Did America Begin as a Christian Nation?
Let’s begin with a hard thing to reconcile between the Bible and the Constitution. Consider these two statements. From the US Bill of Rights, First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Essentially, this means that there should be no law restricting religious exercise or establishing an official American church or denomination. Now consider the First Command in Exodus 20:3:
“You shall have no other gods before me.”
Both are statements of law. One restricts religious freedom, and one upholds it. As statements of law, they seem to contradict one another.
There is a modern idea that America’s founders wanted all religions to have an equal place at the political table in America. But when we read their personal writings, essays in defense of the constitution, and the constitutions of the first 26 states, we see something altogether different.
For our talk today, I’m going to focus exclusively on the first constitutions of the first 26 states, broken down into five categories.
Now, let me begin with two disclaimers. First, I’m not advocating for a particular political view or party through this study. We’re simply looking at the past and how the founders of America were influenced by the Bible.
Second, I’m not a historian or legal expert. This presentation was pieced together from a group of books and documents that I collected in the 1990s and turned into a short Bible study for groups interested in the Bible’s place in American history. All of the books I used dated to the 18th century to 19th century. This included school books written by pastors for children’s education. So, let’s begin.
The American Conscience
From the first colonists to the Continental Congress, the Bible was the defining source in American culture for morality, education, and political liberty. Unlike personal writings and speeches, the first constitutions tell us what our leaders collectively agreed to, what they desired for America through the consensus they struck.
In Deuteronomy 6:20-21 God gave Israel instructions on passing their nation’s history and heritage to each successive generation. God made the very survival of the nation dependent upon the values passed on to the nation’s descendants.
“When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ Then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand…”
In 1652, what we know as Maine was actually part of Massachusetts territory. It didn’t become a separate state until 1820. Maine’s Constitution was similar in many respect to the first constitutions of the first 13 states. Many contained their state’s Declaration of Rights at the beginning and not the end of the constitution—unlike our federal document. Doing so signified that the state founder’s first order of business was the rights and liberties of the people, followed by the responsibilities and limitations of government.
Maine’s paragraph 3 of Article 1 reads:
“All men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences, and no one shall be hurt or molested, or restrained in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshipping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience…and all religious societies in this state, whether corporate or incorporate, shall at all times have the exclusive right of electing their public teachers, and contracting with them for their support and maintenance.”
Conscience is a critical concept to understanding the idea of religious freedom during the 1700s and 1800s. Conscience, in pre-21st century American culture, did not mean believe what you will do what you will.
One of the greatest warriors for “rights of conscience” was Pennsylvania founder William Penn. During Penn’s years living in England, he was brought to trial repeatedly for holding religious views contrary to the established Church of England. As a Quaker, his religious views were strict, yet Penn’s testimonies on behalf of his persecuted brethren encouraged the allowance of difference in how men serve God based upon their Christian faith. Some of this came out of Penn’s own troubles. On one particular occasion, he was ordered by a presiding judge to plead guilty to violating religious laws which were enforced by England’s legal system. Penn refused. Later, when migrating to the new world, he fought for rights of conscience.
Most of the first state constitutions contained provisions for worship according to “conscience,” though some, like Delaware’s Article I, Section I, went further to say it was the
“Duty of all men (to) frequently assemble together for the public worship of” God.
Notice the language used by Delaware’s framers: It is the DUTY of all men to worship. Delaware’s Constitution was adopted in 1792, one year after the US Bill of Rights. This might be considered a violation of today’s First Amendment freedoms. But this shows us that the primary source for the founder’s governing principles was not secular in nature.
America’s first educational institutions were founded as what John Adams called the “Architects of the soul.” Morality and religion, being inseparable, are imparted primarily through the education of the mind. Restricting the liberties of religiously based educational institutions can result in a mis-trained conscience.
Just like Delaware, the Massachusetts Constitution called religious worship a “duty.” Notice this language from their 1780 constitution. From Part I, Article I, Paragraph 2:
“It is the right, as well as the duty, of all men in society, publicly, and at stated seasons, to worship the Supreme Being, the Great Creator and Preserver of the Universe.”
To secure these religious duties, notice what they said in Part I, Article I, Paragraph 3:
“As the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality; and as these cannot be generally diffused throughout the community, but by the institution of a public worship of God, and of public institutions of piety, religion, and morality; therefore, to promote their happiness, and to secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this Commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature parishes, precincts, and other bodies politic, or religious societies, to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God…”
Not only did the elected representatives of Massachusetts see the need for public worship, but they also insisted upon promoting worship within “bodies politic!” Nor should we miss the point that this government-prescribed worship would involve some financial costs, and any government-instituted public worship was to be paid for by the government “at their own expense.” This is radically different from today’s practices!
