Was America Ever Christian? Founding, Awakening, and a Common Myth


ABSTRACT: The idea of a “Christian America” holds both myth and significant meaning. On the one hand, American history offers little evidence of a distinctly Christian founding; many of the Founders, in fact, actively opposed Christianity and sought its disenfranchisement in the new republic. On the other hand, the decades after the Founding saw a surge of Christian faith throughout the country. By the eve of Civil War, America could justifiably be called a “Christian nation,” but its Christianity was cultural, not political, the result of vigorous local and national enterprises rather than governmental action.

John Randolph of Roanoke (1773–1833) had no confidence that America was, or ever had been, a Christian republic.

Six months after the close of the War of 1812 — a war that he had violently opposed — Randolph wrote to Henry Middleton Rutledge that Virginia was “the most ungodly country on the face of the earth, where the Gospel has ever been preached.” And it was, as far as Randolph could see, as much “the case elsewhere in the U.S. . . .” The blame for this could be easily assigned: the influence of the Enlightenment and Enlightenment “infidelity.” His generation had been “a generation of free thinkers, disciples of Hume & Voltaire & Bolingbroke, & there were very few persons, my dear Rutledge, of our years who have not received their first impressions from the same die.”1

Randolph’s unhappiness will come as a surprise to many Christians who have assumed that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation,” or that Judeo-Christian values played a prominent role in its early life, or that — explicitly or implicitly — Christianity deserves to be recognized as having a special status in the foundations of American life and law. The conviction that an American civil religion exists, and is founded on Christianity, has been fed by images of Washington kneeling in the snows at Valley Forge to pray, by the so-called “black-coat regiment” of chaplains exhorting Revolutionary soldiers to battle against the unholy armies of King George, and by the appeal of the Declaration of Independence to “Nature and Nature’s God” and the “Creator” who has fashioned everyone with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But Rutledge was not merely playing the curmudgeon. Lyman Beecher (1775–1863), who entered Yale College in the 1790s, found — in the heart of old Puritan Connecticut — that

the college church was almost extinct. Most of the students were skeptical, and rowdies were plenty. Wine and liquors were kept in many rooms; intemperance, profanity, gambling, and licentiousness were common. . . . Most of the class before me were infidels, and called each other Voltaire, Rousseau, D’Alembert, etc., etc.2

Ashbel Green, who attended Princeton in the 1780s, also found that “open and avowed infidelity” was the order of the day, and “produced incalculable injury to religion and morals throughout our whole country; and its effect on the minds of young men who valued themselves on their genius, and were fond of novel speculations, was the greatest of all.”3

But it was more than just the Enlightenment that dislocated American priorities at the birth of the republic. It was also the idea of a republic itself. To the extent that the Enlightenment banished all notions of hierarchy from the physical universe, it likewise banished all ideas of hierarchical government, and with it all the apparatus associated with such government, including religion. With no need for a monarchy, a republic based itself entirely upon human longings, human morals, and human consent — not divine ones. Fisher Ames, a Massachusetts congressman, was disgusted by the secular optimism of republican ideas, since they encouraged “the dreams of all the philosophers who think the people angels, rulers devils,” and that “man is a perfectible animal, and all governments are obstacles to his apotheosis. This nonsense is inhaled with every breath.”4

