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.


February 28th, 2010

Reverend Hiram Rhodes Revels

In this blog we are going to consider Hiram Rhodes Revels, born in 1827 and died in 1901. Although he was not among our country’s founders and his time represents a much later period in our country, he is the fruit of a continuing Christian influence in our nation. Although his name is not familiar to most, he was a man of high honor, fighting for his people and this nation.

Revels was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and was a free man of African-American and American Indian descent. In his pursuit to gain an education, he left North Carolina and first attended the Union County Quaker Seminary in Liberty, Indiana, and from 1856–57, Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He also studied at a black seminary in Ohio. Revels was ordained a minister. As a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Revels preached in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas, and Maryland in the 1850s. “At times, I met with a great deal of opposition,” he later recalled. “I was imprisoned in Missouri in 1854 for preaching the gospel to Negroes, though I was never subjected to violence.” In 1845 he became a minister in Baltimore, Maryland and set up a private school.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Revels helped raise two African-American Union regiments from Maryland. He then moved to Missouri where continued recruiting of African-Americans for the Union Army. He was then selected to be Union Army Chaplain for a regiment of African-Americans from Mississippi. He, at one point, was the provost marshall at Vicksburg, where he took part in one the bloodiest and most prolonged sieges along the Mississippi River.

After the war and in 1865, Revels returned to his ministry and was assigned briefly to AME churches in Leavenworth, Kansas, and New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1866, he was given a permanent pastorship in Natchez, Mississippi, where he settled with his wife and five daughters, continued his ministerial work, and founded schools for black children.

During Reconstruction, Revels was elected alderman in Natchez in 1868, and he was elected to represent Adams County in the Mississippi State Senate in 1869. As John R. Lynch reports, “so far as known he [Revels] had never voted, had never attended a political meeting, and of course, had never made a political speech. But he was a colored man, and presumed to be a Republican, and believed to be a man of ability and considerably above the average in point of intelligence.” [Lynch 1913] In January 1870, Revels presented a remarkable opening prayer in the state legislature. As Lynch says, “That prayer—one of the most impressive and eloquent prayers that had ever been delivered in the [Mississippi] Senate Chamber—made Revels a United States Senator. He made a profound impression upon all who heard him. It impressed those who heard it that Revels was not only a man of great natural ability but that he was also a man of superior attainments.”

Mississippi, being readmitted to the Union, had an open Senate seat that was last held by Jefferson Davis who had resigned to become President of the Confederate States of America. At the time, the state legislature elected US senators. Revels was elected by a vote of 81 to 15 in the Mississippi State Senate to finish the term of one of the state’s two seats in the US Senate left vacant since the Civil War. The seat had once been held by Albert G. Brown, who withdrew from the US Senate in 1861.

The election of Revels was met with opposition from Southern conservative Democrats who cited the Dred Scott Decision which was considered by many to have been a central cause of the American Civil War. They argued that no black man was a citizen before the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868. Because election to the Senate required nine years’ prior citizenship, opponents of Revels claimed he could not be seated, having been a citizen by law for only two years. Supporters of Revels countered by stating that the Dred Scott decision applied only to those blacks who were of pure African blood. Revels was of mixed black and white ancestry, and therefore exempt, they said, and had been a citizen all his life. This argument prevailed, and on February 25, 1870, Revels, by a vote of 48 to 8, became the first black man to be seated in the United States Senate. Revels was praised in the newspapers for his oratorical abilities. His conduct in the Senate, along with that of the other African Americans who had been seated in the House of Representatives, also prompted a white contemporary, James G. Blaine, to say, “The colored men who took their seats in both Senate and House were as a rule studious, earnest, ambitious men, whose public conduct would be honorable to any race.”

After finishing her term in the United States Senate, Revels was named President of Alcorn College, the first college for African-Americans in Mississippi. Revels remained active in his ministry. For a time, he served as editor of the Southwestern Christian Advocate and taught theology at Shaw College (now Rust College), founded in 1866 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, where Revels and his family made their home. Hiram Revels died on January 16, 1901, while attending a church conference in Aberdeen, Mississippi.

It was by prayer that Revels was elevated to the United States Senate. It was by faith that he fought for justice for his people and mercy in reconciliation with the former Confederate states. His life was an expression of self-sacrifice and dedication to the spiritual and educational advancement of African-Americans.

