Faith of Our Fathers
DECEMBER 01, 1976 by CLARENCE B. CARSON
Dr. Carson has written and taught extensively, specializing in American intellectual history. His most recent book, The Rebirth of Liberty: The Founding of the American Republic 1760-1800 is now available in a 350-page attractive Bicentennial paperback from the Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y. 10533.
History, it has been said, is a seamless cloth. The thought is apt. You cannot clip a thread within it and attempt to extricate it without unraveling the whole. There have been efforts to tell the history of the United States with the role of religion either excised from it or altered within it. One common alteration occurs in those textbooks which claim that the Pilgrims and Puritans came to America for freedom of religion.
They did not. They came in order to be able to practice their religion. The difference is by no means merely a quibble. Freedom of religion, as it is now understood, is a secular concept. It is probably even more highly valued by those who have no religious faith than by active believers. To be able to practice one’s faith is only of value to him who has a faith to practice. It is a sacred, not a secular, value. The Puritans at the time of settlement could no more conceive of the desirability of freedom of religion than Treasury officials today can conceive of the desirability of freedom of counterfeiting.
My point is that books on American history often either secularize religious values, treat them as alien, or leave them out of account. Yet, without these religious foundations there could have been no United States as it was and is. There is no knowing American history without grasping its underpinnings in Judeo-Christian faith. America as it was and is cannot even be successfully imagined without the thread of faith woven into the cloth of history.
Biblically Based and Christian Settlement of America
American history cannot be imagined without the powerful evocative phrases of the King James Version of the Bible, or without the story of our origins in Genesis:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
Genesis 1: 1-2.
Or, without the account of man’s place in the creation:
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
Genesis 1: 26-27.
The fundamental character of all proper law is revealed in the Ten Commandments. Though two of them do command appropriate affirmative action, the remainder are prohibitive in nature. They are brief, concise, and are readily understood. A United States without the Ten Commandments in its background would have been a United States without transcendent law upon which to build:
1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
5. Honour thy father and thy mother.
6. Thou shalt not kill.
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
8. Thou shalt not steal.
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
10. Thou shalt not covet.
Excerpted and numbered from Exodus 20: 3-17.
Most of those who settled in the New World were Christian, nominally or devoutly as the case might be. Their attitude toward life had been winnowed through and conditioned by the Christian perspective. This meant many things, but one of its meanings is never to be ignored by the historian: That good ultimately triumphs over evil, that life is not necessarily tragic but that it is potentially triumphant when it is in accord with God’s will. America without the assurance of this Revelation could not have been as it has been:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1: 1-5 (RSV)
This assurance comes through in the beautiful promises of the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Matthew 5: 3-11 (RSV)
The Christian religion was for a thousand years of its history represented primarily by the Roman Catholic Church. Within that fold many doctrines were shaped and many great preachers and teachers held forth. While the Catholic Church was suspect to some of the Founders of the United States, it is nonetheless the case that the Faith of Our Fathers found many of its underpinnings in that faith. Here is a statement from the monastic ideal of the Middle Ages:
This treasure, then, namely Christ, our God and Lord, who was made for us as both redeemer and reward, He Himself both the promiser and the prize, who is both the life of man and the eternity of the angels—this, I say, store away with diligent care in the recesses of your heart. On Him cast the anxiety of any care whatsoever. In Him delight through the discourse of zealous prayer. In Him refresh yourself by the nightly feasts of holy meditation. Let Him be your food, and your clothing no less. If it should happen that you lack anything of external convenience, do not be uncertain, do not despair of His true promise in which He said "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all things shall be added unto you… ."
Peter Damiani (Eleventh Century)
Even more, however, is the United States inconceivable without the Protestant Reformation. Most of the colonies were settled by one or more offshoots of this movement. The emphasis upon reason, Scripture, and decision by the individual—hallmarks of the Reformation—was never more dramatically stated than by Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms in his refusal to recant:
Since your Majesty and your lordships ask for a simple reply, I shall give you one without horns and without teeth; unless I am convinced by the evidence of Scriptures or by plain reason … I am bound by the Scriptures I have cited and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I can do no other.
Martin Luther (Diet of Worms, ¹52¹)
The tendency in Protestant lands, however, was to have one established church. Those who did not want such an establishment, or wanted a different one, were often persecuted in their home lands. Some of these sought refuge in America. The Pilgrims were the first of such English groups to do so. The character of the faith of one of their leaders, William Bradford, comes through in this selection from his writing:
What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace? May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: "Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity," etc. "Let them therefore praise the Lord because he is good: and His mercies endure forever" Yea, let them which have been redeemed of the Lord, shew how He hath delivered them from the hand of the oppressor. When they wandered in the desert wilderness out of the way, and found no city to dwell in, both hungry and thirsty, their soul was overwhelmed in them. Let them confess before the Lord his loving kindness and His wonderful works before the sons of men.
