Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land: Christianity and the Creation of the American Republic


Mark David Hall


This essay was originally published on June 16, 2020 in Cato Unbound: A Journal of Debate


The Liberty Bell is one of the most prominent symbols of American freedom. It is inscribed with the words “proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all inhabitants thereof,” which are taken from Leviticus 25:10. In Did America Have a Christian Founding?, I contend that the connection between the Bible and liberty is no accident. America’s founders drew from their Christian convictions, and ideas developed within the Christian tradition of political reflection, when they created a constitutional order committed to protecting and expanding freedom.1These were not the only ends of government, and the founders understood liberty to be constrained by natural law. See, Mark David Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?: Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2019), 21-56.

The book’s argument is, to put it mildly, controversial. Andrew Seidel of the Freedom From Religion Foundation asserts that the Bible and liberty are fundamentally incompatible.2 Andrew Seidel, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American (New York: Sterling, 2019). Similarly, Matthew Stewart proclaims that the skeptical philosopher Benedict de Spinoza is the “principal architect of the radical political philosophy that achieves its ultimate expression in the American republic…”3 Matthew Stewart, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014), 147-48. Both authors agree that America’s founders were deists who created a godless Constitution and desired the strict separation of church and state.

Far too many scholars make similar claims. For instance, the historian Frank Lambert writes that the “significance of the Enlightenment and Deism for the birth of the American republic, and especially the relationship between church and state within it, can hardly be overstated.”4 Frank Lambert,The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 161. University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone likewise writes that “deistic beliefs played a central role in the framing of the American republic” and that the “Founding generation viewed religion, and particularly religion’s relation to government, through an Enlightenment lens that was deeply skeptical of orthodox Christianity.”5Geoffrey R. Stone, “The World of the Framers: A Christian Nation?”University of California Law Review, 56 (October 2008), 7–8. Even prominent Christian college professors such as Richard Hughes contend that “most of the American founders embraced some form of Deism, not historically orthodox Christianity.”6Richard T. Hughes, Myths America Lives By (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 50. I give many more examples of authors making this sort of claim in Did America Have a Christian Founding?, 2, 166-67.

In this essay, I argue that there is no good reason to accept the common claim that “many” or “most” of America’s founders were deists. Positively, I discuss different ways in which America’s constitutional order benefited from the founders’ Christian convictions.7Of course, the founders drew from a variety of intellectual traditions, some of which are more or less compatible with orthodox Christianity. These include Lockean liberalism, classical republicanism, the Scottish Enlightenment, and the common law. I defend these positions at greater length in Did America Have a Christian Founding? and look forward to discussing them in more detail here.

Were the Founders Deists?

No serious scholar disputes the fact that virtually every American of European descent in the founding era, with the exception of about 2,000 Jews, identified himself or herself as a Christian. Approximately 98 percent of Americans were Protestants, and the remaining two percent were Roman Catholics. But these facts are not particularly useful. These citizens may have been Christians significantly influenced by non-Christian ideas, or they may have been Christians self-consciously attempting to create a secular political order.

More interesting is the debate about whether the founders were orthodox Christians or deists. By “orthodox,” I mean that they adhered to fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith as articulated in the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds. “Deism” refers to an intellectual movement that emphasizes the role of reason in discerning religious truth. Deists reject traditional Christian doctrine such as the incarnation, virgin birth, atonement, resurrection, trinity, divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, and miracles. The last point is critical; unlike most Christians, deists do not think that God intervenes in the affairs of men and nations.8I do not replace “men” here or elsewhere in this essay with gender-neutral equivalents because it would be anachronistic to do so. In Alan Wolfe’s words, they believe that “God set the world in motion and then abstained from human affairs.”9Alan Wolfe, review of David L. Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, Peter R. Henriques, Realistic Visionary, and Jon Meacham, American Gospel in The New York Times Review of Books (May 7, 2006), available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/07/books/review/07wolfe.html (accessed February 16, 2018). There is no single definition of “deism,” but the one offered above is widely used. Compare with Christopher Grasso, Skepticism and American Faith: From the Revolution to the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 26 (“‘Deism’ is usually associated with belief in a noninterventionist Creator, reliance upon what reason can discern in the natural world, and skepticism about miracles, mysticism, the divine inspiration of the scriptures, and the divinity of Christ”). See also Seidel, The Founding Myth, 70, and Susan Jacoby’s foreword to The Founding Myth, viii.

