Observations Regarding the Christian Origin of America
By Reed Benson
Was America founded as a Christian nation? Were our forefathers true followers of Jesus Christ? Did they instill biblical concepts into our government when our nation was in its infancy? In some quarters it is becoming fashionable to argue that our nation was never Christian and that our forefathers were not particularly interested in Jesus Christ and the Bible. The suggestion that English civilization in North America and the formation of our republic under the Declaration of Independence and the original Constitution was un-Christian, even pagan, has gained some adherents, but only at the expense of historical reality. A consideration of facts is fruitful and will prove that America was indeed founded as a Christian civilization. Any other conclusion is fiction and historical revisionism.
Why are people eager to blame the present spiritual blight in America upon George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, and others of that generation? After listening to the critics assail the founders of our American Republic for some time, I think I have deduced a possible unconscious motive in many of them: it is easier to blame the founders than to acknowledge our own present failings. And in citing our own present failings, I do not mean the flaws in the present leadership in Washington DC (which are legion); nor do I mean the machinations of shadowy cabals like the international banking cartel and sundry globalist initiatives. The failings of the Christian remnant are found in our own houses: men who refuse to love their wives, women who refuse to obey their husbands, divorce, rebellion, dishonoring aged parents, drunkenness, fornication, dishonesty at home and in business, covetousness, idolatry, pornography, Sabbath-desecration, ungodly music, sensual videos, and on it goes. Too many of us find it easy to tap into the victimization culture of America and pretend that America’s present problems are truly someone else's fault. It is not my fault! It is not our fault! Those guys long ago should have known better! If they had done it right, everything would still be right and proper today!
This sentiment is wrong and is merely a new twist on an old spirit of rebellion. The government that Washington, Madison, et. al. framed was imperfect, yet worked quite well to provide for a godly Christian nation for nearly two centuries—a nation that blossomed into the most prosperous and mighty land on the planet. I assert that we should act with maturity and admit that the blame for our present plight is ours, not theirs. And regarding shortcomings that the original Constitution contained, the framers provided the means by which we could alter it, which we have actually done seventeen times since they finished their labors. Please note that nearly all of the seventeen amendments we have brought forth since that time have taken us further away from the Bible, not closer. Whose fault is that? Jefferson’s? If we are so innocent and pure and the framers of the Constitution were such charlatans, why did we not amend it to more resemble the Bible? Why? Because the reverse is nearer to the truth. While it is by no means perfect, the original Constitution truly has many biblical concepts embedded within it, and the more recent seventeen non-original amendments undermine those ideas, not strengthen them.
To begin our examination, let us revisit the origin of colonial America. Please consider the first acts of the three original English settlements: Jamestown, Plymouth, and Massachusetts Bay. In 1607, before a site was selected to build Jamestown, the settlers landed at Cape Henry on the Chesapeake Bay. There they erected a cross, held prayers of thanksgiving, and dedicated their effort to Jesus Christ. In 1620, the Pilgrims formalized their dependence on God in the Mayflower Compact and created what they hoped would be an ideal Christian community. Ten years later, in 1630, a large band of Puritans under John Winthrop began the largest and most successful of the three settlements. What was their hope? To create a "city set upon a hill" that would be a Christian beacon to the rest of the world.
From these imperfect yet overtly and intentionally Christian settlements grew colonial America, thirteen colonies, all professing Jesus Christ as divine and holding a high regard for the Bible.
Some 150 years after the beginnings of English civilization in North America, the founders of the American Republic gave us the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in the late 1700s. The authors of these documents did not develop them in a vacuum, but drew on experiences in law and government from the colonial period. What, then, made the colonial period what it was? Why is it accurate to say that the colonial era of America was unquestionably Christian?
A Surprising Founder
While most of us assume that George Washington is the only man who could be considered our premier founder, several of the most esteemed historians of the nineteenth century offer another candidate, a man who never set foot on this continent: John Calvin.
Dr. E. W. Smith comments in this respect and refers to Leopold von Ranke, the father of source-based history, to make his case: "If the average American citizen were asked, who was the founder of America, the true author of our great Republic, he might be puzzled to answer. We can imagine his amazement at hearing the answer given to this question by the famous German historian Ranke, one of the profoundest scholars of modern times. Says Ranke, 'John Calvin was the virtual founder of America.' These revolutionary principles of republican liberty and self-government, taught and embodied in the system of Calvin, were brought to America, and in this new land where they have borne so mighty a harvest, were planted by whose hands? the hands of the Calvinists. The vital relationship of Calvin and Calvinism to the founding of the free institutions of America, however strange in some ears the statement of Ranke may have sounded, is recognized and affirmed by historians of all lands and creeds" (The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, 1972, p. 389).