Nor is there any reliable evidence that Washington knelt in the snows of Valley Forge to pray. To the contrary, Washington never mentioned the name of Jesus Christ once in all his voluminous correspondence, and referred to God as a more-or-less providential force who more-or-less made events happen from a distance.5 John Adams snarled at the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as an affront to republican reason and caricatured the incarnation as the belief that “that great principle, which has produced this boundless Universe . . . came down to this little ball, to be spit-upon by Jews; and untill this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world.”6 And even though Thomas Jefferson appealed to a “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence, the term Creator was as specific as Jefferson cared to get on the subject. More significantly, the federal Constitution banned the imposition of any “religious Test” for holding national office (article 6), and made no reference to a God or a Creator at all. “That very constitution which the singular goodness of God enabled us to establish,” complained John Monck Mason, the Presbyterian pastor and provost of Columbia College, “does not so much as recognize his being! . . . Even the savages whom we despise” set “a better example.” When Alexander Hamilton was asked about this omission years later, his reply was the perfect echo of John Randolph’s estimate of Virginia: “I declare,” said Hamilton to Princeton’s Samuel Miller, “we forgot.” Or maybe worse. When the aged Benjamin Franklin exhorted the Constitutional Convention to open their sessions with prayer, his motion was met with a polite refusal, since the public might conclude that a call to prayer signaled that the Convention was in so much peril that it had no hope apart from divine intervention, and “the alarm” such a suggestion would arouse would “be as likely to do good as ill.”7

Unevangelical America

Perhaps our problem in Christianizing America’s origins lies in too strict a definition of Christianity. Even if the Founders gave no direct sanction to religious belief, surely the fact that so many of the original British colonies that became the United States originally had legal establishments of Christian churches, and that so many of them were designed by their founders as religious societies and refuges, means that there was a deep and latent Christianity of a general sort at the time of the Founding.

But a latent Christianity is not always a deep one, and it is not hard to find places in early America where Christianity was exceedingly thin on the ground. Charles Woodmason, a Church of England missionary in South Carolina, was appalled in the 1760s at the “open profanation of the Lords Day in this Province. . . . Among the low Class, it is abus’d by Hunting fishing fowling, and Racing — By the Women in froliking and Wantonness. By others in Drinking Bouts and Card Playing — Even in and about Charlestown, the Taverns have more visitants than the Churches.” Woodmason found that “there are no Clergy in North Carolina,” which (as he discovered) meant that “thro’ want of Ministers to marry and thro’ the licentiousness of the People, many hundreds live in Concubinage — swopping their Wives as Cattel, and living in a State of Nature, more irregularly and unchastely than the Indians.”8 Even in the more demure atmosphere of Pennsylvania, the German Lutheran missionary Henry Melchior Muhlenberg was shocked at how quickly his fellow German emigrants lost any sense of Christian identity in the free air of the New World:

During this past fall [1749] many ships have again arrived with German people who spread out in crowds scattered throughout the country. It is almost impossible to describe how few good and how many exceptionally godless, wicked people have come into this country every year. The whole country is being flooded with ordinary, extraordinary, and unprecedented wickedness and crimes.9

Much of this religious indifference was shaken by the outburst in the 1740s of what became known in America as the Great Awakening, a tremendous revival of religion centered mostly in New England, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. But the Awakening was also comparatively limited in time and space: it lasted only from about 1740 till 1742, and passed almost completely over Maryland, New York, the Carolinas, Georgia, and even parts of New England. It might not, in fact, have created much of permanent effect had it not found an enormously talented and ingenious spokesman in the person of Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). Then, in 1775, came the American Revolution and another opportunity for Christianity to assert itself. Many of the Presbyterian and Congregational clergy who had supported the Awakening now swung enthusiastically behind the Revolutionaries. John Witherspoon, the Presbyterian president of Princeton College and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, announced that “the separation of this country from Britain has been of God” and called on “the Presbyterian body” to rally to “the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.”10 “Call this war . . . by whatever name you may,” added a Hessian captain in the British army in 1778, “but call it not an American Rebellion, it is nothing more or less than an Irish-Scotch Presbyterian rebellion.”11

But the war took a more severe toll on church life than anyone expected, and what made the cost of the war harder to bear was the meager recognition the new republic gave to the parsons and the churches that had supported it. The political leadership of the Revolution — Washington, Jefferson, Adams — marched to the rhythm of the Enlightenment, leaving its Christian advocates somewhere far behind. “The late contest with Great Britain, glorious as it hath been for their country, hath been peculiarly unfortunate for the clergy,” wrote Peter Thacher, a Massachusetts parson, in 1783. “Perhaps no set of men, whose hearts were so thoroughly engaged in it, or who contributed in so great a degree to its success, have suffered more by it.”12 Everywhere, old forms of traditional Christianity seemed to be on the defensive. New Jersey eliminated all state funding for churches in 1776, and New York followed suit in 1777; in Massachusetts, the new republican constitution of 1780 maintained public taxation for church purposes, but it now allowed taxpayers to choose which church they wished to support.13