These citizens may have been Christians significantly influenced by non-Christian ideas, or they may have been Christians self-consciously attempting to create a secular political order. More interesting is the debate about whether the founders were orthodox Christians or deists.

Popular authors and scholars who assert that America’s founders were deists inevitably support their claim by describing the religious views of some combination of the following men: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton, and Ethan Allen. On occasion, they reach beyond this select fraternity to include another founder, and they usually concede that not all founders were as “enlightened” as the ones they profile.

There is no doubt that Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Allen, and Paine rejected more than a few basic tenets of orthodox Christianity. Yet, to my knowledge, no writer has ever produced a public or private journal entry, letter, or essay showing that Washington, Madison, or Hamilton denied any basic Christian teaching. The case that they were deists is usually based on some combination of observations that they seldom used familiar biblical appellations for God or Jesus Christ, did not regularly attend church, chose not to become communicants, and/or did not always act in a moral manner.

Having an extra-marital affair as Hamilton did, or even rejecting the incarnation as Jefferson and Adams did, does not make one a deist if deism includes the idea that God is a “Creator or First Cause who subsequently stood aside from his creation to allow it to run according to its own rules.”10Lambert, Founding Fathers, 176. With the exception of Ethan Allen, all of the founders mentioned above often spoke or wrote about God’s intervention in the affairs of men and nations. If they believed such claims, then by definition they were not deists as the term is commonly defined.

To give just two examples, in the Constitutional Convention Franklin noted that “[i]n the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection. — Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered…the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs the affairs of men.”11Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall, eds. The Sacred Rights of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 2009), 348-49 (emphasis in original). Franklin was the oldest delegate at the convention, and his proposal to open each day in prayer was seconded by Roger Sherman, an indisputably pious man who was the second oldest member. The delegates did not act on the suggestion, but Madison nevertheless suggested that God was involved in the proceedings. In Federalist #37, he wrote: “It is impossible, for the man of pious reflection, not to perceive in it [the Constitutional Convention] a finger of that Almighty Hand, which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.”12Ibid., 351. Despite this reference to the Deity, and three mentions of “Providence” in Federalist #2, Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore still assert that The Federalist Papers “fail to mention God anywhere.” Kramnick and Moore, The Godless Constitution (New York: Norton, 1996),31.

Of course, one could argue that Franklin and Madison were referring to God’s intervention merely for rhetorical purposes. There is little doubt that similar statements by Paine and Jefferson are best understood in this way. Yet it is abundantly clear that Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and, at the end of his life, Franklin, believed that God regularly intervenes in the affairs of men and nations.13Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, 3-19. Thus, using the common definition of deism, it is difficult for a careful scholar to identify more than a handful of civic leaders who may accurately be categorized as deists.

Recognizing this reality, some authors have proposed a definition of deism that permits God to intervene in the affairs of men and nations, sometimes referred to as “soft deism,” “warm deism,” or “providential deism.” If we accept this revised definition and ignore the lack of evidence that Washington, Madison, and Hamilton rejected orthodox Christianity, we might make a case that the eight founders referenced above were some sort of deists. Yet if these men were not representative of other founders, this finding suggests little with respect to the founding generation.

“Signing of the Constitution” by Thomas P. Rossiter / Wikimedia CC0

Consider the background and experiences of the founders regularly called deists. Washington, Jefferson, and Madison were elite southern Anglican plantation owners. Hamilton was born and raised in the British West Indies, and Paine was born and raised in England, and he lived only twenty of his seventy-two years in America. Paine came from a Quaker background, and as adults Hamilton and Franklin were nominal Anglicans. In an era where few people traveled internationally, Jefferson and Adams spent significant time in Europe, and Franklin lived most of the last thirty-five years of his life in Britain and France. The only life-long member of a Reformed (Calvinist) church among these founders is John Adams (but he is not a good representative of this tradition).