Compiled from these sources:
1. U.S. Senate: Art & History Home; Photo Exhibit at www.senate.gov
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiram_Rhodes_Revels
3. On This Day, Dr. Paul E. Barkey, self-published 2009


February 25th, 2010


Against a prevailing view that eighteenth-century Americans had not perpetuated the first settlers’ passionate commitment to their faith, scholars now identify a high level of religious energy in colonies after 1700. According to one expert, religion was in the “ascension rather than the declension”; another sees a “rising vitality in religious life” from 1700 onward; a third finds religion in many parts of the colonies in a state of “feverish growth.” Figures on church attendance and church formation support these opinions. Between 1700 and 1740, an estimated 75 to 80 percent of the population attended churches, which were being built at a headlong pace.

Toward mid-century the country experienced its first major religious revival. The Great Awakening swept the English-speaking world, as religious energy vibrated between England, Wales, Scotland and the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. In America, the Awakening signaled the advent of an encompassing evangelicalism–the belief that the essence of religious experience was the “new birth,” inspired by the preaching of the Word. It invigorated even as it divided churches. The supporters of the Awakening and its evangelical thrust–Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists–became the largest American Protestant denominations by the first decades of the nineteenth century. Opponents of the Awakening or those split by it–Anglicans, Quakers, and Congregationalists–were left behind.

Another religious movement that was the antithesis of evangelicalism made its appearance in the eighteenth century. Deism, which emphasized morality and rejected the orthodox Christian view of the divinity of Christ, found advocates among upper-class Americans. Deists, never more than “a minority within a minority,” were submerged by evangelicalism in the nineteenth century.


Churches in eighteenth-century America came in all sizes and shapes, from the plain, modest buildings in newly settled rural areas to elegant edifices in the prosperous cities on the eastern seaboard. Churches reflected the customs and traditions as well as the wealth and social status of the denominations that built them. Hence, a new Anglican Church in rural Goose Creek, South Carolina, was fitted out with an impressive wood-carved pulpit, while a fledgling Baptist Church in rural Virginia had only the bare essentials. German churches contained features unknown in English ones.


Evangelicalism is difficult to date and to define. In 1531, at the beginning of the Reformation, Sir Thomas More referred to religious adversaries as “Evaungelicalles.” Scholars have argued that, as a self-conscious movement, evangelicalism did not arise until the mid-seventeenth century, perhaps not until the Great Awakening itself. The fundamental premise of evangelicalism is the conversion of individuals from a state of sin to a “new birth” through preaching of the Word.

The first generation of New England Puritans required that church members undergo a conversion experience that they could describe publicly. Their successors were not as successful in reaping harvests of redeemed souls. During the first decades of the eighteenth century in the Connecticut River Valley a series of local “awakenings” began. By the 1730s they had spread into what was interpreted as a general outpouring of the Spirit that bathed the American colonies, England, Wales, and Scotland. In mass open-air revivals powerful preachers like George Whitefield brought thousands of souls to the new birth. The Great Awakening, which had spent its force in New England by the mid-1740s, split the Congregational and Presbyterian Churches into supporters–called “New Lights” and “New Side”–and opponents–the “Old Lights” and “Old Side.” Many New England New Lights became Separate Baptists. Together with New Side Presbyterians (eventually reunited on their own terms with the Old Side) they carried the Great Awakening into the southern colonies, igniting a series of the revivals that lasted well into the nineteenth century.

More tomorrow in Part 3.

[1] Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Library of Congress; Exhibition, America As Refuge, Section 1, Part 2 [edited]


February 24th, 2010


The colonies that in 1776 became the United States of America were settled by men and women of deep religious convictions who in the seventeenth century crossed the Atlantic Ocean to practice their faith freely. That the religious intensity of the original settlers would diminish to some extent over time was perhaps to be expected, but new waves of eighteenth century immigrants brought their own religious fervor across the Atlantic and the nation’s first major religious revival in the middle of the eighteenth century injected new vigor into American religion. The result was that a religious people rose in rebellion against Great Britain in 1776, and that most American statesmen, when they began to form new governments at the state and national levels, shared the convictions of most of their constituents that religion was, to quote Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation, indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.

