Over two hundred years ago an important assembly of delegates met in Philadelphia. Authorized by Congress, their mission was to revise the Articles of Confederation of 1781, which had resulted in a weak central government. Instead, they discarded the Articles and formed a plan for a new government.
George Washington was nominated and installed as the President of the Convention. For the most part, he sat quietly in a chair in front of the room, facing the delegates, but no doubt he influenced the proceedings by his presence and by his informal, more private participation with the delegates.
After four months of struggle, they completed their task. On September 17, 1787, 39 men signed the document outlining their design for a stronger central government. But before the new plan could be put into effect at least nine states were required to ratify it. Although the Constitution was ratified in 1788, many feared that a more powerful government might over step its bounds. The freedom-loving people pressed for a bill of rights to be added. This led to the proposal and adoption in 1791 of the first 10 amendments. This Bill of Rights is considered by many to be the most important part of the Constitution.
In 1887, British statesman William Gladstone called the century-old Constitution "the most remarkable work known to the modern times to have been produced by human intellect at a single stroke, so to speak, in its application to political affairs." One hundred years later, people are echoing his praise. The U.S. Constitution is the world's oldest governing constitution and has served as a model for other nations. Its system of checks and balances, republicanism, and limited government are certainly worthy of admiration. But other nations, especially Britain, had governments acting upon these principles. Amid all the praise of its political wisdom, Americans have lost sight of perhaps the Constitution's greatest and most unique contribution: THE PROTECTION OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM. Our readers in America can thank God that they live in a country that grants them the liberty to worship as they please!
We quote from Bro. Paul S.L. Johnson, former editor of the predecessor of The Bible Standard, "The Herald of the Epiphany," July 15, 1940 issue:
"Do you know that, next to Israel during the Jewish Age, America has been God's national favorite?
"Do you know that the Bible in one of its prophecies addresses America—'Ho! land of shadowing wings [land of God's special protection], which is beyond [west of] the rivers [the Nile's mouths] of Ethiopia [Improved Version; also ASV]'—in language that indicates its being a special object of Divine care (Is. 18:1)?
"Do you know that America's history demonstrates that of all modern nations, it has been the one most favored by God in material, social, international, civil, political and religious aspects?
"Do you know that the special favor of God upon America has been due to the fact that America's principles of human liberty in harmony with the law, and of human equality before the law, believed in and acted out by Americans generally as the fundamental principles of Democracy, more nearly than the principles underlying any other form of government express God's highest ideal of the principles that should underlie government, as can be clearly seen in God's making these principles the expression of Israel's government between man and man under the Mosaic law, and as was exemplified in Israel's history until, rejecting God's highest ideal of government for them, they insistently demanded from, and were reluctantly given by, God a monarchy?
"Do you know that America, apart from the government in Israel before the Israelitish monarchy, has had the most noble, righteous, beneficent and glorious government ever instituted—a government of the people, for the people and by the people?
"Do you know that it was because America lived truer to these ideals than any other modern nation, that God made her His special ward among the modern nations, and that this accounts for His giving her independence from Britain, His freeing her from the destruction of the Napoleonic wars … His bringing her safely as a nation, made wholly free, out of the trying experiences of the Civil War, His making her a beacon light to the nations, a refuge to the oppressed, a helper to the helpless, a cornucopia to the industrious, and the headquarters and the main field of activity for the greatest religious work ever carried on in this earth since the days of Christ (Is. 18:1-7)?
"Do you know that among these ideals are those expressed in the Bill of Rights embodied in the U.S. Constitution, and that not the least of these ideals is the Constitutional provision guaranteeing the separation of state and church … ?"
Considerable research has been required to provide the following information for our readers and we wish to thank those who cooperated in this effort. We trust that both our U.S. and foreign readers will be interested in the important subject of various governments, and especially the government of the coming Kingdom. We therefore feel it profitable to devote considerable space to it. Also, we desire to praise God for His providence in this matter. We pray that God will bless this presentation to our readers.
