Welcome to the American Christian Heritage Group blog where we give you glimpses of our country's early Christian foundations. We hope you enjoy these, learn more about our Christian heritage and undertake reading of the many cited sources and end notes. Please feel free to register and leave comments.


May 7th, 2010

Members of Congress at Sunday Service at the Capitol

On Sunday, March 21, history was made in the U.S. Capitol. But the history I am talking about is not related to healthcare, legislation, or one political party or the other. At 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, as Members of Congress were in session to vote on healthcare legislation, I was privileged to organize a church service in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Over 250 people, including Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, their spouses and their staffs, took part in the service. No healthcare legislation was discussed. No political agenda was present. The only matter at hand was acknowledgement of faith and recognition of our national’s spiritual heritage.

Many do not know that church services were once held in the old House chamber, which is now Statuary Hall, from 1800-1857. On December 4, 1800, Congress approved the use of the Capitol building as a church. Approval was given by both the House and the Senate, with House approval being given by Frederick Muhlenberg, Speaker of the House, and Senate approval being given by Thomas Jefferson, then President of the Senate.

In fact, while serving as Vice-President, Jefferson regularly attended church at the Capitol. Additionally, the first church service that he attended in the Capitol as President was on January 3, 1802, just two days after authoring the letter in which he used the now famous “wall of separation between church and state” phrase.

Together, Republicans and Democrats brought that historical service back to the halls of Congress and reestablished a precedent to be used for years to come. I was honored to be a part of the Sunday Service at the Capitol that was once regularly attended by presidents from Jefferson to Lincoln.

Source: Congress J. Randy Forbes, e-mail newsletter April 27, 2010


February 16th, 2010

President Thomas Jefferson

Separation of Church and State is a hot issue these days. To some degree, the issue is clouded due to not understanding what it means. For instance, the phrase “separation of Church and State” is not in the Constitution. Where did it originate? What does the phrase mean? Although this short article cannot fully discuss or explain all the facets of this issue, it will set a foundation by answering these two questions with a little history background.

Where did it originate? We have previously read that most nations had a state religion. This meant that the one religion and church of that religion was the official state religion. It was one of the stronger motivations for an exodus of the people to settle in our new country. Religious persecution, state religion and the lack of true freedom literally drove the early settlers to flee their home countries and travel across the ocean to America.

Without digressing, it is important to emphasize that even after the settlers began to establish their communities and later establish covenants and constitutions, there were dominant religious forces. Many do not know at the time of the writing of the Constitution that nine of the colonies had state churches! The state churches in 1763 were the Church of England in Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, Georgia, and the southern counties of New York; the Congregational Church in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts and its dependencies. Author James McClellan writes, “Establishment” of a church meant that it was a “preferred” sect that might enjoy certain economic privileges; it did not mean that other churches were banned. For the colonial governments were far more tolerant of dissenting churches than were European governments. Sometimes religious minorities were exempted from paying tithes (church taxes enforced by the public authority); sometimes members of congregations were permitted to pay their tithes directly to the church of their choice. Such liberality on the part of the state was unknown in much of Europe at the time. [1]

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson responded to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association about their concerns of government intrusion on their freedom of religion. Jefferson assured them this was not case and the government would leave them alone. It is in this letter that the phrase “separation of Church and state” first appeared publicly. Here is the letter:

To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.


The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.

Th Jefferson
Jan. 1. 1802. [2]

What does the term “separation of Church and State” mean? Jefferson clearly did not intend for religion to be excluded from public life. He was instrumental in establishing weekly Sunday worship services at the U. S. Capitol (a practice that continued through the 19th century) and was himself a regular and faithful attendant at those church services, not even allowing inclement weather to dissuade his weekly horseback travel to the Capitol church. [3] He once explained to a friend while they were walking to church together: “No nation has ever existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man and I, as Chief Magistrate of this nation, am bound to give it the sanction of my example.” President Jefferson even closed presidential documents with “In the year of our Lord Christ” [4]

Justice Hugo L. Black, U.S. Supreme Court

Unfortunately, a United States Supreme Court case in 1947, Everson V. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947) was the beginning of a powerful separationist drive by the Court, during which many programs and practices given government sanction were found to have religious purposes or effects and thus invalidated. Justice Hugo L. Black referred to the ‘wall’ as high and impregnable, meaning separating religion from government at all levels: federal, state and local. This ruling changed the entire meaning of the Constitutional establishment clause.

