Faith of our Fathers: God and the American
Many people are unaware of America's Judeo-Christian
heritage. The following are short profiles of some of America's
founding fathers, sharing their thoughts on how God's hand could
be seen in the establishment of this nation.
In June of 1776, John Adams was in Philadelphia, deep in the
flurry of political activity. The Continental Congress appointed
him, along with Thomas Jefferson and three others, to draft a
"Declaration of Independence" from England. Although Adams was
later to become the second president of the United States, he
is best remembered for being one of the great minds and statesmen
of the American Revolution. His prolific diaries, letters, and
books provide an invaluable insight into the politics of the time
and to what liberty meant to the founding fathers.
Freedom, Adams believed, did not rest solely on man. Instead,
he wrote, "It is religion and morality alone, which can establish
the principles upon which freedom can securely stand ... the only
foundation for a free constitution is pure virtues, and if this
cannot be inspired into our people, in a greater measure, than
they have it now, they may change their rulers, and the forms
of government, but they will not obtain a lasting liberty" (letter
to cousin Zabdiel Adams, June 21, 1776).
John Adams would face another difficult situation as the second
president of the United States in 1798. He had a hard act to follow
-- the popular George Washington. Although he tried to avoid the
trap of partisan politics, Adams soon found himself caught in
its web. And if trouble at home wasn't bad enough, diplomatic
relations with France were rapidly sinking. Adams prepared the
American army and navy for defensive measures against France.
It was during this time that Adams spoke to the first brigade
of the militia of Massachusetts, and re-affirmed the foundations
for the American government:
"We have no government armed with power capable of contending
with human passions unbridled by morality and religion,"
Adams said. "Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would
break the strongest cords of our constitution as a whale goes
through a net. Our constitution was made only for a moral and
religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of
Thomas Jefferson was just 33 years old when he was given the
task of writing the Declaration of Independence. His knowledge
of political philosophy, his eloquence as a writer, and his belief
in natural rights made him a leader among the patriots.
But he was not without his political problems. Jefferson's opponents
often portrayed him as an infidel and an atheist. But in reality
he was a staunch supporter of the freedom of religion and considered
it a very personal matter -- one he often pondered in his writings.
The man who gave us the immortal words "when in the course of
human events" also gave us these reflections on God and his role
in freedom. Etched in the marble of the Jefferson Memorial in
his honor are these words:
"...God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of
a nation be thought secure when we have removed a conviction that
these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country
when I reflect God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever"
(from notes on the state of Virginia).
In the early 1780's, Jefferson was drafting a plan for future
territories of the United States. Much of this plan became incorporated
into the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which established guidelines
for territories applying for statehood. Under this law, any new
states added to the nation would be recognized as equals with
the original 13 states and not as colonies. The ordinance's provisions
for the states included self-government, religious tolerance and
the prohibition of slavery.
Jefferson's belief in the unquestionable relationship between
good government and religious freedom is reflected in article
three of the Northwest Ordinance, where he writes:
"Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government
and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education
shall forever be encouraged."
Noah Webster's dictionaries, spellers, and grammars shaped the
education of America in the 18th century and his legacy still
lives on today. As author of the first American dictionary and
a son of the American Revolution, Webster sought to give the new
country a different kind of freedom -- a culture of its own. Webster
considered his most important project his revision of the King
James Bible. He wanted to make it accessible to every American.
He believed God played an important part in the education of the
people and in the preservation of the American experiment.
Here is his advice on how to choose the nation's leaders:
"When you become entitled to exercise the right of voting for
public officers, let it be impressed on your mind that God commands
you to choose for rulers, just men who will rule in the fear of
God. The preservation of a republican government depends on the
faithful discharge of this duty; if the citizens neglect their
duty, and place unprincipled men in office, the government will
soon be corrupted" ("Advice to the Young" from Value of the Bible
and Excellence of the Christian Religion, 1834).
Benjamin Franklin's role in drafting the Declaration of Independence
was far from his first invention. The founding father contributed
to America both in politics and in science. From almanacs and
kite flying, to serving as ambassador and statesman, Benjamin
Franklin was truly one of the most versatile of America's founding
fathers. Franklin's scientific mind also led to many intellectual
and philosophical discussions.
