What impact did the Enlightenment have on America’s Christian heritage? The big-name founders get most of the attention who, like Jefferson, did not argue in an ideological vacuum. The Christian roots of America’s founding run deep. For example, James Madison studied under the guidance of the Scottish Presbyterian minister Donald Robertson, “whom he later said, ‘all that I have been in life I owe largely to that man.’” Thomas Paine grew up with a Quaker father and an Anglican mother. John Adams was raised in a Christian home. He wrote the following in his diary dated February 22, 1756:
Suppose a nation in some distant Region, should take the Bible for their only law Book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited. Every member would be obliged in Conscience to temperance and frugality and industry, to justice and kindness and Charity towards his fellow men, and to Piety and Love, and reverence towards almighty God. In this Commonwealth, no man would impair his health by Gluttony, drunkenness, or Lust—no man would sacrifice his most precious time to cards, or any other trifling and mean amusement—no man would steal or lie or any way defraud his neighbour, but would live in peace and good will with all men—no man would blaspheme his maker or prophane his Worship, but a rational and manly, a sincere and unaffected Piety and devotion, would reign in all hearts. What a Eutopa [Utopia], what a Paradise would this region be.
His son, John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), who served as the sixth president of the United States, stated that “the neglect of public worship in this city [Washington, DC] is an increasing evil, and the indifference to all religion throughout the whole country portends no good.” In a diary entry on March 19, 1843, he wrote, “I have at all times been a sincere believer in the Supreme Creator of the world, of an immortal principle within myself, responsible to that Creator for my conduct upon earth, and of the divine mission of the crucified Saviour, proclaiming immortal life and preaching peace on earth, good will towards men, the natural equality of all mankind, and the law, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’”
America's Christian History: The Untold Story
From the founding of the colonies to the declaration of the Supreme Court, America's heritage is built up on the principles of the Christian religion. And yet the secularists are dismantling this foundation brick by brick, attempting to deny the very core of our national life.Buy Now
We almost never hear of John Dickinson “one of a host of other Patriots—Samuel Adams, Elias Boudinot, Elbridge Gerry, John Hancock, John Jay, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, Gouverneur Morris, Charles Pickney, Edmund Randolph, Benjamin Rush, John Rutledge, Roger Sherman, James Wilson, … just to name a few—who made salient, if now forgotten, contributions to the new nation.”
Under John Witherspoon, who was President of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) founded in 1746, signed the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation and supported ratification of the Constitution of the United States, produced, “five delegates to the Constitutional Convention; one U.S. President (Madison); a vice president (the notorious Aaron Burr); forty-nine U.S. Representatives; twenty-eight U.S. Senators; three Supreme Court Justices; eight U.S. district judges; one secretary of state; three attorneys general; and two foreign ministers.” Princeton’s Nassau Hall served as the first seat of the New Jersey Legislature in 1776 and the Congress of the Confederation and the United States Capitol for four months in 1783.
The studied background of these men demonstrates that Enlightenment influences were tempered by an understanding that the world was created, as Benjamin Franklin believed, the ability to reason was inherent in being created in the image of God, and ethics reflect God’s moral attributes such as love, goodness, and kindness. Without God, none of these attributes are rationally possible. We need to remember that evolutionary materialism was nearly a century away with the publican of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871). The enlightenment in the Age of Enlightenment was operating with borrowed rational and moral capital. Since the Bible was “the most important source of meaning for eighteenth-century Americans,” there was no way anyone could escape its influence.
Benjamin Rush (1746–1813), who signed the Declaration of Independence, wrote, “there is no other book of its size in the whole world, that contains half so much useful knowledge for the government of states, or the direction of the affairs of individuals as the bible.” Rush was not alone in his assessment of the Bible. Similar testimonies can be found in the writings of John Jay, Roger Sherman, Robert Treat Paine, and Elias Boudinot. John Adams, who would not be considered an orthodox Christian, stated when compared to all other religions he studied “that the Bible is the best book in the world. It contains more of my little [Philosophy] than all the libraries in the world.”
