Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Contributions to Original Intent

Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Contributions to Original Intent

Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Contributions to Original Intent

Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Contributions to Original Intent

Synopsis

How did the constitutional framers envision the role of religion in American public life? Did they think that the government had the right to advance or support religion and religious activities? Or did they believe that the two realms should remain forever separate? Throughout American history, scholars, Supreme Court justices, and members of the American public have debated these questions. The debate continues to have significance in the present day, especially in regard to public schools, government aid to sectarian education, and the use of public property for religious symbols. In this book, Derek Hamilton Davis offers the first comprehensive examination of the role of religion in the proceedings, theories, ideas, and goals of the Continental Congress. Those who argue that the United States was founded as a "Christian Nation" have made much of the religiosity of the founders, particularly as it was manifested in the ritual invocations of a clearly Christian God as well as in the adoption of practices such as government-sanctioned days of fasting and thanksgiving, prayers and preaching before legislative bodies, and the appointments of chaplains to the Army. Davis looks at the fifteen-year experience of the Continental Congress (1774-1789) and arrives at a contrary conclusion: namely, that the revolutionaries did not seek to entrench religion in the federal state. Congress's religious activities, he shows, expressed a genuine but often unreflective popular piety. Indeed, the whole point of the revolution was to distinguish society, the people in its sovereign majesty, from its government. A religious people would jealously guard its own sovereignty and the sovereignty of God by preventing republican rulers from pretending to any authority over religion. The idea that a modern nation could be premised on expressly theological foundations, Davis argues, was utterly antithetical to the thinking of most revolutionaries.

Excerpt

The Continental Congress was the body of delegates that represented the common interests of first the colonies and then the states from 1774 to 1789. The first and second of these congresses, which assembled in September 1774 and May 1775, respectively, were called to meet a pressing emergency -- potential war with Great Britain -- and served only in an advisory capacity to the colonies since they were extralegal bodies. Subsequent congresses, serving during and after the Revolutionary War, acted as the central government of the American union under the Articles of Confederation. The Continental Congress dissolved on 4 March 1789, when it was superseded by the new government established under the federal Constitution.

Historians have been prone to criticize the Continental Congress. Their evaluations are based largely on the inadequacies of the government of the states under the Articles of Confederation. In retrospect, however, the Congress had many notable achievements. It declared independence from Great Britain, then successfully prosecuted the war and negotiated the peace. It also managed to carry on the routine administration of matters that were of mutual concern to the states, while allowing the states to maintain their sovereignty. One of its greatest achievements was the passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, legislation that enabled the western territories, once settled, to attain equal statehood with the existing states.

Most studies of the Continental Congress focus on various political events occurring in their secular context. Rarely is the Continental Congress examined from the perspective of the role that religion played in its proceedings and official acts. Because the Congress operated free of any formal notions of church-state separation, its work was in fact fre-

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