Civil Religion Series: America as a “Christian Nation” in the 19th Century

Lincoln's Second Inaugural Speech
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Speech

Civil Religion, part seven
America as a “Christian Nation” in the 19th Century

Presidential election years in the U.S. provide American Christians an opportunity to reflect upon our faith and how it applies to our lives as citizens and to the public issues that affect us all. We are taking many Tuesdays throughout 2016 to discuss matters like these.

At this point we are looking at the second book for this series: Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, by John Fea. Fea is Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. He blogs at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

• • •

The idea that the United States was a “Christian nation” was central to American identity in the years between the Revolution and the Civil War.

• John Fea

The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.

• Article 11, The Treaty of Tripoli, 1797

According to John Fea:

The Treaty of Tripoli, which included the assertion that the United States was not founded on the Christian religion, was signed by President John Adams and ratified unanimously by the Senate. The text of the treaty was published in several newspapers, and there was no public opposition to it. (p. 3)

In spite of this example, the vast majority of people in the U.S. from 1789-1865 would have answered in the affirmative had they been asked the question, “Is the U.S.A. a Christian nation?” Fea notes that many would have made their case based on three points: (1) Divine Providence has a special plan for the U.S., (2) the Founders were Christians and set out to create a nation that reflected their beliefs, and (3) the U.S. government and its founding documents were rooted in Christian ideas.

However, the term “Christian nation” is a slippery one. It could mean simply that the majority of a nation’s citizens hold to some form of Christian belief and practice. As such, most of the western European nations in the 1800s would have identified themselves as “Christian.”

In the case of the U.S., the term has always carried a deeper meaning. As Fea writes, “It was often used as a way of describing the uniqueness of the American experiment. It was freighted with the idea that the United States had a special role to play in the plan of God, thus making it a special or privileged Christian nation” (p. 5).

In a previous post, we saw how the Second Great Awakening, combined with westward expansion, fueled the sense of America as a specially destined Christian nation. Fea agrees, noting how the Awakening democratized the Christian faith and gave it a peculiarly “American” flavor through its emphasis on free will and individual experience. “The United States are by far the most religious and Christian country in the world…because religion there is most free” (quoted by Philip Schaff).

Thomas Jefferson

Early Christian Nationalism

John Fea puts his finger on the presidential election of 1800 as an example of how Christianity merged with politics in the early days of the republic.

John Adams, a Unitarian, ran as a Federalist, a group that was strong in New England. They worked with the Congregationalist clergy there, who were concerned that the region would remain Christian in character, led by Christian leaders. His opponent was Thomas Jefferson, who was not a Christian. Jefferson attracted many Americans, particularly those who opposed state-sponsored churches and embraced the idea of religious liberty. With more and more people moving west, Jefferson’s vision of freedom and individualism attracted people like the Baptists and Methodists on the frontier, while Adams was strong in the more traditional northeast.

Fea describes some of the religious opposition that came against Jefferson:

The attacks on Jefferson’s supposed godlessness were fierce. William Linn, a Dutch Reformed minister from New York, wrote that he was forced to oppose Jefferson’s candidacy because of the Virginian’s “disbelief of the Holy Scriptures . . . his rejection of the Christian Religion and open profession of Deism.” He feared that the United States, under Jefferson’s rule, would become a “nation of Atheists.” Linn made clear that “no professed deists, be his talents and acquirements what they may, ought to be promoted to this place [the presidency] by the suffrages of a Christian nation.” He went as far as to argue that the act of “calling a deist to the first office must be construed into no less than rebellion against God.” Linn was fully aware that there was “nothing in the constitution to restrict our choice” of a president with religious beliefs akin to Jefferson’s, but he warned his readers that if they elected “a manifest enemy to the religion of Christ, in a Christian nation,” it would be “an awful symptom of the degeneracy of that nation.” (pp. 6-7)

It seems that, in the eyes of Christian nationalists, this country has been going down the tubes from the beginning! Jefferson, nevertheless, won the election, the Federalists faded from the scene, and Americans kept moving westward with a new sense of freedom.

Lyman Beecher
Lyman Beecher

The Whigs

One of the most interesting sections of this chapter in John Fea’s book is his discussion of the Whig Party, who in the 1830s and 40s raised a strong voice once more for the cause of Christian nationalism.