By way of contrast, in his magisterial history of religion in America, Sydney Ahlstrom observed that the Reformed tradition was “the religious heritage of three-fourths of the American people in 1776.”14Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (Garden City: Doubleday, 1975), 1: 426. Similarly, Yale historian Harry Stout states that prior to the War for Independence “the vast majority of colonists were Reformed or Calvinist.”15Harry S. Stout, “Preaching the Insurrection,” Christian History 15 (1996), 17. I discuss the influence of Reformed political thought on America’s founders in Mark David Hall, Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). With the exception of Adams, these Americans are unrepresented by the handful of founders regularly discussed by those who contend the founders were deists. In social science lingo, these eight founders are an unrepresentative sample.

In the final analysis, there is no reason to conclude that “most” or even “many” of America’s founders were deists. This is not to say that they were all orthodox Christians. There is abundant evidence that Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Roger Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth, John Witherspoon, and many others embraced and articulated orthodox Christian views. But the lack of records makes it difficult to speak with confidence with respect to some founders. Accordingly, I do not argue that most of America’s founders were orthodox Christians. Instead, in my book and below, I focus on the influence of Christian ideas on America’s founders.16None of the Christian ideas discussed in this essay are “uniquely” or “distinctly” Christian. But in late-eighteenth century America, the founders’ religious views are the most reasonable explanation for why they embraced these positions.

Christianity and America’s Constitutional Order

Scholars and popular writers regularly assert, in the words of Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, that the “U.S. Constitution, drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1788, is a godless document.”17Kramnick and Moore, The Godless Constitution, 27. If by this they mean simply that God is not referenced in the text of the Constitution, they may have a point. But it is a trivial one.

Article VII proclaims that the Constitution was framed “by the unanimous consent of the States present the seventeenth day of September in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven” (emphasis added), but some scholars argue that the dateline is not technically a part of the Constitution. The Constitution assumes some Christian practices, for example that the government will not operate on Sunday. Article I stipulates that “any bill not returned by the president within ten Days (Sundays excepted)…shall be law.” These two provisions offer some evidence that the Constitution is not godless, but there are far better reasons for rejecting the assertion that America has a godless constitution.

Before considering the Constitution per se, we should explore a more abstract, but essential, conviction that the founders had regarding self-government. With few if any exceptions, every founding era statesman was committed to the proposition that republican government required a moral citizenry, and that religion was necessary for morality. James Hutson of the Library of Congress suggests that this argument was so widespread that it should be called the “Founding generation’s syllogism”18James Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1998), 81. By “religion,” virtually all of them meant Christianity. See Did America Have a Christian Founding?, 31-32.

For instance, when George Washington left the presidency he published an essay commonly known as his “Farewell Address.” In it, he observed that:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indisputable 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 duty of men and citizens…19Dreisbach and Hall, Sacred Rights, 468 (emphasis in original).

Examples of founders insisting that religion is necessary for morality, and that both are necessary for republican government, could be multiplied almost indefinitely. Their view was that if republican government is to work, people need to respect each other. This includes engaging in political debate with civility, treating one’s opponents with dignity, telling the truth, and the like. Equally important, religion was viewed as a source of internal control, restraining and disciplining each citizen and, thus, limiting the need of external control by civil government. A religious and therefore a moral citizenry is necessary before statesmen can even begin to think about constitutional systems.

Human Nature

In the eighteenth century, literally millions of Americans were taught to read with the Calvinist New-England Primer. In spite of its name, the textbook was used throughout America. Children learned the alphabet with a rhyme that began: “In Adam’s Fall, We sinned all.”20The New England Primer, ed. Paul Leicester Ford (1717; Reprint: New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co. 1897), 65. Every orthodox Christian believes that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). However, Calvinists place special emphasis on what they refer to as the doctrine of total depravity. This is particularly significant when one recalls that 50-75% of the Americans in this era were affiliated with this tradition. The vast majority of Christians also believe that even redeemed men and women continue to struggle with sin. This meant that even if elected officials are Christians, we must still be wary of political corruption and tyranny. America’s founders were convinced, as Lord Acton would later put it, that “[p]ower tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”21Lord Acton to Mandell Creighton, April 5, 1887, published inHistorical Essays and Studies, ed. J. N. Figgis and R. V. Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907), 504.

