The Founding Fathers and the Debate Over Religion in Revolutionary America

Paul Harvey

Several times on this blog we've discussed and reviewed John Fea's Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction. I'm presently using this in a class, to excellent results, as the students are very engaged with the material (and curious about the author!). Ed Blum's post on using the book in his Historiography course produced a series of blog comments which suggests that he must have had a vigorous class discussion coming out of the work.

Here's a very new primary source volume which should serve many as an eminently usable accompaniment for those wanting to dig into this era further or do a "compare the historian's work to the original sources" kind of exercise: Thomas Kidd and Matthew Harris, eds., The Founding Fathers and the Debate Over Religion in Revolutionary America, just published with Oxford. Click on the link and it will take you to the Amazon page for the book, where you can go through the table of contents and see if the work is right for your class.

Even better might be combining this collection of documents with students searching out those from the kinds of revolutionary Americans discussed by Gary Nash in The Unknown American Revolution or some similar text which incorporates voices reaching beyond "the founders." Ed's students discuss precisely this point in their comments on his post (linked above).

The editors include a number of the old standbys on the subject (Jefferson's Danbury letter, the Treaty of Tripoli, various fast day proclamations, and some of the Founders' musings on the subject) as well as some other material less frequently invoked (some state constitutions, the Northwest Ordinance, and some others). Below is a bit more about the book from its website; it looks like a good bet to be a classroom staple for those who teach in this era, much as is Kidd's volume with Bedford books The Great Awakening: A Brief History with Documents, which I used to excellent results last summer in leading a group of K-12 educators in a Teaching American History program in thinking about how to integrate religion in their American history lesson plans.

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.


BStrausheim said…
I believe that this work will do well in truly understanding the intentions of the founding fathers and the wide spectrum of people involved in revolutionary America. From the most devout early American to the men like the aforementioned skeptic Thomas Paine, the early republic focused on secular ideals that pushed away from England and their direct ties with state and religion. However, I feel that many of them felt that the virtuosity and reverence that religion brought with it would help structure a better nation, with complete morals. But rather than outright create a "Christian nation" focused solely around God, they could create a separate state implicitly governed by God-fearing men. Creating a civil religion, like what is mentioned in Robert Bellah's writing, they could accomplish this task of creating a secular nation ruled by Christian men. I believe Harris and Kidd's compilation would accompany these notions and serve a class structured debate about how the religiosity of man governed early America.

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