An increasingly heated debate is taking place in America to redefine the role of faith in the public square. Faith has been a part of the American experience since the earliest days of the founding. As the nation now considers the relationship of the sacred and the secular, it may be helpful to reconsider our roots. This debate does not take place in a vacuum. In fact we have several hundred years of American experience since the earliest settlers came here. The role of faith in the founding of America is worth revisiting, as is the truth about the relationship between church and state.

The American founders believed that freedom must be linked to faith, or freedom would fail. They were convinced that a free nation can function well only if its citizens live by the fruits of faith, although they did not want the government to impose one church on the nation. They believed that individual men and women can live in liberty only if they are governed from within. They believed that faith fosters good character, and that without virtue and self-restraint, there would be conflict and chaos. The American founders were certain that religion is indispensable for freedom. The relationship of church and state is this: the state depends on the fruits of faith for its survival. Without virtue, freedom cannot be sustained. And faith is necessary to foster virtue.

George Washington said so plainly in his Farewell Address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports…let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. …reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”[1] That is exactly the same conclusion John Adams reached, and he drove the point home saying, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” [2]

Conclusive Christian Convictions

The signers of the Declaration were predominantly devout Christians, despite the contemporary spin on history that would tell us otherwise. Professor M.E. Bradford researched their lives thoroughly, including their correspondence, wills, and writings, and found conclusive evidence that the signers, with very few exceptions, were firmly committed in traditional practice of Christianity. [3] Bradford found that the references by the founders to “Jesus Christ as Redeemer and Son of God” are “commonplace in their private papers, correspondence, and public remarks.”[4] Their faith was evident not only in their words, but in their lives. For example:

Patrick Henry wrote in his will, “This is the inheritance I can give to my dear family. The religion of Christ will give them one which will make them rich indeed.”[5]

John Jay of New York in his will thanked “the author and giver of all good… for His merciful and unmerited blessings, and especially for our redemption and salvation by his beloved Son.”[6]

Elias Boudinot of New Jersey was “heavily involved in Christian missions and was the founder of the American Bible Society.”[7]

Roger Sherman “was a ruling elder of his church.”[8]

Richard Bassett “rode joyfully with his former slaves…singing on the way to Methodist camp meetings.” [9]

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney “set aside money to evangelize slaves” and “distributed Bibles to blacks” as president of the Charleston Bible Society.[10]
During the Revolution, Abraham Baldwin of Georgia “served as chaplain in the American army.”

Luther Martin declared “his devotion to ‘the sacred truths of the Christian religion.’” [11]

James Madison and Alexander Hamilton “regularly led their households in the observance of family prayers.” [12]

David Brearly of New Jersey and William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut “devoted themselves to reorganizing the Episcopal Church in their states.”[13]

John Witherspoon educated Presbyterian clergy with treatises such as “The Absolute Necessity of Salvation Through Christ.”[14]

Their lives are the proof of their Christian faith, which permeated the founding and their intentions for the country.

Even Jefferson, whose Deist convictions put him outside the mainstream of the founders, clearly articulated the necessity of reliance on God for the survival of our republic. His words are etched in the wall of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.: “God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we remove their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of people that these liberties are a gift from God?” Jefferson’s own convictions, even as a Deist, honored Christian teaching and specifically Jesus. Jefferson did not believe in the divinity of Christ, miracles in the Bible, or the Trinity, but he wrote, “The philosophy of Jesus is the most sublime and benevolent code of morals ever offered to man. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen.”[15]

While Jefferson was president, he regularly attended worship services on Sunday in the Capitol Building. Rev. Ethan Allen, who lived nearby, wrote in his own hand an account of the following encounter. President Jefferson was on his way to church one Sunday morning with his large red prayer book under his arm when, after wishing him a good morning, Allen asked him which way he was walking.

Jefferson replied, “To church, sir.”

He exclaimed, “You going to church Mr. Jefferson? You do not believe a word of it.”