Ethan Allen renounced Christianity and “embraced a religion of reason.” Given a reason-only approach, one finds it impossible to account for reason in a matter-only world. Reason, logic, and morality are not material “things.” They can’t be found in a dissection of the physical body even at the DNA level. People like Allen were drawing from the bright and extensive Christian heritage of America’s past. In time, that past would become almost a faded memory as the operating assumptions of the Darwinian worldview have become an unchallenged scientific certainty that refuses to have its operating presuppositions scrutinized and put to the test.
On November 22, 1800, John Adams delivered the following that was part of his presidential State of the Union address in the unfinished building that would serve as the home of the United States Congress:
It would be unbecoming the representatives of this nation to assemble for the first time in this solemn temple without looking up to the Supreme Ruler of the universe and imploring His blessing. May this territory be the residence of virtue and happiness! In this city may that piety and virtue, that wisdom and magnanimity, that constancy and self-government, which adorned the great character whose name it bears be forever held in veneration! Here and throughout our country may simple manners, pure morals, and true religion flourish forever!
Adams could not shake his Christian upbringing even in the so-called light of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment worked because it grew within the soil of a biblical worldview. A Christian worldview made science possible and civil government ministerial rather than messianic. Stanley Jaki, the author of numerous books on the relationship between Christianity and science, comments:
Nothing irks the secular world so much as a hint, let alone a scholarly demonstration, that supernatural revelation, as registered in the Bible, is germane to science. Yet biblical revelation is not only germane to science—it made the only viable birth of science possible. That birth took place in a once-Christian West.
Over time, Christianity ceased to be a comprehensive, world-changing religion. “[W]here religion still survives in the modern world, no matter how passionate or ‘committed’ the individual may be, it amounts to little more than a private preference, a spare-time hobby, a leisure pursuit.” Theodore Roszak used an apt phrase to describe much of modern-day Christendom: “Socially irrelevant, even if privately engaging.”
The Enlightenment separated from the Christian worldview has become self-destructive. Rational thought has been replaced with self-identity. Moral absolutes are in the eye of the beholder and anyone who claims otherwise is a bigot, racist, or a member of the “Christian Taliban.”
American Christian Rulers
Based on the private testimony and eyewitness accounts of the personal lives of these men—spanning from colonial governors and representatives to United States Senators and Presidents—Giddings’s diverse collection of the Christian character that indwelled our marble halls of state for over two centuries demonstrates the former greatness of our nation, and now acts as a clarion call to renew our political integrity in a corruption-laden 21st century.Buy Now
Quoted in “Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos: The Influence of the Reformed Tradition in the Founding,” 35. Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall, “Introduction,” Faith and the Founders of the American Republic, eds. Dreisbach and Hall (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 35.
Dreisbach and Hall, “Introduction,” Faith and the Founders of the American Republic, 5.
Hall, “Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos, 35.
“Here is my Creed. I believe in one God, the Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His Providence. That He ought to be worshipped.”
Benjamin Rush, The Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and the Diffusion of Knowledge in Pennsylvania; to Which are Added, the Thoughts upon the Mode of Education, Proper in a Republic (Philadelphia, 1786). Quoted in Dreisbach, “The Bible and the Political Culture if the American Founding,” Faith and the Founders of the American Republic, 149.
John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, December 25, 1813, in Charles Francis Adams, ed. The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, 10 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1850–1856), 10:85. Quoted in Dreisbach, “The Bible and the Political Culture if the American Founding,” Faith and the Founders of the American Republic, 150.
Stanley Jaki, “The Biblical Basis of Western Science,” Crisis 15:9 (October 1997): 17–20. www.catholiceducation.org/articles/science/sc0005.html
Os Guinness, The Gravedigger File: Papers on the Subversion of the Modern Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 72.
Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends (New York: Doubleday, 1973), 449.