian and believed it imperative that the ethical and moral teachings of Jesus be followed. As President, Adams twice called for national fast days to renew the nation’s sense of divine mission. Adams was a deep thinker and a good writer and clearly one of the most influential founding fathers in terms of formulating and drafting the documents which established our form of government and he considered that God had provided the opportunity for the formation of this government of freedom by the people and that leaders of this effort, of which he was one, should ensure it was carried out well. This, thought of God providing him, our people, and our country with this opportunity was not at all Deist.
George Washington was raised in and attended the Anglican Church throughout his life, he served as a vestryman in the church, and as an officer he “read” services to his men in the army prior to the Revolutionary War. He did not write about his personal religious views, thus the degree of his orthodoxy with respect to Christianity are hypothesized from his religious practices. The inference that George Washington was a Diest came to a great degree from his use of terms for God like, “the Grand Author”, “The Deity” and “The Supreme Being” in speeches and official statements. However, he did not avoid the word God or the mention of Jesus in what he wrote and said. (see Washington’s Papers). The Anglican church had “Sacrament Sundays” services (during which communion was given) four times per year. Services on these Sundays were held in two parts (the Desk and Pulpit service) and the “Lords Supper”. It was a common practice among parishioners of the day to attend only the first service. Nelly Custis, his adopted granddaughter, related that she and George Washington would leave after the first service and send the carriage back for Martha. In response to a biographer asking about Washington’s religious views Nelly Custis summed up the religion of George Washington quite well, “I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity,”. He communed with his God in secret…. He was a silent thoughtful man.” In his last will and testament Washington validated this opinion when he wrote, “You do well to learn …. above all the religion of Jesus Christ.”
Benjamin Franklin studied theology as a young man, he chose the Presbyterian church as his first church home in Philadelphia, but later attended Christ Church (Episcopal) the most because he liked the pomp and circumstance. However, he was ambivalent toward choosing any one Christian denomination. He contributed toward the construction of every church (and one synagogue) in Philadelphia. Franklin wrote; “Here is my Creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he governs the world by his Providence. That he ought to be worshiped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another life, respecting its conduct in this. These I take these to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion.” He encouraged organized religion because it enhanced the morality of the people. His motion for prayer at the Constitutional Convention and his experience illustrate that he did not eschew religion. And, although his intellectual outlook may have had deist components his actions and his belief in the value and need for organized religion and of the potential for God’s interaction in the affairs of men were decidedly non-deist.
Thomas Jefferson – It is well known that Jefferson developed his own “edited” version of the Bible by cutting out those portions which he had a hard time believing or accepting, like the ‘Incarnation” (God becoming human through the virgin birth). What is not so well known is that Jefferson did believe in the teachings of Jesus and felt it critical that these be taught and followed. In a letter to Benjamin Rush he said, “I am a Christian in the only sense in which I believe Jesus wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other. (#) In his last will and testament Jefferson wrote, “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ.” This then is what Jefferson thought of himself, not so much different than many professing Christians. Jefferson is often put forward as the best “Founding Father” example of how we were not a Christian nation at the time of the formation of our government. Clearly, his statements belie that assertion, however, even if that were true it is instructive to recall that Jefferson was not a member of the Constitutional Convention or of the Congress that two years later developed the amendments that became the Bill of Rights. Thus, ascribing the meaning behind the religious statements in these documents to Jefferson would be unsound logic.
A number of other Founding Fathers declared their Christian faith and its role in government quite boldly. It should be clear, even from this brief examination, that the personal religious beliefs of these founders add to rather than dissuade the assertion that America was a Christian nation at the time of its founding.
The United States is still a Christian Nation
As noted earlier when the nation was founded (1780-90) essentially everyone (99.5%) belonged to a Christian congregation. We will in the next episode subsequently see how that dominance was reflected in the social / educational / judicial / political life of the country. Based on 1948 Gallup poll data, 91% of the population identified themselves Christian. This illustrates that Christianity was still the dominant religion of the country. That percentage has gradually declined with more immigrants following other religions coming to America and more people identifying as unaffiliated. About 2% identify as atheists. So about 50 years later in 2007, pew research indicated that 79% identified as Christian. Still a dominant majority. Further, beyond our people’s attestation to Christianity, our nation’s generous behavior in terms of accepting, and helping the poor and needy both internally and externally, and helping the oppressed reflect Christian principles.
President Obama’s comment during his visit to Turkey in 2009 about the U.S. not being a Christian nation was of course, not reflective of reality, we are, primarily, a Christian nation. In three years he had become more strident with respect to his declaration. In 2006, Obama made a similar statement but qualified it. He said, “Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation – at least, not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.” In a sense, the sense of our country being tolerant and accepting, and allowing free exercise of religion, those words are true. However, in the sense of describing our character as a nation, which is the sense in which the statement is made, those words are ludicrous. Our nation does not have the character of a Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist nation. But what is most paradoxical and distressing, is that whereas we, as a tolerant Christian nation, have welcomed and allowed free exercise of the world’s religions in our country, the free exercise of Christianity is no longer a reality. The free exercise of the Christian religion faces a constant battle with the judicial and administrative parts of our government. Future episodes of the Freedom of Religion series will be exploring how this came to pass and how it must be resisted in order to restore our first amendment rights.
Thanks for reading this – Larry Von Thun
* The understanding that the term “religion” in the first amendment statement that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…., meant a specific “Christian denomination”, is supported by the following two examples:
In the words of the Supreme Court of Maryland in the case of Runkel v. Winemiller in 1796, just a few years after the Constitution was adopted, they wrote: “By our form of government, the Christian religion is the established religion and all sects and denominations of Christians are placed upon the same equal footing and are equally entitled to protection in their liberty.” And Thomas Jefferson stated in a letter to Benjamin Rush — “the establishment clause relates to selection of a particular sect.”