Many of the British North American colonies that eventually formed the United States of America were settled in the seventeenth century by men and women, who, in the face of European persecution, refused to compromise passionately held religious convictions and fled Europe. The New England colonies, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were conceived and established “as plantations of religion.” Some settlers who arrived in these areas came for secular motives–“to catch fish” as one New Englander put it–but the great majority left Europe to worship God in the way they believed to be correct. They enthusiastically supported the efforts of their leaders to create “a city on a hill” or a “holy experiment,” whose success would prove that God’s plan for his churches could be successfully realized in the American wilderness. Even colonies like Virginia, which were planned as commercial ventures, were led by entrepreneurs who considered themselves “militant Protestants” and who worked diligently to promote the prosperity of the church.


The religious persecution that drove settlers from Europe to the British North American colonies sprang from the conviction, held by Protestants and Catholics alike, that uniformity of religion must exist in any given society. This conviction rested on the belief that there was one true religion and that it was the duty of the civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary, in the interest of saving the souls of all citizens. Nonconformists could expect no mercy and might be executed as heretics. The dominance of the concept, denounced by Roger Williams as “inforced uniformity of religion,” meant majority religious groups who controlled political power punished dissenters in their midst. In some areas Catholics persecuted Protestants, in others Protestants persecuted Catholics, and in still others Catholics and Protestants persecuted wayward coreligionists. Although England renounced religious persecution in 1689, it persisted on the European continent. Religious persecution, as observers in every century have commented, is often bloody and implacable and is remembered and resented for generations.


Puritans were English Protestants who wished to reform and purify the Church of England of what they considered to be unacceptable residues of Roman Catholicism. In the 1620s leaders of the English state and church grew increasingly unsympathetic to Puritan demands. They insisted that the Puritans conform to religious practices that they abhorred, removing their ministers from office and threatening them with “extirpation from the earth” if they did not fall in line. Zealous Puritan laymen received savage punishments. For example, in 1630 a man was sentenced to life imprisonment, had his property confiscated, his nose slit, an ear cut off, and his forehead branded “S.S.” (sower of sedition).

Beginning in 1630 as many as 20,000 Puritans emigrated to America from England to gain the liberty to worship God as they chose. Most settled in New England, but some went as far as the West Indies. Theologically, the Puritans were “non-separating Congregationalists.” Unlike the Pilgrims, who came to Massachusetts in 1620, the Puritans believed that the Church of England was a true church, though in need of major reforms. Every New England Congregational church was considered an independent entity, beholden to no hierarchy. The membership was composed, at least initially, of men and women who had undergone a conversion experience and could prove it to other members. Puritan leaders hoped (futilely, as it turned out) that, once their experiment was successful, England would imitate it by instituting a church order modeled after the New England Way. [1]

[1] Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Library of Congress; Exhibition, America As Refuge, Section 1, Part 1 [edited]


February 23rd, 2010

The Scripture verse found in Psalm 119:105 states that, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Our early forefathers and those that were instrumental in forming our government were a people who acknowledged God and his sovereignty over our lives. Although secularists question the faith of our founding fathers, there is no question they had a fundamental belief and understanding of God and His word. Dr. Donald Lutz, Professor of Political Science and Author of early American history at the University of Houston, said in an interview that founders knew the Bible “down to their fingertips.”

Historical evidence establishes that the Bible had more influence on the founding fathers of America than any other book. Our founding fathers were a diverse group that held beliefs from deism to full faith and trust in Jesus Christ. Their particular practice of faith ranged from belief in personal salvation to formal church members holding theological positions that ranged from Reformation beliefs, Calvinism, to more liberal and Unitarianism. Some believed in a state church and others were separatists.

One sure thing we know; these founding fathers believed in God Almighty and His word influenced them. It is without question that this common thread brought these men together and God’s Divine Providence drew them to find common ground to establish our government.

