America’s founders were cautiously optimistic about the nation they brought into existence 240 years ago this July 4. Their greatest concern was not a foreign army. Their greatest concern was not an economic collapse. Their greatest concern was that the American populace would turn from the Christian morals and values on which they had built, and which they considered indispensable for political stability and success. As the well-known Catholic historian, William Novak, says, “The founders did not think that the constitutional government they were erecting could survive without Hebrew-Christian faith.”
The Greatest Concern of the Founders
The ink was hardly dry on the new American Constitution when Benjamin Franklin expressed this very concern. At the banquet celebrating the completion of the Constitutional Convention, a Philadelphia matron rushed toward Franklin, and gushed, “O Mister Franklin, what have you gentlemen wrought?” The 81-year-old Franklin is said to have paused, adjusted his glasses and solemnly replied, “A republic madam. If you can keep it.”
Franklin was solemn because in a “republic,” freedoms are guaranteed to the people by a Constitution and Bill of Rights. Franklin knew that those same freedoms they had just enshrined could be turned into anarchy by a self-serving populace that did not have the capacity to govern itself according to internal moral principles.
Franklin 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 Christian principles. This is why John Adams, our second president, 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 people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 172-73).
Indeed, the Founders believed Biblical morality to be the only secure basis for the kind of republican government they had created. In 1807, John Adams wrote to Benjamin Rush, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and said, “The Bible contains the most profound philosophy, the most perfect morality, and the most refined policy, that ever was conceived upon earth. It is the most republican book in the world.”
No Freedom Without Faith
Yes, the Founders greatest concern was that the nation would stray from its faith in God and the result would be the loss of the morality necessary to maintain a republic. Two weeks before the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote to his cousin, Zabdiel, a minister of the gospel, and exhorted him in this regard. He wrote,
“Statesmen, my dear sir, may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles, upon which Freedom can securely stand ((Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 173).
When they Founders speak of “religion,” they are speaking of Christianity. In his Farewell Address, after serving two terms as president, George Washington exhorted the fledgling nation that the indispensable supports of political prosperity are “religion and morality.” For Washington, Christianity was not something to be merely “tolerated” in the new nation, but something indispensable for the nation’s survival and success. Thomas Jefferson was so impressed with Washington’s Farewell Address that he made it required reading for all students at the University of Virginia.
The Founders were thus unanimous in their belief that only a virtuous and moral people could maintain the liberties enshrined in the founding documents. They were also unanimous in the belief that such morality and virtue could only be derived from a reformed and vibrant Christianity. As Novak says,
“Far from having a hostility toward religion, the founders counted on religion [Christianity] for the underlying philosophy of the republic, its supporting ethic, and its reliable source of rejuvenation” (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 174).
God’s People Hold the Key to America’s Future
Are we seeing the worst fears of the Founders coming to pass? I believe we are! There is no question of a rising hostility towards Christian morality. We are seeing Christians sued, fined and even jailed for refusing to compromise their sincerely held religious convictions. We have a president who at the beginning of his first term, declared, “America is not a Christian nation,” which was a rejection of the Christian world-view and values on which this nation was built. The Supreme Court’s recent legalization of same-sex marriage was merely another expression of the cultural change taking place as a result of the widespread cultural rejection of any transcendent moral authority, especially Christian.
But there is hope! Throughout the history of this nation there have been periods of “backsliding” and spiritual indifference, followed by times of Spiritual revitalization and awakening. Such awakenings, however, always begin with the people of God. This means that the answer for America’s ills will not begin at the White House, but at God’s house. I Peter 4:17 says, For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God. The promise of a national healing in II Chronicles 7:14 is preceded by the condition, If My people . . .. Significant historical change always begins and ends with the people of God.
We as Christians and Christian leaders must, therefore, lead the way in evaluating our lives in light of the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament, and offering repentance and confession where necessary. As the church acknowledges its backsliding and compromise with the world, God will answer with times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord, as promised in Acts 3:19.
This was the experience of a particular church during the Second Great Awakening. The leaders of this church came to realize that in seeking acceptance and approval from contemporary society, they had compromised their commitment to Christ. They, therefore, formulated a public statement concerning their “backsliding and want of a Christian spirit.” It was submitted to the congregation for their approval and then read before the congregation.
As the confession was being read publicly, the entire congregation stood to its feet with many of its members weeping. Charles Finney, who related this incident, said that from that moment the revival went forward in power and the opposition, which had been bitter, was silenced. The Second Great Awakening (1800-1840) continued to grow and swell like a great tsunami wave until, as the circuit-riding Methodist preacher, Peter Cartwright, said, “Our nation seemed all coming to God.”
America Can Be Great Again
This critical role of an awakened Christianity in the life of America is affirmed in a quote from an unknown visitor to this country, probably in the first half of the nineteenth century. If, as some think, the visitor was Alexis de Tocqueville, then the year was 1831 during the time of the Second Great Awakening. This Awakening revitalized America after a spiritual and moral downturn after the Revolutionary War.
This visitor, who was obviously searching for the secret to America’s rapid rise to affluence and power, recounts how he sought for America’s greatness in her form of government, her educational system, her vast commerce, etc. This visitor then said something astounding. He said,
“Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great” (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 177-78).
America can be great again, not by seeking greatness, but by seeking God. America can be great again, not by running from her past, but by reconnecting with her past and learning from her Founders, who like the above visitor, tied America’s future greatness to her ability to maintain her goodness.
As we reconnect with our radical Christian roots of faith and freedom, America’s current course will be altered. As we pray for Spiritual awakening, a national healing will occur, not instigated by a new program from Washington, D.C., but sent down from Heaven as promised in II Chronicles 7:14. When that happens, all Americans will be able to sing with thankfulness of heart that patriotic hymn that says,
God shed His grace on Thee.
And crown Thy good,
From sea to shining sea.”
This article is derived from Eddie Hyatt's latest book, Pilgrims and Patriots, available from Amazon and from his website at www.eddiehyatt.com. Pat Robertson has called this book "a must-read."
"A Must-Read." - Pat Robertson