George Bancroft was the leading American historian of the nineteenth century. He stated this: "He who will not honor the memory and respect the influence of Calvin knows but little of the origin of American liberty." Bancroft goes on to call Calvin "the father of America" (ibid., p. 390).
One of the leading scholars of the Protestant Reformation, author of a massive five-volume set on the topic, was Merle D'Aubigne. He stated: "Calvin was the founder of the greatest of the republics. The Pilgrims, who left their country in the reign of James I, and landing on the barren soil of New England, founded populous and mighty colonies, were his sons, his direct and legitimate sons; and that American nation which we have seen growing so rapidly boasts as its father the humble reformer on the shores of Lake Leman" (ibid, p. 389).
Yet another outstanding scholar is worth quoting, this one a Roman Catholic. Professor Emilio Castelar, later the President of the Republic of Spain in 1873, had this to say: "It was necessary for the republican movement that there should come a morality more austere than Luther's, the morality of Calvin, and a church more democratic than the German, the church of Geneva. The Anglo-Saxon democracy has for its lineage a book of primitive society—the Bible. It is the product of a severe theology learned by the few Christian fugitives in the gloomy cities of Holland and Switzerland, where the morose shade of Calvin still wanders . . . and it remains serene in its grandeur, forming the most dignified, most moral and most enlightening portion of the human race" (Ibid, p. 384).
How could Calvin have had such a profound influence on the formation of the Republic of the United States in the late 1700s? It is a matter of numbers. Of the three million inhabitants of the United States at the time of the American Revolution, 600,000 were English Puritans, 900,000 were Scots or Scots-Irish of Presbyterian background, and 400,000 were either German or Dutch Reformed. In addition, there were a healthy sprinkling of French Huguenots (Calvinists), and the Episcopalians had a Calvinistic confession in their 39 Articles. Thus, in total, a full two-thirds of the three million inhabitants in 1776 were raised in and taught the doctrines of John Calvin.
Those who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution assumed, from their Calvinist worldview, that man had a depraved nature that needed restraint. Like Lord Acton's famous adage, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," they believed that power among men should be spread out, and checks upon that power were necessary. Government officials should not be given blind trust, but we should, as Jefferson stated, "bind them down with the chains of the Constitution."
What Did They Read?
Is it possible to determine what the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution really thought about things? Can we know whom they read? Whom did they respect? Whose ideas caught their imagination? If we knew this, would it not help interpret subtle meanings in our founding documents?
A mammoth effort was undertaken to answer these questions through an extensive analysis of 15,000 documents of American political content the founders wrote between 1760 and 1805. Two professors, Lutz and Hyneman, filtered these writings and identified 3,154 various sources that the founders quoted. These three thousand sources are the hard evidence of what they read and upon what their minds ruminated.
The three most often quoted sources were the Bible, 34%; Montesquieu, 8.3%; and Blackstone, 7.9%. All other sources were less than 3%. Let us examine these three since they represent some 50% of all writings quoted.
First, consider the Bible. Since a full one-third of the founder’s quotations in their political writings were from Scripture, it is undeniable that the Bible must have dominated much of their thoughts. Of all the books of the Bible they referred to, Deuteronomy was the most frequently cited. Often considered dull reading, Deuteronomy was nonetheless interesting to them, for is about law; it makes sense that concepts from Bible Law would be pertinent to men framing a new government.
Second, consider Baron Charles Montesquieu and his great work Spirit of the Laws, the most influential of Montesquieu's works. Who was this man? A Frenchman living in the first half of the 1700s, Montesquieu is sometimes falsely assumed to be a deist. He was not. He was born a Catholic and died one also, receiving communion and confessing his faith shortly before his death in 1755. Montesquieu believed that all law had its source in God and further asserted that man was basically evil and self-centered, stating, "As an intelligent being, he [man] constantly transgresses the laws established by God, and changes those of his own instituting . . . he is subject to ignorance and error and is hurried away by a thousand impetuous passions" (Spirit of the Laws, 1:2-3). He goes on to say, "the Catholic religion is most agreeable to a monarchy, and the Protestant to a republic, because the people of the north have, and always will have, a spirit of liberty and independence, which the people of the South have not; and, therefore, a religion which has no visible head is more agreeable to the independence . . . of Calvinist and Lutheran societies" (ibid, 26:30-31). Knowing the sinful nature of man, he advocated separation of powers by which power checks power, what he called "a republican democracy" in which "virtue" is the guiding principle. This was the main contribution of Montesquieu to the thinking of the American founders: the separation of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. You will discover that this idea is a biblical principle, not original with Montesquieu.
