Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America

Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America

by Steven Waldman
Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America

Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America

by Steven Waldman



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The culture wars have distorted the dramatic story of how Americans came to worship freely. Many activists on the right maintain that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” Many on the left contend that the Founders were secular or Deist and that the First Amendment was designed to boldly separate church and state throughout the land. None of these claims are true, argues editor in chief Steven Waldman. With refreshing objectivity, Waldman narrates the real story of how our nation’s Founders forged a new approach to religious liberty, a revolutionary formula that promoted faith . . . by leaving it alone.

This fast-paced narrative begins with earlier settlers’ stunningly unsuccessful efforts to create a Christian paradise, and concludes with the presidencies of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, during which the men who had devised lofty principles regarding the proper relationship between church and state struggled to practice what they’d preached. We see how religion helped cause, and fuel, the Revolutionary War, and how the surprising alliance between Enlightenment philosophers such as Jefferson and Madison and evangelical Christians resulted in separation of church and state.

As the drama unfolds, Founding Faith vividly describes the religious development of five Founders. Benjamin Franklin melded the morality-focused Puritan theology of his youth and the reason-based Enlightenment philosophy of
his adulthood. John Adams’s pungent views on religion–hatred of the Church of England and Roman Catholics–stoked his revolutionary fervor and shaped his political strategy. George Washington came to view religious tolerance as a military necessity. Thomas Jefferson pursued a dramatic quest to “rescue” Jesus, in part by editing the Bible. Finally, it was James Madison–the tactical leader of the battle for religious freedom–who crafted an integrated vision of how to prevent tyranny while encouraging religious vibrancy.

The spiritual custody battle over the Founding Fathers and the role of religion in America continues today. Waldman provocatively argues that neither side in the culture war has accurately depicted the true origins of the First Amendment. He sets the record straight, revealing the real history of religious freedom to be dramatic, unexpected, paradoxical, and inspiring.

An interactive library of the key writings by the Founding Father, on separation of church and state, personal faith, and religious liberty can be found at

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781588366740
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/11/2008
Sold by: Random House
Format: eBook
Pages: 304
File size: 472 KB

About the Author

Steven Waldman is co-founder, CEO, and editor in chief of, the largest faith and spirituality website. Previously, Waldman was the national editor of U.S. News & World Report and a national correspondent for Newsweek. His writings have also appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Slate, The Washington Monthly, National Review, and elsewhere. He appears frequently on television and radio to discuss religion and politics. He is also the author of The Bill, a book about the creation of AmeriCorps. Waldman lives in New York with his wife, the writer Amy Cunningham, and their children, Joseph and Gordon.

Read an Excerpt


Christian America

Settlers try to plant Protestantism as the official faith—and fail

The new world was settled to promote christianity. for more than 150 years, colonial governments actively supported and promoted Christianity. Less acknowledged today is a point well understood by the Founding Fathers: Nearly all of these experiments in state encouragement of religion failed.

Christopher Columbus believed the world would soon end. In the year 1652, to be exact, Christ would return and usher in a glorious new Kingdom—if certain prophecies were fulfilled before then. Columbus’s arrival in the New World in 1492 was one such event, he wrote later, a clear “fulfillment of what Isaiah had prophesied.” He was quite certain that God had guided him. “With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies.” Another precondition for Jesus’s return was the conquest of Jerusalem, which was held by the Muslims. His voyages to the New World would help with that, too, providing a glorious model to inspire Christian warriors, and the gold to pay their way. Finally, his discovery of the new lands would enable Christians to fulfill another essential requirement, the spreading of the Good News to all corners of the world. “The Gospel must now be proclaimed to so many lands in such a short time,” Columbus explained to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand.1

After encountering hospitable natives in the Caribbean, he had become quite optimistic that he would indeed be able to bring these generous but unsaved souls to God, plus get some cheap labor. “If one asks for anything they have they never say no,” he wrote.2 “They should be good servants . . . and I believe they would easily be made Christians, for they appear to have no religion.”3

Though he declared a desire to convert them “by love and friendship rather than by force,” the Europeans did not have a light touch with the natives. Those in the Caribbean who rejected or destroyed statues of Christian saints were burned at the stake. Slaughter and European-borne disease killed all but a few thousand Indians.4 But the Spaniards persisted and their missions eventually made their way to current-day Florida and Mexico.