We begin with some comments on the safeguarding of religious freedom in the Constitution (and its Bill of Rights), followed by a discussion on its background and development, and its unusual character, in that God's hand was unquestionably involved in its preparation (Rom. 13:1). We will continue with thoughts on Adam's dominion, various governments of Israel, church governments in the Apostles' day, the influence of the Bible for good government, and the previous attempts at good government. We will close the discussion with comments on the perfect Millennial Kingdom, for which we pray (Matt. 6:10).
Two provisions therein safeguard religious freedom. The first provision, in Article 6, paragraph 3, states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office of public trust under the United States." Although the wisdom of this law is taken for granted today, it was not favored or practiced by all the states at the time. In fact, 11 American colonies had required the Protestant faith of its public officials. But after 1776 many states had abolished the test. Yet some states feared that Catholics, Jews, or infidels might be elected. A North Carolina delegate even feared that the Pope could become the President of the United States. On the whole, ministers supported the Constitution in its ban on religious tests. For example, Isaac Backus said: "In reason and in the Holy Scripture, religion is ever a matter between God and the individual; the imposing of religious tests hath been the greatest engine of tyranny in the world."
On the other hand, other states did not think the prohibition of a religious test went far enough; at least five states proposed an amendment more clearly to protect religious freedom. This led to the making of the First Amendment, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This became the second provision safeguarding religious freedom.
The world had had little experience with the separation of church and state. The early Christian church was indeed separate from the state. They were a persecuted minority because they refused to worship the emperor. This began to change with the conversion of Constantine. Christianity later became the official state religion of the Roman Empire. The emperor, the self-proclaimed religious leader of the empire, assumed the right to call church councils to decide doctrine. The state used force to convert the unwilling heathen and to punish heretics.
The ambition of the papacy created a power struggle between the church and state for supremacy. The pope gained in power, appointing and dethroning kings. The ecclesiastical power reached its height with Pope Innocent III in the 13th century. The papacy was clearly supreme over the state by the late Middle Ages. This was the age of religious intolerance, the Inquisition, the Crusades.
The Protestant Reformation weakened the Catholic Church's control over the state. But the union of church and state was continued by merely substituting a Protestant church for the Catholic church. Religious persecution continued. Protestants fought Catholics over state control in The Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Ironically, those who had come to America to escape religious persecution were just as ready to persecute those who did not agree with them. The Puritans in New England banned Quakers on the threat of death. The Quakers of Pennsylvania by law required church attendance on Sunday. Nine of the colonies each had an established church.
But gradually the spirit of tolerance developed. "The pioneer of religious liberty in America," Roger Williams, was exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because of his espousal of freedom of conscience. He went on to found Rhode Island, which became a haven for those seeking religious liberty. In England, the Act of Toleration in 1689 ended decades of political and religious strife, although the state continued to support the Church of England. After 1776, most of the former colonies moved toward disestablishing their churches. A number of Protestant groups, especially the Baptists, argued for the complete separation of church and state. Also, the large number of unchurched did not favor the state support of any church.
Two Founding Fathers stand out as advocates of religious liberty: Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The two men were chiefly responsible for establishing religious freedom in Virginia. In fact, Jefferson thought so highly of the achievement that he requested to be put on his tombstone the words: "Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia." He was a firm advocate of the separation of church and state. In fact, the phrase "wall of separation between the church and state" is derived, not from the Constitution, but from a letter Jefferson wrote to a Baptist association in 1802.
Perhaps the most energetic supporter of religious freedom was James Madison. When only 25, he proposed in 1776 an amendment to the Virginia constitution granting religious freedom, which was defeated. A few years later he fought hard for the passing of Jefferson's bill and this time religious freedom was won. Madison was the main force behind the passage in the House of Representatives of the Bill of Rights, which contained the First Amendment on religious freedom. Years later, in 1822, when the effects of religious liberty were visible, Madison wrote:
"It was the belief of all sects at one time that the establishment of religion by law was right and necessary; that the true religion ought to be established in exclusion of every other; and that the only question to be decided was, which was the true religion. The example of Holland proved that a toleration of sects dissenting from the established sect was safe, and even useful. The example of the colonies, now States, which rejected religious establishments altogether, proved that all sects might be safely and advantageously put on a footing of equal and entire freedom. … It is impossible to deny that in Virginia religion prevails with more zeal and a more exemplary priesthood than it ever did when established and patronized by public authority. We are teaching the world the great truth that governments do better without kings and nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson: that religion flourishes in greater purity without than with the aid of government."