Author Michael Paulson says, “The original intention behind the establishment clause…seems fairly clearly to have been to forbid establishment of a national religion and to prevent federal interference with a state’s choice of whether or not to have an official state religion.” [5]

Thus, what Jefferson and the founding fathers intended was simple; the government will not establish a state church. What Everson V. Board of Education Supreme Court court ruling did was re-interpret separation to mean the opposite.

[1] Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government (3rd ed. 1989), Part 2, Civil Liberties in the Colonies, by James McClellan (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000)
[2] The Library of Congress, Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists, The Final Letter, as Sent; Informational Bulletin, June 1998 – Vol. 57, No. 6 (Martha Graham Collection)
[3] February 18, 1801, available in the Maryland Diocesan Archives; The First Forty Years of Washington Society, Galliard Hunt, editor (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), p. 13
[4] Life, Journal, and Correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler (Cincinnati: Colin Robert Clarke & Co., 1888), Vol. II, p. 119, in a letter to Dr. Joseph Torrey on January 3, 1803; see also his entry of December 26, 1802 (Vol. II, p. 114)
[5] Michael A. Paulsen, Religion, Equality, and the Constitution: An Equal Protection Approach to Establishment Clause Adjudication, 61 Notre Dame L. Rev. 311, 317 (1986)


February 10th, 2010

View from the pulpit; Paul Wainwright Photographer

Meeting Houses played an important part of our country’s early history. There was little distinction between the settler’s Christian faith and the community-at-large. Seeking religious liberty, the settlers were primarily English Protestants and came to America as Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Quakers and Baptists. Dedicated and serious about their faith, the very earliest Christian worship and meetings were held outdoors.

Beginning in 1648, the central focus of every New England town was the meetinghouse. These structures were usually the largest building in the town. These were always very simple buildings, with no statues, decorations, or stained glass. Not even a cross hung on the wall. The meetinghhouses were used for both religious worship and town business and were the central focus of the community, and were an important point of contact for all. The origin of the “town meeting” form of government, can be traced to meeting houses of the colonies [1]

When the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth they at once assigned a Lord’s

Olde Meeting House, Sandown, NH; Paul Wainwright Photographer

Day meeting-place for the Separatist church, —” a timber fort both strong and comely, with flat roof and battlements;” and to this fort, every Sunday, the men and women walked reverently, three in a row, and in it they worshipped until they built for themselves a meeting-house in 1648.

As soon as each successive outlying settlement was located and established, the new community built a house for the purpose of assembling therein for the public worship of God ; this house was called a meeting-house. Cotton Mather said distinctly that he ” found no just ground in Scripture to apply such a trope as church to a house for public assembly.” The church, in the Puritan’s way of thinking, worshipped in the meeting-house, and he was as bitterly opposed to calling this edifice a church as he was to calling the Sabbath Sunday. His favorite term for that day was the Lord’s Day.

The settlers were eager and glad to build their meeting-houses; for these houses of God were to them the visible sign of the establishment of that theocracy which they had left their fair homes and had come to New England to create and perpetuate. But lest some future settlements should be slow or indifferent about doing their duty promptly, it was enacted in 1675 that a meeting-house should be erected in every town in the colony; and if the people failed to do so at once, the magistrates were empowered to build it, and to charge the cost of its erection to the town. [2]

There were also ‘churches’ that were built. It appears that these were not community established, but were Anglican and Lutheran houses of worship and, in mostly Maryland, Roman Catholic churches, all founded by their respective denominations.