Third, let us briefly peruse William Blackstone and his famous book Commentaries on the Laws of England. Contemporary to Montesquieu, Blackstone was an English lawyer whose Commentaries became the standard work on English Common Law throughout the English-speaking world. In it, Blackstone emphasized that all law has its source in God and that it is the task of legislatures and judges to discover and apply law, not "make law." God's Law is discovered in two places: natural law and revealed law. Natural law is found in the natural world and was placed there as a function of God's creation. Revealed law supersedes natural law since it is plainer, requiring less insight to apply and is readily available in the Bible. Blackstone stated, "Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human law should be suffered to contradict these" (Commentaries, p. 146). His work Commentaries systemized the law of England, known as Common Law. This was particularly useful for the American colonies which were beginning their legal tradition. Blackstone was ready-made, ready to go. Common Law of England was almost exclusively biblical in its sources, and where it was not directly from the Scripture, was still consistent with Bible precept. These five sources were 1) Alfred the Great's Ten Commandment codification; 2) the Justinian Code, a Christianized version of Roman Law; 3) the interpretation of Maimonides on the Hebrew Torah (five law books of the Old Testament); 4) Viking Danelaw, with its emphasis on individual rights that forced King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215; and 5) Church Canon Law, the Roman Catholic Church's application of Bible Law. The primary influence of Blackstone upon the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is the idea that real law is not "made," but discovered from natural law or revealed law, both of which originated with God.
The Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution
Some have suggested that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are secular documents and that all of us would be better off if we just scrapped them and used only the Bible as the foundation of our government. That notion sounds pure and exciting, a lofty ideal that hearkens back to an idyllic period in Israel's history. But the reality of human nature and biblical history tells another tale. It is making false assumptions that would lead only to confusion and catastrophe.
First, while these documents do not quote from the Bible and in that sense they could be called "secular," they are heavy with concepts lifted from the Bible and are thus consistent with Scripture, even dependent upon it.
Second, the Declaration and the Constitution are descriptions of what a confederation government ought to be, how it should be organized, and what it should not do. The Constitution describes the actual form our confederation government ought to take; the primary choices from human history being tribal federation, monarchy, dictatorship, oligarchy, direct democracy, and representative republic. It is not a law code. Rather, the Constitution, like all governments, is like a funnel or pipe that dispenses a fluid, a law code being the fluid. Just as different fluids can be dispensed through a given funnel, so different law codes can be dispensed through a given form of government. Furthermore, the Constitution was predicated on the existence of thirteen state governments that already govern most aspects of daily life. Those state laws and institutions were left intact. The Bible records what forms of government the Israelites used: tribal federation (the judges), monarchy (kings), and representative republic (senate of seventy). But the Bible never insists that one form is the only acceptable choice in the affairs of man. In fact, every form of government tried in the Bible failed. Instead, the Bible asserts that whatever form is selected must implement a series of specific laws, the Law of God, precisely 613 of them. The negligence in implementing God's Law is why each form failed. Meanwhile, the Constitution is not a list of laws, but is a form of government that is compatible with Bible Law. Indeed, more than compatible. As you will see, much of it is conceptually based on biblical precept.
Third, it can plainly stated that any form of government that allows for the implementation of God's Law will work well in the affairs of man. Conversely, any form of government that prevents the implementation of God's Law will fail and bring disaster. It thus does not matter what form of government we organize, only what law code we follow. To the degree that the Declaration and the Constitution allowed for God's Law being implemented is why the United States of America prospered for nearly two centuries as a Christian nation. While these two documents did not and still do not guarantee perfect implementation God's Law, they are extremely compatible with it; thus, they worked well until the middle of the twentieth century. It is since we have begun altering and ignoring the original Constitution that our nation has suffered its present blight.
Fourth, remember the historic context of the Constitution. What was its purpose? Was it to run roughshod over existing state governments, their laws, and even their sovereignty? Actually, no. It was a badly needed compact between relatively weak states to provide mutual military protection, justice, and economic concourse in a lasting relationship for their mutual benefit in a tough world of hungry European empires. Our leaders entered it voluntarily, and it did nothing to destroy or undermine the beautiful Christian state constitutions that most already possessed. The common criticism that it had no religious test is a non-starter for two reasons: one, most states already had religious tests to hold public office; and two, the various states were dominated by different Christian sects (Episcopal, Puritan, Quaker, Baptist, Lutheran, etc.), and a measure of religious toleration was a prerequisite to political unity. Only in retrospect does lack of a religious test look like a mistake. The Constitution left by far the greater number of governmental powers in the hands of the state governments—not the new central government—so Christian state governments were intended to affect the individual far more than the fledgling federal government.