The vast majority of Christians also believe that even redeemed men and women continue to struggle with sin. This meant that even if elected officials are Christians, we must still be wary of political corruption and tyranny.

In Federalist #51, Madison observed that, “[i]f men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external or internal controls on government would be necessary.”22Available at: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed51.asp (accessed May 10, 2020). Of course the founders read and referenced Montesquieu. They did so because he offered practical solutions to a basic Christian problem — human sinfulness. Because he and his fellow delegates to the Constitutional Convention recognized that America would be governed by men who are not angels, they created a constitutional order characterized by federalism, the separation of powers, and checks and balances. All of these institutional arrangements were designed to prevent civic leaders from becoming corrupt and/or tyrannical.

By way of contrast, in the late eighteenth century, some European Enlightenment thinkers such as Nicolas de Condorcet were “well on their way to envisioning a benign human nature and even a perfectible one free of original sin.”23Barry Alan Shain, “Afterword: Revolutionary-Era Americans: Were They Enlightened or Protestant? Does it Matter?” in Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark D. Hall, and Jeffry H. Morrison, eds., The Founders on God and Government (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 275. There were, of course, different Enlightenments, some of which were more compatible with orthodox Christianity than others. Practically, this led them to reject the separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism. According to Barry Alan Shain, one of the best students of religion in the American founding, “by the 1770s, most leading Enlightenment thinkers embraced unicameralism” and many “leading lights of the Enlightenment” ridiculed American federalism.24Ibid. In the words of the prominent historian Louis Hartz, America’s founders “refused to join in the great Enlightenment enterprise of shattering the Christian concept of sin, replacing it with an unlimited humanism, and then emerging with an earthly paradise as glittering as the heavenly one that had been destroyed.”25Louis Hartz, “American Political Thought and the American Revolution,” American Political Science Review, 46 (June 1952), 324. This helps explain why the constitutional order created in 1787 has been relatively successful whereas that created by the leaders of the French Revolution ended in disaster.

Natural Law and Natural Rights

America’s founders regularly appealed to natural law and natural rights, but they seldom addressed these subjects in a systematic manner. The most prominent exception to this rule is found in Supreme Court Justice James Wilson’s 1790-92 law lectures at the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). Sounding much like St. Thomas Aquinas, Wilson observed that there are two types of law: divine and human. He went on to explain that there are four “species” of divine law: eternal law, celestial law, natural physical laws, and natural moral laws. Like Aquinas, he thought that human law “must rest its authority, ultimately, upon the authority of that law which is divine.”26Kermit L. Hall and Mark David Hall, ed., Collected Works of James Wilson (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 2007), 498. Practically, this led him (and all but one Supreme Court Justice prior to John Marshall) to publicly assert that the Supreme Court could strike down an act of Congress if it violated natural law.27Scott Douglas Gerber, ed.,Seriatim: The Early Supreme Court(New York: New York University Press, 1998).

Wilson followed Aquinas in many respects, but unlike him he offered a rich account of the natural rights possessed by individuals.28Hall and Hall, Collected Works, 498. He argued that because natural rights are based on natural law, they exist prior to government. Protecting these rights is any government’s most important responsibility. He asked rhetorically:

What was the primary and principal object in the institution of government? Was it — I speak of the primary and principal object — was it to acquire new rights by a human establishment? Or was it, by a human establishment, to acquire a new security for the possession or the recovery of those rights, to the enjoyment or acquisition of which we were previously entitled by the immediate gift, or by the unerring law, of our all-wise and all-beneficent Creator? The latter, I presume, was the case.29Ibid., 1053-1054

A commitment to individual rights and the belief that rulers are sinful and fallible naturally leads to the question of how rights can be protected against political authorities. We have already seen several answers to this problem, including fostering a virtuous citizenry, federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances. Another important protection is a statutory or constitutional delineation of rights that may not be infringed by the government. One of the chief reasons the founders added the Bill of Rights to the Constitution was to ensure that the natural rights of Americans would not be infringed upon by the national government.