An article at describes the Whigs’ constituency and appeal:

Although they received the votes of many small farmers, shopkeepers, clerks, and artisans, they appear to have appealed particularly to what some modern historians call distinctive ethnocultural groups: evangelical as opposed to liturgical Protestants; moralists and abstainers; persons unhappy with brutal treatment of blacks and Native Americans. In some states Whig leaders seemed so critical of political parties that they appeared to be religious zealots rather than party leaders.

Fea calls them a party that “favored a nation of markets and Protestant religion.” He characterizes them as reformers who “dreamed of a homogenous Protestant culture where slavery did not exist, alcohol use was under control, and Sunday was kept as a day of Sabbath rest” (p. 7).

Their economic philosophy tied in with their religious vision. The Whigs advocated the development of infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and canals so as to link the citizens of the nation together. That way they might see themselves as less isolated and more connected as citizens of one nation, trading freely and experiencing the blessings of economic as well as moral progress. Many were postmillennial in their eschatology, envisioning that such progress would usher in the new creation.

The great example he cites is Lyman Beecher, the well known Congregationalist minister who became president of a seminary in Cincinnati. In his speech, “A Plea for the West,” Beecher urged the establishment of schools and the development of an educated clergy in the rapid westward expansion so that the Roman Catholics and the advocates of slavery would not hold sway on the frontier. “‘A Plea for the West’ was Beecher’s call to extend the Whig and evangelical idea of a Christian nation to the unsettled regions of the country,” Fea writes (p. 8)


John Fea goes on to trace the idea of the U.S. as a Christian nation through the writings of the 19th century, particularly in the histories of the U.S. that were being penned and the textbooks that students read. Many of these created mythologies and hagiographies of the Revolution and Founding Fathers, combining these inspirational stories with moral exhortation in order to promote the advancement of a “Christian” America.

He also describes how the idea of a “Christian nation” became a theological crisis during the Civil War, when both sides claimed God’s will and favor. In fact, to set itself apart from the North and its “ungodly” U.S. Constitution, the Constitution of the Confederate States of America made explicit reference to “Almighty God” as the basis for its charter. One minister called the Confederate Constitution “a truly Christian patriot’s prayer” and blasted the “perilous atheism” of the U.S. Constitution, charging that “The American nation stood up before the world, a helpless orphan, and entered upon a career without a God” (p. 18)

Thus, the Civil War ushered in a period when the question was not, “Is America a Christian nation?” but, “What kind of a Christian nation will America be?”

• • •

Earlier posts in the series:

23 thoughts on “Civil Religion Series: America as a “Christian Nation” in the 19th Century

  1. When my husband and I visited Boston, we visited the old Unitarian church downtown, that probably had been Adams’ church. The docent leading us around made it very clear that they were Christian unitarians, not like the Unitarian Universalists we see today. So if this church believed they were Christians, a Deist who denied salvation through Christ would definitely be seen as outside the context of faith.


  2. >>The idea that the United States was a “Christian nation” was central to American identity in the years between the Revolution and the Civil War. • John Fea

    That may well be true if it is recognized that it is the “idea” of America being a Christian nation that is being discussed. It is the people holding this idea, then and now, that the Constitution protects us from.


  3. Historians everywhere thank you in advance.

    But I’m pretty sure this would do as much good as telling off Ken Ham.


  4. “… it appears that a commonly shared religious culture was the metanarrative underpinning and empowering its success.”

    Yes and no. While evangelical religion was a major influence in America in the nineteenth century, including over portions of civic life, the country has always been home to a wide variety of communities and religious cultures. One major religious group offered a metanarrativethat was very influential over the Protestant middle class and civic religion. But there were competing voices.

    It’s helpful to remember that even as they lined up behind major reform movements, the evangelical Protestants of the mid- to late-nineteenth century also sounded embattled and were fond of hand-wringing over the lack homogeneity in the United States. Three words: Roman Catholic immigration.

    The newly reconfigured KKK was a big deal not only because of enforcing “white” privilege in the South, but as a defense against “Protestant” culture generally against — basically everybody.

    One decent write up, but the real treasure is the political cartoon at the top:


  5. No gunpoint necessary. I read two of them, voluntarily. He is a liar, a fraud, and an idiot. My only regret is that I have not yet had the pleasure of telling him this to his face.


