Over the past several decades there has been an ongoing argument about whether America is a Christian nation or not. It is generally agreed by most that there were certain groups of people who came here to escape religious persecution so they could practice their faith according to the dictates of their own conscience but there are those who point out that they were not the only ones who came here.
The very first people who came to the America's were men seeking wealth and fame. Since it was Spain who financed the voyage of Christopher Columbus that led to the discovery of this land, it was Spain who first sent military expeditions here to look for gold and other precious resources. They came to conquer and plunder the country, not in the name of God but for the glory of Spain - and themselves. They were known as the Conquistadors.
Soon the French and the English began carving out territory for themselves in the new land, with France taking what we now call Alabama, Louisiana, and Eastern Canada, including some areas now located around the Great Lakes. Spain claimed the land we now call Florida. For its part, England claimed the east coast of North America, stretching from Maine down to Georgia.
At first, England had no plans to settle in its newly acquired property. It was to be used primarily as a place where men could harvest its resources, such as fish, timber, and animal furs. In 1606 England granted a charter to two companies, known as the London Company and the Plymouth Company which allowed them to set up a business venture to make money from the resources of the new land.
By April of 1607 the London Company sent a group of men to establish the first settlement in America which was in Jamestown, Virginia, a name they chose to honor their king, James I. Their mission was to explore the area to find out what valuable resources they could gather and then send those resources back to England where the London Company would sell them. Thus, the first English settlers came to America to make money, not to practice religion. In fact, these men of Jamestown, although members of the Church of England (as nearly everyone in England was required to be) they were far from being pious gentlemen. Instead, they were greedy and ambitious, intent on serving themselves rather than God.
It is for this reason that some argue that America was not established as a Christian nation because America was founded by many different groups of people each of whom had their own reason for being here. And a number of those reasons had nothing to do with religion or a belief in God.
But this line of reasoning is shallow because it focuses on just a very small part of America's rise to independence and ignores all the momentous events that led to this nation developing the most unique government in the history of mankind. It is that form of government that sets us apart from the rest of the world and it is that government which is distinctly Christian in nature. Without that government America would not be what it is today. Therefore, it is important that we look at how we came to have our distinctly unique American form of government.
The people who settled Jamestown were, for the most part, employees of the London Company and their first form of government was communal in nature. That is, everything was had in common and was supposed to be shared equally among the men but, that was only in theory because the reality was that the settlers stole from one another and fought with each other over everything. By most accounts, it appears that there was more anarchy among the settlers than there was a functioning government.
In 1620 another group of settles, knows as the Pilgrims, arrived in the area we now call Massachusetts and named their town Plymouth after the name of the city where they had left England. But, unlike those who settled Jamestown, the Pilgrims came to establish a colony where they could worship God according to their understanding of the Bible and the form of government they formed was based on biblical principles.
As they sat anchored off the shore of Massachusetts the Pilgrims made a compact with one another that formed the first "civil body politic" in the new world whereby they agreed amongst themselves that they would "enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices" as they "thought most meetů the general good of the colony" and which they all promised to submit themselves to in obedience.
This was the first form of self-rule where the people themselves voted on what laws they would have rather than having a king or a nobleman tell them what they could or could not do and it was this concept that all later state governments and even the U.S. Constitution would seek to emulate.
At first they had all things in common but after a few years they realized that method of governing themselves wouldn't work so it was decided that every family would be given a plot of ground for themselves, from which they were to take care of their own needs rather than relying on sharing in everyone else's labor. Although their living conditions were much harsher than those found in Jamestown, within several years the colony was thriving and prospering. This was the first attempt at private property ownership and laws were passed to protect their property rights.
Furthermore, this was the beginnings of the free market system where people could make, sell, buy, and trade whatever they wanted without interference from government regulation. And over the next several decades the concept of personal property rights and the free market would spread throughout American to the point where it would become ingrained in the American culture.
This also was the beginning of the spirit of self-reliance and rugged individualism that eventually led to America declaring itself free and independent of England. All of these things - self-government, personal property, property rights, and the free market system - were all conceived and practiced by people who were trying to live their life according to the teachings of the Bible.
