The Bible and America’s Founding Fathers

Many of us have heard the argument that America needs to get back to its biblical (or Christian) roots which our founding fathers established.  But it isn’t quite that simple.  We have to ask this twofold question: what did our founding fathers think about the Bible and about Christianity? Noll, Hatch, and Marsden answer it in The Search for Christian America.  Here are a few excerpts.

“It is difficult for modern Americans to recapture the religious spirit of the country’s great early leaders – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and their colleagues.  The difficulty arises because these brilliant leaders, surely the most capable generation of statesmen ever to appear in America, were at once genuinely religious but not specifically Christian.  Virtually all of these great men had a profound belief in ‘the Supreme Judge of the world’ and in ‘the protection of Divine Providence,’ to use the words of the Declaration of Independence.”

“Yet only a few believed in the orthodox teachings of traditional Christianity – that, for example, Christ’s death atoned for sin, that the Bible was a unique revelation from God, or that the miracles recorded in Scripture actually happened.  There were, to be sure, a few founding fathers who affirmed the cardinal tenents of orthodox Christianity [i.e. Witherspoon, Henry, and Jay]. …Most of the other great early leaders, however, did not share the Christian convictions of a Henry or Jay.  The God of the founding fathers was a benevolent deity, not far removed from the God of eighteenth-century Deists or nineteenth century Unitarians.”

“The conclusion must be that nearly every important person in America’s early political history had extensive experience with Scripture, even if many of them did not hold to traditional beliefs about the Bible, or to the beliefs which Christianity traditionally had derived from Scripture” (pp. 74-76).

“[America’s founding fathers] knew a lot about ‘Christian’ nations.  Most of the European wars of the preceding centuries had some ‘Christian’ motivations.  The American founders also knew a lot about Protestant Bible commonwealths; these were a major part of their recent British heritage.  So, while the founders appropriated secularized versions of some Puritan ideas about the dangers of monarchy, they purposely chose not to set up a Bible-based republic” (p. 137).

It isn’t so easy to simply “go back” to America’s biblical and Christian roots.  The roots aren’t biblical in the historic Christian sense of the term, nor are they Christian in the biblical sense of the term.  Further, trying to make America a Christian nation would go against the intentions of our founding fathers.  You’ll have to get the book if you want to wrestle with this topic: The Search for Christian America (Helmers & Howard: Colorado Springs, 1989).

Also, if you’re interested, HERE and HERE are two earlier posts on this book.

shane lems

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6 comments on “The Bible and America’s Founding Fathers

  1. Most of the founding fathers were not Biblical Christians, rather they were
    theistic rationalists. Very sad to see so much in homeschooling resources that
    teach otherwise, as well as in the work of David Barton and Wall Builders. The best
    work on this subject, by far, is Dr. Gregg Frazer’s (Master’s College) new volume titled: “The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation and Revolution”.
    (University of Kansas Press for about $30.00 from Amazon)

    For more information on this topic, please read the transcript of Dr. Al Mohler’s
    interview with Dr. Frazer at ALBERTMOHLER.com under ‘Thinking In Public’.
    Pastor Paul K. Christianson
    Grace Reformed Church,
    Clarkston, WA

    • Mr. Frazer’s book utilizes a flawed definition of Christianity that, when taken to its logical conclusion, eliminates not just the founders but everyone throughout all of history from being a Christian. I’ve recently posted an article explaining exactly what is wrong with Mr. Frazer’s definition and also providing a correct definition of Christianity that agrees with the Bible as well as many of the creeds and confessions of the various churches. You can read my article on my website at: http://www.increasinglearning.com/what-does-it-mean-to-be-a-christian.html

  2. Monty Ledford says:

    The point is well-taken. The founding fathers were not all orthodox Christians, etc. But in our current “culture wars” most of them would certainly be co-belligerents, to use Francis Schaeffer’s useful term. The chattering classes hate in evangelicals and traditional Roman Catholics things that most of our founders would have taken as almost self-evident–the inveterate selfishness of the human heart which must be checked by law; the rule of law as a reflection of the moral law established by a Creator; the reality of a judgment on nations and individuals; the need for moral character in the populace to keep democracy from degenerating into licentious mob rule. It is not our insistence on the necessity of rebirth or the return of Christ that puts us on the side of the founders, but these things that moderns find well-nigh inconceivable.

  3. The fact that many of the founding fathers of America held to various selected biblical principles in government does not make them Biblical Christians, any more than the fact that just because a businessman chooses to run his business according fair and honest practices as outlined in Proverbs he is then a Christian.

  4. Patrick says:

    I’m sometimes puzzled by the politics of the “Christian right”. Some talk as if theology and religion is of utmost importance when voting, but how many of them were perfectly happy to vote for people like Mitt Romney or Rudloph Guiliani? If I recall correctly, Pat Robertson endorsed pro-choice Guiliani over the likes of Mike Huckabee, a former pastor. I know Barack Obama’s theology is probably far from orthodox, but I would certainly imagine it was closer to ours than Mitt Romney’s. At least Obama presumably believes in one God.

    I would have said that basically what people are concerned about is the culture wars… but the popularity of Guiliani flies in the face of that. And how many Christians would be happy if a pro-life, traditional-marriage, culturally conservative, Republican *Muslim* ran for office? It seems like we’re very selective about what we decide we like or dislike, but neither religion nor cultural views seem to really be what its all about.

    In the end, it seems like a lot of it is almost tribalistic. People feel like there are certain traits in their particular “tribe” that they want to support, and if a candidate has enough of those, then they’re acceptable (assuming they don’t have any “unforgivable” ones). And this goes for all sides in the political wars – no one’s immune. Unfortunately, I think sometimes we feel more strongly about our political tribes than we do about our Christian faith itself. :-( I’ve certainly seen people get more visibly upset in Bible studies when politics comes up, than when doctrinal issues do. I think people often spend more time rooting for the Republicans (or Democrats) than they do for Jesus. :-/ No wonder the anabaptists wanted to give up on politics altogether!

    I still think people should vote, but I do think Christians should stop *believing in it*, if that makes sense. The only kingdom that will last forever is Christ’s. Anything us humans do is bound to be wrong and sinful. People should do their best to vote for what they think is right, but should stop thinking that they are making the obvious Godly choice. Anyway, the solution to the cultural wars will never be political. If people’s hearts aren’t in it, anything you do politically to try and persuade them differently will just be a fruitless uphill battle. We keep reaching for politics, when the real solution is the gospel.

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