John Adams stated, “Now I will avow, that I then believed, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, area as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System.” [1]

Samuel Adams fought vigorously for independence. He committed his life to Christ during the Great Awakening revival while attending Harvard. George Bancroft, historian, wrote,

“The austere purity of his life witnessed the sincerity of his profession. Evening and morning his house was a house of prayer, and no one more revered the Christian Sabbath.” [2] Adams wrote, “The right to freedom being the gift of God Almighty… The rights of the Colonists as Christians…maybe best understood by reading and carefully studying the institutions of The Great Law Giver and the Head of the Christian Church, which are to found clearly written and promulgated in the New Testament.” [3]

There are many more writings and speeches by the founding fathers that continue to reinforce our Christian foundations. One has to wonder why secularists continue to deny and attempt to prove this is not true. It is the very Christian faith they attack and the laws founded on the Biblical laws that give them the freedom to question and form their opinions. Although they try to eradicate Christ and legislate Him from our society, their very actions may prove to be their enemy in the end. It is in our interests to reaffirm our faith and study our Christian foundations so that our Christian roots will not be lost by the increasing secularism in our educational system.

[1] John Adams, June 28, 1813, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson. Norman Cousins, In God We Trust: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers (New York Harper & Brothers, 1958) 230.
[2] George Bancroft, History of the United States of America, From the Discovery of the Continent, Volume 5, Page 195, Harper & Brothers, 1958
[3] The Annuals of America, Encyclopedia Britannica, Chicago, 1976, 2:218-219


February 22nd, 2010

Throughout history, civil governments have consecrated special days to prayer and the public worship of God. This national custom has a Divine origin and sanction. The Hebrew commonwealth had three great annual religious festivals, besides days of special prayer and worship.

The Puritans established Thanksgiving and fast days in the earliest days of their colonies. These were considered instructive and an important part of their Christian history. The custom extended to the other American colonists under the English government. The fathers of the republic, in the earliest period of the Revolution adopted the custom of consecrating, by acts of legislation, days of thanksgiving and prayer for special religious worship. [1]

We will look at some of these holidays and the proclamations in upcoming articles on our Christian heritage.

[1] Compiled from The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States, Benjamin F. Morris, American Vision Press


February 21st, 2010

The presidential election of 1824 did not give a majority to any of the

Stephen van Rensselaer

candidates. There also was no majority in the Electoral College. Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams were the major contenders. Henry Clay of Kentucky and William H. Crawford of Georgia were the other two candidates.

The Twelfth Amendment (adopted in 1804 following the disputed Election of 1800) provided that elections in which no candidate received a majority should be decided by the House of Representatives from among the top three candidates. Clay was out of contention and Crawford was an unlikely prospect because of a serious illness.

Jackson clearly expected to win, figuring that the House would act to confirm his strong showing. However, Clay, as Speaker of the House, used his influence to sway the vote to Adams. Although they were not close, Clay knew that he and Adams shared a common political philosophy; Clay also knew that Jackson was an avowed opponent of the Bank of the United States, a vital component of the American System. Clay also was not interested in doing anything to further the career of the hero of New Orleans, his main rival in the West. [1]

In spite of Clay’s influence, the House of Representatives was divided and it came down to the vote of single representative from upstate New York, Stephen van Rensselaer III. Van Rensselaer was born in New York City, the eldest child of Stephen Van Rensselaer, the ninth patroon (1742–1769, a great-grandson of Mayor of New York Stephanus Van Cortlandt) and Catharina Livingston (daughter of Philip Livingston). His family was very wealthy, and the Van Rensselaer Manor House was a rich childhood environment for the young boy to grow up in. However, his father died in 1769, when van Rensselaer was only five, and the heir to his father’s estate. Van Rensselaer was raised by his mother and his stepfather, the Rev. Eilardus Westerlo, whom his mother married in 1775. [2] He served in the New York State Assembly (1789) and Senate (1791) , as lieutenant governor of New York State (1795), general of the state militia, as a member of the United States House of Representatives (1822-29). He was the founder of Renssselaer Polytechnic Institute. [3]

Each state was given one-vote in the House of Representatives. Adams had the support of twelve states, one short of what was needed. When Representative van Rensselaer entered the Chamber for the vote, he was ushered into the speaker’s room where Clay and Daniel Webster tried to persuade him to vote for Adams. They were unsuccessful in convincing him, but the combination of two of the best persuaders in American history still had its effect. Before voting, van Rensselaer bowed his head in prayer. When he opened his eyes the first thing he saw was a slip of paper with Adam’s name on it. Accepting it is a sign from God, he put the slip of paper into the ballot box, making John Quincy Adams the sixth president of the United States. [4]