In 1628 another group of people known as the Puritans came from England to settle in America and their religious beliefs were nearly identical to that of the Pilgrims, except they considered themselves to be part of the Church of England. The city they founded was called Salem, which is a Hebrew word meaning "peace." Thus, instead of naming their city after a king or an English town, they gave it a biblical name. As more Puritans began to arrive, they began to settle more towns, one of which was Boston.
The form of government they set up in all the places they settled was based on self-rule and, since everyone in these towns were Puritans, their laws were all based on Puritan biblical beliefs and their elected officials were mostly Puritan ministers. As in the Plymouth colony, both the church and the government were one in the same.
In 1631 a Puritan preacher by the name of Roger Williams immigrated to Boston and was offered the job of assistant pastor. However, he soon began preaching that the Puritans should be separate and free from the Church of England. Furthermore, he taught that the church should not be in charge of deciding the spiritual laws which dictated how everyone in the community lived, arguing that such a system would lead to the same conditions of persecution that caused them to flee England. He felt that people should be free to worship God of their own free will and not have the government telling them what they could or should believe.
The Puritans eventually exiled Roger Williams from Boston for his "heretical" views and he eventually founded a city of his own in an area we now call Rhode Island. Roger Williams named his town "Providence because he felt it was God's providence that brought him to that place." His town was designed to be a place where people of different religious beliefs could come and worship as they chose rather than being compelled by the church to believe one specific way.
The form of government Williams instituted was based on majority vote, better known as a democracy. But those elected could only pass civil laws and were prohibited from passing any law enforcing religious behavior or beliefs. Thus his form of government differed sharply with those of the Puritan and the Church of England who believed that people had to be ordered, through civil law, to obey God's word as understood by the church itself.
This was the beginning of the concept of religious freedom in American and it was championed by a Christian minister following his idea that the Bible taught that God created all men with the freedom to choose for themselves whether to obey Him or not. It was because of this concept that most Americans eventually came to accept and which later led to the writing of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Thomas Hooker was another Puritan minister who fled England to America in order to escape persecution. Once here, he became a prominent preacher but he disagreed with John Winthrop over what kind of government was best. John Winthrop had been elected governor of Massachusetts in 1628 and was a Puritan minister. He believed in the right of the people to vote for who they wanted to be their governor but he believed that it was the governor who should then select the magistrates. Furthermore, he believed that these offices should be held for life. He reasoned that only men of high moral character, such as ministers, should be appointed. He felt that it was only in this way that just and fair laws would be made.
On the other hand, Thomas Hooker believed that all men should have the right to vote for whoever they wanted in all positions of government and that their term in office should have set limits. Winthrop argued that such a form of government would lead to people electing officials who told them what they wanted to hear rather than those who would render justice according to the word of God. Hooker argued that men of God were just as prone to becoming corrupt and violating the word of God as anyone else. By having public officials subject to the consent of the governed it would ensure that those who were abusing their power could be removed from office.
Although Winthrop and Hooker were close friends, they couldn't agree with each other on this issue of common consent and so Hooker left the Massachusetts Bay Colony and settled in the area we now call Connecticut where he implemented his idea of government. This differed in four ways from that favored by Winthrop. First, there were no religious qualifications to hold office. Second, all men could vote, including slaves, not just land owners. Third, restrictions were placed on what magistrates could and could not do. And fourth, the governor's term in office was limited and he could not seek consecutive re-elections.
Hooker put forth his ideas in a book entitled " The Survey of the Summed of Church Discipline" In time, his ideas on self-government began to spread throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut and became the first state to establish a written constitution which then became the model that other colonies used to write their own. Once more see that another fundamental principles (term limits for elected officials) became the foundation on which the American government was built was first introduced and developed by Christian ministers.
The city of Philadelphia was founded by William Penn, a devout Quaker. He chose that name for his city from the Book of Revelation because of all the seven churches that John was commanded to write to, Philadelphia was the one that kept God's word and did not deny His name (Revelation 3:8). William Penn created the city of Philadelphia as an experiment in holiness where everyone there lived according to God's word and loved their brother as themselves. This is why that city is referred to as "the city of brotherly love."