Biblical Concepts Found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution
As stated, these two documents do not guarantee a godly society. (Indeed, nothing you do can guarantee that your distant descendants will remain godly.) But such a goal was not an issue in the latter part of the 1700s because America already was a godly society; no one at the time was worried that American civilization was going to turn secular or pagan. What was a risk was the chance that individual states might be swallowed alive by European aggressors if we achieved no political unity. Nonetheless, because they were the products of a Christian society, they incorporated many biblical concepts. Furthermore, they provided for a better chance of maintaining a godly society than most other choices that have been tried in human history. That is, as long as these precepts would be followed. Since we now flagrantly ignore the Constitution on many levels, it is no surprise that our nation suffers under intense and growing curses.
Please consider the following fifteen biblical concepts that are integrated into the framework of our original republic. Although there are more that could be added, these points suffice to prove the Declaration and the Constitution are conceptually based in Christianity and the Bible.
1. The Providence of God. The Declaration of Independence ends with the phrase, "a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence." Divine Providence can only refer to God. This statement represents the founders’ trust that the ruling hand of God will aid men engaged in a just cause. It is not a deist platitude, but an acknowledgement of God's sovereignty and timely involvement in the affairs of men.
2. The Law of God. The founders believed in "the Laws of Nature and Nature's God." Again, this phrase in the Declaration was not some deistic euphemism, but a concept lifted straight from William Blackstone, which in turn comes from the New Testament writings of Paul: "For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or excusing on another" (Romans 2:14-15).
3. The Equality of Man. The Declaration declares it a "self-evident truth" that "all men are created equal." The Constitution reinforces this when it states that "No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States" (Article I, Section 9), and no state can deny "equal protection of the law" (Fourteenth Amendment). The notion of equality of man in our founding documents does not mean all people are of equal height, intelligence, or talent. It does not guarantee equal income, an equal standard of living, equal achievement, or even equal opportunity. It means only one thing: equality before the law. This is an overtly biblical idea, one which was completely unique in the ancient world when God gave it to the Israelites: "Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for one of your own country: for I am the LORD your God" (Leviticus 24:22). Judges were commanded not to show partiality: "Thou shalt not wrest the judgment of thy poor in his cause" (Exodus 23:6). In the New Testament, Scripture states, "God is no respecter of persons" (Acts 10:34).
5. Government by the Consent of the Governed. The Declaration states, "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." This idea has its roots in the Calvinist concept of the covenant and was later adapted into the John Locke's social compact. Correctly understood, it is a biblical concept. Consider these examples. "The men of Israel said to Gideon, Rule thou over us" (Judges 8:22). Later, the Israelite monarchy was established by popular demand. The people wanted a king, and God gave them one, Saul, even though it was not His perfect will (1 Samuel 8). Later yet we read, "And all the people of Judah took Azariah, which was sixteen years old, and made him king instead of his father Amaziah" (2 Kings 14:21). In the days of Moses, God told the Israelites this: "Judges and officers shalt thou make in all thy gates, which the LORD thy God giveth thee . . ." (Deuteronomy 16:18). While God often anointed kings and rulers, the people still approved such nominations and frequently had real input. Clearly, leaders having the consent of the governed is consistent with the Bible.
6. The Sinful Nature of Man. James Madison, known as the father of the Constitution, wrote this in Federalist Number 51: "But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself." This is a rock solid biblical understanding that man is fallen, selfish, and in need of restraint. The division of power between the three branches of our government was the founders’ practical, real-world solution to restrain men's fallen, sinful nature. Many passages in the Bible teach this now often overlooked doctrine: "…the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth…" (Genesis 8:21); "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9); "For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).
7. Limited, Delegated Powers. The Tenth Amendment reads, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people." This amendment is often called an "exercise in redundancy" because the founders already assumed this to be understood in the main body of the Constitution. The Bible also teaches limitations of power, particularly of kings. In Deuteronomy 17:14-20 a prophetic list of limiting rules was set forth for kings. They were not to "multiply horses to himself…multiply wives to himself …neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold." And he shall "write him a copy of this law in a book… and shall read therein all the days of his life." God harshly judged kings who sought to take on religious authority and offer sacrifices, kings such as Saul, Jeroboam, and Uzziah.
