America’s Founders, for the most part, identified with the mindset of those they called “dissenting Protestants.” The dissenting Protestant insisted that civil government should have no role in the church nor in matters of faith and conscience. Freedom from government tyranny in matters of faith was an ideal that pervaded the thinking of America’s Founders.
However, for there to be liberty without license, the Founders knew that the populace would have to be governed from within by virtuous values. That is why they all agreed that only Christianity provided the moral values and intellectual underpinnings for a stable and prosperous nation.
Here are 5 pillars on which the American Republic was founded.
Faith in God as the Creator and Moral Governor of the Universe
The Founders considered belief in the God of the Bible as being essential for good citizenship. Unless the citizens would have a moral sense of obligation to their Creator, they would tend to live selfish, unrestrained lives, harmful to society.
This was expressed by James Madison when he wrote, “Before any man can be considered as a member of civil society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe.” Madison also wrote,
The belief in a God All Powerful wise and good, is so essential to the moral order of the world and to the happiness of man, that arguments which enforce it cannot be drawn from too many sources nor adapted with too much solicitude to the different characters and capacities impressed with it (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 131).
The Founders functioned on the assumption of a Divine Creator to whom all creatures owe their love, honor, and respect, and this is made clear by the many proclamations for days of prayer, repentance and thanksgiving issued by the Congress and presidents. During the Revolutionary War no less than 15 such calls for days of prayer were issued by the Continental Congress.
After being sworn in as president, George Washington issued a proclamation designating November 26, 1789 as a Day of Thanksgiving. The proclamation assumes the obligation of all citizens to acknowledge God’s existence and to show honor to Him. It opened with the following statement.
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God . . ..
The Declaration of Independence begins by acknowledging the Creator and recognizing that all human rights come from Him. That is the basis on which John Dickinson, chairman of the committee for the Declaration of Independence, declared in 1776, “Our liberties do not come from charters for these are only the declarations of preexisting rights. They do not depend on parchment or seals; but come from the King of Kings and the Lord of all the earth.”
Indeed, although there was tolerance for those of various faiths, there was a hostility toward atheism in early America. This was born out when a judge in the court of Chester County in the state of New York, threw out the testimony of a witness when the witness admitted he did not believe in the existence of God.
The judge said it was the first time he had met someone who did not acknowledge the existence of God. He went on to say that by denying the existence of God, the witness had “destroyed all the confidence of the court in what he was about to say.”
This event was recorded by the French sociologist, Alexis de Tocqueville, and occurred during his visit to America in 1831. Tocqueville said the incident was merely noted in the newspaper without further comment.
It is no accident that monuments in Washington D.C. abound with references to God and verses of Scripture. This pervasive belief in God by America’s Founders is also reflected in the statement “In God We Trust” being emblazoned on all federal currency. It is reflected in the phrase “one nation under God” being part of the Pledge of Allegiance that is repeated by every new citizen, and once was repeated every morning by school children across America.
Yes, belief in the all-knowing, all-powerful God of the Bible—the Moral Governor of the Universe--was considered a necessity for a prosperous and stable nation by virtually all early Americans.
Belief in the Bible as the Source of Ultimate Truth
When George Washington placed his hand on a Bible to take the oath of office it was no mere formality, but a declaration that the Bible would be the ultimate source of wisdom and guidance for his administration. He also once said, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible” (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 137).
A ten-year project instituted to discover where the Founders got their ideas for America’s founding documents found that by far the single most cited authority in their writings was the Bible. They were people of the Book and consciously and unconsciously used it as the standard for measuring all other writings both ancient and modern.
From the beginning, the Bible had been incorporated into all the learning of the schools in Colonial America. For example, The New England Primer coupled Bible verses and church doctrine with the learning of the ABCs. The letter “A,” for example, was associated “Adam” and the statement, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” First graders in early America learned to read with the Bible!
Knowing how the Founders esteemed and reverenced the Bible, it comes as no surprise that The First Continental Congress was opened with Bible reading and prayer. It is also no surprise that when Benjamin Franklin called the Constitutional Convention to Prayer, he quoted from both the Psalms and the Gospels (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 143-44).
While he was at The College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, James Madison translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into English. Dr. D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe were right when they said, “Madison’s worldview was one shaped by the Bible more than any other source” (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 146).
The Founders lived at a time when the European Enlightenment and its emphasis on reason was drawing many on the European continent away from the Bible. America’s Founders, however, saw no dichotomy between the Bible and reason. William Novak says,
Everywhere that reason led, Americans found the Bible. If they read Francis Bacon, they found the Bible. If they read Isaac Newton or John Milton, they found the Bible. In Shakespeare, they found the Bible. In the world of the founders, the Bible was an unavoidable and useful rod of measurement, a stimulus to intellectual innovation.
This primary role of the Bible in America’s founding was acknowledged by Andrew Jackson, America’s 7th president, when he said, “That book, sir, is the rock on which our Republic rests.”