Far from being greedy exploiters who were only interested in making money, the early colonists who settled, built, and developed America were faithful church-going people whose government leaders were their ministers. From the written sermons that have survived from that period we learn that they were taught it was God who gave prosperity as a blessing to those who obeyed His word and that it was God who brought a curse upon the people if they served their own interest (Duet. 8:11-14, 17-19). It was the Christians ministers who taught that if they became back sliders and did not repent of their sins, God would punish them (Jeremiah 8:5,6). These were the values that the earliest Americans grew up being educated about and which influenced their thinking and their behavior.
As the nation grew and they followed the principles of self-rule, the free market, and rugged individualism they became successful in their labors and prosperous in their ventures but, as they did, they began to backslide in their religious fervor. However, in 1734 things started to change as a revival of Christian teachings began to convert people back to Christ by the thousands. This event is known in history as The Great Awakening.
Although he wasn't the person who started it, George Whitefield became the person who made the fire of evangelism consume the entire American nation. Born in England in 1714, at age 19 he went to Oxford where he studied to become a priest in the Church of England and was ordained at the age of 22. It was while he was there that he had a personal conversion that not only changed his life but his outlook on theology about God and salvation.
At that time in England, the common belief was that in order to be saved a person had to be a member of the Church of England. In other words, salvation came as a result of belonging to the Church. Therefore, if you did not belong to the Church then your soul was destined for hell. But, after his conversion experience, Whitefield believed that salvation was a personal event that occurred directly between God and man without the need of the Church being involved. He further believed that God loved and saved each person individually. This then led to his belief that God not only loved all men but that He loved them all equally. He loved the lowest slave as much as he loved the King of England.
This doctrine did not go over well with the authorities in the Church of England and soon Whitefield found himself being prevented from speaking in the Church. But this didn't stop him. He soon began preaching outside the church, usually in an open field which was the beginning of open-air preaching. His first congregation was to a group of coal-miners who society looked down upon with disdain. It was unthinkable to many at that time that such men were worthy of being saved therefore, Whitefield was shunned by the upper class. But the common people loved him and the crowds that came to listen to him preach grew larger and larger each Sunday. At one meeting the crowd size was estimated to be 23,000 people.
In 1739 at age 25, George Whitefield made his first trip to America to spread his message of salvation and once here he loved this country so much that he called it his home. Seventeen times he came to America traveling up and down the coast by ship and traveling by horse as far into the country as there were people living and wherever he went, throngs of people came to listen to him. By the time he died in 1770, at age 56 he had preached over 1800 sermons.
Two significant things happened in America as a direct result of Whitefield's preaching. The first was that his message united the thirteen colonies into one brotherhood. Before then, each state had its own officially recognized church. As we've already seen, Massachusetts was mostly Puritan, Rhode Island was mostly Baptist, Pennsylvania was mostly Quaker, and Virginia was mostly Anglican. Because of this, the people of Massachusetts thought the people of the other states were all heathens for worshipping the wrong way and the people of Virginia thought everyone who didn't belong to the Church of England were heretics.
But, because of what George Whitefield accomplished with his preaching, people in all thirteen states were now beginning to see God in the same way and, as a result, they began to be more united as a people. Had Whitefield's preaching not had this effect it would have been impossible for Americans to be united in declaring their independence from England. It was mostly because of Whitefield's efforts on behalf of God that America truly, for the first time, became the United States because they had finally become one nation under God.
The second thing that happened is that he instilled in the hearts and minds of Americans the ideals and principles that eventually led to the formation of the American government. Whitefield's message was that God created men and gave them at birth certain, inalienable rights. He taught that all men are created equal in the sight of God and that man owed his allegiance to God more than to the king.