Building a Wall

It was Virginia that became the test case for how much — or how little — public recognition Christianity was going to be left with in the new republic, and it was mostly going to be little. At the urging of the great Revolutionary orator Patrick Henry, Virginia led the fight to strip the Church of England of its legal status as the state church of the colony, but it still provided afterward for the levying of church taxes and the distribution of them among the various churches in Virginia.14 This half measure did not satisfy Thomas Jefferson or James Madison. Both of them were relentless in their determination to force Christianity off the public square of Virginia republicanism: in 1779, as governor of revolutionary Virginia, Jefferson withdrew state funding for the two professorships in divinity at the College of William & Mary, and in 1785, Madison persuaded the Virginia legislature to drop all public funding for religion.15

That, in turn, set the stage for Jefferson’s and Madison’s attitudes toward public religion on the federal level. Madison, representing Virginia in the first federal Congress in 1789, was responsible for composing the provision in the first amendment that committed Congress to making “no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” And while this seems on the surface to describe no more than a hands-off attitude toward public religion, one member of the House of Representatives feared that it cloaked “a tendency to abolish religion altogether.”16 And Madison’s subsequent use of the amendment makes it clear that he intended it as a significant disfranchisement of Christianity in the American republic. In 1790, Madison opposed counting ministers as ministers on the federal census, and he opposed the hiring of chaplains for Congress and for the American military as “some sort of alliance or coalition between Government & Religion.”17

Jefferson, acting on the same principles, believed that instead “of putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the children,” it would be better for Virginia educators to teach so that children’s “memories may be here stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history,” and he was trying as late as 1818 to prevent the new University of Virginia from even allowing a classroom to be used for Sunday worship.18 Jefferson summed up his attitude toward public religion very succinctly in 1802, replying to a letter from the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion’ . . . thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”19 The image of a “wall of separation” was not intended as a compliment: it was meant to convey the shutting-out of religion from public discourse.

Deists, Unitarians, and Masons

If any religion looked to be ascendant in the new republic, it was not Christianity, but Deism — the simplistic belief of a clockmaker God who wound up the universe and then let it tick away on its own, without any personal intervention. The Revolutionary veteran and Vermont republican Ethan Allen pushed Deism into public debate by publishing a crude but highly effective tract, Reason the Only Oracle of Mankind (1785), in which he freely attacked reliance on the Bible and the “superstitions” of prayer and miracles. Allen was followed by an even better-known veteran of the Revolution, Thomas Paine, who had made himself into a republican hero in 1776 with his famous anti-monarchy pamphlet, Common Sense. Paine was in an incessant ferment of revolution, and joined ranks with Deism by publishing The Age of Reason in 1794 (a second part followed in 1796). Paine was even cruder than Allen, and even more effective: “What is it that we have learned from this pretended thing called revealed religion? Nothing that is useful to man and everything that is dishonourable to his Maker,” Paine yelled. “What is it that the Bible teaches us? Rapine, cruelty, and murder.”20

“If any religion looked to be ascendant in the new republic, it was not Christianity, but Deism.”