While the Spaniards did not ultimately win control of the land that became the thirteen American colonies, fear of Catholic Spain’s expansion helped prompt England to get serious about settling America in the early 1600s.5

Virginia’s Lawes Divine

The twin goals of converting Indians and defeating Catholics provided a strong rallying cry for Virginia’s settlers. Prospective settlers were instructed to bring “no traitors, nor Papists that depend on the Great Whore.”6 An Anglican promotional booklet argued that if the Spanish had so much luck pressing their corrupt religion, imagine how successful the English could be with their noble goals of saving “those wretched people,” drawing them from “darkness to light, from falsehood to truth, from dumb idols to the living God, from the deep pit of hell to the highest heaven.”7 King James’s charter for Virginia in 1606 made it official: The mission was to promote Christianity to those living “in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God.”8

The faiths of the settlers were tested even before they landed in Virginia. One-third of the immigrants on the Godspeed, the Discovery, and the Susan Constant in 1607 died en route. Once in America, their goal of converting Indians soon took a backseat to survival. In 1609 and 1610, the period known as “the starving time,” the colony almost perished. Settlers ate dogs, cats, rats, and one another in order to survive. One man was executed for killing his wife for food.9

To try to salvage the colony, the Virginia Company in May 1611 sent Lord Thomas de la Warr and Thomas Dale, who swiftly issued a new set of laws to bring order, in part through forced religiosity. The law’s preamble declared that the job of the king is “principal care of true Religion and reverence to God”10 and that the settlers themselves were “especial souldiers in this sacred cause.” The new “Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall” required worship twice each Sunday. Those who failed to do so would lose their daily allowance; a second infraction would draw a whipping, and the third offense would put them in the galleys at sea for six months. Settlers who failed to observe the Sabbath lost provisions for a week (first offense), received a whipping (second offense), or were executed (third offense). Women convicted of sexual misdeeds were required to wear white gowns, hold white wands, and “stand on chairs or stools during public worship.”11 Blasphemy—the use of “unlawful oaths” and “taking the name of God in vain”—was a serious crime, sometimes punishable by having a hot iron plunged through the tongue, and sometimes by execution.12 Eight settlers were put to death in Jamestown for violations of Dale’s laws. Though alien to us, the idea behind forced worship was practical: Pervasive worship would secure God’s favor and give settlers the strength and moral wherewithal to cope with the crushing burdens of disease, Indian attacks, and internal squabbling.

As in England, clergy were to be supported by taxes and public funds, or, to be more precise, ten pounds of tobacco and a bushel of corn per settler. A special patch of farmland, a glebe, was also set aside for the parson.13 Despite these provisions, there was a severe shortage of clergy. By 1662, there were only ten ministers serving forty-five different parishes.14 Since there was no ecclesiastic church structure to monitor religious matters and manage clergy, the state accepted that role, even disciplining clergy who hadn’t preached at least one sermon each Sunday.15

The settlers did survive, in part because of their strong faith. This alone prompted wonder. John Rolfe, an early Jamestown resident credited with the introduction of tobacco, wrote that the settlers were “chosen by the finger of God.”16

In surviving, they prevented encroachment from French and Spanish Catholics who settled west and south of Virginia. At that moment in history, the Catholic Church was viewed in England not as a competing form of Christianity but as a fraudulent faith. It was called “the Whore” because it had prostituted itself by selling indulgences (the promise that for a fee, the church would make sure that the soul of a loved one wouldn’t be stuck in purgatory). Protestants believed Catholics should be called papists, not Christians, because they had substituted worship of the pope for devotion to Christ. And only the Antichrist, it was thought, would use the trappings of faith to so distort the message of Jesus. Not surprisingly, the Virginia government attempted to squelch Catholicism within the colony. In 1640, it prohibited Catholics from holding public office unless they “had taken the oath of allegiance and supremacy” to the Church of England. It decreed that any “popish priests’’ who arrived in Virginia “should be deported forthwith.”17

