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U.S. Christian heritage

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The first prayer in Congress (1774). Read the text of the first prayer.

The Christian heritage of the United States of America is acknowledged as deeply rooted by both historians and scholars. Many of the colonies that became the United States were settled by men and women of deep religious convictions who in the seventeenth century crossed the Atlantic Ocean to practice their faith freely. When the new governments were formed at the state and national levels, most American statesmen shared the convictions of their constituents that religion was "indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions" (Alexis de Tocqueville).[1]

The Eighteenth century federal government was particularly guided by a Biblical "covenant theology". Church services were held in the House of Representatives, and attended by the President. The government sponsored the publication of the Bible and required Christian moral conduct within the armed forces. Congress proclaimed national days of "thanksgiving", as well as days of "humiliation fasting and prayer".[2] In addition, the founders of the American nation went to great lengths to define the role of religious faith in public life and the degree to which it could be supported by public officials. During this period, congress appointed chaplains for the armed forces and itself, which continue to lead prayer each day during proceedings of the House of Representatives. The Congressional prayer for any given day can be read on the U.S. House of Representatives website.[3]

William Penn and Pennsylvania

Main Article: William Penn

In 1682, William Penn founded the Province of Pennsylvania thanks to a generous grant from King Charles II.[4] Over a century before the U.S. Constitution (1787) Penn founded a government with free voluntary elections of a two-house ruling assembly, similar to today's Congress, with trial by jury, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, right to private property, a public education system, fair taxation, and even term limits for elected officials. The new government was decisively Christian and based on the Bible, with mandated Sundays off, marriage based on the Bible (homosexuality, incest, and prostitution were illegal), and all public officials had to "possess faith in Jesus Christ".[5] The new government attracted the persecuted Christian minorities of Europe, fleeing from the Anglican and Catholic institutions there.[6] Unlike other New World colonies, Penn insisted on treating Native Americans fairly, and on purchasing land from them, even walking among them unarmed, and learning their dialects so he would not need interpreters.[7]

Religious growth

While it was long recognized that settlers held a passionate commitment to their faith, scholars now acknowledge an increase in religious energy in colonies into the 18th century. According to one expert, religion was in the "ascension rather than the declension"; another sees a "rising vitality in religious life" from 1700 onward; a third finds religion in many parts of the colonies in a state of "feverish growth." Figures on church attendance and church formation support these opinions. Between 1700 and 1740, an estimated 75 to 80 percent of the population attended churches, which were being built at a headlong pace.[8] This percentage is relatively similar to those still believing or professing to be Christian within the United States which still sits at about 78% according to a Pew Research study conducted in 2007.[9]

Churches in the 1771 New York City sky-line illustrating the rapid growth of religion.

Toward mid-eighteenth century the country experienced its first major religious revival. The Great Awakening swept the English-speaking world, as religious energy vibrated between England, Wales, Scotland and the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. In America, the Awakening signaled the advent of an encompassing evangelicalism--the belief that the essence of religious experience was the "new birth," inspired by the preaching of the Word of God. It invigorated even as it divided churches. The supporters of the Awakening and its evangelical thrust--Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists--became the largest American Protestant denominations by the first decades of the nineteenth century. Opponents of the Awakening or those split by it--Anglicans, Quakers, and Congregationalists--were left behind.[8]

Another religious movement that was the antithesis of evangelicalism made its appearance in the eighteenth century. Deism, which emphasized morality and rejected the orthodox Christian view of the divinity of Christ, found advocates among upper-class Americans. Conspicuous among them were Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Deists, never more than "a minority within a minority," were submerged by evangelicalism in the nineteenth century.[8]

Federal Government


Congressional Fast Day Proclamation May 17, 1776, declared as a "day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer" throughout the colonies. Congress urges its fellow citizens to "confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions, and by a sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease his [God's] righteous displeasure, and through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness."

The Continental-Confederation Congress, a legislative body that governed the United States from 1774 to 1789, contained an extraordinary number of deeply religious men. The amount of energy that Congress invested in encouraging the practice of religion in the new nation exceeded that expended by any subsequent American national government. Although the Articles of Confederation did not officially authorize Congress to concern itself with religion, the citizenry did not object to such activities. This lack of objection suggests that both the legislators and the public considered it appropriate for the national government to promote a nondenominational, nonpolemical Christianity.[2]

Congress appointed chaplains for itself and the armed forces, sponsored the publication of a Bible, imposed Christian morality on the armed forces, and granted public lands to promote Christianity among the Indians. National days of thanksgiving and of "humiliation, fasting, and prayer" were proclaimed by Congress at least twice a year throughout the war. Congress was guided by "covenant theology", a Reformation doctrine especially dear to New England Puritans, which held that God bound himself in an agreement with a nation and its people. This agreement stipulated that they "should be prosperous or afflicted, according as their general Obedience or Disobedience thereto appears". Wars and revolutions were, accordingly, considered afflictions, as divine punishments for sin, from which a nation could rescue itself by repentance and reformation.

The first national government of the United States, was convinced that the "public prosperity" of a society depended on the vitality of its religion. Nothing less than a "spirit of universal reformation among all ranks and degrees of our citizens", Congress declared to the American people, would "make us a holy, that so we may be a happy people".[2]


Main Article: U.S. Constitution

The Constitution of the United States (1787) initially said little about religion (aside from Article VI, which stated that "no religious Test shall ever be required as Qualification" for federal office holders, the Constitution). Its reserve troubled two groups of Americans--those who wanted the new instrument of government to give faith a larger role and those who feared that it would do so. This latter group, worried that the Constitution did not prohibit the kind of state-supported religion that had flourished in some colonies, exerted pressure on the members of the First Federal Congress. In September 1789 the Congress adopted the First Amendment to the Constitution, which, when ratified by the required number of states in December 1791, forbade Congress to make any law "respecting an establishment of religion". [10]

The Bill of Rights was subsequently amended to the Constitution by many who wanted freedom of religion secured. James Madison who led the Bill through the First Congress, proposed an amendment on June 8th 1789 to relieve the anxieties of those who feared that religious freedom would be endangered by the unamended Constitution. According to The Congressional Register, on June 8 Madison moved that "the civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext infringed".[10]


Washington and Adams

The first two Presidents of the United States were patrons of religion--George Washington was an Episcopal vestryman, and John Adams who described himself as "a church going animal" grew up in the Congregational Church in Braintree, Massachusetts. Both offered strong rhetorical support for religion.

