The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America

The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America

Frank Lambert
Copyright Date: 2003
DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7s7qc
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America
    Book Description:

    How did the United States, founded as colonies with explicitly religious aspirations, come to be the first modern state whose commitment to the separation of church and state was reflected in its constitution? Frank Lambert explains why this happened, offering in the process a synthesis of American history from the first British arrivals through Thomas Jefferson's controversial presidency.

    Lambert recognizes that two sets of spiritual fathers defined the place of religion in early America: what Lambert calls the Planting Fathers, who brought Old World ideas and dreams of building a "City upon a Hill," and the Founding Fathers, who determined the constitutional arrangement of religion in the new republic. While the former proselytized the "one true faith," the latter emphasized religious freedom over religious purity.

    Lambert locates this shift in the mid-eighteenth century. In the wake of evangelical revival, immigration by new dissenters, and population expansion, there emerged a marketplace of religion characterized by sectarian competition, pluralism, and widened choice. During the American Revolution, dissenters found sympathetic lawmakers who favored separating church and state, and the free marketplace of religion gained legal status as the Founders began the daunting task of uniting thirteen disparate colonies. To avoid discord in an increasingly pluralistic and contentious society, the Founders left the religious arena free of government intervention save for the guarantee of free exercise for all. Religious people and groups were also free to seek political influence, ensuring that religion's place in America would always be a contested one, but never a state-regulated one.

    An engaging and highly readable account of early American history, this book shows how religious freedom came to be recognized not merely as toleration of dissent but as a natural right to be enjoyed by all Americans.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2553-0
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7s7qc.1
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7s7qc.2
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiii)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7s7qc.3
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7s7qc.4

    In 1639, a group of New England Puritans drafted a constitution affirming their faith in God and their intention to organize a Christian Nation. Delegates from the towns of Windsor, Hartford, and Wethers-field drew up the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, which made clear that their government rested on divine authority and pursued godly purposes. The opening lines express the framers’ trust in God and their dependence on his guidance: “Forasmuch as it hath pleased the All-mighty God by the wise disposition of his divyne providence so to Order and dispose of things, . . . [and] well knowing where a...

  5. [PART ONE Introduction]
    (pp. 17-20)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7s7qc.5

    The so-called Elizabethan Settlement defined religious faith and freedom in England on the eve of American colonization. When she ascended to the throne in 1558, Elizabeth I was determined to end the religious strife that had plagued the reigns of the two previous Tudor monarchs as the country first tilted toward an “unabashedly Protestant” church under Edward VI and then lurched back into the Catholic fold under Mary I. Persecution of Catholics and Protestants in turn threatened to spark the kinds of religious wars that ravaged France in the sixteenth and Germany in the seventeenth century. Moving with a speed...

  6. CHAPTER 1 English Heritage
    (pp. 21-45)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7s7qc.6

    In the spring of 1607, 104 Englishmen aboard theSusan Constant,Godspeed, andDiscoverysailed into Chesapeake Bay. Their transatlantic voyage had been grueling; for about a third of their original number even fatal. Sent by the Virginia Company of London, the enervated survivors faced the daunting task of establishing a productive, profitable plantation in a part of the New World that showed no immediate signs of easy riches, nothing resembling the mountains of South American silver that filled Spanish galleons. Thus in the midst of a wilderness that in the next few years would prove to be both deadly...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Transplanting the Church of England in the Chesapeake
    (pp. 46-72)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7s7qc.7

    King james chartered Virginia as a Christian mission. When he incorporated the Virginia Company in 1606, he declared that it would bring glory in propagating “Christian religion to such people, as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God.” The gentlemen of the company, though seeking profits there, agreed that “true” religion must be planted in the Chesapeake, and instructed their colonial governors to establish the Church of England in the wilderness. In 1612, William Strachey, gentleman and resident secretary of the company, pronounced in his preface to the colony’sLawesthat the...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Puritan Fathers and the “Christian Common-wealth”
    (pp. 73-99)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7s7qc.8

    Best known for his role in promoting Virginia tobacco, John Rolfe sometimes interpreted the early Chesapeake settlement in theological terms, on one occasion calling it the work of a “peculiar people, marked and chosen by the finger of God.” But religion and religious concerns expressed by inhabitantsina colony do not make it areligiouscolony. Virginians did not order their social, political, and economic institutions according to scriptural precepts. The Puritans who settled Massachusetts Bay did. Theirs was a religious colony, defined, not by occasional pious utterances, however sincerely spoken, but by “pervasive religiosity.”¹

    From its inception, Massachusetts...

  9. CHAPTER 4 A “Holy Experiment” in Religious Pluralism
    (pp. 100-122)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7s7qc.9

    Like massachusetts’ “Christian Common-wealth,” Pennsylvania’s “Holy Experiment” was conceived as a religious utopia, and the two undertakings shared much in common. Persecuted in England, Puritans and Quakers alike sought freedom in America, and each erected a community that gave full expression to its most cherished beliefs. For the Puritans, that meant exclusion, establishing a colony of “visible saints” bound together in covenanted relationships. Citizenship and officeholding were restricted to those who could demonstrate Divine Election. For the Quakers, it meant inclusion, erecting a colony open to all peace-loving Christians, a brotherhood of goodwill. Believing that all people had within them...