A more complacent and elitist version of Deism was Unitarianism. Like Deism, Unitarianism was an English development, but it caught on in a big way in America after the Great Awakening as an alternative religion for New Englanders who could not stomach Jonathan Edwards and the Awakeners. William Ellery Channing declared in his famous 1819 Baltimore sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” that “we believe that Jesus is one mind, one soul, one being, as truly one as we are, and equally distinct from the one God.” Hence, Jesus Christ was not God, and did not share any divine attributes with God. Channing immediately hedged by adding that Unitarians continued to believe that Jesus was nevertheless “the Son of God . . . the brightness of the divine mercy,” whose death provides atonement and salvation. But Channing firmly rejected that idea that Jesus was also divine. God was a “Unity,” and shared nothing of his attributes with Jesus (thus the term Unitarian).21

The purposes that Unitarianism served in New England were just as often served elsewhere in the new republic by Free Masonry. Free Masonry had its origins in the peculiar hunger of the Enlightenment for a religious ritualism that could be squared with the glorification of reason. Although Free Masonry developed out of the fraternities, guilds, and lodges of Scottish and English stonemasons in the 1600s, by the eighteenth century it had become a secretive order for wealthy and aristocratic English-speaking male elites, and it developed rituals and a quasi-theology that allowed it to offer upper-class Anglo-Americans a fashionable and restrictive version of republican religion. The secrecy that shrouded the American Masonic lodges makes it nearly impossible to estimate the number of American Masons; but that secrecy also gave it an alluring sense of esoteric and mysterious ritual and republican brotherhood, and prominent Americans from Washington and Franklin to Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson found themselves drawn to the Masons.

All of them together — Masons, Deists, Unitarians — thought they were the wave of the future. Thomas Jefferson, surveying the scene in 1822, rejoiced “that in this blessed country of free enquiry and belief, which has surrendered [its] creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests . . . there is not a young man now living in the U.S. who will not die an Unitarian.”22 What is amazing about that prophecy is how clearly Jefferson should have seen, even in 1822, that such a likelihood had already disappeared. The United States may not have been a Christian republic at its start, but it soon became one.

Revival and Republican Virtue

Instead of republicanism absorbing religion, religion co-opted and absorbed the energies of republicanism between 1780 and 1860. Instead of traditional Christian denominations fading into a Unitarian future, they embarked on a voyage of aggression, expansion, and empire-building that easily outstripped the overall growth of the entire American population. The Congregationalists jumped off from 750 congregations in New England in 1780 to spread across upstate New York, northern Ohio, and into lower Michigan, and by 1860 had grown to 2,200 congregations; the Presbyterians, who counted about 500 congregations in 1780, counted 6,400 in 1860; the Methodists, who had hardly existed as a denomination in the 1780s, included nearly 20,000 congregations in 1860, while the Baptists, who had only 400 congregations in the United States in 1780, included 12,150 in 1860. Even Roman Catholics, who had organized only about 50 congregations and missions by 1780, had grown to 2,500 congregations in 1860. Between 1780 and 1820, American religious denominations built 10,000 new churches, and by 1860, they had quadrupled that number.23 How, in the name of Thomas Jefferson, had this unlooked-for result occurred?

“Instead of republicanism absorbing religion, religion co-opted and absorbed the energies of republicanism.”

Two major reasons explain the sudden explosion of Christian influence in American life. The first is the resiliency of revivals. The writings of Jonathan Edwards on the Awakening of the 1740s were developed by his pupils into a full-blown blueprint for fresh waves of revival. Edwards’s grandson, Timothy Dwight (1752–1817), upon taking over the presidency of Yale College in 1795, aggressively beat down the “infidelity of the Tom Paine school” that Lyman Beecher had found there as a student. Beecher recalled that the students challenged Dwight by handing him

a list of subjects for class disputation . . . [and] to their surprise he selected this: “Is the Bible the word of God?” and told them to do their best. He heard all they had to say, answered them, and there was an end. He preached incessantly [in the college chapel] for six months on the subject, and all infidelity skulked and hid its head.24

This “Second Great Awakening,” which is variously dated between 1800 and 1825, could not be contained to New England. Edwardsean preachers and converts followed the out-migration of New Englanders to New York and Ohio, and there, influential outposts of Edwardsean revivalism sprang up, to the point where western New York was home to so many revivals that it was referred to as “the burned-over district.” Of course, the revivals spun off a number of unlooked-for variations — Mormonism, the Shakers, the Millerites, Matthias the Prophet — but their energy was palpable, and even the variations were testimony to revivalism’s pervasiveness.

