In colonial America the church was the hub of community and social life. It was frequently a center for news regarding community, colonial, and international affairs. Not surprisingly, the signals across Boston Harbor to warn patriots of the approach of the British originated from the Old North Church.
Patrick Henry delivered his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech — a strong, emotional spur to the fervor for independence — in St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia.
Our forefathers well understood not only the personal and family implications of the Christian faith, but also its social and political ramifications. They continued the Old Testament legacy in which the prophets frequently spoke out on social and political matters. Were the political statements of such prophets as Nathan, Elijah, Isaiah, and Daniel, for instance, stripped from the Biblical record, much would be lost.
As a nation, America was founded in the context of a general Christian consensus and upon Christian principles. The evidence shows that the Christian faith dominated our developing nation’s cultural and legal history.
Our Legal Declarations
In the original legal charters for the thirteen colonies appear numerous devout references to God. A few examples will suffice. The 1609 charter for the Colony of Virginia granted by King James I stated: “It shall be necessary for all such as inhabit within the precincts of Virginia to determine to live together in the fear and true worship of Almighty God, Christian peace and civil quietness.” Similarly, the first charter of South Carolina granted in 1662 by Charles II declared that pious zeal for “the propagation of the Gospel” motivated the colonists to settle there.
The New Haven Colony Charter of April 3, 1644, adopted rules governing the judicial system in New Haven Colony: “The judicial laws of God, as they were delivered by Moses … [are to] be a rule to all the courts in this
The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut was the first written constitution in America, adopted January 14, 1639. The committee convening to frame the Orders sought to make the laws “as near the law of God as they can be.” Its Preamble stated: “Forasmuch as it pleased the Almighty God by the wise disposition of His divine providence so to order and dispose of things. . . .” It continued in the second paragraph: “and well knowing when a people are gathered together the Word of God requires, that to meinteine the peace and union of such a people, there should bee an orderly and decent government established according to God. . . .” In the third paragraph it spoke of its purpose as “to meinteine and presearve the libberty and purity of the Gospell of our Lord Jesus which we now professe.”
Furthermore, many legislative, constitutional, and judicial documents of the era say the same. The legislature of the Province of Pennsylvania in December, 1662, stated that “government in itself is a venerable ordinance of God” and noted that it was the principal object “of the freemen of Pennsylvania to make and establish such laws as shall best preserve true Christian and civil liberty.”
According to the later Connecticut Constitution of the 1770s, the great end of the Connecticut Commonwealth was “to maintain and preserve the Gospel of our Lord Jesus.” It further declared that “the Scriptures hold forth a perfect rule of the direction and government of all men in all duties they are to perform to God and man.”
The Great and General Court of Massachusetts in 1776 wrote: “Piety and virtue, which alone can secure the freedom of any people, may be encouraged. They command and enjoin upon the good people of this colony that they lead sober, religious and peaceable lives, avoiding all blasphemies, contempt of Holy Scripture and of the Lord’s Day, and all other crimes and misdemeanors.”
The New York State Legislature in 1838 decreed: “This is a Christian nation …. Our government depends for its being on the virtue of its people — on the virtue that has as its foundation the morality of the Christian religion, and that religion is the common and prevailing faith of the people.” The Constitution of the State of New Jersey (1844) read: “We, the people of the State of New Jersey, grateful to Almighty God for the civil and religious liberty which He hath so long permitted us to enjoy, and looking to Him for a blessing upon our endeavors to secure and transmit the same unimpaired to succeeding generations, do ordain and establish this Constitution.”
Significantly, the constitutions of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Delaware, and Maryland all required some sort of Christian profession from those who held public office.
The Declaration of Independence — which served as the moral justification for the separation of the Colonies from the British crown — speaks honorably of God in several places. It speaks of “the laws of nature and nature’s God” and refers to the endowment of “certain inalienable rights” by the “Creator.” It appeals to “the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions” and notes the colonists’ reliance “on the protection of Divine Providence.”
Our U. S. Constitution even gives the President Sundays off from returning bills to Congress (Art. 1; Sec. 7; Para. 2). And the main body of the Constitution ends with these words: “Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven.”
Even the U. S. Supreme Court has recognized the religious character of our national heritage. The 1892 Holy Trinity Church decision noted: “These references add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a religious people … a Christian nation.”