[1] U-S-History.com
[2] Stephen Van Rensselaer, Wikipedia; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Van_Rensselaer_III
[3] Stephen Van Rensselaer III, by Stefan Bielinski, New York State Museum
[4] On This Day, Dr. Paul E. Barkey, self-published


February 18th, 2010

There is no question that the United States of America holds a great influence in the world. That influence and power has militarily rescued many nations in their hour of need, and rushed to the aid of many other nations when devastated by hunger, natural disasters, medical crises and others needs. The founding of our country and subsequent early years were a time of formation that came at a very high cost. Henry Armitt Brown, a very young man of 30 years and a great orator, was asked to deliver a speech on the 100th Anniversary of Valley Forge in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He demonstrated through our history how the United States became guardian of liberty. It would be well worth your time to read the entire speech. It may be found in Goggle Digital books at: http://tiny.cc/yZPrg . Here is an excerpt of that speech.

Orator Henry Armitt Brown (at the age of 30) remarked concerning America’s responsibility as the guardian of liberty for the world in his famous Centennial Oration at Valley Forge in 1878. Speaking of the sacrifice made at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War he observed:

“They who once encamped here in the snow fought not for conquest, not for power, not for glory, not for their country only, not for themselves alone. They served here for Posterity; they suffered here for the Human Race; they bore the cross of all the peoples; they died here that Freedom might be the heritage of all. It was Humanity which they defended; it was Liberty herself that they had in keeping. She that was sought in the wilderness and mourned for by the waters of Babylon – she of whom Socrates spoke, and Plato wrote, and Milton prayed.

“Driven by the persecution of centuries from the older world, she had come with the Pilgrim, and Puritan, and Cavalier and Quaker, to seek a shelter in the new. Attacked once more by her old enemies, she had taken refuge here. Nor she alone. The dream of the Greek, the Hebrew’s prophecy, the desire of the Roman, the Italian’s prayer, the longing of the German mind, the hope of the French heir, the glory and honor of Old England herself, the yearning of all the centuries, the aspiration of every age, the promise of the Past, the fulfillment of the Future, the seed of the old time, the harvest of the new – all these were with her.

“And here, in the heart of America they were safe. The last of many struggles was almost won; the best of many centuries was about to break; the time was already come when from these shores the light of a new civilization should flash across the sea, and from this place a voice of triumph make the Old World tremble, when from her chosen refuge in the West the spirit of Liberty should go forth to meet the Rising Sun and set the people free.” [1]

He concluded the oration with this statement:

“And here, in this place of Sacrifice, in this vale of Humiliation, in this valley of the Shadow of that Death out of which the Life of America rose regenerate and free, let us believe with an abiding faith that to them Union will seem as dear, and Liberty as sweet, and Progress as glorious as they were to our fathers, and are to you and me, and that the Institutions which have made us happy, preserved by the virtue of our children, shall bless the remotest generations of the time to come. And unto Him who holds in the hollow of His hand the fate of nations, and yet marks the sparrow’s fall, let us lift up our hearts this day, and into His eternal care commend ourselves, our children, and our country.”

The Historian, Charles Bancroft, also recorded the following in 1879 :

“Our fathers cleared the ground and laid the foundation deep down on the living rock, that is to say, on Human Rights … We begin to see that Time, thought, and Experience have not wrought in vain, that Progress is not a phantom of the imagination, that the human race is essentially a Unit, that it has been growing through all the centuries and is now approaching the prime of its manhood, just ready to enter on its special career with its grandest work still to do.

“The energies of all the races are preparing for unheard of achievements. The world has never been so completely and so wisely busy as now, and America stands between modern Europe and ancient Asia, receiving from and giving to both. Her institutions are founded on principles so just and so human that when administered with due wisdom and skill, they will embarrass and restrain the proper activities of man at no point.

“America stands a model which other nations will carefully copy, in due time, as they can adapt themselves and change their institutions. there may be no literal copy or close formal imitation; but there is little doubt that the spirit and true sense of our Declaration of Independence will finally mould the structure and control the working of all governments.” [2]

Truly the United States of America is the guardian of liberty.