And many nations have learned the lesson and have reduced their direct involvement with their churches. With the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, religious tolerance became international law.
CONSTITUTION HAS NO REFERENCE TO GOD
The Constitution contains no reference to God, thus breaking tradition with previous American political documents. The first constitution of America, The Mayflower Compact, began with the words "In the name of God, Amen." Most colonial charters and state constitutions expressed allegiance to the Christian religion and required religious tests for public officials. The Declaration of Independence refers to "the Supreme Judge of the world," "God," "Creator," and concludes with the words, "with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine providence."
The Articles of Confederation states that "it pleased the great Governor of the world to incline the hearts of the legislatures we severally represent in Congress to approve of, and to authorize us to ratify, the said articles of confederation and perpetual union." Thus Christians were surprised to discover that the newly written Constitution failed to acknowledge God.
According to one story, perhaps apocryphal, a minister met Alexander Hamilton on the streets of Philadelphia shortly after the Constitutional Convention ended. He said, "Mr. Hamilton, we are greatly grieved that the Constitution has no recognition of God or the Christian religion." Hamilton replied, "I declare, we forgot it!" George Washington, in answering a group of ministers who regretted this omission of religion, wrote that "this important object is more properly committed to the guidance of the ministers of the gospel." The omission has prompted proposals for a "Christian Amendment," including a proposal supported by John Anderson, later a candidate for President.
Not only did the delegates believe in the existence of God, many held that religion and morality were indispensable to a successful government. The Constitution of the Confederacy invoked "the favor and guidance of Almighty God," but in the words of church historian Philip Schaff, "the name of God did not make it more pious or justifiable."
With perhaps one exception, religion did not enter the discussions at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. After weeks of heated debate had caused some to despair of reaching a solution, Benjamin Franklin eloquently addressed the delegates:
"I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I lived, 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 possible that an empire can rise without his aid?" He noted that while the Congress in 1776 had opened each session with prayer, they had neglected to do so. Therefore Franklin moved that they call in clergymen to open each day with prayer. Some Christian writers have marked this motion as the spiritual turning point of the Convention, after which the Convention began with prayer. However, the truth is different, for after some discussion, the session adjourned without the motion ever coming to a vote. A story, again about Alexander Hamilton, has it that he opposed prayer because the convention did not need "foreign aid." Franklin recorded that "the Convention, except for three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary."
Unlike the Revolutionary clergy, the delegates did not quote the Bible to buttress their arguments. Instead they appealed to contemporary political thinkers and ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. This practice was continued in The Federalist Papers, the series of articles defending the Constitution.
Nevertheless, delegates believed that God was directing the events of the new nation. After the Constitution was ratified, Benjamin Franklin said:
"I am not to be understood to infer that our General Convention was divinely inspired when it formed the new Federal Constitution; yet I must own that I have so much faith in the general government of the world by Providence, that I can hardly conceive a transaction of so much importance to the welfare of millions now in existence, and to exist in the posterity of a great nation, should be suffered to pass without being in some degree influenced, guided, and governed by that omnipotent and beneficent Ruler in whom all inferior spirits live, and move, and have their being."
George Washington in a letter to the Governor of Connecticut wrote: "We may with a kind of pious and grateful exultation trace the finger of Providence through those dark and mysterious events which first induced the States to appoint a general convention, and then led them one after another, by such steps as were best calculated to effect the object, into an adoption of the system recommended by the general convention, thereby, in all human probability, laying a lasting foundation for tranquillity and happiness, when we had too much reason to fear that confusion and misery were coming upon us."