The settlers’ other religious goal—that of pulling the Indians from the deep pit of hell—proved harder to meet. Pocahontas’s conversion to Christianity was much celebrated and, indeed, is depicted in a painting in the US Capitol to this day. But mostly the settlers just viewed the Indians as untamable savages, and vice versa.18 Moreover, Virginia certainly didn’t limit itself to punishing just Catholics and Indians. In 1660, it forbade ship captains from importing Quakers;19 Puritan clergy were banished; and Jews were kept out entirely for two generations.20

As the economy developed and the population grew, the Church of En- gland became more powerful throughout Virginia. By 1740s, the church had become a place of social and spiritual nourishment for the gentlemen farmers who came to run the colony. Though it became more genteel and less coercive, Anglicanism remained the legally established, official religion of the colony. Taxpayers financed the salaries of the Anglican ministers in their area, as well as the construction of new Anglican churches. During some of this time, other religious bodies were simply not allowed to erect churches at all. Up through the 1740s, it was clear in Virginia that there was one church, one spiritual style, one faith—not just by custom but by law.

The Holy Commonwealth of Massachusetts

While religion was a factor in Jamestown, it was the impetus for Pilgrims who landed in Plymouth and the Puritans who settled in Massachusetts Bay. Again, the motivation was not promotion of Christianity in general but Protestantism specifically. Puritans believed that despite Henry VIII’s split with Rome, the Church of England had retained too many vestiges of the Catholic Church. “Kneeling at the Sacrament, bowing to the Altar and to the name of Jesus, Popish holy days, Holiness of places, Organs and Cathedral Musick, The Books of Common prayer, or church Government by Bishops . . . They are nothing else but reliques of Popery, and remnants of Baal,” sniffed one prominent Puritan.21 They viewed the Anglican ministers as ungodly and incompetent. In a petition to Parliament, one Puritan called the clergy “Dumme Dogs . . . Destroying Drones, or rather Caterpillars of the Word.”22 Worst of all, the Church of England seemed to let in as a congregant any damned sinner who requested entry.

King James found the Puritans annoying. While passing through Lancashire one day in 1618, he noticed that the Puritans had even prohibited sports and recreation. He explicitly prevented them from banning “may-games, Whitsun-ales, Morris-dances, and the setting up of Maypoles”—all activities that Puritans regarded as pagan.23 Though we tend to think of those who settled in New England as fleeing severe religious persecution, it might be more precise to say most were avoiding the harassment of a government that wanted the Puritans to be more liberal. Frustrated by the relentless protests of the Puritans about the church, King James declared, “I shall make them conform themselves, or I will harry them out of the land, or else do worse.”24

The Pilgrims were Puritans who had become “Separatists” because they believed that the Church of England was so corruptly entangled with Catholicism that nothing short of a clean break would suffice. They had left England and sought religious refuge in Holland. Their sense of mission was biblical: William Bradford, in his journal from Plymouth Plantation, compared these settlers to those cast out of Israel. “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.”25 Sailing aboard the Mayflower in 1620, the Pilgrims wrote the Mayflower Compact, committing themselves to “ye glory of God, and advancement of ye Christian faith.”

Though the Pilgrims landed the starring roles in future Thanksgiving celebrations, it was the Puritans who thrived economically, took over Massachusetts, profoundly influenced American religious history. (One historian estimated that in all thirteen colonies, Puritanism “provided the moral and religious background of fully 75% of the people who declared their independence in 1776.”)26 In 1628, the “great migration” of Puritans from England began. They came for “liberty,” said the Massachusetts minister John Cotton—the freedom to practice their religion precisely—“not of some ordinances of God, but of all, and in all purity.”27 It was with tongue not in cheek that Richard Mather explained his motives for immigrating: the opportunity “to censure those who ought to be censured.”28

In spring 1630, John Winthrop, an influential Puritan, boarded the Arbella and headed toward the New Israel. On board, he gave what would become one of the most famous sermons in American history. They were “God’s chosen people,” required by covenant to lead exemplary Christian lives. “We shall be as a City upon a Hill,” he declared. “The eyes of all people are upon us.” This passage has been used by many a politician since, evoking the idea that America would become a model of freedom for the world. But the rest of the sermon bore a darker message. If they didn’t succeed in providing a Christian model, God would show his wrath—“we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”29

The Puritans left us many ennobling legacies. They set up Congregational churches that stressed simplicity, local control, and a direct connection to God. Because reading the Bible was so central, they established a remarkable system of schools and pressed for widespread literacy. They outlawed usury and promoted the dignity of work, even to the point of endorsing trade guilds. But this book, by necessity, will focus on how they mixed church and state, and how they used power.

