Rev. Ethan Allen once stopped Thomas Jefferson while the president was on his way to church. Allen, who considered Jefferson an infidel and was surprised at his attendance at worship, asked why Jefferson bothered to go. He was probably even more surprised by the president’s response. Jefferson said, “No nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man, and I as Chief Magistrate am bound to give it the sanction of my example.”1
Please note that Jefferson does not address his acceptance of evangelical or doctrinal truths of the Christian faith. He was, most likely, primarily concerned with the social and civic utility of religion. (And often accused of infidelity, Jefferson may have been keenly interested in the political utility of church-going.) The historical record, in any event, is clear. Jefferson did attend church services regularly while in Washington, even though worship services were conducted in government buildings. In fact, two days after the issuing of the Danbury Baptist letter, in which he used the “wall of separation” metaphor, Jefferson attended worship services in the U.S. House.2 Jefferson gave money to support churches and cast the public impression of being a faithful and religious chief magistrate, as he did verbally with Rev. Allen.
Today, the received wisdom is that America’s founders were indebted to secular and Enlightenment thinkers and little interested in or influenced by religion or Biblical Christianity. Many historians discount the role of Christianity. An influential contemporary historian, for instance, argues that the Great Awakening never occurred: it was the “interpretative fiction” of nineteenth-century evangelical historians. Others contend that the construction and ratification of a “godless constitution” is further proof of America’s secularist orientation. This is a common understanding of the American past for humanists in academia.
New scholarship, however, underscores the obvious: that Christianity was a vital force in the founding period. A decade ago, James Hutson argued for the importance of religion in America in an outstanding work, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic.3 Hutson’s latest book, Church and State in America: The First Two Centuries, continues the story, giving a historical framework for the civil role of religion in America.4 Hutson shows that Americans in the founding generation had shared assumptions about religion: that religion was absolutely necessary for morality and a virtuous republic, that public expressions of religious sentiment were valuable and to be encouraged, that religious freedom was important, that Christian convictions were broadly (often deeply) held, and that the general (or national) government was not to establish or meddle with religion in the states. This article examines a few of these fundamental convictions and practices.
Christianity and the Republic
First, the founders believed that religion, specifically Christianity, was vitally important for the success of the republic and that religion ought to be supported and encouraged. Political leaders repeatedly endorsed principles of Christianity in formal addresses. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress appointed fasts and thanksgiving days, and many of the proclamations were steeped in evangelical language, Biblical imagery, and the familiar refrains of covenant theology. In 1776, for example, Congress urged citizens to pray “through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ to obtain his pardon and forgiveness.” In 1777, Congress urged Americans to confess their sins “that it may please God through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance.”5
State leaders likewise encouraged passionate prayers and faithful religious observances. Perhaps most remarkable was the Thanksgiving and Prayer Proclamation of Virginia by Governor Thomas Jefferson. In November 1779, Governor Jefferson urged Virginians “to humbly approach the throne of Almighty God, with gratitude and praise,… (and above all) that he hath diffused the glorious light of the gospel, whereby, through the merits of our gracious Redeemer, we may become the heirs of his eternal glory.” Jefferson went on to ask for prayer that God “would go forth with our hosts and crown our arms with victory; that he would grant to his church, the plentiful effusions of divine grace, and pour out his holy spirit on all Ministers of the gospel; and spread the light of Christian knowledge though the remotest corners of the earth.” Jefferson’s concluding appeal is that God “would in mercy look down upon us, pardon all our sins, and receive us into his favor; and finally, that he would establish the independence of these United States upon the basis of religion and virtue.”6 I wish that Governor Jefferson’s passionate prayer—that the United States would be established on the basis of religion and virtue—was the prayer of every civil magistrate!7
States, furthermore, offered formal support for Christianity and churches. Many states maintained ecclesiastical establishments in the Revolutionary era; state-supported churches didn’t wither away until the 1830s. State constitutions included statements about God, the Bible (acknowledging its inspiration and authority), and an afterlife of reward or punishment. A belief in heaven and hell, it was thought, would help guarantee a virtuous citizenry and sustain a republic.8
Many states had religious tests for officeholders or voters. The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, for instance, had required that each member, before being seated, “shall make and subscribe the following declaration, viz: I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.”9
My favorite example of church-state developments is the State of Franklin—a would-be state that sprang up on the east Tennessee frontier in the 1780s but faded away when it wasn’t recognized by Congress. The State of Franklin drafted a constitution (largely borrowed from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina) and principles of rights, and is an excellent example of bootstraps frontier republicanism in an area dominated by Scots-Irish Presbyterians.