Fundamental Principles & Personal Behavior
The Framers set a course to promote moral values within government. This was done by encouraging, through their constitutions, public morality. They affirmed that the citizenry represented had a right to require their leaders to live in a moral manner. Massachusetts Part I, Article I, Paragraph 18:
“A frequent recurrence to the fundamental principles of the Constitution, and a constant adherence to those of piety, justice, moderation, temperance, industry, and frugality,
are absolutely necessary to preserve the advantages of liberty and to maintain a free government. The people ought, consequently, to have a particular attention to all those principles in the choice of their officers and representatives, and they have the right to require of their lawgivers and magistrates an exact and constant observance of them in the formation and execution of all laws for the good administration of the Commonwealth.”
Essentially, the framers made moral issues a governance issue. This was important because the state framers believed that only moral people should occupy office and that those people were tasked with protecting what are known as “Natural rights” and “Rights of conscience.” Look at what New Hampshire’s Constitution said about these things in Part I, Article I, Paragraph 2:
“All men have certain natural, essential, and inherent rights —among which are the enjoying and defending of life and liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting; in a word, of seeking and obtaining happiness.”
Paragraph 4 defines those rights:
“Among the natural rights, some are in their very nature unalienable because no equivalent can be given or received for them. Of this kind are the rights of conscience.”
Like other states, New Hampshire provided for private values in public education. Part I, Article I, Paragraph 6, sounds in no way like a “secular” admonition:
“As morality and piety, rightly grounded on evangelical principles, will give the best and greatest security to government, and will lay, in the hearts of men, the strongest obligations to due subjection…”
Stopping here, we should consider the language: The concept that proper subjection to good government comes through the propagation of values “rightly grounded on evangelical principles,” is completely unlike the concept of secular neutrality found in courts, schools, and legislatures today.
All of these things come from a deep-seated sense of morality that the framers felt, which in the culture of the day came from the Bible. Thus, the personal behavior of their politicians was, to them, of utmost importance. Look at what some of the other states said about this issue.
Vermont said in Chapter I, Article III of its Declaration of Rights:
“All men have a natural and unalienable right to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences and understandings, as in their opinion shall be regulated by the Word of God.”
Vermont’s Framers believed that no man had a right to blaspheme God under the guise of liberty. This is similar to the biblical principle in I Peter 2:16:
“…do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil…” (NIV)
Furthermore, let’s place this right of conscience in the article’s context. It says, “As in their opinion shall be regulated by the word of God.” There is no mistaking that the Vermont framers desired the Bible to be the center of their society.
Part of Vermont’s encouragement had to do with the day of worship. To quote the same article:
“Every sect or denomination of Christians ought to observe the Sabbath, or Lord’s day, and keep up some sort of religious worship, which to them shall seem most agreeable to the revealed will of God.”
Notice that this clause did not require non-Christians to attend worship. More importantly, where is the “revealed will of God” found? The Framers understood this only as being the Bible.
Were these “unconstitutional principles?” Not according to Vermont, which put these principles into place in 1793, two years after the U.S. Bill of Rights was adopted. Other states did the same.
Four states, all before 1840, adopted clauses in their first constitutions that addressed the problem of religious freedom used for evil purposes. Three of the four states, Connecticut, New York, and South Carolina, were among the first thirteen states under the federal Constitution. One, Mississippi, joined the Union as the 20th state. The clause in each constitution is virtually identical among the four, with a one-word edition, “conscience,” in South Carolina’s. To quote: Connecticut’s Article I Section 3, New York’s Article VII, Section 3, Mississippi’s Article I, Section 3, and South Carolina’s Article VIII, Section 1:
“…the liberty of conscience thereby declared, shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness, or justify practices inconsistent with the peace and safety of the state.”
What is licentiousness? A good definition of licentiousness comes from commentator William Barclay.
Licentiousness is the action of a man who is at the mercy of his passions, and his impulses, and his emotions, and in whom the voice of calm reason has been silenced by the storms of self–will…(it) is violent, insolent, abusive, audacious… completely indifferent to public opinion and to public decency.”
America’s settlers didn’t leave their European homelands over the right to be anarchists. They understood that religious freedom comes with civil responsibilities.