“Sir,” said Mr. Jefferson, “No nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has ever been given to man and I, as chief Magistrate of this nation, am bound to give it the sanction of my example. Good morning Sir.” [16]

The Truth about Church and State

Two dominant characteristics of early America were its deep Christian faith and its denominational diversity. So to encourage faith without diluting it, while preserving the right of all individuals to practice their faith freely, the First Amendment prohibited Congress from imposing one denomination on the country. In fact, the right to establish churches at the state level was fully legal, and several states did so. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Virginia, New Hampshire, and South Carolina had established state churches supported with taxes, the last of which ended only in the 19th century. [17]

The phrase “separation of church and state” appears nowhere in the Constitution or the First Amendment. The metaphor of a “wall of separation” was used in a private letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Baptists in Danbury Connecticut in 1802, a phrase in a letter with no legal binding power. The current application of this phrase to attempt to eradicate all traces of faith from the public square runs completely contrary to the founders’ intentions. It was never intended to guarantee “freedom from faith.”

The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The intent of the founders was specifically to prevent Congress from imposing one denomination on the entire nation from the federal level. The First Amendment was never intended to exorcise all traces of religion from public life. Quite the contrary. The founders believed that the practice of religion was essential to provide the moral content to inform prudent decisions in the institutions of the newly formed government. They understood that in the absence of virtue, there could be no order in freedom. Gouvernor Morris put it this way: “Religion is the only solid Base of morals and Morals are the only possible Support of free governments.” [18]

The First Amendment did not prohibit the use of government money or property for religious purposes. Quite the contrary. The founders wanted to encourage religious belief and its practice. Public schools regularly taught from the Bible and offered character education based on it. Jefferson himself authorized the use of federal funds to purchase Bibles to “propagate Christianity among the Indians.”[19] Worship services were held every Sunday in the Capitol building. The sessions of Congress opened with prayer, and presidents were sworn into office in a public inauguration with their hand on a Bible, just as they are now. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 proclaimed “Religion …[to be] necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind,” and set aside land for churches. [20]

States had free reign to foster the practice of religion and its instruction. John Adams in Massachusetts affirmed that “religious education was essential to survival of a free republic.” His state’s constitution “required the state to pay for religious education if there weren’t any private groups able to do it.” [21]The article of religion drafted by George Mason for the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776 and modified by James Madison, reflects the climate of ideas at the time they worked through different drafts of the First Amendment: “Religion or the duty we owe to our Creator…. all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience….. [I]t is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity toward each other.”[22] Forbearance, love and charity. These are the attributes that the founders wanted to foster in America.

A City on a Hill

The roots of America’s convictions are in the Bible. John Winthrop delivered his famous “city on a hill” sermon on the deck of the ship Arbella halfway between England and Cape Cod in 1630, to remind the Pilgrims of the covenant they had made with God and with each other. He said, “We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together…For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” [23] Like the Israelites, they had a covenant with their creator.

The settlers who came here believed that their life and liberty were gifts from God, and they would be judged at the end of their days according to how they used these remarkable gifts. They believed that they would be held accountable for their actions, their sins of omission and commission, the care or negligence they showed their neighbors, and their honesty in dealing with each other. They knew God as not only a God of mercy, but also of the God of justice, and they feared his wrath. “I tremble,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “when I reflect that God is just.”

The Pilgrims, separatists from the Puritan movement in England, settled in the northeast colonies. A small enclave of Roman Catholics settled in the northeast as well. The settlers in the middle colonies tended to be members of the Anglican Church, while the south had a greater concentration of Baptists and Calvinists. There were Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Quakers who also populated the colonies, along with a sprinkling of Jews. Because so many settlers had come here with ferociously independent denominational convictions, albeit overwhelmingly Christian, they found it useful to adapt Old Testament language and imagery. Novak tells us, that in “national debate, lest their speech be taken as partisan,” Christian leaders usually adopted the “idiom of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” as the “religious lingua franca for the founding generation.” [24] This shared language of Judaism “came to be the central language of the American metaphysic–the unspoken background to a special American vision of nature, history and the destiny of the human race.”[25]

