Religion and the Founding of the American Republic

By James H. Hutson | Go to book overview

FOUR
RELIGION AND THE CONGRESS OF THE CONFEDERATION, 1774-89

The United States' first national government was the Continental- Confederation Congress, which functioned from 1774 to 1789, when it was replaced by the new federal government created by the Constitution. Congress, as it was called throughout its existence, resembled a conjurer. With little official power, a small and often absentee membership, and no permanent home, it defeated the world's greatest military power, concluded the most successful peace treaty in American history, survived severe economic turbulence, and devised a brilliant plan for settling the American West. Equally remarkable was the energy Congress invested in encouraging the practice of religion throughout the new nation, energy that far exceeded the amount expended by any subsequent American national government.

Perhaps only Cromwell's parliaments can compare to Congress in the number of deeply religious men in positions of national legislative leadership. Charles Thomson ( 1729-1804), the soul of Congress and the source of its institutional continuity as its permanent secretary from 1774 to 1789, retired from public life to translate the Scriptures from Greek to English; the four-volume Bible that Thomson published in 1808 is admired by modern scholars for its accuracy and learning. John Dickinson 1732-1808), who, as the "Pennsylvania Farmer," was the colonies' premier political pamphleteer, and who, as a member of Congress in 1776, wrote the first draft of the Articles of Confederation, also retired from public life to devote himself to religious scholarship, writing commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew. So did Elias Boudinot ( 1740- 1821), president of Congress, 1782-83, who tuned out "warm" debates on the floor to write his daughter long letters, praying that, through the blood of God's "too greatly despised Son," she should be "born again to the newness of Life." Resigning as director of the U.S. Mint in 1805, Boudinot wrote religious tracts such as The Second Advent ( 1815) and the next year became the first president of the American Bible Society. Henry Laurens ( 1724-1792), president of Congress, 1777-78, was "strict and

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