8. Rights of Criminal Defendants. The Constitution provides numerous protections for the rights of the accused. These include protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, two witnesses required for conviction of treason, privilege against self-incrimination, the right to be informed of charges, the right to confront and cross examine witnesses, the right to subpoena witnesses, protection against excessive bail, and others. In terms of giving rights to the accused, Old Testament biblical law was by far the most developed in the ancient world. It had a multi-tiered system of justice with the opportunity for appeal (Deuteronomy 1:16-17); judges were commanded to refuse bribes and be honest (Exodus 23:1-8); innocence was presumed and two witnessed were required for conviction (Deuteronomy 17:6); perjury was forbidden and judged severely (Deuteronomy 19:16-20).
9. Jury Trial. Amendment six of the Constitution states, "the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury." Some critics of the Constitution have suggested that jury trials have no roots in the Bible. That is false. Joshua chapter 20 identifies the cities of refuge in the Land of Canaan and describes how the inhabitants of these geographically well-distributed cities will act as jurors to determine guilt or innocence when someone has been killed. "And he [the slayer] shall dwell in that city until he stand before the congregation for judgment…These were the cities appointed for all the children of Israel, and for the stranger that sojourneth among them, that whosoever killeth any person unawares might flee thither, and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood, until he stood before the congregation" (Joshua 20:6,9). It is safe to assume that virtually every time someone is slain, the killer will claim innocence or accident and flee to one of these cities, thus making a trial "before the congregation" a necessity. Whether this jury numbers twelve like our petit juries, or twenty like our grand juries, or even more, is not known. But there is no other way to honestly interpret this passage than to conclude that some sort of a jury trial was the primary mechanism to determine the truth of the matter in the cities of refuge.
10. Property Rights. The Constitution places great value on property rights. For example, the Fifth Amendment states, "nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation." The Bible teaches the same. David knew this and thus insisted on paying for the threshing floor of Araunah to build a public altar (2 Samuel 24:18-25). Ahab's unjust seizing of Naboth's vinyard for his palace garden was met with public outrage and acrimony, for his action was contrary to normal procedure (1 Kings 21).
11. Sanctity of Contract. The right to make contracts, expect others to obey them, and expect the courts to uphold them is closely connected to property rights. The Constitution forbids the states in Article I from enacting any "Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts." Scripture emphasizes the sacredness of oaths: "Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill?…He that sweareth to his own hurt and changeth not" (Ps. 15:1,4).
12. Corruption of Blood. In many countries throughout history, if a parent were convicted and executed for treason, the entire family was punished, even put to death. The Constitution forbids this in Article III: "no Attainder of Treason shall work corruption of blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attained." In other words, if a parent were convicted of treason, this did not affect the civil rights of his children. Bible Law also unequivocally agrees: "The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin" (Deuteronomy 24:16).
13. Weekly Sabbath Respected. Article I assumes with a passing comment that one day a week would have no business conducted. It was Sunday, the day then associated as a day of worship and rest in the Christian world: "If any bill shall not be returned by the President within ten days (Sundays excepted) after it shall be presented to him, the Same shall be a Law, in like manner as if he had signed it…” Most Christians in eighteenth century America believed Sunday to be the Sabbath; they intended to honor it through avoidance of all labor as the biblical commandment states: "Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work" (Exodus 20:8-10).
14. Separation of Powers. Neither the framers of the Constitution nor Montesquieu first conceived the idea that powers within a nation should be separated; God did. As every school child should know, the Constitution divides power among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. King Uzziah learned the hard way that there are things that kings should not attempt to do: “But when he [King Uzziah of Judah] was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction for he transgressed against the LORD his God, and went into the temple of the LORD to burn incense upon the altar of incense. And Azariah the priest went in after him, and with him fourscore priests . . . and said unto him, It appertaineth not unto thee, Uzziah, to burn incense unto the LORD, but to the priests the sons of Aaron…Then Uzziah was wroth, and had a censer in his hand to burn incense: and while he was wroth with the priests, the leprosy even rose up in his forehead . . .” (2 Chronicles 26:16-19). Deuteronomy 17:14-20 lists some limitations on the powers of the kings of Israel. Both King Saul and King Jeroboam suffered when they similarly acted outside the sphere of kingly authority (see 1 Samuel 13:8-14 and 1 Kings 13).
Much more could be presented, but want of space in this publication dictates an end must be found. Let us conclude with this thought: before, during and after the ratification of the Declaration and the Constitution, English America was Christian in its churches, its educational institutions, its court systems, its state charters and constitutions, and the morals, habits, and customs of virtually the entire population. There was literally no need to insert into the Declaration and the Constitution that which was already present in society and was actually present in spirit and concept in the documents themselves. As a whole, the framers did not conceive that American society that would ever be anything other than Christian. Do not blame men dead for two centuries if America is presently abandoning God. That crime is on our heads, not theirs.