Separation of Church & State
Looking at the stories in the Bible, have you ever wondered why Israel, when faced with an evil King bent on oppressing the people and abusing his power, that God simply did not replace that King with someone after His own heart? Has it puzzled you why God would send prophets to warn the kings, and even develop relationships with them—but they were not to be replacements? Why didn’t God just replace Saul with Samuel at the first sign of trouble; or Ahaz with Obed, or Jehoiakim, or Zedekiah with Jeremiah? Part of the answer rests in the covenant God made with King David to continue his descendants on the throne. But, there may be an additional answer: God called certain men to preach and teach, not to rule.
God has separated the work of the ministry from the work of political leadership. When King Uzziah tried to perform a priestly function, he was smitten by God with leprosy. Eli the priest was a Judge (Governor) for a time, but not the kind he should have been. His combined political and priestly leadership was the only time such a Judge ever existed in Israel. The callings, one of ministry of the Gospel, and the other of political leadership, are different. The church is to act as the conscience of society—not its overlord. Some of the early framers did subscribe to a kind of separation. Listen to the 1821 Constitution of New York in Article VII, Section 4:
“Whereas the ministers of the Gospel are, by their profession, dedicated to the service of God, and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their functions: therefore, no minister of the Gospel, or priest of any denomination whatsoever, shall, at any time hereafter, under any pretense or description whatever, be eligible to, or capable of holding any civil or military office or place within this state.”
The callings of politics and pastoral ministry operate in different spheres. This article not only protected the state but, more importantly, it protected the ministry from conflicts of interest.
This should not be construed to mean that Christians, in general, are forbidden from holding office. In fact, some states required political positions to be held by Christians. Notice North Carolina’s Declaration of Rights:
“That no person who shall deny the being of God, or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the Divine authority of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the state, shall be capable of holding any office, or place of trust or profit, in the civil department, within this state.”
John Jay, America’s first Supreme Court Justice, said:
“Providence has given our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest, of a Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.”
Maryland’s Constitution also enforced this standard in its Declaration of Rights under Right 35, Section 55:
“That no other test or qualification ought to be required, on admission to any office of trust or profit, than such oath of support and fidelity to this state, and such oath of office as shall be directed by this convention or the legislature of this state, and a declaration of a belief in the Christian religion.”
Massachusetts had a similar requirement in Chapter VI, Article I:
“Any person chosen governor, lieutenant–governor, councillor, senator or representative, and accepting the trust, shall, before he proceed to execute the duties of his place or office, take, make, and subscribe the following declaration, viz” “I, A.B. do declare that I believe in the Christian religion and have a firm persuasion of its truth; and that I am seized and possessed, in my own right, of the property required by the Constitution, as one qualification for the office or place to which I am elected.”
There was one politician who summed up the founding of America having a Christian source. That was Patrick Henry, the five-time governor of Virginia.
“It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Here’s a little bit of information about marriage in the early states that you may have never heard about. While virtually any couple could get married, for some states, like Alabama, getting divorced was a bit harder. Listen closely to Article VI, Sec. 13:
“Divorces from the bonds of matrimony shall not be granted but in cases provided for by law, by suit in chancery: and no decree for such divorce shall have effect until the same be [ratified] by two–thirds of both houses of the general assembly.”
Talk about making divorce tough; the legislature had to vote to make it final! Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi had similar, though less severe, provisions.
In Conclusion: Fundamental Principles Revisited
We’ve already touched on this subject, but I think it’s good to review here just how serious the founders were about the role of what they called fundamental principles in their constitutions. This article comes from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, North Carolina, and Illinois.
“A frequent recurrence to the fundamental principles of the constitution, and a constant adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, industry, frugality, and all the social values, are indispensably necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty and good government; the people ought, therefore, to have a particular regard to all those principles in the choice of their officers and representatives: And they have the right to require (Vermont adds, “in a legal way”) of their lawgivers and magistrates an exact and constant observance of them in the formation and execution of the laws necessary for the good administration of the government.”
The Founders intended to separate government from religion but never intended to separate religion from government. They never intended to ban prayer from classrooms, lunchrooms, and graduations. They wished for each citizen to exercise as much liberty as possible in a responsible manner as guided by a biblically influenced culture—not a religiously oppressive government.
The Founding Fathers are dead, but their ideas still live today. By their actions, they bound us, their descendants, to ideals that made America a “light to the nations” and the first truly Christian country in the modern era. We are bound and responsible for the legacy the Founders left to us.