A City Upon a Hill: Examining the Ties Between Christianity and the Early Republic

The following essay was submitted to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in April 2017 and was selected as one of the ten winning essays in the Institute’s nationwide 2017 Age of Revolution Essay Contest, the link of which can be found here.  While there have been slight revisions to the essay since its submission, these corrections were largely focused on mechanics and word choice and thus of no significance whatsoever in regards to the message of the piece.  Please contact the Editor-In-Chief for access to the essay’s bibliography and endnotes.

By Andrew Sveda, Contributor         

        Christianity has been a pillar of American history and culture for over half a millennium.  A century after Christopher Columbus’ assertion that “all Christendom will receive encouragement and profit” from his discovery of the New World in 1492, English separatists on the Mayflower pronounced that their “voyage” was “undertaken, for the glory of God, and the advancements of the Christian faith.”  Moreover, as men and women traveled across the Atlantic in greater numbers, Puritan leader John Winthrop preached in a famous sermon, “The Lord will be our God and delight and dwell among us…we shall be as a ‘City Upon a Hill,’” indicating the deep religious convictions of the colonists that molded both the cultural life and the political structure of this new territory.  William Penn furthered Winthrop’s notion when he penned “that all persons who also profess to believe in Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World, shall be capable to serve this government,” writing to Peter the Great that “Those who will not be governed by God will be ruled by tyrants.” The reverence of early colonial America also extended to a strong belief in freedom and liberty, seen through the Liberty Bell’s inscription of Leviticus 25:10: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof.”  As the days of the American Revolution approached, however, the meaning of this “Liberty” drastically began to transform. In conjunction with the Colonies’ religious heritage, the Christian Church’s deep involvement in the War of Independence revitalized an interest in the Millennium and ultimately allowed for the American Republic to be founded on Christianity.

          The Christian clergy allowed for the American Revolution to be shaped into a religious cause.  New York minister Abraham Keteltas compared the Patriots’ rebellion as “the cause of truth…of heaven against hell—of the kind Parent of the Universe against the prince of darkness and the destroyer of the human race” from his pulpit in 1777.  Even a Virginian clergyman of the Church of England preached in his sermon, “God preserve all the just rights and liberties of America.” This widespread support of the rebels from the clergy also permeated into the culture of the colonies during the war as numerous battle flags were captioned with phrases such as “Resistance to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” During the Battle of Springfield in 1780, the Presbyterian chaplain supplied the soldiers with Church hymnals when their supply of wadding failed, ordering them to “put Watts into them, boys,” referencing the famous religious composer and serving as a physical reminder of the tight bond between the efforts of American Christianity and that of the Revolution.  In contrast, British troops destroyed Old South Church in Boston, converted it into “a riding ring,” and utilized its elegant pews as a “hog sty,” only furthering the Americans’ belief that the British were being aided by the devil while God supported the rebels. A Hessian under the command of King George III even believed that the conflict was “nothing more nor less than an Irish-Scotch Presbyterian rebellion.”  Thomas Paine also wrote that he “cannot see on what grounds the king of Britain can look up to heaven for help against us,” drawing similarities between Brits and “Lucifer.” These examples demonstrate that because of the Church’s support for the rebel call for Liberty, the American cause was transformed into a Christian one. Although multitudes of Patriots believed that they were following their Christian duty, the Continental Army still faced instability and uncertainty against the most lethal military force in the world.  General George Washington, in a 1776 letter to his secretary, Adjutant-General Joseph Reed, also confessed doubts that he should have ever accepted the role as the Commander of this ragtag army “under such circumstances,” but he admitted, “If I shall be able to rise superior to these [British forces]…I shall most religiously believe that the finger of Providence is in it.”