The Human Condition Has Been Flawed by Sin
And Cannot be Trusted with Unlimited Power.
And Cannot be Trusted with Unlimited Power.
Marxism and modern liberalism claim that human nature is essentially good, and that people only need a revolutionary change of circumstances and institutions to improve and perfect their behavior. The Founders held no such utopian view of the human condition.
They held the traditional Christian belief that humanity had been created a noble creature in the image and likeness of God, but that this image had become marred because of the fall and sin (Genesis 1-3). Because the image was not erased, humanity is capable of very noble deeds; but since the image is marred, he is also capable of very dastardly deeds.
Although modern society does not want to hear about sin, human history cannot be understood apart from it. Only the Biblical account of the entry of sin into the world provides the context for understanding the wars, genocides, inquisitions, holocausts, and cruelties that have been an ongoing part of human history down to the present time.
Yes, salvation through Jesus Christ restores the image of God in mankind, but this restoration is a process that is not completed in this world. Humanity—even Christian humanity—in this flawed condition cannot be trusted with unlimited power.
The historian, Benjamin Hart, wrote, “A central assumption of America’s founders was original sin, meaning the corruption of man’s character.” “Take mankind in general,” said Alexander Hamilton, “they are vicious.” James Madison added, “If men were angels no government would be necessary,”
Because of mankind’s corrupt nature, a government is necessary to protect the good and punish the evil. However, since corrupt human beings must administer such government they cannot be trusted with unlimited power.
It was this mistrust of human nature that influenced the Founders to divide the powers of government into three branches and to provide checks and balances to keep any individual or group from gaining unlimited power. The Founders would agree with Sir John Acton who said, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
It is also why, in Section 9 of the Constitution, the Founders forbade the American government from granting honorific titles of nobility to anyone and forbade anyone holding a government office from accepting a title or office from a foreign king or state without the consent of Congress.
The Founders had a Biblical view of human nature and that is why they limited the powers of government and abolished aristocracy and hereditary privilege. Even then, said Washington, “We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation.”
Marxism and liberalism claim that the problem with human corruption stems from corrupt institutions. The Bible teaches the opposite. It is corrupt human beings who create corrupt institutions. The Founders, therefore, not only instituted a limited government, but also counted on Christianity to provide the moral and intellectual influence necessary for a stable society, for only a virtuous people could be a truly free people.
Christianity Provides the Moral and Intellectual
Underpinnings Necessary for a Stable and Prosperous Nation.
Underpinnings Necessary for a Stable and Prosperous Nation.
In his Farewell address after serving two terms as America’s first president, George Washington declared, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion [Christianity] and morality are indispensable supports.” He goes on to say that the person who would “labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness” can never claim to be an American patriot.
Thomas Jefferson was in complete agreement and he made Washington’s Farewell Address required reading at the University of Virginia, which he had founded. And notice that Washington did not call religion optional. The word he used was “indispensable” and Jefferson obviously agreed. It should be remembered that when the Founders used the word “religion” they were referring to Christianity.
Jefferson may have had questions at times about certain aspects of Christian doctrine, but there is no question that he saw Christianity as providing the moral and intellectual system necessary for a stable society. Having read the Koran and the literature of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Enlightenment, he stated, “Of all the systems of morality that have come under my observations, none appear to me so pure as that of Jesus.”
Jefferson’s commitment to Christian values is why he closed all presidential documents with the appellation, “In the year of our Lord Christ.” It is also why he took money from the federal treasury to pay for missionaries to work among the Kaskasia Indian tribe and to build them a building in which to worship.
Washington, Jefferson and all the Founders knew that the success of the nation they had formed hinged on the moral character of its citizens and their ability to govern themselves according to Biblical values. This is why John Adams, in a 1798 address to the officers of the Massachusetts Militia, declared,
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious [Christian] people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 173).
It was this emphasis on the morality of Jesus and the New Testament that eventually brought about the end of slavery in America. Walter Williams, the brilliant black professor of economics at George Mason University, points out how slavery had been practiced by many civilizations throughout human history before it was brought to America. He then says that the unique thing about slavery in America was “the moral outrage against it.”
This moral outrage was rooted in the Christian worldview that was promulgated throughout the land. Writing about the existence of slavery in his home state of Virginia in 1781, Jefferson expressed hope that it would soon be abolished and then warned,
God who gave us life, gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just and that His justice cannot sleep forever (Hyatt, Pilgrims andPatriots, 160-61).
The Founders did not believe that there could be liberty apart from virtue, or freedom apart from morality. Only Christianity offered the moral and intellectual underpinnings that would preserve the nation they had brought into existence. This is why Novak says, “The founders did not believe the constitutional government they were erecting could survive without Hebrew-Christian faith.”