The colonists knew the Bible well, both Old Testament and New. The influence of Biblical teaching on early America was profound. At the time of the American Revolution, 84% of the pamphlets circulating were reprints of sermons, generously peppered with Scriptural references. Even in the secular pamphlets, 34% of the quotations were from the Bible.[26] It was the book often used to teach youngsters how to read, starting with the Gospel of John. Biblical imagery permeated the language and the culture. Sermons were the main form of spiritual, intellectual and civic formation.[27] The settlers had a clear understanding of theology in which the family was the primary unit ordained by God for mutual care. They believed they had been given property and ability as gifts of God, which were to be released through work. Producing prosperity was an expression of the fullness of a godly life. And they believed that they should be open-handed with neighbors in need.

The Fruits of Faith

Sermons of the founding era, whether Anglican, Congregationalist, Methodist, or Presbyterian, regularly noted that faith without works of compassion was dead. Benjamin Colman warned in a sermon, “God values our Hearts and Spirits above all our Silver or Gold, our Herds and Flocks. If a Man would give all the Substance of his House instead of Love, …it would be contemned.” [28] When Methodism spread in the eighteenth century, American followers urged their countrymen to follow John Wesley’s advice to ‘put yourself in the place of every poor man and deal with him as you would have God deal with you.’ ” [29] It is clear that faith was expected to produce fruits.

In fact, the fruits of liberty prompted by faith are exactly what the founders had in mind. As Gleaves Whitney has pointed out, the intention of the founders was not only to protect the practice of religion, but to foster the fruits of its practice as well: the virtues of forbearance, love, and charity. The preamble of the Constitution is to “provide the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Here we see that the founders sought not mere liberty, but the blessings of liberty.

Gleaves points us deeper. “If the Founders seem as interested in securing ‘the blessings of liberty’ as in liberty itself, then it is because they viewed liberty as instrumental. It is a means, not the end – rather like money. Most people want money, not for its own sake, but for what it allows one to have: status, security, power, material comforts, and so on. It’s not the money per se but the blessings of money that we want. By analogy, the Preamble suggests that the Founders viewed liberty not as an end in itself, but as the means to the end, which is the good life.”[30] The good life consists in the virtues of forbearance, love and charity – fruits of the spirit.

Compact and Covenant

Before the first settlers even set foot on Plymouth Rock, they bound themselves to each other and to God in a form of governance derived from covenant theology of the Old Testament. In the words of the Mayflower Compact of 1620: “Having undertaken for the glory of God,…and advancement of the Christian faith, a voyage to plant colony…in the presence of God and of one another, we do Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation.”[31] As Donald Lutz proves in the Origins of American Constitutionalism, this was a defining moment for America, because of the character of a covenant, and its civic counterpart, a compact.[32] The Mayflower Compact and other compacts which the original colonies implemented were derived directly from the covenant of the Old Testament, binding Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to the great “I am” and obligating themselves to live in accordance with his law. Our Constitution has the same roots.

The names for God referenced in the Declaration of Independence were Old Testament names: Lawgiver, Creator, Judge, and Providence. Michael Novak points out that, “If these Hebraic texts of the Declaration were strung together as a single prayer, the prayer would run as follows: “Creator, who has endowed in us our inalienable rights, Maker of nature and nature’s laws, undeceivable Judge of the rectitude of our intentions, we place our firm reliance upon the protection of divine Providence, which you have extended over our nation from its beginnings.’”[33] This is no secular document: our Declaration of Independence has embedded in it this subtext, a prayer.

The Founders’ Syllogism

Was America founded as a “Christian nation” or a “secular nation”? Neither. There were strong Christian influences, as well as individualistic strands, and a deist strand as well. But they wound together to form a republic that depends on virtues formed and sustained by religion. The American founders planted their political order in the soil of a nation nourished by Christian faith. But the political order can neither mandate nor inculcate the virtues necessary for its survival. The founders’ syllogism was this: a republic requires virtue for freedom to be sustainable. Virtue requires faith to be sustainable. Therefore, the republic requires faith to be sustainable. But the government cannot require faith or virtue – in fact it is incapable of inculcating either. That must come from the private, voluntary sector.