          The victories of these rebels during the Revolution revived Americans’ curiosity and anticipation of the Millennium, a Biblical period where Christ and beheaded martyrs shall “reign…for a thousand years.”  The Continental Army—thought by patriots to be serving God in their struggle against Britain—emerged victorious against the most powerful empire in the world. Americans believed that this triumph proved that “God has favored our undertaking,” embodied in the words of the motto of the United States’ Great Seal (“Annuit Coeptis”) in 1782.  This state of mind was especially prevalent after the British evacuation of Boston in 1776, when Abigail Adams and Deacon Timothy Newell penned, “Surely it is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous” and “Blessed be to God, our redemption draws near,” respectively. Additionally, in 1785, the future President of Yale University, Timothy Dwight IV, drafted his famous epic poem, The Conquest of Canaan, an allegory for the liberation of Connecticut from British forces, thus connecting Israel’s capture of the Promised Land of Canaan to America’s birth of independence.  Similarly, Thomas Paine boldly declared that “A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now”—reinforcing and evoking the idea that Americans were God’s chosen people.  Even further, Army Chaplain Ebenezer Baldwin proclaimed that this new nation had the potential to be “the principal seat of that glorious kingdom, which Christ shall erect upon Earth in the latter days,” as men, such as New England preacher Elhanan Winchester, lectured on “Prophecies that Remain to Be Fulfilled” on “The Final Restoration,” demonstrating the new interest in the End Times, specifically the Millennium and the Second Coming of Christ.  In fact, Reverend David Austin would comment that the beginnings “of the Millennial estate” were planted “in the backbone of the American Revolution.” Consequently, the phrases of American poet Phillip Freneau that stated, “A New Jerusalem, sent down from Heaven, Shall grace our happy land,” became a call for Americans to prepare a nation that would usher in the Millennium. Consequently, this specifically post-Millennial viewpoint drew people to an obligation of creating a nation founded on Christianity.

          Investigating the design of both the state and Federal government reveals its Christian influence.  Moreover, the importance of Christianity in both the early and revolutionary colonies led several states to include religious aspects into their new constitutions.  In fact, every state’s constitution, save New York and Virginia, discriminated on the basis of religion. Specifically, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire all wrote clauses that demanded tax support for churches.  Furthermore, the constitutions of six states—from New Hampshire to Georgia—all required elected officials to be specifically “Protestant inhabitants” while the states of North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina demanded holders of Office to confirm that the Bible was written through Divine inspiration.  The latter two states also demanded them to profess the belief in Heaven and Hell, but Delaware’s state constitution ordered officials to even reaffirm their confidence in the doctrine of the Trinity, clearly demonstrating how Christianity became not only supported—financially and theologically—by the states, but also the foundation of its laws by setting a precedent to be molded on Christian dogma.  The first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay, seemed to comment on this theory when he said, “it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” Moreover, these religious declarations necessary for taking Office were not decreed optional until the 1961 Supreme Court Case, Torcaso v. Watkins, exhibiting the long-term effect of the states’ efforts to create a Christian authority.  Additionally, states’ Supreme Court cases also indicate that Christianity was the centerpiece and basis of laws in these regional authorities.  For example, Maryland Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase ruled in 1799 that Christianity “is the established religion,” and the New York Supreme Court ordered that John Ruggles, who blasphemed against Jesus and the Virgin Mary, be imprisoned and fined.  These decisions and law clearly illustrate that Christianity was the heart of the states’ governments.

          The Federal government’s actions during the early years of the new nation, however, also supports the Christian founding of America.  Although the Federal government did not require any religious tests to take Office, George Washington set a precedent for a profession of the belief in a uniquely Christian God; during the Presidential Oath of Office, he added the phrase “so help me God” to the end of the Oath as “he bowed down reverently and kissed” the Bible.  Likewise, the United States’ early documents display the necessity of Christianity in its military and government. Specifically, the Continental Congress decreed that soliders’ and officers’ “use [of] any prophane [sic] oath or execration”—a practice outlawed in the Ten Commandments—would be subject to a fine and even solitary confinement while it also “earnestly recommended” that both ranks “diligently…attend divine [Christian] services,” demonstrating the importance of Christianity in the early Armed Forces.  In addition, the Continental Congress “highly approve[d]” and “recommend[ed]” Robert Aitken’s “edition” of the first English Bible in America “to the inhabitants of the United States,” exhibiting how the Federal Government specifically recommended and encouraged Christianity. The Treaty of Paris, the document that officially recognized America’s independence, is also prefaced with the words: “In the name of the most holy and undivided Trinity,” and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 declares, “Religion, morality and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Moreover, this mention of “Religion” must notably includes Christianity, but also excludes Deism since it “implies infidelity,” as widely believed and defined in Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language. Therefore, the Federal government was founded on Christianity through its early documents and the importance of Christianity in the Executive Branch.

