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Praise God and Liberty: Religion and the Founding of the United States

By Thomas S. Kidd
4/6/2016 • American History Magazine

Devout believers and deistic doubters formed an unlikely alliance that helped win the Revolution and forge the new American nation.

On New Year’s Day, 1802, the Baptist evangelist John Leland showed up at the White House with a gift for President Thomas Jefferson: a block of cheese, 4 feet wide and 15 inches thick, that weighed 1,235 pounds. What newspapers rightfully declared to be a “mammoth” cheese came from the preacher’s community of Cheshire, Mass., which seems to have voted unanimously for Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election. The cheese’s red crust was adorned with the motto “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” Two days later, Leland delivered an effusive sermon before the president and a joint session of Congress. Not all in attendance were impressed. A Federalist congressman hostile both to Jefferson and to evangelicals, writing in his journal, called Leland a “cheesemonger” and a “poor, ignorant, illiterate, clownish preacher.” Leland spoke on the text “Behold a greater [one] than Solomon is here,” a not-too-subtle glorification of his beloved president. The congressman groaned that “such a farrago, bawled with stunning voice, horrid tone, frightful grimaces, and extravagant gestures…was never heard by any decent auditory before.”

To say that Jefferson and Leland made religious odd fellows is an understatement. Leland had devoted his life to saving souls and would estimate at the end of his career that he had preached about 8,000 sermons. “My only hope of acceptance with God is in the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ,” he proclaimed.

Jefferson, on the other hand, did not believe that the blood of Jesus would save him or anyone else, although he attended church regularly as president. He always professed to be “sincerely attached” to the teachings of Jesus, but he did not believe that Jesus ever claimed to be the Son of God. He similarly thought the doctrine of the Trinity was the “mere Abracadabra of…the priests of Jesus.” What, then, led Leland to admire Jefferson so much that he would give him that big cheese?

The answer to this question goes a long way toward explaining how religion, both during the Revolution and afterward, provided essential moral and political principles to the revolutionaries and forged the new American nation. Although Jefferson and Leland could not have been more opposed in their personal religious views, they shared the view that the state should assure religious liberty for all its citizens.

Not all conservative Christians liked Jefferson. Many saw him as an infidel, and one even called him a “howling atheist.” But these critics did not represent America’s emerging model of church-state relations. Jefferson and Leland did. America was already a nation of many religious persuasions, and just like today, differing personal beliefs divided people. Nonetheless, evangelicals and deists (and various believers in between) found common ground in their attitudes about religious freedom. The alliance was fragile and hardly unanimous, but it proved strong enough to allow Americans to “begin the world over again,” as Thomas Paine put it.

1 No government can tell us how to worship

During the Revolution, evangelicals all across America led opposition to state-supported religious establishments. From the Baptists of New England to the Presbyterians of South Carolina, dissenters against the state-sponsored churches sought to prevent governments from preferring or officially establishing any Christian denomination and from taking notice of religion in law. They often gained critical assistance from liberal Christians or deists like Jefferson who shared their goals.

Massachusetts saw the hottest contest over disestablishment. The Separate Baptists had long suffered under a variety of fines and bureaucratic pressures for their resistance to supporting the Congregationalist churches. Baptist leader Isaac Backus even used the patriots’ ideology of freedom to argue for relief from the Massachusetts establishment, contending that God would not hear the Americans’ pleas for liberty from unfair taxes if they imposed such taxes on their own people. In 1774 Backus took his case for disestablishment to the members of the Continental Congress, where he got a cool reception from Massachusetts delegates John Adams and Samuel Adams; they told him that the Massachusetts establishment placed negligible burdens on dissenters and that (in Backus’ words) they “might as well expect a change in the solar system, as to expect they would give up their establishment.”

Despite their protests, the dissenting evangelicals could not convince the Congregationalists of New England that the principles of the Revolution logically required disestablishment. The evangelicals who sought equal treatment would have to wait until the Congregationalists ceased to be the majority in a significant number of Massachusetts towns. This development occurred in the 1820s when Unitarians (who believed in the moral authority but not the divinity of Jesus) formally broke off from the Congregationalists and formed their own denomination. Now religious pluralism—and competition among Unitarians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists and others—marked Massachusetts’ religious life. Ironically, a number of traditional Congregationalists, fearing that they themselves were becoming minorities in some areas, joined with the Baptists in 1833 to amend the state constitution and disestablish their church. No one was forced to pay religious taxes or file certificates redirecting their contributions any more.

2 Liberty is our God-given right

In Europe, monarchists had often used Christian doctrine to uphold the political hierarchy. But in America, revolutionaries appropriated the idea of common creation as the primary basis for the political liberties of all humanity. The most famous articulation of this idea came in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed that “all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” This principle of rights by creation was critical to the patriots’ efforts to liberate themselves from Britain.

The doctrine of the common creation of all people would also prove to be one of the most cogent arguments against slavery. At the time of the Revolution, and for tragic decades thereafter, many American leaders tried to restrict the concept of God-given equality to white men. However, from 1776 onward, some Americans would take Jefferson’s language of equal rights and use it for more politically challenging ends than the founders intended.

If, as the Bible taught, all humans descended from a single, God-initiated origin, then what principle could possibly justify racial slavery? Sadly, such logic remained a minority position among white American Christians, especially in the South, through the Civil War. Nevertheless, the doctrine of rights guaranteed by creation, widely shared among deists and evangelicals, would set American slavery on a path to extinction.