The second force that moved Christianity to the front of American culture’s attention was the need of republics for virtue. Every good republican knew that republics were politically fragile: lacking the old monarchical cement of patronage or hierarchy, republics depended for their existence solely on the virtue — the disinterested benevolence and self-sacrifice — of their people. But where was virtue to come from? The French Revolution had demonstrated that the ethics of the Enlightenment were no protection from the guillotine and the Reign of Terror. What then could guarantee the virtue of republican nations? The answer to that question was promptly offered by John Witherspoon and Samuel Stanhope Smith, as the two successive Presbyterian presidents of Princeton College before and after the Revolution: only religion can guarantee virtue, and therefore the promotion of Christianity is a prerequisite to keeping the American republic virtuous and prosperous. “To promote true religion,” argued Witherspoon, “is the best and most effectual way of making a virtuous and regular people”; by contrast, added Smith, let “infidelity” and atheism prevail, and virtue would “cease to exist, and the bonds of society, which are effectually maintained only by the public morals, would hasten to be dissolved.” The proper conclusion, then, would be that even in a republic, the government should offer sponsorship to Christianity, and “the magistrate . . . enact laws for the punishment of profanity and impiety.”25

Despite Jefferson’s and Madison’s best republican efforts to close the door on Christianity, their efforts were frequently undone by the courts, who had more than a little concern about virtue. The great Supreme Court justice Joseph Story declared that Christianity was in fact a necessary component of the English common-law tradition, and offered the “only solid basis of civil society.”26 And in 1844, writing as an associate justice of the Court, Story upheld the decision of the lower federal courts in the case of Vidal v. Girard’s Executors, which permitted the breaking of the will left by the notorious Philadelphia banker and atheist, Stephen Girard, in order to permit religious teachers onto the grounds of a school that Girard had founded in Philadelphia and into which he had declared, by the terms of in his will, a clergyman should never be permitted to enter. Story declared that this was “derogatory and hostile to the Christian religion, and so is void, as being against the common law and public policy of Pennsylvania.”27 By defining virtue as Christianity, Christianity could be treated as a necessary part of the republic’s life, and allowed the public role that Jefferson and Madison had struggled to prevent.

Cultural, Not Political, Christianity

The results of the Second Great Awakening, and the co-optation of virtue, paved the way, in 1835, for Alexis de Tocqueville to remark, “There is no country in the whole world in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.” And it was, continued Tocqueville, “a form of Christianity which I cannot better describe than by styling it a democratic and republican religion.”28 Charles Grandison Finney, the most famous revival preacher in America since Edwards, rushed to claim that his own Presbyterianism was but “Church Republicanism,” and even Episcopalians like Calvin Colton declared that “the genius of the American Episcopal Church is republican.”29

But this was not a political achievement. In 1864, proponents of a “Bible amendment,” which would have inserted an explicit recognition of Christianity into the Constitution’s preamble, came close to getting Abraham Lincoln’s presidential endorsement.30 But only close. Christian America would, instead, be culturally Christianized. Still, for those who believe that politics lies downstream of culture, this was no small accomplishment, and all the more significant for the fact that the Constitution provided a comparatively spare and noncommittal framework for governing the republic, thus allowing for a Christian culture to enjoy vast sway in the nineteenth century.

Nor was the achievement of a Christian America the gift of the American Founders, or a part of the design of the American republic. That Christianity in America arrived at a place of commanding influence in American life in the years before the Civil War was the product of ceaseless cultural energy by Christians themselves in the decades after 1800. Never again, wrote the literary critic Alfred Kazin, “would there be so much honest, deeply felt invocation of God’s purpose.”31 If that influence has seemed to wane, then perhaps the solution will lie in the renewal of that energy, that invocation, that culture, rather than in a myth.

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