The 1962 Zorach decision observed, “We are a people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” The 1963 Schempp decision (against state-prescribed Bible reading in public schools) noted that “nearly every criminal law on the books can be traced back to some religious principle or inspiration.”
U. S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story in his Commentaries on the Constitution of the U.S. (1891) wrote: “Probably at the time of the adoption of the Constitution and of the First Amendment to it … the general if not the universal sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience and the freedom of religious worship.”
Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic Democracy in America (1834) observed that “among the Anglo-Americans there are some who profess Christian dogmas because they believe them and others who do because they are afraid to look as though they did not believe them. So Christianity reigns without obstacles, by universal consent.”
Our Cultural Practices
To these legal and historical references we can add a number of cultural practices. The First Continental Congress’s first official act was to open the meeting with prayer. The prayer offered up by Rev. Jacob Duche is recorded in official archives. On September 11, 1777, this Congress ordered the purchase of 20,000 Bibles after receiving the following Congressional Committee Report:
“The use of the Bible is so universal and its importance so great that your committee refers the above to the consideration of Congress, and if Congress shall not think it expedient to order the importation of types and paper, the Committee recommends that Congress will order the Committee of Commerce to import 20,000 Bibles from Holland, Scotland, or elsewhere, into the different parts of the States of the Union.”
Just five years later the Continental Congress granted approval to print “a neat edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of schools.” The edition that was printed by Robert Aitken of Philadelphia became known as “The Bible of the Revolution.”
On September 24, 1789, Congress called on George Washington to proclaim a national day of prayer. Every president but two since then has done this.
One of our main national holidays is Thanksgiving, which is inherently religious. Congress proclaimed the first day of thanksgiving in 1780.
Our national motto on our money since 1864 reads: “In God we trust.” Our Pledge of Allegiance speaks of our being “one nation under God.” The third stanza of our national anthem says:
Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven-rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just
And this be our motto “In God is our trust.”
Juries, trial witnesses, political officials, armed services and civil service personnel, and others, have long sworn to their duties with one hand on the Christian Bible. Generally this is done while pledging “so help me God.”
Our Religious Drift
Our heritage is emphatically that of a robust Christian faith. In fact, as Rushdoony has argued, the notion of a secular state was unheard of in the world until later during the French Revolution and its “Reign of Terror.”
Unfortunately, despite our forefathers’ diligent labors, secular forces have for more than fifty years actively worked to erase the handprint of God from America’s foundation stones. In 1962 the Engle Supreme Court decision outlawed the long-maintained custom of beginning school days with prayer. The following year saw the Schempp decision outlaw state-approved Bible reading in public schools.
In 1973 came the classic challenge to our Christian heritage and culture, the infamous Roe v. Wade decision which legalized abortion-on-demand. This decision set aside the longstanding Hippocratic Oath of the medical profession which obligated doctors to refuse to administer an abortion.
According to the Roe decision, it was rendered on the grounds (partly) that the Hippocratic Oath was popularized only due to the spread of Christianity, whereas “ancient religion [i.e., paganism] did not bar abortion.” University of California Law Professor David Louisell called this decision a “perfect challenge” to Christianity. Theologian Harold O. J. Brown recognized Roe as the “formal challenge of paganism.”
The Scripture warns us: “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Ps. 11:3). Contrariwise, it promises us: “Blessed is that nation whose God is the Lord” (Ps. 33:12). Let us pray that our nation re-anchors itself in the bedrock foundation of the Christian faith.
- Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D.
Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., holds degrees from Tennessee Temple University (B.A.), Reformed Theological Seminary (M. Div.), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (Th. M.; Th. D). He also attended Grace Theological Seminary for two years. He is Research Professor in New Testament (Whitefield Theological Seminary), a theological writer, and conference speaker. He has written numerous books and articles on issues such as theology, ecclesiology, eschatology, theonomy, six-day creation, presuppositionalism, worldview, Christian education, and more. He also offers a Christian writing correspondence course. He is the Director of GoodBirth Ministries, a non-profit religious educational ministry committed to sponsoring, subsidizing, and advancing serious Christian scholarship and education. He is a retired Presbyterian minister holding his ordination vows in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Assembly.