Was America Ever Christian? A Reply to Desiring God

Allen C. Guelzo has a valuable essay on late colonial and Early Republic history up at Desiring God. Guelzo is one of the great Lincoln scholars and among the best Christian historians of his generation. The premise of the article is that the United States was not particularly Christian. He uses as evidence John Randolph’s lament about American ungodliness and prominent Presbyterians noting that college students were not devout or pious. Guelzo also posits that republicanism itself obliterated the hierarchies historically associated with Christian societies. “To the extent that the Enlightenment banished all notions of hierarchy from the physical universe,” it also “banished all ideas of hierarchical government, and with it all the apparatus associated with such government, including religion.” A republic didn’t need monarchy and instead “based itself entirely upon human longings, human morals, and human consent—not divine ones.”

American views on republicanism, it should be noted, were not necessarily synonymous with those of the Enlightenment philosophes or their chief devotee in the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Guelzo himself notes that Massachusetts congressman Fisher Ames “was disgusted by the secular optimism of republican ideas, since they encouraged ‘the dreams of all the philosophers who think the people angels, rulers devils,’ and that ‘man is a perfectible animal, and all governments are obstacles to his apotheosis. This nonsense is inhaled with every breath.’”

The American republic, Paul Rahe wrote in his opus Republics: Ancient and Modern, did not have a judicially defined order, but that did not mean that republicanism did away with formalistic societal orders or societal hierarchy. James Wilson, one of the constitutional convention’s most active members, argued that government served as the framework to maintain society. “In the just order of things, government is the scaffolding of society: and if society could be built and kept entire without government, the scaffolding might be thrown down, without the least inconvenience or cause of regret.” Government was “highly necessary; but it is highly necessary to a fallen state. Had man continued innocent, society, without the aids of government, would have shed its benign influence even over the bowers of Paradise.” While the American republic did not formalize Christian moral traditions, republican society in the new United States maintained and sustained traditional natural hierarchies. In fact, government necessarily maintained hierarchy and natural order because fallen man could not do so without the institutional framework of the state [1]

State constitutions, as Timon Cline observed, continued to uphold certain establishmentarian statutes and to privilege Protestantism or at least Christianity. It is telling that Baptist and Methodist insistence on disestablishment did not carry over to an en masse push for societal secularization, rights for Jews or Muslims, or anything more than stripping the Anglican church of its historical patronage. If anything, Baptists and Methodists—Evangelicals—defined the tone of American society, culture, and politics in a way they never could have dreamed in the Eighteenth Century.

Society in Early Republic North America became more Christian in the aftermath of the American Revolution according to Evangelical groups such as Baptists and Methodists. A major part of the Evangelical and/or Baptist self-narrative in the United States was that Evangelical religion flourished in the aftermath of religious disestablishment.  In his Pulitzer-winning The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790, Rhys Isaac went so far as to state that there was a “deep lying connection between popular evangelicalism and patriot republicanism.” The founding of the United States meant that North America not only became statistically more Christian socially; it became Evangelical.[2]

America’s Evangelical turn no doubt surprised elite Virginians like John Randolph and Thomas Jefferson. Deism had been en vogue with parts of the Virginia planter class in the mid-Eighteenth Century. Mark Noll noted that “from the standpoint of the 1760s and 1770s, it was almost unthinkable that evangelical Protestantism would soon be expanding rapidly in a new United States.” Years later voices like Jefferson’s “could still be heard whose assessment of religion continued to speak for this earlier situation.” In 1822 Jefferson told a friend that in the ensuing decade Unitarianism would became the general religion of the United States. Achille Murat, an immigrant French nobleman, told Europeans that Unitarianism would spread throughout the Union. “By the time these predictions were made,” Noll observed, “they were little more than obtuse wishes.” [3]

Had Jefferson’s and Murat’s predications been made in 1760, Noll stated, they might have reflected a real possibility. By the time of the American founding, it was too late. America was becoming Christian. And Evangelical. “The central religious reality for the period from the Revolution to the Civil War was the unprecedented expansion of evangelical Protestant Christianity.” In fact, “no other period of American history ever witnessed such a dramatic rise in religious adherence and corresponding religious influence on the broader national culture.” Early National America wasn’t a Christian nation, but it was certainly becoming an Evangelical society.[4]

[1] Paul A. Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern Vol. III, 221; James Wilson, The Works of the Honourable James Wilson, L.L.D, 35.

[2] Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790

[3] Mark Noll, America’s God, 161-62.

[4] Noll, 165-66.

*Image Credit: Unsplash


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