The Founding Fathers and the Church

Militant atheists are on the march these days. They go to court to stop public displays of religion. They launch billboard campaigns to pro­mote their views. Their spokesmen — writers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris — put out provocative books that contend religion is not only a delusion, but dangerous. They are, ironically, evangelistic about their beliefs and disbeliefs.

We need to be reminded that Christianity was a major element in the founding of our country. As our schools have become more and more secularized, the textbooks have left out some significant facts about our nation’s Founding Fathers. Many were Christians, and those that were not were heavily influenced by Chris­tian ideas.

Ask most people what caused the American Revolution, and they will bring up some sort of economic motive. The slogan “No taxation without representation” sticks in our minds. Of course, money matters had a significant role, as the Stamp Act Protest and the Boston Tea Party demonstrate. But, there was much more to it than this.

David Ramsay, a doctor from South Carolina who was imprisoned by the British, wrote in his History of the American Revolution, pub­lished in 1789, that there was “a dread that the Church of England through the power of the mother country, would be made to triumph over all other denominations.” 1 Ezra Stiles, Congregationalist pastor and president of Yale College, claimed that the biggest reason he and others opposed the Stamp Act was that its funds would be used to support An­glican bishops. The future president John Adams vociferated, “If Parlia­ment could tax us, they could estab­lish the Church of England with all its creeds, articles, tests, ceremonies, and tithes; and prohibit all churches as conventicles and schism shops.” 2

Clearly, economic causes were in­extricably linked with religious ones. Many colonists held their religious beliefs very dearly and were willing to defend them. John Witherspoon came over to the colonies from Scot­land, where he had been an impor­tant church leader, because he was invited in 1768 to become president of the College of New Jersey (name later changed to Princeton Uni­versity) after the untimely death of Jonathan Edwards. There he trained dozens of leaders for the new nation and energetically threw himself into public affairs. Indeed, this minister became a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Speaking from his great erudition, he wrote, ”There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and re­ligious liberty preserved entire.” 3 It is no accident that the first clause of the First Amendment speaks to the issue of religious liberty.

But the colonists’ resistance to re­ligious tyranny extended beyond mere externals. Central to their understand­ing of man’s natural rights was that of private conscience. We can trace this historically back into the history of Christian thought to Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, John Cal­vin, and others who all taught that the only true religion is heart-felt, coming from one’s inmost being. Forced belief is not belief at all. This concept was broadly developed and plainly stated by Roger Williams, the founder of the Rhode Island colony. He wrote, “The civil state is bound before God to take off that bond and yoke of soul-oppres­sion and to proclaim free and impar­tial liberty to all the people of the ... nations, to choose and maintain what worship and ministry their minds and consciences are persuaded of.” 4 James Madison, a student of Witherspoon and author of the first draft of the Bill of Rights, was heavily indebted to the work of Roger Williams.

This line of thought was com­mon to all the founding fathers. Even Thomas Jefferson, a moderate Deist who doubted the accuracy of the Bible, supported the influence of the churches in the realm of public mo­rality. George Washington, a very re­served man who rarely spoke clearly about his personal religious experi­ence, thought the church essential to the nation. In his Second Inaugural Address he said, “Of all the disposi­tions and habits which lead to politi­cal prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of hu­man happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.... And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. What­ever may be conceded to the influ­ence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” The Founding Fathers established a Republic whose purpose was “to se­cure the blessings of liberty to [them­selves] and [their] posterity,” as the preamble to the Constitution says, but they knew that it could not fulfill that purpose unless their posterity remained moral and religious.

The decay of American society and gov­ernment that we see in our day only proves that their understanding of the issue was all too true. Let us dedi­cate ourselves anew to exercising our freedom both civilly and spiritually.

Quoted in American History Told by Contemporaries. Ed. Albert Bushnell Hart. (Macmillan, 1989), p. II:631.
Quoted in John Corrigan and Win­throp S. Hudson, Religion in America, 7th ed. (Pearson/Prentice-Hall, 2004).
Quoted in Larry Schweikart and Mi­chael Allen, A Patriot’s History of the United States (Sentinel, 2004), p. 68.
Quoted in David Little, “The Reformed Tradition and the First Amendment,” in The First Freedom: Religion and the Bill of Rights. Ed. James E. Wood Jr. (Baylor, 1990), p. 36.