The 1784 constitution imposes a religious test oath: “That no person shall deny the being of a God or the truth of the Protestant religion or the divine authority either of the Old or New Testament, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom or safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit within the civil government within this State.” The constitution also guarantees religious freedom: “There shall be no establishment of any religious church or denomination in this State…, neither shall any person on any pretense whatsoever be compelled to attend any place of worship contrary to his own faith or sense of judgment or be obliged to pay for any [church] or minister contrary to what he believes to be right…, but all persons shall be at liberty to exercise their own mode of worship.” The Declaration of Rights attached to the constitution further affirms the importance of civic virtue: “That a people have a right by their representatives to enact laws to encourage virtue and suppress vice and immorality.”10 These were common features among the states immediately following independence: generic (Protestant) Christianity, religious freedom, and the importance of virtue.
Religion and Government
Christian statesmen and theologians had long believed that the civil magistrate had a duty to support and encourage the true faith. Political theorists and commentators pointed to the words of Isaiah 49:23: “[K]ings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the LORD: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me” (KJV). As a passage about the Messiah, commentators agreed, it was perfectly applicable to civil rulers during the gospel age. There was broad agreement in England and the colonies that kings and civil magistrates had a duty to God as nursing fathers to protect religion and the church.11
The “nursing father” metaphor was common in the colonies and lingered into the nineteenth century in America. In 1783, for instance, citizens in Amherst County, Virginia, urged their representatives not to ignore the “Important Business” of supporting religion or “think it beneath your Dignity to become Nursing Fathers of the Church.”12
State and national governments did much to encourage the “Important Business” of religion. In 1782, Congress sanctioned the publication of Holy Scripture to guarantee that Americans would have access to the Word of God and its wholesome influence. Congress even urged missionary activity in the trans-Appalachian west, calling for a fast in 1782 to see that “the religion of our Divine Redeemer … cover the earth as the waters cover the seas.”13 In 1785, as part of provisions for western expansion and later incorporated into the Northwest Ordinance (of 1787), Congress set aside 3 percent of all western lands for the support of schools and religion. The language of that congressional measure is striking: “[R]eligion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
The founders repeatedly stated that religion, morality, and republican virtue were intertwined and vitally important for the new nation. In 1779, Lunenburg County, Virginia, urged the General Assembly to promote Christianity, as religion was the best means of promoting virtue, peace, and prosperity. The preface to the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution states that the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depends upon morality, religion, and piety. The good people of Surry County, Virginia, put it this way: religion is “the great cement of civil society … essential to the prosperity of civil society.”14
Washington’s famous Farewell Address in 1796 simply echoes what Americans had been saying all along. As Washington put it, religion and morality were “indispensable supports” of political prosperity and the “firmest props”
of the duties of men and citizens.
“[L]et us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion,” he warned, as “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”15
Religion and Liberty
In addition to stressing the civic value of religion, Americans also emphasized religious freedom. Many American colonists were dissenters, or religious refugees, or the descendants of religious refugees. Americans resisted England in the 1770s, they argued, to defend their religious liberties as well as their political and economic freedoms.16
John Adams, in his “Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law” (1765), argued that the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers were the great champions of liberty, who opposed a coalition of ecclesiastical tyranny (canon law) and civil tyranny (feudal law). This conjoined despotism was best illustrated by the Inquisition (church tyranny) and the Bastille (statist tyranny). For Adams, the spiritual descendants of the Reformers were the seventeenth-century Puritans who migrated to America to escape Stuart political and religious tyranny in the 1630s. The spiritual heirs of these freedom-loving Puritans, in Adams’ view, were the American Patriots of the 1760s who resisted the same coalition of tyranny.
Most of the colonies had some form of religious freedom by the time of the Revolution. Even where there was a formal religious establishment, freedom of religion was officially recognized or tacitly practiced. The most curious and atypical case is also the most famous: Virginia.17 Virginia dissenters, mostly Baptists and Presbyterians, maintained a vigorous struggle for religious liberty. Jefferson and Madison made common cause with these evangelical dissenters, leading to the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786.