What make the meetinghouses so important are the beginnings of American democracy. A distinctive political format began in these meetinghouses called town meetings. These town meetings were an outgrowth out of the church meetings of elders. It is interesting to see that our Christian roots are deeply based in the faith of the settlers and the government of the church. These town meetings provided the citizens a place to gather to discuss issues of the day. Only men of property could vote. Nonetheless, town meetings afforded New Englanders an unusually high level of participation in government. Such meetings still function in many New England communities today

Old South Meeting House

In Boston, Massachusetts the Old South Meeting House still stands today as a testimony to the power and influence of these town meetings. The Old South Meeting House was Colonial Boston’s largest building. In New England, meetinghouses were often used for public gatherings as well as for worship. In Boston, meetings too large for Boston’s town hall, Faneuil Hall, were often held at the Old South Meeting House because of its great size and central location. The steeple of Old South Meeting House also served a community purpose, housing an enormous clock, installed by the town in 1770, which is still in place today. The congregation that built the Old South Meeting House in 1729 was descended from the Puritans who founded Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 17th century.

In the years leading to the American Revolution, colonists gathered at the Meeting House to challenge British rule. In the late 1760’s and early 1770’s, many Bostonians became increasingly outraged at the way they were treated by the British government. Boston’s anger at British taxes and policies exploded during town meetings. As the largest building in town, the Old South Meeting House became a favorite stage in Boston’s drama of revolution. Here are a few events that came out of these meetings;


Boston’s patriots were outraged by the arrival of British troops sent to keep order in 1768. They considered the redcoats quartered in Boston a blatant challenge to their liberty. On March 5, 1770, tensions erupted when British soldiers fired into a menacing crowd, killing 5 men. The next day a mass meeting of several thousand people gathered at Old South. Led by Samuel Adams, the angry assembly forced Acting Royal Governor Hutchinson to remove the British troops to a fort in the harbor. The patriots’ victory demonstrated Adams’s genius for organizing political dissent and getting results. Each year from 1771 to 1775, large meetings were held at Old South to commemorate the anniversary of the Boston Massacre, with rousing speeches by patriots such as John Hancock and Dr. Joseph Warren.


Yet it was the meeting that took place on December 16, 1773 that sealed Old South’s fate as one of this country’s most significant buildings. On that day, over 5, 000 men crowded into Old South and joined in a fiery debate on the controversial tea tax. When the final attempt at compromise failed, Samuel Adams gave the signal that started the Boston Tea Party. The Sons of Liberty led the way dumping 342 chests of tea into the harbor at Griffin’s Wharf. [3]

[1] New England, InfoPlease.com
[2] The Sabbath in Puritan New England, Alice Morse Earle, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891
[3] Old South Meeting House, History and Mission, www.oldsouthmeetinghouse.org

Endnote: A Space for Faith, The Colonial Meeting Houses of New England, a book of photographs by large-format photographer Paul Wainwright available this spring. Visit his web site to view photos and selections from the book and place an order at www.colonialmeetinghouses.com

• The New England Meeting Houses of the Seventeenth Century, Marian Card Donnelly
Meetinghouse & Church in Early New England, Edmund W. Sinnott
Houses of Worship: An Identification Guide to the History and Styles of American Religious Architecture, Jeffrey Howe
Early Connecticut Meeting Houses, J. Frederick Kelly (1947)
Colonial Meetinghouses of New Hampshire, Eva Speare (1955)
Some Old-Time Meeting Houses of the Connecticut Valley, Charles A. Wright (1911)
An Inventory of Nonconformist Chapels and Meeting Houses, Christopher Stell (Four Volumes)


February 9th, 2010

George Fox

The Christian religion played a dominant role in the formation of our country. Starting with the Puritans and followed by the Quakers, Presbyterians, Baptists and other church bodies, these groups literally gave birth to America. The leaders of these churches were very influential in the formation of our government. Christian men of God established the first communities and colonies of America.

It is important for us to visit these major leaders and to know them and the work they accomplished. George Fox (1624-1691) was an English Dissenter and a founder of the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers or Friends. The son of a weaver from rural England, Fox was apprenticed to a cobbler. Living in a time of great social upheaval and war, he rebelled against the religious and political consensus by proposing an unusual and uncompromising approach to the Christian faith. Abandoning his trade, he toured Britain as a dissenting preacher, for which he was often persecuted by the authorities who disapproved of his beliefs. His ministry expanded and he undertook tours of North America and the Low Countries, between which he was imprisoned for over a year. He spent the final decade of his life working in London to organize the expanding Quaker movement.