Imago Dei and the Right to Life

I cannot discuss every natural right valued by the founders here, but a brief consideration of the founders’ understanding of the rights to life and religious liberty is illustrative. America’s founders were committed to the core Christian idea that all humans are created in the imago Dei — the image of God. Part of what this means is that men and women are reasonable, creative beings. This led the founders to conclude that we the people (as opposed to merely elites) can order our public lives together through politics rather than force.

In his Supreme Court opinion in Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), Justice James Wilson, paraphrasing Psalm 139, observed that “man, fearfully and wonderfully made, is the workmanship of his all perfect Creator.”30Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 U.S. 419 (1792); available in Hall and Hall, Collected Works, 353. He echoed this conviction in his law lectures.31Hall and Hall, Collected Works, 590. One practical implication of this is that innocent life must always be protected. Wilson wrote with evident approval that:

With consistency, beautiful and undeviating, human life, from its commencement to its close, is protected by the common law. In the contemplation of law, life begins when the infant is first able to stir in the womb. By the law, life is protected not only from immediate destruction, but from every degree of actual violence, and in some cases, from every degree of danger.32Ibid., 1068.

Based on this principle, Wilson criticized ancient societies, such as Sparta, Athens, China, and Rome, for the practice of exposing or killing unwanted infants.33Ibid., 1067. Like most Christian legal theorists, he condemned suicide because:

it was not by his own voluntary act that the man made his appearance upon the theatre of life; he cannot, therefore, plead the right of the nation, by his own voluntary act to make his exit. He did not make; therefore, he has no right to destroy himself. He alone, whose gift this state of existence is, has the right to say when and how it shall receive its termination.34Ibid. 534. The conviction that all humans are created in the image of God led many founders to oppose the institution of slavery. I will discuss this issue at length in the sequel to Did America Have a Christian Founding?

Religious Liberty for All

Scholars and activists routinely assert that the Enlightenment inspired civic leaders in the west to adopt religious toleration. They came to value reason over revelation, and so concluded that it is irrational to kill or persecute in the name of God.35For examples, see Did America Have a Christian Founding?, 122, 202. Some thinkers may have made claims along these lines, but the Enlightenment work on religious toleration most influential in America was John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration. In it, he made arguments that drew from, and were thoroughly compatible with, Protestant Christianity.36John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration and Other Writings, ed. Mark Goldie (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 2010). There are extensive debates about Locke’s theological convictions and whether or not his social and political ideas are compatible with orthodox Christianity. I cannot engage this literature here, but I will state my view that Locke was not an orthodox Christian but that his social and political views are compatible with orthodox Christianity. Indeed, Locke’s Letter became popular in America in the 1740s when it was used by theological conservatives to argue for the freedom to preach their convictions and form their own churches.37Hall, Roger Sherman, 20-27, esp. 22.

“A Letter Concerning Toleration” by John Locke / Wikimedia CC0

But John Locke did not invent religious toleration. As Robert Louis Wilken demonstrates in Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom,38Robert Louis Wilken, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019). John Witte, Jr., emphasizes Calvinist contributions to the development of freedom of conscience in The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007). Christian leaders were advocating religious toleration since at least the time of the early church father Tertullian. Once they gained political power, Christian civic and ecclesiastical leaders often did not heed these calls. Fortunately, in the seventeenth century Roger Williams, John Owen, William Penn, and a host of other Christians developed powerful biblical and theological arguments for robustly protecting “the sacred right of conscience.”39Wilken, Liberty in the Things of God, 155-183;Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, 121-147; Andrew R. Murphy, Conscience and Community: Revisiting Toleration and Religious Dissent in Early Modern England and America (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001).

