In a meeting with Delaware Indian chiefs in 1779, George Washington shared with them the importance of the Christian faith. After commending them for their request that their youth be trained in American schools, he said,
You do well to wish to learn our arts and our ways of life and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do everything they can to assist you in this wise intention.
Washington’s freedom in sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with this Indian tribe was normal for the founding generation for such freedom was rooted in the original American vision, which was to be a land of religious liberty from which the gospel would spread to the ends of the earth.
The Missionary Vision of America’s First Immigrants
When the Jamestown settlers disembarked at Cape Henry, VA on April 29, 1607, their first act was to erect a 7-foot oak cross they had brought from England. They then gathered around the cross for a prayer service in which they dedicated the land of their new home to God.
The desire to reach those who did not know Christ was expressed by their chaplain, Rev. Robert Hunt. In his dedicatory prayer, he declared, “From these very shores the gospel will go forth to not only this New World, but the entire world.”
Thirteen years later, off the coast of New England, the Pilgrims drew up the Mayflower Compact in which they declared their 2-fold purpose in coming to the New World: (1) for the glory of God and (2) the advancement of the Christian faith.
In 1643 the United Colonies of New England was formed to arbitrate land disputes and to facilitate cooperation in matters of economy and security. That the many thousands now living in New England shared a common vision to spread the Christian faith is indicated by the opening statement of the constitution, which reads,
Whereas we all came into these parts of America with one and the same end and aim, namely to advance the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ and to enjoy the Liberties of the Gospel in purity with peace (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 52-53).
It is no accident that the first Bible printed in America was printed for missionary purposes. It was produced by John Eliot (1604-1690) in the Massachusetts language. Eliot was also instrumental in the founding of America’s first missionary society in 1649. It was called “The Company for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England and Parts Adjacent in North America.”
This missionary vision of America’s earliest immigrant had a far-reaching impact, even influencing America’s Founding Fathers.
America’s Founders Had the Vision
For example, in a 1756 letter to George Whitefield, the most famous preacher of the Great Awakening, Benjamin Franklin proposed that they partner together in founding a new Christian colony on the Ohio frontier. He wanted to populate it with a religious [Christian] and industrious people. He also presented a missionary motive for the new colony, saying,
Might it not greatly facilitate the introduction of pure religion among the heathen, if we could, by such a colony, show them a better sample of Christians than they commonly see (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 105).
Franklin had met Whitefield 18 year prior to this, and they had become close friends and business partners. Since Franklin is writing this proposal to the fiery revivalist of the Great Awakening, there can be little doubt that the “pure religion” he wants to introduce to the native tribes in that region is the evangelical revivalism preached by Whitefield.
As president, Thomas Jefferson negotiated a federal treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians, a treaty that, among other things, stipulated that federal funds be made available to pay for a Christian missionary to work with the Indians and for the building of a Christian church in which the Indians could worship (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 150). Jefferson also said,
I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus . . . The philosophy of Jesus is the most sublime and benevolent code of morals ever offered man. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 149-50).
Samuel Adams has been called “The Father of the American Revolution.” He was a member of the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. While serving as governor of Massachusetts, he proclaimed a Day of Prayer in which he exhorted the citizens of that state,
Pray that the peaceful and glorious reign of our Divine Redeemer may be known throughout the whole family of mankind.
John Hancock served as president of the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence. His signature is the largest and most obvious on that document. While serving as governor of Massachusetts, he also proclaimed a Day Prayer in which he exhorted the people,
Pray that all nations may bow to the scepter of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and that the whole earth may be filled with his glory.
James Madison, chief architect of the Constitution and America’s fourth president, voiced his opposition in 1785 to a bill that he perceived would have the unintended consequence of hindering the spread of the gospel. He said,
The policy of the bill is adverse to the diffusion of the light of Christianity. The first wish of those who enjoy this precious gift ought to be that it may be imparted to the whole race of mankind (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots,
George Washington, America’s first president, not only shared the gospel with American Indians, he once publicly prayed,
Bless, O Lord, the whole race of mankind, and let the world be filled with the knowledge of Thee and Thy Son, Jesus Christ (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 138).
No Real Liberty Without the Gospel
America’s Founders believed so strongly in the gospel as the basis of human freedom that they unashamedly prayed and publicly expressed their desire to see it spread throughout the earth.
Recent presidents have sought to export American style democracy to other nations apart from the gospel of Christ. Indeed, the entire Western world is seeking to secularize liberty and remove it from any association with faith.
America’s Founders would say that such efforts are futile since true liberty cannot be had apart from the gospel of Christ. Washington made this plain in his Farewell Address where he warned the fledgling nation that two things must be guarded if they were to be a happy people--“Christianity and morality,” which he called “indispensable supports” for political prosperity (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 169).
What About “Separation of Church and State”
The oft-quoted phrase, “separation of church and state,” is nowhere to be found in America’s founding documents. It is a reference to the First Amendment that reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or hindering the free exercise thereof.” The day after ratifying the First Amendment, those same Founding Fathers issued a proclamation for a National Day of Prayer.
The First Amendment was merely their way of saying that America would never have an official, national church like the nations of Europe at the time. By instituting the First Amendment, the Founders rejected the model begun by Constantine in which civil government establishes and upholds by force an official, state church, and persecutes all others.
Instead of banning faith from the public square, as many moderns suppose, the Founders, by this act, created a free and open marketplace for religious ideas. They were not concerned about false religion getting the upper hand for they believed in the inherent power of the Christian message.
They were convinced that on an open and even playing field, truth would always prevail. They agreed with the Puritan, John Milton, who wrote,
Let Truth and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse in free and open encounter? She needs no policies, nor strategems, nor licensings to make her victorious . . . Give her but room.
Yes, the Founders believed in the inherent power of Christianity, which is why Jefferson wrote,
Truth can stand by itself … If there be but one right religion and Christianity that one, we should wish to see the nine hundred and ninety-nine wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free inquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves.
It is Time to Recover the Vision
Yes, the original American vision was for a land of religious liberty from which the gospel would spread to the ends of the earth. Modern secularists have robbed the American populace of this vision by rewriting America’s history and turning the First Amendment on its head.
The truth, however, will make us free as Jesus declared in John 8:32-33. As we recover the truth about America’s overt Christian founding and ask God to visit this land with another Great Awakening, the original American vision could well be revived once again.
This article is derived from Dr. Eddie Hyatt’s book, Pilgrims and Patriots, available from Amazon and his website, www.eddiehyatt.com. He is also the creator of "America's Reawakening," a PowerPoint presentation that documents America's birth out of prayer and the First Great Awakening. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.