The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America

The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America

The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America

The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

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 Wethersfield 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 people are gathered togather the word of God requires that to mayntayne the peace and vnion of such a people there should be an orderly and decent Government established according to God, to order and dispose of the affayres of the people.” Moreover, the aim of the government so instituted was religious: “to mayntayne and presearue the liberty and purity of the gospell of our Lord Jesus which we now professe, as also the disciplyne of the Churches, which according to the truth of the said gospell is now practised amongst vs.” Like their neighbors in Massachusetts Bay, the Connecticut Puritans determined to plant a “Christian Common-wealth,” what Governor John Winthrop hoped would become a “City upon a Hill” that would inspire believers everywhere as a model Christian Nation.

Those Puritan Fathers exemplify two of the most enduring views of colonial America: America as a haven of religious freedom, and America as a Christian Nation. First, the Puritan settlers had fled England, where Archbishop William Laud had persecuted them because they refused to subscribe to religious beliefs and practices that they deemed to be unscriptural. Now in the American wilderness, they were free to worship according to the dictates of their consciences, governed only by the rule of God’s word. And, second, those Puritan Fathers organized a Christian State. They established their Congregational churches as the official reli-

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