More essays in this series, can be found here and here.

Adapted from Barbara Elliott’s Street Saints: Renewing America’s Cities (Templeton Foundation Press, 2004). 

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


1. George Washington, “Farewell Address” in W.B. Allen, ed., George Washington: Collection (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1988) p. 521.
2. John Adams, Address to the Military, Oct. 11, 1798, quoted in The Founders’ Almanac, p. 191.
3. M.E. Bradford, “Religion and the Framers: The Biographical Evidence,” in Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution, (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1993), pp. 87-102.
4. Bradford, Original Intentions, p.89
5. Campbell, Patrick Henry, p. 418. Quoted in Bradford, p. 89.
6. William Jay, The Life of John Jay with Selections from His Correspondence, 3 vols. (New York, NY: Harper, 1833) 1: 519-20. Quoted in Bradford, pp. 89-90.
7. George Adams Boyd, Elias Boudinot: Patriot and Statesman, 1740-1821, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952). Referenced in Bradford, p. 91.
8. Christopher Collier, Roger Sherman’s Connecticut: Yankee Politics and the American Revolution (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1971), p. 325-329. Referenced in Bradford, p. 91.
9. Bradford, p. 91.
10. Marvin R. Zahniser, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney: Founding Father (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1967), pp. 272-274. Quoted in Bradford, p. 91.
11. Bradford, p. 91.
12. Bradford, p. 91.
13. Bradford, p. 91
14. Bradford, p. 91.
15. Quoted in Novak, On Two Wings, p. 29.
16. From Rev. Ethan Allen’s handwritten history “Washington Parish, Washington City” in the Library of Congress MMC Collection, 1167 MSS, in James H. Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1998) p. 96. Quoted in Novak, p. 31.
17. Bradford, Original Intentions, p. 93-94.
18. Gouvernor Morris, letter to George Gordon, June 28, 1792, quoted in The Founders’ Almanac,p. 190.
19. Robert L. Cord, Separation of Church and State: Historical Fact and Current Fiction (New York, NY: Lambeth Press, 1982) pp. 41-45.
20. American Legacy: The United States Constitution and other Essential Documents of American Democracy, (Calabasas, CA: Center for Civic Education, 1997) pp. 38-39.
21. Charles Colson, “Walls of Our Own Making: The Founders and Religion” BreakPoint with Commentary 020104, Jan. 4, 2002.
22. Quoted by Russell Kirk in Roots of American Order, p. 436.
23. John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity” 1630, in Perry Miller (ed.) The American Puritans: their Prose and Poetry (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1956) p.78.
24. Michael Novak, On Two Wings, p. 7.
25. ibid.
26. Donald Lutz, Center for the American Idea Seminar lecture, Del Lago, TX, June 2000. See his book, The Origins of American Constitutionalism, (Louisiana State University Press: 1988).
27. See Ellis Sandoz,, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era: 1730-1805 (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press, 1991).
28. An echo of 1Cor. 13. Benjamin Colman, The Merchandise of the People: Holiness to the Lord (Boston, MA: J. Draper, 1736), from sermons preached in 1725 and 1726., Quoted in The Tragedy of American Compassion,Marvin Olasky, p. 8.
29. Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion, pp. 7-8.
30. Gleaves Whitney, Center for the American Idea Seminar lecture, Del Lago, TX, June 2000.
31. American Legacy: The United States Constitution and other Essential Documents of American Democracy, (Calabasas, CA: Center for Civic Education, 1997), p.5.
32. Donald S. Lutz, The Origins of American Constitutionalism, (Louisiana State University Press: 1988).
33. Novak, On Two Wings, pp. 17-18.

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