America’s Founders were cautiously optimistic about the future of the republic they brought into existence. They knew they had created a new form of government that could impact world history, but they also knew the dangerous perils that lay ahead for the new nation.
If You are Able to Keep It
This cautious optimism was expressed by Benjamin Franklin when at the end of the Constitutional Convention some of the delegates noted that the chair in which George Washington had sat bore a painting of the sun. Franklin, the senior statesman of the Convention, commented that he was not sure if it was a setting or a rising sun. And when a woman gushingly asked Franklin what they had accomplished at the Convention, he paused, adjusted his glasses and somberly replied, “A republic madam, if you are able to keep it.”
With the decentralization of power and the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, the Founders all knew that only a virtuous and moral people could maintain the Republic they had formed. Otherwise, liberty would be turned into licentiousness and freedom into anarchy. This is why John Adams emphatically stated, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the governance of any other.”
Adams also said, “The only foundation of a free Constitution is true virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our people, they will not obtain a lasting liberty.” Adams and all the founders agreed that if the people of the United States did not maintain virtue and morality, their liberties would be lost, replaced by some form of tyranny. They all agreed with the maxim of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, that “he who will not be governed by God must be ruled by tyrants.”
No Separation of God & State
The Founders wanted a separation of church and state, not a separation of God and state. This is why their writings are filled with Biblical quotes and acts of faith such as proclamations of days of prayer and fasting. In fact, the Continental Congress, beginning in 1774, issued no less than fifteen calls for prayer, humiliation and fasting. The proclamation of 1779 urged the American people “humbly to approach the throne of Almighty God” to ask “that He would establish the independence of these United States upon the basis of religion [Christianity] and virtue.”
What the Founders did NOT want was a national, state church, which is what the First Amendment is all about. They wanted a separation of church and state, not a separation of God and state. Every one of them believed Christian morality to be absolutely necessary for the success of the nation they formed.
Washington Warned Against the Loss of Religion & Morality
George Washington made this clear in his Farewell Address by warning the young nation to not neglect “religion [Christianity] and morality,” which he called “indispensable supports” for political prosperity. Notice that for Washington religion and morality are not optional, but “indispensable.”
Washington further warned against the supposition that morality could be maintained without religion, i.e., Christianity. In other words, there was no room for secularism in Washington’s thinking. As far as he was concerned, only Christianity provided the moral fabric and strength that would sustain the nation. He felt so strongly about this that he declared, “In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars [Christianity and morality] of human happiness.”
America’s “Nonreligious” Founders Wanted Biblical Morality
Thomas Jefferson, whom many consider the nation’s most nonreligious Founder, totally agreed with Washington. In fact, he believed this so strongly that he made Washington’s Farewell Address mandatory reading for all students at the University of Virginia, which he founded. Before he died in 1826 Jefferson expressed concern at indicators he saw that the nation was moving away from its founding principles. He wrote, “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just and that His justice cannot sleep forever.”
When Benjamin Franklin, America’s other nonreligious founder, called the Constitutional Convention to prayer in 1787, he reminded Washington and the delegates how, during the war, they had daily prayers in that room for God’s protection. He said, “Our prayers, sir, were heard and they were graciously answered.” He then alluded to the words of Jesus that a sparrow does not fall to the ground without the heavenly Father taking notice, and challenged the delegates with this question, “If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” In other words, Franklin saw faith in God, and acknowledgement of His providential care, as absolutely necessary for the survival of the nation.
This is not to say that the Founders were perfect. They obviously had their flaws, which included allowing slavery to be a part of the new nation. Remember, however, that the Founders did not introduce slavery into America. It was a part of the life into which they were born, There was, in fact, much debate and resistance to allowing the southern states to be a part of the new union. Founders like Washington and Franklin set in motion compassionate and costly programs to free their slaves and to equip them to become self-sufficient. The Biblical and moral principles emphasized by the Founders actually became the basis for slavery eventually being obliterated.
A Critical Moment in Time
The Founders never expressed a concern about America being conquered by a foreign power. They believed that God would protect the nation as long as there was a vibrant faith and virtue among the people. Their great concern was that the nation would turn from the God of the Bible and the teachings of Jesus and sink into an abyss of spiritual indifference, unbelief and amorality. As James Madison put it, "We have staked the whole future of the American civilization, not upon the power of government, but upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves according to the Ten Commandments."
I suggest to you that America is now at a tipping point in this regard. We are now facing the very conditions the Founders feared—the national acceptance of a secular and amoral way of life from the White House on down. Virtue and morality, the very things the Founders feared losing, are gone from the national life of the nation. The next few months will determine if we continue to be a free and courageous nation or if we sink into confusion and oblivion under the weight of our own sins.
What can we do? This nation has been sustained by Spiritual awakenings throughout its history. After the Revolutionary War a generation arose that knew nothing of the Great Awakening experienced by their parents and grandparents. Lewdness, immorality and spiritual indifference gripped the land. The Presbyterian Church issued a circular pastoral letter declaring they were “filled with concern and awful dread” at conditions they beheld on every hand.
A remnant of God-fearing and concerned followers of Christ began to fast and pray for another Great Awakening. God answered their prayers and great revival began to break forth throughout the land after 1800. The well-known Methodist preacher, Peter Cartwright, described the Awakening as like a great tidal wave that gained momentum “until it seemed our entire country was coming to God.”
This Second Great Awakening saved America from the influences of Deism and the French Revolution and guaranteed its Christian character for generations to come. The great Prayer Awakening of 1857-58 preserved the nation through its most severe crisis to date, the Civil War. This nation has been saved, again and again, by God-sent Spiritual awakenings.
It is not too late for America! America can be saved! I live with the hope that God will send another Great Awakening to our land. Will you be a part of it?
Dr. Eddie L. Hyatt is an author, historian and ordained minister with a vision for Spiritual awakening. His latest book, The Faith & Vision of Benjamin Franklin, is available from Amazon and his website at www.eddiehyatt.com, where you can also read about his vision for another Great Awakening for America and the nations of the world.