George Washington's Farewell Address of September 1796.

In George Washington's Farewell Address of September 1796, the president advised his fellow citizens that "Religion and morality" were the "great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens". "National morality", he added, could not exist "in exclusion of religious principle". "Virtue or morality", he concluded, as the products of religion, were "a necessary spring of popular government".[10]

Adams theological position at the time of his Presidency can best be described as Unitarian. In a letter written to Thomas Jefferson[11], Adams says that "Without Religion this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite Company, I mean Hell".[10]

John Adams also continued the practice, begun in 1775 and adopted under the new federal government by Washington, of issuing fast and thanksgiving day proclamations. In a proclamation, issued at a time when the nation appeared to be on the brink of a war with France (March 23, 1798), Adams urged the citizens to;

acknowledge before God the manifold sins and transgressions with which we are justly chargeable as individuals and as a nation; beseeching him at the same time, of His infinite grace, through the Redeemer of the World, freely to remit all our offences, and to incline us, by His Holy Spirit, to that sincere repentance and reformation which may afford us reason to hope for his inestimable favor and heavenly benediction.[12]

Both George Washington and John Adams were firm believers in the importance of religion for republican government. As citizens of Virginia and Massachusetts, both were sympathetic to general religious taxes being paid by the citizens of their respective states to the churches of their choice. However both statesmen would have discouraged such a measure at the national level because of its divisiveness. They confined themselves to promoting religion rhetorically, offering frequent testimonials to its importance in building the moral character of American citizens, that, they believed, undergirded public order and successful popular government.[10]

Jefferson and Madison

During the administrations of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) and of James Madison (1809-1817) church services were held in the House of Representatives. Both Jefferson and Madison were known to attend services with some regularity. Worship services in the House continued until after the Civil War as a nondiscriminatory and voluntary practice. Preachers of every Protestant denomination appeared. (Catholic priests began officiating in 1826.) As early as January 1806 a female evangelist, Dorothy Ripley, delivered a camp meeting-style exhortation in the House to Jefferson, Vice President Aaron Burr, and a "crowded audience." Throughout his administration Jefferson permitted church services in executive branch buildings. The Gospel was also preached in the Supreme Court chambers.[13]

Thomas Jefferson penned the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom which passed with assistance from James Madison, instituting religious freedom. The text, rather than avoiding mention of God and the Bible, invokes them as the basis of religious freedom, similar to the Declaration of Independence:

An Act for establishing religious Freedom.

Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free;

That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do,

That the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time;

That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical...

In the 1790s, in a letter to his friend Benjamin Rush, Jefferson asserted that he was a "Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished any one to be". Jefferson's actions may seem surprising to some because his attitude toward the relation between religion and government is usually thought to have been embodied in his recommendation that there exist "a wall of separation between church and state". In that statement, Jefferson was apparently declaring his opposition, as Madison had done in introducing the Bill of Rights, to a "national" religion. However, in attending church services on public property, Jefferson and Madison consciously and deliberately were offering symbolic support to religion as a prop for republican government.[13]

State Governments

Many states were also explicit about the need for a thriving religion. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 declared, for example, that "the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend on piety, religion and morality". The states were in a stronger position to act upon this conviction because they were considered to possess "general" powers as opposed to the limited, specifically enumerated powers of Congress.[14]

Congregationalists and Anglicans who, before 1776, had received public financial support, called their state benefactors "nursing fathers"(Isaiah 49:23 ). After independence they urged the state governments, as "nursing fathers," to continue succoring them. Religious taxes were laid on all citizens, each of whom was given the option of designating his share to the church of his choice. Such laws took effect in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire and were passed but not implemented in Maryland and Georgia.[14]

U.S. Capital Christmas tree (2007)

Religious holidays


  1. Religion and the Founding of the American Republic by the U.S. Library of Congress
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Religion and the Congress of the Confederation, 1774-89 by the U.S. Library of Congress
  3. Opening Prayer The Reverend Daniel P. Coughlin, Chaplain, U.S. House of Representatives
  4. "The Quaker Province: 1681-1776 - The Founding of Pennsylvania." Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.
  5. Penn, William (1682, May 5). "Frame of Government of Pennsylvania." Lillian Goldman Law Library. Yale University. The Avalon Project.
  6. Roland, John (2011, October 25). "Excerpts from Frame of Government of Pennsylvania by William Penn, 1682." The Constitution Society.
  7. Powell, Jim. William Penn, America's First Great Champion for Liberty and Peace." The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Religion in Eighteenth-Century America by the U.S. Library of Congress
  9. Report 1: Religious Affiliation - Summary of Key Findings Pew Forum On Religion & Public Life
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 Religion and the Federal Government by the U.S. Library of Congress
  11. John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, April 19, 1817 Manuscript Division, U.S. Library of Congress
  12. Fast Day Proclamation by John Adams. March 23, 1798. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, U.S. Library of Congress
  13. 13.0 13.1 Religion and the Federal Government - Part 2 by the U.S. Library of Congress
  14. 14.0 14.1 Religion and the State Governments by the U.S. Library of Congress
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