Like the Anglicans who settled in Virginia, the Puritans in Massachusetts viewed church and state as fully entwined—a “Holy Commonwealth.” “Theocracy, or to make the Lord God our governor, is the best form of government in a Christian commonwealth,” wrote John Cotton. If it seems shocking to read one of our forefathers so boldly employ a word today associated with Islamic fundamentalists, we ought to remember that it was a typical approach at the time. Since Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, Western Christian leaders had believed that, thanks to Adam’s bite of the apple, man was so inherently depraved, a strong one–two punch of church and state working together would be required to tame his evil impulses.

The Puritans believed that civil authorities, bound by the same Bible as they, could be responsible for creating a godly society.30 This wasn’t to be state manipulating church but rather church shaping state. According to Puritan theology, drawn from French theologian John Calvin, they had an obligation to create a kingdom of God on earth—a society and a church of mostly “visible saints” that would make the worldly kingdom resemble heaven as much as possible. This church was to comprise a limited number of Christians selected by God to receive saving grace.31

Figuring out who was favored by God was no easy task. It helped if you were well behaved and prosperous, but that was no guarantee. A candidate for membership in a church would present him- or herself before the elders for examination. He would have to demonstrate facility with scriptures and provide a chronicle of how “God’s saving Grace came to him.” The mission was not to save sinners but to eject them, protecting the saints from corruption. Thomas Shepard, the pastor of the church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, explained that “if we could be so Eagle-eyed, as to discern them now that are hypocrites, we should exclude them now.” Why? Because “one man or woman secretly vile, which the church hath not used all means to discover, may defile a whole church.”32

The church was composed of the saved, and the state would be governed by members of the church. Only full members of the Congregational churches could vote in civil elections. One Puritan named Robert Child suggested that the limitations on the franchise and church membership be abolished. The Massachusetts General Court rejected his request, and had him arrested for good measure.33 Of course, Catholics were not allowed. (Since the Puritans tried to embody the compassion of Jesus, they did allow that any “Jesuits” who had ended up in their midst due to a shipwreck need not be killed.)34 In 1644, the Massachusetts General Court banned Baptists, too.35 Increase Mather, a Boston Puritan leader, later declared that “the Toleration of all Religions and Perswasions, is the way to have no Religion at all.”36 Puritans did not hunt the eastern seaboard for deviants, but tried to keep their own communities spiritually pure. “The government of Massachusetts, and of Connecticut as well, was a dictatorship, and never pretended to be anything else,” wrote Perry Miller, the foremost historian of the Puritans. “It was a dictatorship, not of a single tyrant, or of an economic class, or of a political faction, but of the holy and regenerate.”37

Table of Contents

Introduction     ix
Christian America: Settlers try to plant Protestantism as the official faith-and fail     3
Benjamin Franklin: The Puritan New Ager     18
The Evangelical Revolution: A cross-eyed preacher fuels the drive for independence and religious freedom     27
John Adams: The angry Unitarian     33
The Godly Roots of Rebellion: Fear of Anglicans and Catholics helps cause the American Revolution     40
George Washington: Protected by God     56
Holy War: George Washington uses religious tolerance, and appeals to God, to win the War of Independence     64
Thomas Jefferson: The pious infidel     72
Nature's God Meets the Supreme Judge: The Declaration of Independence and the God compromise     86
James Madison: The radical pluralist     94
"A Diabolical Persecution": A wave of bigotry in Madison's backyard changes history     100
The Mighty Current of Freedom: After independence, the states begin wrenching themselves from the old church-state models     107
Forgetting the "Powerful Friend": The Founders reject 150 years of history     127
The First Amendment Compromise: Building a wall that looks good from all sides     141
Practicing What They Preached: The first presidencies bring inspiring rhetoric, dirty politics, and sharp disagreement among the Founders     159
Friends in Heaven: The Founders end their spiritual journeys and prepare to continue the conversation in the next life     182
They Were Right     188
Acknowledgments     207
Bibliography     209
Notes     217
Index     265
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