He furthermore taught the need to rely on God for help, protection, and all other blessings and he also talked about man's sinful nature which helped give our Founding Fathers a biblical understanding of man's character. That, in turn, led our Founding Fathers to design a system of checks and balances and other safeguards in our Constitution that took into account man's inherent tendency to do evil
Because of the power of his sermons, ministers of other denominations began to preach Whitefield's message from their own pulpit, thereby continuing to reinforce his ideas. These men were great preachers in their own right and included such people as Jonathon Edwards, Gilbert and William Tennent, Jonathon Mayhew, and Peter Muhlenberg. For nearly thirty years, Sunday after Sunday people all over America were continually reminded of the ideas that Whitefield had preached. Many of those sermons were published in the local newspapers and we still have copies of them today.
George Washington was born in 1732, John Adams was born in 1735, Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743, and James Madison was born in 1752. These were the first four Presidents of the United States and all of them grew up during the time of Whitefield's preaching. Benjamin Franklin was so impressed with Whitefield that he freely printed his sermons in his own newspaper. Many of the words and ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence can be found in Whitefield's sermons and in those preachers who took up his message.
When King George sent the British army to put down the brewing rebellion in America, they first went after the preachers who they blamed for inciting the colonists with their fiery sermons about freedom, liberty, and equality under the law yet all these ideas came from the Bible.
It is said there is no mention of God in the Constitution which supposedly shows that those who crafted it made a purely secular document that was not founded on Christian principles yet all 55 men who attended that convention were deeply religious and several of them were ministers. Abraham Baldwin, who was a delegate from Georgia, was an ordained minister. Hugh Williamson, delegate from North Carolina, had become a Presbyterian minister but was never officially ordained. Daniel Carroll, delegate from Maryland, studied for six years at a Jesuit college, and William Livingston, delegate from New Jersey, spent a year as a Christian missionary to the Indians.
Many of our Founding Fathers had gone to some of the finest colleges of that time which were religious in nature. For example, the first college in America was Harvard which was started by Puritan ministers for the purpose of training its clergy. William and Mary College was founded in 1693 and all of its governors and professors were required to belong to the Anglican Church. Yale was founded by ministers for the purpose of training their clergy. Although the University of Pennsylvania, established by Benjamin Franklin, was not a "religious" institution per se, its first nine provosts were ordained ministers. Princeton was founded in 1746 by the New Light Presbyterians. Their name came from having seen the "new light" after listening to the sermons of George Whitefield and their college was open to "any Person of any religious Denomination whatsoever." In fact, the first nine colleges created in America (including Columbia, Brown, Rutgers, and Dartmouth) were founded or governed by Christian ministers and many of them required their students to attend church services at their college, sometimes several times a week.
In one speech that Benjamin Franklin gave at the Constitutional Convention, he reminded the delegates of how they had often prayed for divine protection and help during the Revolutionary war and then implored them to again seek God's help by starting every session with prayer. In that speech, four different times Franklin quoted verses from the Bible.
A book that greatly influenced the thinking of nearly all the Founding Father was "The Two Treatises of Government" written in 1689 by John Locke, an English physician by trade. In his book he sets forth his ideas of what the role of government should be and throughout his writings he continually makes reference to God and nature's laws. He also taught the concept that all men are equal in the sight of God, that man has a sinful nature, but that every person has a right to life, liberty, and property.
In his day these ideas were contrary to that of the Anglican Church but were similar in sentiment to those taught by George Whitefield. Although John Locke was not an ordained minister, he was a highly religious person and it was his Christian religious views on government that had a profound effect on our Founding Fathers. Given all of this, it is impossible to think that the Christian values of those who attended the Constitutional Convention played no role or had any effect upon the decisions they made on the principles of government they finally agreed upon.
In fact, in a letter John Adams wrote in 1818 he verified that faith in God did play a large part in the formaing of the Constitution. He stated: "[Our] Revolution was affected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations...This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution."
It is true that not everyone who came here to America did so for religious reasons but this country is not a Christian nation because a majority of its people were Christians. It is because of the ideas, principles, values, and ethics that were embedded in the Constitution by our Founding Fathers whose attitude about government was influenced by the teachings of Christianity that makes this country a Christian nation.