Though his movement attracted disdain from some, others such as William Penn and Oliver Cromwell viewed Fox with respect. His journal, first published after his death, is known even among non-Quakers for its vivid account of his personal journey. [1]

The great secret of Fox’s power was his faith in God. He started with scarcely any advantages, but soon he influenced the whole world for God. His one desire was the extension of Christ’s kingdom on earth. Through his influence England, Ireland, and Scotland were soon ablaze. In 1661 several of his followers were moved to go beyond the seas to publish truth in foreign countries. In 1664 he married Margaret Fell. In 1670-73 he sailed for the West Indies and North America. Though he was persecuted even there, the work spread. [2]

“Above all, George Fox excelled in prayer. The inwardness and weight of his spirit, the reverence and solemnity of his address and behaviour, and the fewness and fulness of his words have often struck even strangers with admiration as they used to reach others with consolation. The most awful, living, reverend frame I ever felt or beheld, I must say, was the prayer of George Fox. And truly it was a testimony. He knew and lived nearer to the Lord than other men, for they that know Him most will see most reason to approach Him with reverence and fear.”
By William Penn

Regarding the Quakers’ care for Friends within the Society: widows, orphans,

Colonial Quaker Meeting With a Woman Preaching

sick, poor, imprisoned, old, young; they were all cared for by the Quakers. If one assembly was overburdened with expense of care, other assemblies would contribute to their assistance, worldwide. Their care for their own was so thorough that “there was not a beggar among them,” and when a local government would discover that they were providing assistance, which the government was obligated to fund, the government would suddenly drop their opposition to their meetings and assemblies.

Regarding their care for all men: from the Journal, “Sometimes there would be two hundred of the poor of other people (non-Quakers) to come and wait until the meeting was done, (for all the country knew we met about the poor); and after the meeting, Friends would send to the bakers for bread, and give everyone of those poor people a loaf, however many there were of them; for we were taught ‘to do good all, though especially to the household of faith.'”

Thus the early Quakers evidenced three characteristics of true disciples: love among them through possession of the fruit of the Spirit, 2) being massively persecuted by those born of the flesh, and 3) the power of miracles and signs accompanying their ministries.

Under Fox’s leadership, the early Quakers initiated social reforms that are still beneficial to us today. They forced prices to be marked in stores, rather than all pricing being negotiable, even for food and clothing. They reformed the treatment of the mentally insane from being chained in dungeons. They initiated education for women in the trades. They provided rest homes for the aged, unable to work. In 1688, Pennsylvania Quakers passed an anti-slavery resolution in their colonial governing body, initiating slavery’s long demise in America. Their suffering and patient appeals to the governments resulted in religious toleration and freedom throughout Europe. Their ideals even influenced the United States Constitution in its separation of powers, the separation of Church and State, and the United States Bill of Rights, (William Penn’s Frame of Government for Pennsylvania implemented a democratic system with full freedom of religion, freedom from unjust imprisonment, fair trials, elected representatives of the people in power, and a separation of powers. Ahead of his time, Penn also submitted a written plan for a United States of Europe.)

The Quakers became a sedate, sober, thrifty people, of most exemplary lives, and most earnest in all good works. They were leaders in the most advanced philanthropic movements of the age. Besides their persistent and sincere advocacy of religious liberty, they were the first advocates of the abolition of slavery, and they never faltered in their purpose until slavery had ceased to exist in the British possessions and in the United States. “They weakly err,” observes William Penn, “who think there is no other use of government than correction, which is the coarsest part of it.” To provide the means of a good education for every child, and to see that all are taught some good trade or profession, would do more for the promotion of peace and happiness than all the machinery of courts and prisons. The principles that actuated the Friends who emigrated to the Holy Experiment of Pennsylvania, are set forth in a contemporary publication, called the Planter’s Speech made by Penn, as follows:

“The motives of our retreating to these new habitations I apprehend to have been, the desire of a peaceable life, where we might worship God and obey his law with freedom, according to the dictates of the divine principle. … Our business, therefore, in this new land, is, not so much to build houses and establish factories, and promote trade and manufactures, that may enrich themselves, (though all these things, in their due place, are not to be neglected), as to erect temples of holiness and righteousness, which God may delight in; to lay such lasting frames and foundations of temperance and virtue as may support the superstructure of our future happiness, both in this and the other world.”