  6. it appears that a commonly shared religious culture was the metanarrative underpinning and empowering its success. I call shennanigans, unless by “shared religious culture” we mean religion itself. Don’t forget the Puritan penchant for murdering people they disagreed with, often in the most horrific means possible. And of course, it would be dubious to conflate the Christina religion of the slave with the Christian religion of his master.


  7. This is a self-evident point that applies to Europe as well, and is not considered even remotely controversial. It is common for European nations to call themselves Christian (in some cases, this is legally true), but in that, they generally mean the product and result of Christian world-view. Not always a positive, either.


  8. “unless the least of my brethren is a welfare mom with 4 illegitimate kids who should know better”

    Does this sound like any particular woman Jesus had an in-depth and respectful conversation about theology with? Maybe near some well in a seedy part of Palestine that no self-respecting Jew would have been caught dead in?


  9. It’s what happens when Ayn Rand becomes the Fourth Person of the Trinity and Atlas Shrugged the 67th book of the Bible.


  10. Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, by John Fea.

    Another Heathen book for the book-burnings when in a Christian Nation all are required (at gunpoint, if necessary) to read only Barton’s history…


  11. J, if it is sound, then do you believe our culture can still agree to a phrase like “we hold these truths to be self-evident”?


  12. I’ve found this strange, too. The whole notion of the deserving & undeserving poor, that if you haven’t risen to the top, it’s because you aren’t trying hard enough is troubling in the light of what Christ taught. There is no “If you have done this to the least of my brethren, you have done it unto me [unless the least of my brethren is a welfare mom with 4 illegitimate kids who should know better because then, well,too bad for her].”


  13. it’s a strange ‘Christianity’ that many embrace in our country . . . clinging to a six-day Creation and yet embracing a political system that celebrates ‘the survival of the fittest’ with their mountainous contempt for the poor among us

    I’m sure these folks can explain it to their wrathful god when they meet him, but the absolute irony of it makes no sense, as it bears no resemblance to real Christian paradox, no


  14. >>If, in a democracy, the most vocally ‘christian’ side loses an election, then clearly there is something wrong with democracy.

    I would say you are confusing volume with numbers. My guess on those making the most noise would be about 30%, but your guess is as good as mine. I agree that our form of government is essentially sound, but it was not set up as a democracy and is one today in name only. While not saying so outright, it probably was set up more than anything else as a meritocracy but with much unavoidable baggage from aristocracy. You can follow the growth of oligarchy from the get go right up to today, when it is all but blatant but still unspoken.


  15. Agreed.

    This stuff should be taught in a Sunday school, except people’s head might explode (that’s if they didn’t tune out right away).


  16. I dunno, seems to me the philosophical basis of our form of government is essentially sound except when it comes to those people most loudly christian of all.

    Call it the islamiczation of political christianity: If, in a democracy, the most vocally ‘christian’ side loses an election, then clearly there is something wrong with democracy.


  17. +1
    Though America was founded on Enlightenment Rationalist philosophy, it appears that a commonly shared religious culture was the metanarrative underpinning and empowering its success.
    Now that we are multi-cultural and to a greater extent post-Christian as a culture, the philosophical basis of our form of government appears to not much more of a house of cards.


  18. CM – did we ever finish the My So-Called Evangelical Life series? I seem to remember it stopping at the 90s.


  19. It appears as though there have been two tracks. On paper and in the halls of government the nation was not expressly ‘Christian’ but not completely godless either as one has to ask from where an inalienable right is derived. Nonetheless, the official stance was areligious providing freedom for any and all. Still it seems that Christianity has been at the forefront in the citizenry and continues to be since the pilgrims. There are many strains and divisions of course but among the people it seems to have been at work from the very beginning up to the present moment in a particularly American way. I’m really not saying much, just a basic point. Freedom of religion has by and large expressed itself in Christian fashion, sanctioned or unsanctioned, for better or for worse (i.e. slavery) and continues to do so. Does that make us a Christian nation? Not on paper, no but pragmatically speaking it is a nation influenced by Christian thought. “…and God bless the United States of America,” continues to end many a speech.


  20. The whole thing just reveals to me how specious the “Christian nation” thing is. Consider the last sentence, which implies a Christian nation could approbate chattel slavery. I’d much rather participate in a just and free society than a Christian one.


  21. A Unitarian attacking a Deist for not being “Christian” enough…

    There is so much irony in that situation, it needs rustproofing.


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