3 Goodness and virtue are the bulwarks of a strong nation

Americans were convinced that political integrity had crumbled in England in the1760s and 1770s, which led the British to assault the colonists’ liberties. In a republican system, if sovereignty was given over to “the people,” then those people must be willing to act benevolently, always keeping in mind the public good. Centralized government power might prevent people from running wild, but such political authority risked becoming tyrannical. If the people of the republic acted selfishly, then anarchy would ensue, opening the door for the rise of an autocrat who would deprive people of their liberty.

During the Revolution, a new blend of Christian and republican ideology led religious traditionalists to embrace wholesale the concept of republican virtue. Conservative Protestants had traditionally been uneasy with the ideal of republican virtue, because its defenders often held a high view of the human potential for goodness independent of the practice of Christianity. But by the 1770s, even Calvinists and other conservative believers agreed with Samuel Adams when he declared that if they remained virtuous, Americans could create a “Christian Sparta,” a unique amalgamation of the Christian and classical republican traditions.

4 All men are sinners, susceptible to corruption

Because Americans in the revolutionary era had their doubts about the goodness of human nature, they saw centralized government power as dangerous. This conviction heavily influenced both the decision to revolt against the British state and the nature of a new American government. Although most of the founders did not share the Calvinist conviction that humans were entirely depraved creatures, most revolutionary Americans did believe that the best kind of government divided the powers of government so that no one state entity possessed too much power. Older European political theory held that God vouchsafed political sovereignty in a monarch, a notion that patriots rejected. Americans of this era shunned any central consolidation of power because, as James Madison put it in Federalist No. 51, men were not angels.

The belief in human sinfulness was a staple of both Calvinism and classical republican ideology—a political tradition that was identified with the republics of ancient Greece and Rome and that emphasized the importance of checks and balances in political power and the need for a virtuous people to preserve liberty. Most historians see the founders’ belief in classical republicanism as a primary driver of the Revolution. Although republican ideology emphasized the virtuousness of landed, independent men, it also highlighted the ever-present danger of corruption among people because of their craving for domination over others.

The confluence of republican and Calvinist doubts about human nature took full force in the framing of the Constitution. Madison, having attended Calvinist-leaning Princeton, knew well the doctrines of original sin and human depravity. Although he believed that humans had a natural capacity for good, he nevertheless came to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 with a plan of government that would account for human sinfulness while also creating a government that could act effectively against threats to the national interest.

5 God is on our side

Deists and evangelicals in the Revolution believed that God—or Providence, as deists and others might prefer to deem it—moved in and through nations. This long-held view had flourished in Britain during its 17th- and 18th-century conflicts with Europe’s Catholic powers, especially France. As recently as the end of the Seven Years’ War with France in 1763, most British American colonists believed that God had shown particular favor to the British Empire, of which they were still a vital part, and many of them considered the Catholic French to be aligned with the Antichrist.

The onset of the revolutionary crisis convinced Americans across the theological spectrum that God was raising up America for some special purpose. Britain, they believed, had abandoned its providential role, descending into corruption and evil. This change of heart hearkened back to the earlier Puritan notion that America could be what John Winthrop called a “city on a hill,” a witness of virtue and Christian probity to the rest of the world.

Starting with the war’s opening shots at Lexington and Concord in 1775, Americans of various faiths infused the unfolding Revolution with prophetic and providential significance. Baptist leaders Isaac Backus and James Manning believed that the Revolution was an “important step towards bringing in the glory of the latter day” that would inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth. Although George Washington, an Episcopalian, would not go as far as Backus and Manning, he nevertheless insisted that all Americans should see the hand of God in the war: “The great author of the universe,” as he put it, had intervened to ensure America’s victory. There exists quite a difference in faith and emphasis between associating the war with general Providence and seeing it as the fulfillment of Christian prophecy, but such assertions reflected the new civil spirituality developing in America. During and after the Revolution, many people conflated America’s political affairs with divine purposes, which lent an aura of redemptiveness to the war and to the agenda of a fledgling nation.

This civil spirituality served as a transcendent framework in which to define, justify and fight a war and establish the new American nation. It united the continuum of believers around the proposition that “the cause of America” had become “the cause of Christ”—or at least of Providence. Civil spirituality could also mask morally complicated or questionable matters with the veil of divine approval. Americans did, of course, define civil spirituality in very different ways, which would lead to an enduring conflict about the place, role and definition of God in the nation’s identity and affairs. Some founders envisioned America as a specifically Christian nation, while others embraced a more general American religiosity. Even in the early years of the republic, these differing specifics would threaten to divide Americans irreparably.

The five religious principles on which the revolutionaries agreed were not mere slogans. They vitally bound together Americans of widely differing religious opinions. If not for their common view of the relation of church and state, Leland and Jefferson might have despised one another. But their union, and the joining of countless other Americans of contradictory private beliefs, forged an unusually free nation in which the exercise of religion could flourish. Common public religious values also gave ballast to a new country that badly needed stability.

In our own time, more than two centuries after the revolutionary era and even in the midst of today’s intense conflict over the definitions of morality and values, propositions based on faith actually undergird many of America’s greatest political tenets. Many Americans now see religion as something that only divides us and that perhaps should be excluded from public conversation. Others call for a return to the sectarian Christian nation that supposedly existed at America’s founding, a time when they believe most leaders were devout, evangelical Christians. But a closer examination shows that at the nation’s founding, American religion was both diverse and thriving. In its nascent and most vulnerable moments, public spirituality united revolutionary America. The public spirituality shared by the revolutionary era’s evangelicals, mainstream Christians, liberal rationalists and deists established many of America’s most cherished freedoms.

Thomas S. Kidd is associate professor of history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. This feature is excerpted from his book God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (Basic Books, 2010).

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