          Nevertheless, many twentieth and twenty-first century historians contend that Enlightened Deism was the cornerstone of the nation. Organizations, such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation, specifically cite the lack of any reference to God in the text of the U.S. Constitution, The Treaty of Tripoli, and Thomas Jefferson’s belief in the “separation between church and state” that would later appear Bill of Rights.  The aforementioned stances are, however, flawed. Firstly, despite the lack of direct invocations of God in the Constitution, Article I, Section VII specifically exempts “Sundays” from the period of “ten Days” between the passing of a bill and the response of the President, alluding to the Commandment that one should worship and rest on the Sabbath.  Furthermore, Benjamin Franklin called for the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to have morning prayer services “officiate[d]” by “the clergy” of Philadelphia since “Sacred Writings”—the Christian Scriptures—“have assured [us]…that except the Lord builds the House, they labor in vain that build it.” Therefore, the Constitution not only honors the Sabbath in its document, but the Convention that created it prayed for guidance and assistance from, specifically, the Christian God, exhibiting that this founding document was, in fact, created with Christian underpinnings. Even so, scholars still point to the eleventh article of the Treaty of Tripoli of 1796, which states “the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [e.g., Muslims],…no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” Although many analysts recite the first phrase of the sentence, this document must be viewed in its original context. In the mid-1790s, America’s deficient Navy allowed for U.S. cargo ships to become a prime target for raids by the Barbary Pirates.  Therefore, in order to prevent an armed conflict from arising between the United States and the Muslim nations of North Africa, George Washington ordered for a treaty to be negotiated, which was unanimously passed by the Senate. When considering this situation, it is vitally important to note that this sentence would have sparked vigorous debate and a divided vote if it was even hinted to signify that America was not a Christian nation. Additionally, the 1805 Treaty of Tripoli that followed the Americans’ victory over the Barbary Pirates lacks any mention to the role of Christianity in the United States, suggesting that the 1796 clause was intended to merely provide reassurance that the differences of “religious opinions” would not escalate into an armed conflict.  It would be tendentious to consider this phrase a definitive statement on Christianity’s relation to the founding; rather, it was inserted to stress that America does not have a natural hostility towards Muslim countries. Therefore, the Treaty of Tripoli of 1796 does not, in fact, suggest that Christianity did not serve as the foundation of the Republic’s government.

          In addition, a Treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians only seven years later demonstrates not only America’s Christian policies, but also that Thomas Jefferson’s “secular” views differ from their narrow interpretation today.  This treaty—which was drafted and signed during Jefferson’s Administration—agrees to financially support the “erection of a church” and the “priest of that religion [Catholicism]” to the Native American tribes, indicating that Jefferson, who signed this document, supported the expansion of Christianity through the United States Government.  Even in Washington D.C., Protestant worship services were held every Sunday in buildings representing all three branches of government. In addition, Jefferson found this practice to be “acceptable,” even though, as historians detail, “the state became the church.” Thus, Jefferson’s policies as President demonstrate a misconception of his support of “a wall of separation between church and state.” Moreover, the works of another Deist, Thomas Paine, also reveal that Christianity, not Deism, was the cornerstone of the American government. In Paine’s 1794 work, The Age of Reason, the author openly attacks Christianity, specifically calling the authors of the Bible “Christian mythologists,” and challenges the divinity and miracles of “the Son of God”; it was through this book that Paine ultimately lost his reputation as the eloquent revolutionary writer he once was.  Instead, he was now seen as “a mongrel between Pigg [sic] and Puppy, begotten by a wild Boar” by Vice President John Adams, and an 1801 cartoon, captioned “Mad Tom in a Rage,” depicts Satan aiding Thomas Paine’s attempt to dismantle the foundation of the U.S. Government—physically illustrating that the foundation of the United States is Christianity.  Therefore, the staunch opposition to Paine’s Deism in conjunction the actions of the Constitutional Convention and the Federal Government exhibit that the United States was based on Christian doctrine and principles.

          Like the situation during the Revolution, the idea of America as an inheritably “Christian nation” allowed for the success of the Church and the Government to become tightly intertwined.  The perseverance of the Founding Fathers and early statesmen to create “a Paradise” through dedication to the Bible allowed for the country to be supported on a Christian ideology. Founders such as Jedidiah Morse, however, would further this argument by firmly believing that “Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican forms of government…must fall with them.”  Similarly, the Second Great Awakening that would rise in the early nineteenth century mirror the idea that Christianity and Republicanism are naturally coupled while “Infidelity and liberalism are combined.” Particularly, the Church’s extensive involvement in the American Revolution, in addition to the territory’s Christian history, stimulated fascination in the Millennium and paved the way for a Christian Republic.