“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end!” [3]

[1] The Valley Forge Oration June 19, 1878, Henry Armitt Brown, with Biographical Sketch and Explanatory Notes by A.J. Demarest, A.M., Christopher Sower Company, 1911
[2] Charles Bancroft, The Footprints of Time, 1879, The Christian History of the Constitution, Ibid., pp. 5-6.
[3] Isaiah 9:6-7.


February 18th, 2010

Here are some interesting quotes of a few Founding Fathers of the United States:

“We have no government armed in power capable of contending in human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”

John Adams, 2nd President of the United States
1798, Address to the militia of Massachusetts

“I have lived, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”

Benjamin Franklin
July 28, 1787, Address at the Constitutional Convention

“Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.”

John Jay, 1st Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
Feb. 28, 1797, Letter to clergyman Jedidiah Morse

“The laws of nature are the laws of God, whose authority can be superseded by no power on earth.”

George Mason, Delegate to the Constitutional Convention
and called the ‘father’ of the U.S. Bill of Rights
1772, Robin v. Hardaway,
General Court of Virginia

Source: http://undergod.procon.org/viewresource.asp?resourceID=000070


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 14th, 2010

Generosity in this nation is part of our religious freedom and faith. As a nation, we are known for our generosity. The following article appeared in the January 2010 issue of IMPRIMUS, a publication of Hillsdale College. Imprimis, which in Latin means “in the first place,” is Hillsdale’s national speech digest. It publishes presentations delivered at the College’s many seminar and lecture programs. Begun in 1972 with a circulation of 1,000, it now reaches over 1.8 million readers monthly, the largest thing of its kind. Imprimis promotes the principles of individual rights, limited government, free market economics, personal responsibility and strong national defense. It comes at no cost to anyone who wishes to receive it, as part of Hillsdale’s commitment to “pursuing truth and defending liberty.”

In understanding our Christian foundation, it is important to know not only how it came about in our nation, that is our Christian roots, but also how it influences our nation today. This is an abbreviated version of the article entitled “The Generosity of America.” The full version may be read online by going to: http://www.hillsdale.edu/news/imprimis.asp

The Generosity of America

By Adam Meyerson, President
The Philanthropy Roundtable

The following is adapted from a speech delivered in Washington, D.C., on January 8, 2010, in the “First Principles on First Fridays” lecture series sponsored by Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship.

In 1853, a professor and preacher named Ransom Dunn set off on a two-year journey to raise funds for Hillsdale College, a young institution of higher learning in southern Michigan. Ransom Dunn would ride on horseback for 6,000 miles through the farm communities of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and altogether he raised $22,000—the equivalent of about $500,000 today. The rural families then populating the upper Midwest were not rich. They were braving the winters and struggling to make a living on what was then the American frontier. But these families were willing to part voluntarily with $10, $50, $100 apiece—the highest contribution was $200—to support Hillsdale’s mission—a mission set forth in the College’s Articles of Association, whose authors proclaimed themselves “grateful to God for the inestimable blessings resulting from the prevalence of civil and religious liberty and intelligent piety in the land, and believing that the diffusion of sound learning is essential to the perpetuity of these blessings.”

We can learn several lessons from the horseback rides of Ransom Dunn. To begin with, charitable giving in America has never been the exclusive province of wealthy people. Throughout our history, Americans from all walks of life have given generously for charitable causes. Indeed, the most generous Americans today—the group that gives the most to charity as a proportion of their income—are the working poor.

Second, unlike many of those seeking donations in the charity world today, Ransom Dunn did not raise funds for Hillsdale by appealing to donors’ guilt, or by urging them to “give back” to society. Instead, he appealed to their ideals and aspirations, their religious principles, and their desire to create an institution of learning in the upper Midwest. Hillsdale was also an important center of anti-slavery teaching, and Dunn appealed to the convictions of people who sought an end to this great evil in our nation.

Third, the tradition of private generosity in America has always been central to our free society.

Today, Americans voluntarily give over $30 billion a year to support higher education, and—thanks in part to philanthropy—America has the best colleges and universities in the world.

I have dwelt at length on higher education, but I could offer similar remarks about museums and orchestras, hospitals and health clinics, churches and synagogues, refuges for animals, protection of habitat, youth programs such as scouting and little league and boys and girls clubs, and grassroots problem-solvers who help the needy and homeless in their neighborhoods. Private charitable giving sustains all of these institutions and gives them the freedom to make their own decisions.

