The National Reform Association

In 1861, a small Presbyterian denomination known as the Covenanters, founded in 1809 in Western Pennsylvania, created a petition that pointed out that the Constitution made no reference to Jesus Christ and the law of God.  “The petition received initial support from Senator Charles Sumner, and in 1862 two Covenanter ministers presented the document to President Lincoln. Lincoln was noncommittal. . . .”[1] The Covenanters saw a causal relationship between the sin of slavery and other national sins and the outbreak of the Civil War. At a February 1863 conference held in Xenia, Ohio, representatives from eleven Protestant denominations from seven northern states were in attendance. “On the second day of the conference John Alexander, a local attorney, delivered a paper on the topic ‘Religion in the Nation.’ . . . As a means of regaining God’s favor, Alexander proposed” the following:

 We regard the neglect of God and His law, by omitting all acknowledgment of them in our Constitution, as the crowning, original sin of the nation, and slavery as one of its natural outgrowths. Therefore, the most important step remains to yet to be taken—to amend the Constitution so as to acknowledge God and the authority of His law; and the object of this paper is to suggest to this Convention the propriety of considering this subject, and of preparing such an amendment to the Constitution as they may think proper to propose in accordance with its provisions.[2]

 A similar convention was being held in Sparta, Illinois, that same month and came to a similar conclusion. “Representatives from both conventions met in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, the following January to organize the Christian Amendment Movement, soon to be called the National Reform Association. The Association elected John Alexander its first president, and in 1864 set out to obtain an amendment to the United States Constitution to acknowledge God’s divine authority and, in doing so, establish a Christian basis for popular government in America.” The proposed revised Preamble read as follows (the additional wording is in brackets and italicized):

We, the People of the United States [recognizing the being and attributes of Almighty God, the Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures, the law of God as the paramount rule, and Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior and Lord of all], in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Little progress was made in getting the proposed emendation before Congress for a vote. A motion to discharge the Judiciary committee from any further consideration passed. Even so, efforts to get the Amendment passed continued but they were continually stalled. “One reason suggested for the lack of action was that some Congressmen were concerned about possible Free Exercise of religion implications that might arise with regards to a Christian Amendment to the Constitution.”[3] In addition, the National Free Religious Association (FRA) was founded in 1867 and presided over by Octavius Frothingham (1822–1895) to oppose the Christian Amendment efforts. Frothingham was pastor of the North Unitarian Church of Salem, Massachusetts. He was a radical Unitarian and an outspoken anti-supernaturalist.

Radical changes were taking place in Ohio public schools. In an attempt to get students from parochial (Roman Catholic) schools to attend public schools, “a group of school board members had two resolutions prohibiting religious instruction and ‘reading of religious books, including the Holy Bible,’ in the common schools.”[4] Many Roman Catholic schools were started because the public schools were thought to be too Protestant.

If the majority of the constitutional framers could get a glimpse of America today, would they have rethought their decision only to make passing reference to the lordship of Jesus Christ in the body of the Constitution? Would they have been more specific in their mention of God and the need for the nation’s reliance on Him in light of the secularizing spirit that seems to have America in its grip? We will never know. But when all the testimony is in, it is an undeniable fact that Christianity served as the foundation for the political edifice we know as America. In 1983 Congress declared 1983 to be the “Year of the Bible.” In that official pronouncement Ronald Reagan stated the following:

 Of the many influences that have shaped the United States of America into a distinctive Nation and people, none may be said to be more fundamental and enduring than the Bible. Deep religious beliefs stemming from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible inspired many of the early settlers of our country, providing them with the strength, character, convictions, and faith necessary to withstand great hardship and danger in this new and rugged land. These shared beliefs helped forge a sense of common purpose among the widely dispersed colonies—a sense of community which laid the foundation for the spirit of nationhood that was to develop in later decades.

The Bible and its teachings helped form the basis for the Founding Fathers’ abiding belief in the inalienable rights of the individual, rights which they found implicit in the Bible’s teachings of the inherent worth and dignity of each individual. This same sense of man patterned the convictions of those who framed the English system of law inherited by our own Nation, as well as the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

For centuries the Bible’s emphasis on compassion and love for our neighbor has inspired institutional and governmental expressions of benevolent outreach such as private charity, the establishment of schools and hospitals, and the abolition of slavery.[5]

 Of course, it’s not enough to live in the past. The time is now to make a difference with our Christian faith.

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Endnotes:

[1] Steven Keith Green, The National Reform Association and the Religious Amendments to the Constitution, 1864–1876. An unpublished Master’s thesis. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1987), 14.
[2] Green, The National Reform Association and the Religious Amendments to the Constitution, 1864–1876, 1–2.
[3] http://candst.tripod.com/nra.htm
[4] The Rhetoric and Reality of the “Christian Nation” Maxim In American Law:1810–1920, by Steven Keith Green, An unpublished Doctoral dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, (1997), 292.
[5] Public Law No. 97-280, 96 Stat. 1211 (October 4, 1982)

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