The interior of the Plymouth Quaker Meeting House in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, built in 1708

The Quaker colony of Pennsylvania was first sought by George Fox, twenty years before William Penn made it a reality. In France and on the continent of Europe the great men and writers seized upon The Holy Experiment of Pennsylvania as the most remarkable occurrence of the age. Voltaire was delighted, and from that time he loved the Quakers; and even thought of going to Pennsylvania to live among them. To these men . . .the thought of Christians keeping their promises inviolate for forty years with heathen Indians was idealism realized. It was like refreshment in a great weary desert of previous Christian failures. [3]

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Fox
[2] George Fox, The Unshakeable Shaker, Leonard Ravenhill, DAYSPRING 1963, Bethany House Publishers
[3] http://www.hallvworthington.com/wikipediasummary.html


February 8th, 2010

Colonial America Pilgrims in the 1600s

Many religious groups (such as the Quakers and Puritans) formed the first 13 colonies on the basis of their religious beliefs. With the arrival of the Quakers in Pennsylvania in 1656, the path was officially paved for other religions to migrate to the colonies. The number of other religions in the colonies began to increase. Baptists appeared in a majority of the colonies, Roman Catholics and Protestants organized in Maryland and even some German religions surfaced in a few of the colonies. Later came the Lutherans, who formed in the German communities in Pennsylvania, and the Presbyterians, who even had an appearance in the Massachusetts Proposals of 1705.

Religious diversity had become a dominant part of colonial life. The colonies were a patchwork of religiously diverse communities and, as a result, the population of America increased quickly. People from all over the world wanted the freedom that was found in America and they began to move their homelands to America. Groups such as the Scotch-Irish were among the first to begin that emigration to America.

Religion also became a dominant part of American politics. The Cambridge Platform was established in the 1640’s. This document was a part of the Puritan theology and adopted the Westminister Confession. Then, in 1649, the Act Concerning Religion was enacted. This act has even been considered one of the greatest additions to the freedom of religion in America. Later political documents included the Massachusetts Proposals and the Adopting Act of 1729. The Bill of Rights added to religious freedom with the First Amendment.

Eventually, the issue of church and state became a topic of debate. According to Clifton Olmstead, author of History of Religion in United States, the separation of church and state was completed by the Constitution in 1777. There were numerous groups of people who disagreed with the separation. Some even thought that it would have no effect on the growth of religion in the United States. Olmstead quotes a Congregationalist minister about his idea of the separation: “It was as dark a day as ever I saw. The odium thrown upon the ministry was inconceivable. The injury done to the cause of Christ, as we then supposed, was irreparable. For several days I suffered what no tongue can tell for the best thing that ever happened to the State of Connecticut. It cut the churches loose from dependence on state support. It threw them wholly on their own resources and on God. . . .They say ministers have lost their influence; the fact is, they have gained. By voluntary efforts, societies, missions, and revivals, they exert a deeper influence than ever they could by queues and shoe buckles, and cocked hats and gold-headed canes”.

Overall, religion was an important aspect in the colonization of America. It became a dominant part of the lives of the colonists and continued to grow over the years. Events such as the Salem Witchcraft Trials of the 1690’s and the Great Awakening of the 1730’s only increased the influence of religion in America. America had become a refuge for those who wanted religious freedom and became a home to the many people that had the chance to improve their lives. [1] [2]

[1] Religion in Colonial America, Lawanda Brewer, Heather Jaques, Ranada Jones, Joshua King; Students, University of North Carolina at Pembroke, 2001
[2] Works Cited: Olmstead, Clifton E. History of Religion in the United States; Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1960.