  10. [PART TWO Introduction]
    (pp. 123-126)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7s7qc.10

    By the middle of the eighteenth century, population growth, resulting from robust immigration, a “consumer revolution,” and geographic expansion, strained the original planters’ religious settlements, testing prevailing definitions of faith and freedom and the institutions that preserved them. America and Americans were on the move: men and women crossing the Atlantic from Germany, Scotland, and Northern Ireland and then migrating down the backcountry; new goods arriving in colonial seaports and then being transshipped to stores and shops mushrooming throughout the settlements, including on the frontier; and new ideas arriving from Europe and England and circulating throughout British North America. Religious...

  11. CHAPTER 5 “Trafficking for the Lord” and the Expansion of Religious Choice
    (pp. 127-158)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7s7qc.11

    Late in the colonial period, Virginia attorney general Peyton Randolph feared that the religious system that had helped bring peace and order to the colony was succumbing to a sectarian assault. The cause of his concern was a group of evangelical dissenters in western Virginia who, having broken away from the Church of England in the early 1740s, invited Presbyterian itinerant preachers from Pennsylvania and New Jersey to come lead their worship. When Samuel Davies and other ministers answered the call, they ignored parish boundaries and preached at times and places of their own choosing. Moreover, they disregarded the Book...

  12. CHAPTER 6 Deists Enter the Religious Marketplace
    (pp. 159-179)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7s7qc.12

    As a leading printer and newspaper publisher, Benjamin Franklin played a major role in promoting the Great Awakening, all the while rejecting its message of the New Birth. He published several editions of George Whitefield’s sermons and journals, making them bestsellers in colonial America. He gave the revival front-page coverage in hisPennsylvania Gazetteand dispatched stories to the five other newspapers, from Boston to Charleston, in which he had a financial interest. But he had no use for the evangelical message. Franklin was a freethinker who preferred to follow the dictates of his own reason, not church dogma. Specifically,...

  13. CHAPTER 7 Whigs and Dissenters Fight Religious Regulation
    (pp. 180-204)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7s7qc.13

    The vast majority of Americans transformed by the Great Awakening and the Enlightenment agreed on one thing: religious tyranny and priestcraft must be rooted out of church and state. They believed that the individual, not the state or the church, should decide matters of faith. New Lights from the Great Awakening challenged religious authority of churches and pastors by insisting that a personal conversion experience, not subscription to creeds and hierarchies, was the path to salvation. Many of those New Lights lived in colonies with establishment churches, and they resented state-enforced religious regulation; by their practices of ignoring parish boundaries...

  14. [PART THREE Introduction]
    (pp. 205-206)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7s7qc.14

    The founding fathers’ religious settlement, embodied in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, gave legal sanction to an American revolution of religion that redefined the place of religion in America. With the exception of William Penn and RogerWilliams, the planters had organized church-state relations around the central idea of religious uniformity, the notion that the established church within a colony represented the one true religion that all should be compelled to support. Whether Puritans or Anglicans, the planters of a given colony shared a common faith, believed that their particular formulation of Protestantism was the correct one, and...

  15. CHAPTER 8 The American Revolution of Religion
    (pp. 207-235)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7s7qc.15

    The war of Independence was part of a radical revolution in which Americans dissolved their bonds with the British monarchy and created a new republic. The revolutionary rhetoric of 1776 announced to the world that Patriots were seeking liberty over entrenched power, and in the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress cited a long train of abuses of power by which the king had undermined the colonists’ freedoms.¹ At the same time, Adam Smith called for free trade through the removal of government-granted monopolies that favored certain groups and individuals. American merchants had long chafed under the Navigation Acts that...

  16. CHAPTER 9 Constitutional Recognition of a Free Religious Market
    (pp. 236-264)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7s7qc.16

    When he first read a draft of the proposed new federal constitution in 1787, William Williams of Connecticut was dismayed. Nowhere did the document affirm faith in God. Not only did this New Light merchant call for the omission of the sentence categorically debarring a federally mandated religious test for officeholders; he wanted a religious test for officeholders that would “require an explicit acknowledgment of the being of a God, his perfections and his providence.” Indeed, what Williams desired was a strong affirmation of religious beliefs to introduce the entire document. He proposed a preamble that began: “We the people...

  17. CHAPTER 10 Religion and Politics in the Presidential Campaign of 1800
    (pp. 265-287)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7s7qc.17

    In the campaign of 1800, William Linn of New York praised Thomas Jefferson as a public servant of extraordinary talents but urged voters to reject the Republican’s presidential bid because of his religious beliefs. In a pamphlet, the Dutch Reformed minister stated that “my objection to his being promoted to the Presidency is founded singly upon his disbelief of the Holy Scriptures; or, in other words, his rejection of the Christian Religion and open profession of Deism.” To Linn, the connection between Jefferson’s religious views and his fitness for office was clear: “No professed deist, be his talents and achievements...

  18. Epilogue
    (pp. 288-296)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7s7qc.18

    Contrary to the predictions of some defenders of an establishment, religion as well as religious freedom thrived in the early republic. On several occasions after leaving the presidency in 1816, James Madison reflected on the Constitution’s church-state settlement and argued that it had promoted religion. In an 1819 letter to his friend Robert Walsh, Madison observed, “there has been an increase of religious instruction since the Revolution.” He noted that while old churches, “built under the establishment at the public expense, have in many instances gone to ruin,” among the other sects “Meeting Houses have multiplied and continue to multiply.”...

  19. Notes
    (pp. 297-322)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7s7qc.19
  20. Index
    (pp. 323-328)
    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt7s7qc.20