Although reference to God is absent from the Constitution, and negligible in notes from the Convention, by insuring religious liberty the Constitution has done more for religion than official words of religious allegiance ever could have produced.
RELIGION AND THE FOUNDING FATHERS
American historians have differed over the private religion of the founding fathers. Some, in comparing them to Moses and Jesus Christ, have idolized them as Christian saints. Others have regarded them as freethinkers, precursors of modern-day humanists.
The Founding Fathers lived during "The Age of Reason." According to Immanuel Kant, the leading German philosopher of the 18th century, man should use his own reason without relying on the authority of the creeds, the Bible, or the state. This movement of "The Enlightenment" created a tension between reason and religion. Some, like the French thinker Voltaire, rejected religion as incompatible with reason. Others tried to find a meeting ground between reason and religion: for example, John Locke in his book, The Reasonableness of Christianity.
One popular compromise between traditional Christianity and rationalism among the educated was Deism. (For an extensive discussion and refutation of Deism, please see Epiphany Vol. 1, God, pages 416-454.) Beginning in England in the 17th century, Deism spread to America in the second half of the 18th century.
Deism summed up religion in three articles of faith: God, virtue, and immortality. It denied the inspiration of the Bible, miracles, the Trinity, and the atonement. Its emphasis on individual reason caused a broad spectrum of beliefs. The Founding Fathers were influenced by the movement of Deism. Many were reluctant to express their religious convictions in public, which makes it difficult now to gain a clear picture.
Religion had lost much of its potency since the Puritans first settled in America. According to church historian Martin Marty, "Very few Americans belonged to, attended, or supported religious organizations in the 1770s through the 1790s." Today, the U.S. has a larger percentage of churchgoers than at the time the Constitution was written. The Founding Fathers valued religion because of its usefulness to society.
"The Father of the Constitution," James Madison, kept extensive notes of the Convention and drafted much of the Constitution. One Madisonian historian describes him as "probably America's most theologically knowledgeable President." Of the important Founding Fathers he had the most formal education. To gain admittance to the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), he translated the Gospels from Greek to Latin. There he later studied theology under Presbyterian clergyman John Whitherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Madison no doubt was taught the fallen nature of man, and the need to restrain the degree of power. We have already seen Madison's contribution to religious freedom in America. However, his silence on his personal beliefs has led scholars to speculate that he too adhered to Deism.
One of the more outspoken Fathers, Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography: "But I was scarce fifteen, when … I began to doubt Revelation itself … I soon became a thorough Deist." "I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; and though some of the dogmas of that persuasion, such as the eternal decrees of God, election, reprobation, etc., appeared to me unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from the public assemblies of the sect, Sunday being my studying day, I never was without some religious principles."
In his autobiography, Franklin described his system of daily self-examination, choosing each week a certain virtue and noting each day's progress. Although a friend of the evangelist George Whitefield, Franklin could not be persuaded by him toward conversion. At the age of 84, Franklin wrote to a minister:
"You desire to know something of my religion; it is the first time I have been questioned upon it. Here is my creed: I believe in one God, creator of the universe; that he governs it by his Providence; that he ought to be worshipped; that the most acceptable service we render to him, is doing good to his other children. As to Jesus of Nazareth, I think his system of morals, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity."
Some scholars have asserted that most Founding Fathers belonged to Freemasonry. Most of the Continental Congress were Masons, as were 52 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. Masonry did not officially condemn or support Christianity, but did consider it a Divine revelation. Due to Masonry's use of secrecy and symbolism, its history and practices are shrouded in mystery. Its fundamental beliefs include a Divine Creator, morality to one's fellowmen and country, and humanistic and Deistic principles. The most famous Founding Father who adhered to Masonry was none other than the Father of His Country and President of the Convention, George Washington. It is reported that he participated in a Masonic parade in Philadelphia in full Masonic uniform.