Civic and ecclesiastical leaders in the founding era continued to make such arguments. For instance, in 1776, the Presbyterians of Hanover County, Virginia sent a memorial to the General Assembly asserting that

if mankind were left in the quiet possession of their unalienable religious privileges, Christianity, as in the days of the Apostles, would continue to prevail and flourish in the greatest purity, by its own native excellence, and under the all-disposing providence of God.40Dreisbach and Hall, Sacred Rights, 270.

These believers made a variety of arguments in favor of religious liberty and against religious establishments, but like virtually everyone advocating for these positions a key contention was that religious liberty causes Christianity to flourish and to be purer. In like manner, the future Supreme Court Justice James Iredell remarked in North Carolina’s Ratifying Convention that it:

would be happy for mankind if religion was permitted to take its own course, and maintain itself by the excellence of its own doctrines. The divine Author of our religion never wished for its support by world authority. Has he not said that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it [Matthew 16: 18]? It made much greater progress for itself, than when supported by the greatest authority upon earth.41Ibid., 395.

One of the most important founding era arguments in favor of religious liberty was based on the theological principle that humans have a duty to worship God as their consciences dictate. A fine example of this is George Mason’s 1776 draft of Article XVI of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, which reads:

That as religion, or the duty which we owe to our divine and omnipotent Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be governed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore that all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the magistrate…42Ibid., 241.

Mason’s draft of Article XVI was reprinted throughout the states and had an important impact on subsequent state constitutions and the national Bill of Rights. But it was not the draft that became law. James Madison, in his first significant public act, did not deny that all humans have a duty to worship God, but he objected to the use of “toleration” in the article, presumably because he thought that it implied that religious liberty was a grant from the state that could be revoked. The Virginia Convention agreed, and Article XVI was amended to make it clear that “the free exercise of religion” is a right, not a privilege granted by the state.43Ibid.

America’s founders were profoundly influenced by Christianity, but they did not design a constitutional order only for fellow believers. The Constitution prohibits religious tests for federal offices, and the founders recognized that doing so would permit “a Papist or Infidel” or “pagans, deists, and Mahometans” to be elected.44Ibid., 388, 394. And they understood that people of all faiths should enjoy religious liberty.

Consider, for instance, George Washington’s 1790 letter to the “Hebrew Congregation” in Newport, Rhode Island. He wrote to this tiny religious minority that:

All [citizens] possess alike liberty and conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

…May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.45Ibid, 464.

This letter, from the era’s one indispensable man, reflects well the founders’ understanding that the religious convictions of all citizens must be respected. Yet it also illustrates the reality that they did not think that religion must be driven from the public square. This single letter contains nine biblical allusions, including to Micah 4:4, which reads “while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” This was one of George Washington’s favorite verses; we have records of him quoting or paraphrasing it at least 40 times.46Peter A. Lillback and Jerry Newcombe, George Washington’s Sacred Fire (Bryn Mawr: Providence Forum Press, 2006), 321-22; Daniel L. Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 211-227. For further evidence that the founders did not desire to strictly separate church and state, see Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding? chapters three and four.

Conclusion

In his law lectures, James Wilson observed that “of all governments, those are the best, which, by the natural effect of their constitutions, are frequently renewed or drawn back to their first principles.”47Hall and Hall, Collected Works, 1: 698. Christian commitments led the founders to create a constitutional order that strictly limits the power of the national government, separates the powers it does have among different branches, and provides checks and balances to prevent any one institution or person from becoming tyrannical. They believed in a higher law, often called natural law, and they thought that natural rights were based upon this law. Governments certainly should not violate these rights, and, indeed, many founders thought that the primary role of government is to secure “those rights, to the enjoyment or acquisition of which we were previously entitled by the immediate gift, or by the unerring law, of our all-wise and all-beneficent Creator.”48Ibid., 1053-1054. We would do well to heed the founders’ insights today. ♦


Mark David Hall is Herbert Hoover Distinguished Professor of Politics at George Fox University and Affiliated Faculty at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. He has written, edited, or co-edited a dozen books, including Great Christian Jurists in American History (Cambridge University Press, 2019) and Did America Have a Christian Founding?: Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth (Nelson Books, 2019).