Government’s Role is to Protect Faith and Freedom
No part of the Constitution has been so mangled and misapplied as that part of the First Amendment that reads, “Congress shall make no law concerning the establishment of religion or hindering the free exercise thereof.” Secularists have wrenched this statement from its historical context and original intent and made it to mean, not freedom of religion, but freedom from religion.
In this new and novel approach to the First Amendment, atheists and agnostics are protected from being offended by anything religious. Based on this distortion, prayer and Bible reading have been banned from public schools, crosses and Ten Commandment displays have been removed from public buildings, and students have been told they cannot talk about their faith in God at graduation ceremonies.
The fact is, however, that the day after voting to ratify the First Amendment, those same Founders issued a proclamation for a day of prayer and thanksgiving. Congress continued to be opened with prayer and Bible reading and prayer continued to be a daily part of the normal school day in America. Presidents also continued to issue proclamations for special days of prayer and thanksgiving.
The First Amendment had nothing to do with secularizing America or banning faith in the public square. By implementing the First Amendment, the Founders were simply saying that America would never have a national, state church as had been the case in Europe since the time of Constantine. Indeed, it was from these oppressive state churches that their parents and grandparents had fled.
When Jefferson used the phrase “wall of separation” in a letter to a Baptist association, he was assuring them that the First Amendment guaranteed them protection from persecution by the state such as they had known in the Old World and even in Jefferson’s home state of Virginia. Jefferson saw the First Amendment as a unilateral wall erected to keep the government out of the church, not to keep the influence of the church out of government.
It is obvious to anyone who knows history that the First Amendment was not put in place to stifle Christianity or to be indifferent towards it. The words and actions of the Founders make this clear. This was also made clear by Joseph Story (1779-1845) who served as a Supreme Court justice for thirty-four years from 1811-1845. Commenting on the First Amendment, he said,
We are not to attribute this prohibition of a national religious establishment to an indifference in religion, and especially to Christianity, which none could hold in more reverence than the framers of the Constitution (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 153).
That America’s Founders did not separate God from government was obvious to the young French sociologist, Alexis de Tocqueville, who came to America in 1831 to study her institutions. As a result of his research, he concluded that Americans had combined Christianity and civil liberty so intimately in their minds that it was impossible to make them conceive of one without the other. He said, “From the beginning, politics and religion contracted an alliance which has never been dissolved” (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 168).
The Founders would be astonished to see how the First Amendment has been distorted by modern secularists into a weapon against religious liberty, the very thing they meant to protect. Their simple purpose was to make sure that Christianity would be protected from government intrusion and that no denomination would ever be singled out for special favors.
America as a Secular Nation is a New and Novel Idea
Yes, America was founded as a Christian nation. This is not to be equated with a theocracy where individuals claim a direct mandate from God to rule and govern a people. The Founders had rejected that sort of thinking, but they had not rejected Christianity itself, for they considered Christianity to be necessary for the nation’s success and survival.
America as a Christian nation was understood as late as 1892 as expressed in the Supreme Court ruling of “Church of the Holy Trinity vs The United States.” After reviewing thousands of historical documents, the nation’s highest Court declared,
Our laws and our institutions must necessarily be based upon and embody the teachings of The Redeemer of mankind. It is impossible that it should be otherwise; and in this sense and to this extent our civilization and our institutions are emphatically Christian . . . From the discovery of this continent to the present hour, there is a single voice making this affirmation . . . we find everywhere a clear recognition of the same truth that this is a Christian nation (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 167)
It Only Takes a Spark to Get a Fire Going
To even the casual observer it is obvious that the pillars on which our Republic was founded are eroded and seriously damaged. Years of attacks by secularists and neglect by the church have taken their toll. Many believe they are damaged beyond repair and that the American Republic our Founders brought into existence is forever gone.
I am not so pessimistic. At critical times during our nation’s history God has intervened with national awakenings that have restored virtue to the populace and saved the nation from utter ruin. These include the Second Great Awakening (1800-1830), the Great Prayer Awakening of 1857-58, and other local, regional, and national revivals throughout her history.
These were not man-made religious events, but Divine visitations from heaven. That is what we must have today. Not a hyped religious event by a skilled crowd manipulator, but a true outpouring of the Holy Spirit as promised in Acts 2:17 and as happened in the First Great Awakening and in succeeding American awakenings.
A popular Christian camp song says, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going.” Spiritual awakenings have come when a committed few have determined to pray and be salt and light in their generation. God is now looking for a few good men and women who will be the spark to ignite the fire of another great, national, spiritual awakening and strengthen the pillars on which this nation was founded.
This article is derived from Dr. Eddie Hyatt’s book, Pilgrims and Patriots, available from Amazon and his website at www.eddiehyatt.com. Dr. Hyatt has a passion to see another Great Awakening in America and he conducts “America Reawakening” events in which he shows how America was birthed out of a great Spiritual awakening and then calls those present to a new commitment to be salt and light and to pray for another Great Awakening in our land.