The political story of Virginia disestablishment, however, is interesting and illustrates the broad spectrum (and complicated coalitions) of Christian reform. One side (Anglicans) supported a continuation of the established (Anglican) church. The second party (the Moderates), led by Patrick Henry, wanted a generic establishment, with the state providing support for various teachers of religion. This general assessment plan (or voucher system) would allow continued state encouragement of religion. The third party, led by Jefferson and Madison and supported by other evangelical dissenters, favored the outright disestablishment of the Anglican state church.
Madison and Jefferson secured an ultimate victory through some savvy politicking. Historian Daniel Dreisbach describes it this way: “Alarmed at the growing support for Henry’s (general) assessment campaign and the perceived threat to religious liberty, Jefferson uncharitably suggested to Madison: ‘what we have to do I think is devoutly to pray for his [Henry’s] death.’ Madison, however, had a less final solution: remove Henry from the legislature by having him elected Governor.” With the leading advocate of assessment kicked upstairs, the forces of disestablishment in the legislature won the day.18
All three Virginia groups, however, were interested in the continuing religious and moral influence upon society. When he first proposed ecclesiastical disestablishment in 1779, for instance, Madison simultaneously introduced legislation for punishing Sabbath breakers and a bill for sanctioning fast and thanksgiving days in Virginia. Most states combined commitments to religious liberty with concerns about public virtue and support for religion.19 Commitment to disestablishing the Anglican Church was not synonymous with an interest in secularizing society.
Confessional standards were also adjusted to reflect the new freer order. Many communions embraced the Westminster Confession or some variation, although there were concerns about its potentially Erastian character—with the threat of the civil magistrate controlling the church.20 (The original Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646, in 23:3, affirmed that the magistrate had a duty to preserve order, unity, and peace in the church, to protect the purity of the truth of God, and to suppress all blasphemies and heresies.)
When the American Presbyterian Church revised the Confession in 1788, the civil magistrate was still called a “nursing father” with a duty to protect the church of our common Lord, but “without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger.” All in all, Americans wanted religious liberty so that evangelicals would no longer face persecution from state establishments.
Church and State
Finally, Americans insisted that national or general government was not permitted to establish a national church or encroach on religious freedom. Americans had been highly suspicious of British attempts to control religion in the 1760s. Likewise, Americans in the 1780s wanted no caesaropapist or Erastian control of religion from Philadelphia (or Washington).
This explains why there is so little about religion in the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution treated religion precisely as the Articles of Confederation had done. It didn’t meddle with it, as religion was considered an affair of the states. The language of the First Amendment explicitly limits what Congress and the general government might do. The founders were concerned about protecting the states and state prerogatives against federal intrusion, and they had no interest in stirring up religious and sectarian strife on a national scale.
National leaders could promote religion in a general way, and they did so with Bible publication, missionary encouragement, and even funding a church for the Kaskaskia Indians (during Jefferson’s presidency). Washington’s 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation is a good example of the role of religion for the first president. The proclamation gives thanks to God “for His signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of His providence” as well as encouraging prayer to Him “to pardon our national and other transgressions.” As President John Adams faced a possible war with France in 1798, he urged Americans to confess their sins and pray that God, “of His infinite grace, through the Redeemer of the World, freely to remit all our offenses, and to incline us, by His Holy Spirit, to sincere repentance and reformation.”21
With Jefferson’s presidency, there was a change in the posture of the chief magistrate. He no longer issued presidential thanksgiving proclamations. While this has been attributed to his infidelity and growing hostility to religion, Jefferson as president did visibly encourage religion. A better explanation for Jefferson’s conduct as president is found in his constitutional convictions. As head of the executive branch, Jefferson did not believe that he could officially promote a church or prescribe religious practices. Indeed, he felt constrained by the Constitution, and specifically the First and Tenth Amendments.
Daniel Dreisbach and others have argued that this is a consistent expression of Jefferson’s “federalism” or “constitutional republicanism.” In the draft of the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, for instance, Jefferson affirmed that power over religion is reserved for the states or the people, since under the Constitution this power was not granted to the United States.22 In his second inaugural address of 1805, Jefferson stated: “In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the constitution independent of the powers of the general government. I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it; but have left them, as the constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of state or church authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.”23
In his 1808 letter to Rev. Samuel Miller, a famous Presbyterian theologian, Jefferson explained why he did not authorize a day of fasting or prayer. He emphasized limitations on the general government, while stressing the powers of the several states: “I consider the government of the U.S. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the U.S. Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority.” (The last sentence, particularly the last clause, gives a hint of Jefferson’s scruples and real convictions.) In short, whatever Jefferson’s personal preferences may have been, he felt that ecclesiastical matters could only be within the jurisdiction of the states—and not the federal government. At the same time, he believed that religion and individual religious commitment was important for the success of the state.
