The Founding Fathers and the Debate over Religion in Revolutionary America: A History in Documents

The Founding Fathers and the Debate over Religion in Revolutionary America: A History in Documents

The Founding Fathers and the Debate over Religion in Revolutionary America: A History in Documents

The Founding Fathers and the Debate over Religion in Revolutionary America: A History in Documents

Synopsis

Whether America was founded as a Christian nation or as a secular republic is one of the most fiercely debated questions in American history. Historians Matthew Harris and Thomas Kidd offer an authoritative examination of the essential documents needed to understand this debate. The texts included in this volume - writings and speeches from both well-known and obscure early American thinkers - show that religion played a prominent yet fractious role in the era of the American Revolution.

In their personal beliefs, the Founders ranged from profound skeptics like Thomas Paine to traditional Christians like Patrick Henry. Nevertheless, most of the Founding Fathers rallied around certain crucial religious principles, including the idea that people were "created" equal, the belief that religious freedom required the disestablishment of state-backed denominations, the necessity of virtue in a republic, and the role of Providence in guiding the affairs of nations. Harris and Kidd show that through the struggles of war and the framing of the Constitution, Americans sought to reconcile their dedication to religious vitality with their commitment to religious freedom.

Excerpt

It might seem like Thomas Jefferson was destined to become president. When he ran in 1800, he had all the qualifications: author of the Declaration of Independence, a prominent diplomat, and vice president of the United States. But his opponents argued that he was not qualified because he was a heretic. Jefferson had only hinted at his unorthodox religious views, but he had said enough to make it clear that he did not think that one’s personal theology should matter in politics. His opponents disagreed. Congregationalists in New England, affiliated with President John Adams’s Federalist party, whispered that Jefferson was no Christian, and that his election would mean that America had turned its back on God. By mid-1800, the whispers had turned to angry polemics. Week after week, Federalist newspapers printed an ad urging Americans to ask themselves, “Shall I continue in allegiance to GOD—AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for JEFFERSON—AND NO GOD!!!”

Up to this point, the religious story of the election of 1800 might seem familiar, a prelude to today’s stereotypical feuds between religious conservatives and secular liberals. But then the

1. Gazette of the United States, September 13, 1800.

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