Although he was not a regular church-goer in his adult life,
he expressed the importance of implementing God's moral values
in all aspects of life. His writings demonstrate an acknowledgement
of God that transcended the scientific mysteries Franklin longed
to answer. In 1731 he articulated a creed to live by, both personally
and in public life:
"That there is one God, Father of the universe. That He is infinitely
good, powerful and wise. That He is omnipresent. That He ought
to be worshipped, by adoration prayer and thanksgiving both in
public and private."
In the summer of 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention
in Philadelphia had been in bitter debate for ten long weeks.
Tempers flared over heated issues between the northern and southern
states. As tensions rose, some delegates threatened to pull out
of the convention altogether, leaving the fledgling nation without
a strong constitution.
When it looked like no one would ever be able to agree, the elder
statesman of group took charge. 81 year-old Benjamin Franklin
stood to his feet. And although he was not known to be devoutly
religious, he gave this contentious gathering a stirring call
"I have lived, sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more
convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the
affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without
His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His
aid? ... I also believe that without His concurring aid we shall
succeed in this political building no better, than the builders
of Babel … Therefore, I beg leave to move that henceforth
prayers imploring the assistance of heaven, and its blessings
on our deliberations be held in this assembly every morning..."
Benjamin Rush's impact on America did not stop with his signature
on the Declaration of Independence. Although he was a member of
the Continental Congress, Rush was also one of the most influential
physicians in early America. He served as the continental army's
Surgeon General during the American Revolution.
Under President John Adams, Rush was Treasurer of the United
States Mint. More notably, the statesman encouraged support for
building more African churches in Philadelphia. Rush was convinced
this would reduce high black prison populations, since many of
the convicted served time for stealing food and clothing.
Benjamin Rush's advocacy reflected earlier writings of his beliefs
in a strong religious and moral foundation for all people. In
1806 he wrote:
"The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is
to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and
without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object
and life of all republican governments."
Little did William Penn know that his vision of establishing
a society that was godly, virtuous and exemplary for all would
one day birth the freedoms of a nation. After establishing Pennsylvania
with land granted by King Charles the second, Penn set out to
plan a city called Philadelphia. Years later William Penn's historic
city would become the first capital of the United States and out
of it the nation's foundational structure would be laid.
Although Penn is best remembered for his vision of a democratic
government and peaceful co-existence with the native Indians,
in 1682, William Penn's beliefs of government fundamentals echo
those of biblical principles:
"It is impossible, Penn wrote, that any people of government
should ever prosper, where men render not unto God, that which
is God's, as well as to Caesar, that which is Caesar's."
One of the lesser-known patriots and founding fathers of our
nation was Scottish born James Wilson. The young lawyer's writings
on the British Parliament's authority impressed members of the
continental congress so much they elected him to the body in 1775.
The following year, Wilson signed the Declaration of Independence
and later the United States Constitution.
Serving as a United States Supreme Court Justice until his death,
James Wilson realized there was a much higher law than man's to
consider. When questioning what the ultimate cause of moral obligation
is, Wilson determined, "I give it this answer, the will of God.
This is the supreme law. His just and full right of imposing laws,
and our duty in obeying them, are the sources of our moral obligations."
In May of 1776, fighting was well under way in the American Revolution.
For General George Washington it was a stressful time. Under his
command in New York he had about 7 thousand men. The rag tag army
was poorly trained. They were about to face some thirty thousand
soldiers from the most highly trained and successful military
force in the world. The Americans were outnumbered and outgunned.
As they waited in New York for the onslaught of British military
power, Washington issued orders for his troops to pray for the
On May 17, 1776, he wrote that that day was, "...to be observed
as a day of fasting humiliation and prayer, humbly to supplicate
the mercy of almighty God, that it would please Him to pardon
all our manifold sins and transgressions, and to prosper the arms
of the united colonies, and finally establish the peace and freedom
of America upon a solid and lasting foundation."
After the Revolution, Washington was elected America's first
president. Years later, as he prepared to leave office and return
to his beloved Mount Vernon, foremost in his mind was the need
for the young nation to stay neutral on foreign issues until it
grew stronger. George Washington chose to send this message to
the nation in a farewell address -- not in a speech, but in the
September, 1796 Philadelphia newspapers. In it, the president
advised Americans to value the newly formed republic and its constitution.
But Washington cautioned that the country's success depended not
only on national strength but also on two essential factors:
"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,
religion and morality are indispensable supports."
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