Two important Founding Fathers did not attend the Constitutional Convention: John Adams, ambassador to England; and Thomas Jefferson, ambassador to France. But they both played a role in the making of the Constitution. Adams had written a book published that year entitled A Defense of the Constitution of the United States. This book was read by many of the delegates. Later the second President of the U.S., Adams at first studied for the ministry, but after exposure to the ideas of Deism, he decided on law. Yet throughout his life he was intensely interested in theological writings. He writes: "Before I was twelve years of age, I necessarily became a reader of polemical writings of religion, as well as politics, and for more than seventy years I have indulged myself in that kind of reading … I have endeavored to obtain as much information as I could of all the religions which have ever existed in the world." In his later years Adams corresponded with Thomas Jefferson. These letters reveal the possession of a wide theological knowledge that would surpass that of most Christians today. Adams wrote to Jefferson:
"I have more to say on religion. For more than sixty years I have been attentive to this great subject. Controversies between Calvinists and Arminians, Trinitarians and Unitarians, Deists and Christians, and Atheists, have all attracted my attention."
Adams very much admired the Unitarian Joseph Priestley, and wrote: "Statesmen may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone which can establish the principles upon which Freedom can securely stand. A patriot must be a religious man."
When Jefferson, in Paris, heard who would attend the Convention, he referred to them as "demigods." When he first saw the draft of the Constitution he regretted that it did not contain a law protecting religious freedom. He was influential in formulating the Bill of Rights. Jefferson later became the nation's third President. Perhaps of all the Founding Fathers, he is best known for his Deism. His views earned him the descriptions, "infidel," "anti-Christian," and "Virginia Voltaire." Although a professing Christian, he avoided official ties to any denomination, believing that creeds are "the bane and ruin of the Christian church." He denied the Trinity, and predicted that the Unitarian Church would soon become the majority religion of the United States. In Jefferson's view, the essence of religion was not doctrine but ethics. He believed Jesus to be a great moralist, but could not accept His other teachings. He created his own version of the New Testament "to pick out the diamonds from the dunghills," omitting references to the virgin birth, miracles, and the resurrection.
But not all of the Founding Fathers were Deists. Some were conservative Bible-believing Christians. A prominent example is John Jay. With Hamilton and Madison, Jay was one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, which supported ratification of the Constitution. Afterwards he was influential in the ratification of the Constitution in the crucial state of New York. Washington appointed him the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Jay was an active church member throughout his life. A student of the Bible, he was interested in the modern fulfilment of Bible prophecy. He opposed the teachings of infidels such as Thomas Paine. Later in life he became an early president of the American Bible Society. In his annual addresses to the Society he revealed his strong Christian faith. He believed in the Divine origin of the Bible, and that man was created perfect, but fell from grace. Believing that Christ is the Savior of the world, and that He commissioned His disciples to preach the gospel to every nation, Jay encouraged the wide distribution of the Bible throughout the world. Although he disagreed with the Deism of other Founding Fathers, he shared their dedication to religious freedom.
Later periods have seen the Founding Fathers through different lenses. The religious 19th century remembered their remaining Christian faith; the secular 20th century remembers their unbelief. Today, some politically active conservative Christians portray them as orthodox Christians. But if the Founding Fathers were alive today, they probably would not feel comfortable in the pews of right-wing fundamentalism—their reason could not accept its creeds. However, they would likely be displeased with modern society and its materialism, moral laxity, and public apathy. The Age of Reason was no Golden Age, and neither is the age in which we live.
The Constitution had its weaknesses. The original document failed to abolish slavery and it lacked a bill of rights. These weaknesses have been corrected by amendments. But changing conditions have created new questions: Should the electoral college be abolished? Should the length of the term of office be changed? These and other questions have led to calls for a modern-day Constitutional Convention. It is unlikely that statesmen of the caliber of those delegates of 1787 could be found today.
And, no matter how intelligent and well-intentioned men may be, they cannot produce a perfect form of government. What the world needs is a perfect Lawgiver. In the next issue we will describe the coming world order as depicted in the Bible.