William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation.
The Great Awakening
At the outset, many of those who settled in the New World were divided from one another by religious differences. The fact that most of them were Protestant served at first more to divide than to unite them. Over the years, doctrinal antipathies moderated. Perhaps the single most important of the moderating influences was the Great Awakening. In the middle of the eighteenth century a great revival spread through the colonies. Though it did provoke some divisions within denominations, its tendency was to shift the emphasis from points of doctrine to the experience of conversion and a spiritual attitude toward life. Denominations continued to proliferate but their differences became more a matter of modes of organization and tastes as to ritual than of dogma and doctrine. The Great Awakening provided a widely shared evangelistic base for Protestant Christianity. The tenor of this evangelism appears in this excerpt from a sermon by Jonathan Edwards:
I invite you now to a better portion. There are better things provided for the sinful miserable children of men. There is a surer comfort and more durable peace: comfort that you may enjoy in a state of safety and on a sure foundation: a peace and rest that you may enjoy with reason and with your eyes wide open; having’ all your sins forgiven … ; being taken into God’s family and made his children, and having good evidence that your names were written on the heart of Christ before the world was made….
The God of Creation
In the great documents of the American Revolution there is often an explicit reliance upon natural law and an implicit underlying dependence on the inherited religious faith. The God of nature and the God revealed in Scripture was the same God. There were, however, differences in the interpretation of Scripture, differences which did not extend to the natural law. Hence, the appeal in the Declaration of Independence was to the God of Creation:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….
Declaration of Independence, 1776
The practice of having a written constitution is American in origin. It was grounded in their British heritage and colonial experience, but it was particularly informed by their Christian and Protestant religion. The Founders were people of the Book, the Bible, the recorded word. As Protestants mainly, they attached an unusually high importance to Scripture and to its careful exposition. It was, to them, the highest authority. The United States Constitution became for them, out of this tradition, the highest authority within the country. It was written, precise, and was to be carefully interpreted and observed.
A Subtle Parallel
One part of the Constitution has been especially revered over the years. It is the first ten amendments, commonly called the Bill of Rights. Some of its antecedents are generally understood to be the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights. But its most profound antecedent is usually ignored. It is more difficult than it may at first appear to imagine that the First Ten Amendments have played the role they have without the prior position of the Ten Commandments in the Judeo-Christian religion. It is not just that each of them numbers ten, though they do. It is considerably more. They are similar in form. The Ten Commandments usually begin with "Thou shalt not" The First Ten Amendments are equally prohibitive in their language: "Congress shall make no law … , No Soldier shall … , shall not be violated … , Excessive bail shall not be required . ," and so forth. More, the Ten Commandments forbid individuals to do acts that would be harmful to anyone. The First Ten Amendments forbid government to do acts arbitrarily detrimental to our life, liberty, and property. The Ten Commandments proceed from our Maker to us. The First Ten Amendments proceed from the makers of government to it. Can it be doubted that they draw subtle force from the parallel?
The Faith of Hamilton
The Founding Fathers were not particularly renowned for their piety. But the springs of religious faith often ran deep within them, to break forth only on extraordinary occasions. So it was with Alexander Hamilton. It was his fate to meet his death in a duel with Aaron Burr. Perhaps "fate" is the wrong word; he took a course which exposed him to such a death if Burr so chose. Hamilton believed that dueling was wrong and knew that it was against the law. Yet, when challenged he felt that he must participate. The last note to his wife written on the night before the duel contained these thoughts, among others:
… The scruples of a Christian have determined me to expose my own life to any extent, rather than subject myself to the guilt of taking the life of another. This much increases my hazards, and redoubles my pangs for you. But you had rather I should die innocent than live guilty. Heaven can preserve me, and I humbly hope will, but, in the contrary event, I charge you to remember that you are a Christian. God’s will be done! The will of a merciful God must be good….
On the day of the duel both Hamilton and Burr raised their pistols to the ready position on command. Burr then aimed and fired directly at Hamilton. Hamilton fired into the air, as he had said he would do. Hamilton died from the wounds inflicted on him. It is difficult to imagine America without men devoted to principles founded upon their faith.
Nor should we imagine an America without the guidance of Washington’s Farewell Address. Nor would that address have been the same without its references to religious underpinnings:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness—these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and cherish them. A volume would not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
George Washington, Farewell Address
But, then, the United States of America could hardly be conceived without the Faith of Our Fathers.
Sacred Rights of Mankind
The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by human power. This is what is called the law of nature, which being coeval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. No human laws are of any validity if contrary to this. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times.