Private charitable giving is also at the heart and soul of public discourse in our democracy. It makes possible our great think tanks, whether left, right or center. Name a great issue of public debate today: climate change, the role of government in health care, school choice, stem cell research, same-sex marriage. On all these issues, private philanthropy enriches debate by enabling organizations with diverse viewpoints to articulate and spread their message.

We usually hear about charity in the media when there is a terrible disaster. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, we heard about the incredible outpouring of private generosity that amounted to $6 billion. What gets less attention is that Americans routinely give that much to charity every week. Last year Americans gave $300 billion to charity. To put this into perspective, that is almost twice what we spent on consumer electronics equipment—equipment including cell phones, iPods and DVD players. Americans gave three times as much to charity last year as we spent on gambling and ten times as much as we spent on professional sports. America is by far the most charitable country in the world. There is no other country that comes close.

Reasons for Our Generosity

I would briefly like to discuss three reasons why America is the most charitable country on earth.

First, we are the most religious people of any leading modern economy. The single most important determinant of charitable giving is active religious faith and observance. Americans who attend church or synagogue or another form of worship once a week give three times as much to charity as a percentage of their income as do those who rarely attend religious services. One-third of all charitable giving in America—$100 billion a year—goes to religion. Whether we are Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Muslim, or some other faith, we Americans have the freedom to support our own religious institutions, and this philanthropic freedom has been intimately linked to our religious liberty. But the giving by regular religious worshippers is not limited to their own churches. They also give more to secular charities than do those who never or rarely attend religious services.

A second reason America is so charitable is because we respect the freedom and the ability of individuals, and associations of individuals, to make a difference. Americans don’t wait for government or the local nobleman to solve our problems; we find solutions ourselves. One of my favorite examples of this is the subject of a forthcoming Hollywood movie called The Little Red Wagon. In 2004, after Hurricane Charley, a six-year-old boy in the Tampa area named Zach Bonner wanted to help the families who had been left homeless. Pulling his little red wagon, Zach went door to door for four months and collected 27 truckloads of supplies, including tarps and water.

The third reason for our extraordinary charity is that philanthropy is such an important part of our nation’s business culture. Wealth creation and philanthropy have always gone together in America. They are reflections of the creativity and can-do spirit of a free society. From Benjamin Franklin, who founded the first volunteer fire department, to Andrew Carnegie, who brought public libraries to communities across America, to Bill Gates, who is seeking to eradicate malaria, great business entrepreneurs have sought to be great philanthropists. It’s not just because they have the money. It’s because they have the leadership and the passion to innovate and to build institutions, and the analytical skills to assess what works.

Let me give you three brief examples.

As many of us know from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the exodus of homeless farm families from the Great Plains in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl was one of the largest migrations and human tragedies in our history. But thanks to the pioneering plant research and outreach to farmers by the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation—founded by an oilman in Ardmore, Oklahoma—agriculture is thriving in Oklahoma today, and we don’t have dust bowls any more in the Great Plains.

When Tom Siebel sold software giant Siebel Systems to Oracle, he decided to apply his business and marketing skills to another cause—fighting the devastation of Crystal Meth. He created and financed the Montana Meth Project, and as a result teen Meth abuse in Montana has fallen by 63 percent in three years. Now philanthropists in other states are seeking to replicate these extraordinary results.

The late Don Fisher and his widow Doris were the philanthropic architects of the Knowledge is Power Program, which is a network of 80 schools across the country where low-income children excel. They were also the earliest large-scale supporters of Teach for America. Using the same principles that enabled them to build the Gap retail chain, the Fishers have built extraordinary philanthropic brands.

These philanthropic achievements have all been made possible by freedom. For over 200 years, Americans have enjoyed the freedom to decide where and how to give away their money—freedom to sustain cherished institutions or to create new ones. And this freedom to give has in turn been central to independent decision-making throughout our society.

Each of us should think about how we can make a difference with our own charitable contributions, following the examples of Zach Bonner with his little red wagon and the generous Midwestern farm families who helped to build Hillsdale College. And our federal and state governments, for their part, should respect and defend the freedom that is vital to the great American tradition of generous giving.

The full version is online at:

Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College. Copyright © 2009 Hillsdale College.