A Need for Blessing
At the Constitutional Convention, an aging Ben Franklin said: “[T]he longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of the Truth—that God governs in the affairs of Men … We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that ‘except the Lord build the House, they labor in vain that build it.’ I firmly believe this; and I also believe, that, without his concurring Aid, we shall succeed in this political Building no better than the Builders of Babel.” Though Franklin was not an orthodox Christian, he understood the need for divine blessing for national success.
In 1954 Chief Justice Earl Warren put it this way: “I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the Saviour have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses … Whether we look to the first Charter of Virginia ... or to the Charter of Massachusetts Bay ... or to the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut ... the same objective is present: a Christian land governed by Christian principles.” Warren continued: “I believe the entire Bill of Rights came into being because of the knowledge our forefathers had of the Bible and their express belief in it ... I like to believe we are living today in the spirit of the Christian religion. I like also to believe that as long as we do so no great harm can come to our country.”24 Though Warren was a liberal and activist jurist, he could read the basic documents of American history and see their Christian character.
We need the blessing and aid of the Lord now more than ever. During the War for Independence, Congress repeatedly sought prayers for the reformation of religion in America and for God’s support. We could start by praying what Thomas Jefferson recommended for Virginians in 1779: that God would “pour out his holy spirit on all Ministers of the gospel; and spread the light of Christian knowledge through the remotest corners of the earth…; would in mercy look down upon us, pardon all our sins, and receive us into his favor; and finally, that he would establish the independence of these United States upon the basis of religion and virtue.”25
1. James Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1998), 96.
2. Ibid., 93.
3. Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic.
4. James Hutson, Church and State in America: The First Two Centuries (Cambridge University Press, 2008).
5. Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, 54.
6. Quoted in Daniel Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 138.
7. A question can be raised if Jefferson really believed what he said in the proclamation. It is possible that he knew the convictions of Virginians and simply clothed the proclamation in religious language since that is what his constituents wanted and expected.
8. Hutson, Church and State in America, 56.
9. The RJ&L Religious Liberty Archive, Historical Materials, http://churchstatelaw.com/historicalmaterials/index.asp. Some of these religious tests were diluted in the Revolutionary era; the previous Pennsylvania test was even more explicitly Christian: “[T]hat all Persons who also profess to believe in Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the World, shall be capable (notwithstanding their other Persuasions and Practices in Point of Conscience and Religion) to serve this Government in any Capacity, both legislatively and executively.”
10. Samuel Cole Williams, History of the Lost State of Franklin (Johnson City, TN: Overmountain Press, 1933), 341, 345.
11. Hutson, Church and State in America, 57.
12. Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, 61.
13. Ibid., 57.
14. Ibid., 61, 64–65.
15. “Washington’s Farewell Address 1796,” The Avalon Project, Yale Law School, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp.
16. A good example is the Fincastle Resolutions (January 20, 1775), a patriotic resistance document from Virginia’s southwest frontier.
17. Hutson argues that Virginia was unique—“an ecclesiastical dinosaur.” One should not make generalizations based upon the colony that was the greatest exception to the American colonial pattern. Hutson, Church and State in America, 75ff.
18. Daniel Dreisbach, “Church-State Debate in the Virginia Legislature,” Religion and Political Culture in Jefferson’s Virginia, eds. Dreisbach and Sheldon (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), 150.
19. An historical example is Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Charter of Liberties, for instance, guaranteed a general religious freedom: “That no Person or Persons, inhabiting in this Province or Territories, who shall confess and acknowledge One almighty God, the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World; and profess him or themselves obliged to live quietly under the Civil Government, shall be in any Case molested or prejudiced, in his or their Person or Estate, because of his or their conscientious Persuasion or Practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious Worship, Place or Ministry, contrary to his or their Mind, or to do or suffer any other Act or Thing, contrary to their religious Persuasion.”
20. The concerns were expressed when the General Assembly of Scotland adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1647, and resurfaced during the American Presbyterian adoption debates in the 1720s.
21. Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, 80, 82.
22. “Draft of the Kentucky Resolutions – October 1798,” The Avalon Project, Yale Law School, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/jeffken.asp.
23. “Thomas Jefferson Second Inaugural Address,” The Avalon Project, Yale Law School, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/jefinau2.asp.
25. Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation, 138.