America is split today—nearly rivaling the separation of our Civil War. “More than twice as many Republicans and Democrats express a ‘very unfavorable’ opinion of the other party as did two decades ago . . . Most of those strong partisans now argue the other side poses a ‘threat to the nation’s well being.’”
Figurative battle lines have been drawn. America’s conversation with herself has become a shouting match—much like a nasty divorce. Two ideologies vie for hearts and minds. We seem to be a far cry from the days of our founding. But those days were marked with shouting too.
Developing a Constitution unlike anything the world had ever seen before involved shouting, a lot of shouting. It was a battle that Eric Metaxas calls “vicious”. But ultimately, the Constitution came to be because the founders shared the common ground of “faith, virtue, and liberty.”
Before the Constitution, settlers arrived on these shores looking for the liberty to practice faith and virtue. America was where exiles came to escape persecution for rejecting established doctrines. Yet the country was a picture of separation.
Pennsylvania’s founder was a Quaker. Maryland’s congregations were Catholic. Georgia hosted Brethren communities. This nation was founded upon religious freedom, but that meant freedom in specific places for specific denominations. It was freedom for some but not for all.
The first Christian Orthodox convert in Colonial America was Philip Ludwell III, a grandson of the first governor of the Carolinas and a cousin to Martha Washington. Ludwell received permission from the Holy Synod in Russia to worship with Anglicans in Virginia since there was no Orthodox priest on the continent and because at the time “apart from the Province of Pennsylvania, all religions but Protestantism [were] banned.”
Christians of various traditions came, seeking refuge, opportunity, and freedom. Some, especially Catholics, found yet more persecution.
Even so, the large continent favored diverse belief within Christendom. And as Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said, “We must hang together; else we shall most assuredly hang separately.” A clear understanding of a greater enemy—the tyranny of Great Britain—unified these men.
Arguments rage on today as to who of the founders were truly Christians and to what degree they affirmed their faith, but, they “were nearly unanimous concerning biblical morality.” Almost all were self-described Christians.
Most were Protestant; Charles Carroll, delegate from Maryland, was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence.
The signers pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. And signing the document proved very costly for most of them. Carroll, the richest of the signers, had much material wealth to lose, but in a different sense, he had more to gain.
Originally founded as a Catholic refuge, Maryland’s population eventually became predominantly Protestant, and the Protestant majority had disenfranchised Maryland Catholics. In an independent and more religiously tolerant America, Maryland Catholics would enjoy equal standing as citizens and be free from a state established Protestant church (143).
The mix of men who fashioned the moral foundation for the most exceptional nation in history ensured true freedom of religion. Prominent among them, John Adams credited “pulpits [that] thundered” during the Great Awakening with spawning the war that would separate the American colonies from England.
Foundational to the city on a hill America would become—the haven that still draws the “huddled masses, yearning to be free”—the Great Awakening produced a flood of social movements such as William Wilberforce’s anti-slavery efforts in England and later endeavors in America.
In the late 1700s, Wilberforce was a young, ambitious member of the British Parliament when he committed his life to Christ. Because of him, “Even though slavery continues to exist here and there, the idea that it is good is dead.” We cannot adequately appreciate how much the anti-slavery effort in England altered the mindset of the world.
In his biography of Wilberforce, Metaxas reminds us not to romanticize the past and view slavery in that time as some sort of aberration—that the times were “particularly brutal, decadent, violent, and vulgar. Slavery was the worst of a host of societal evils that included epidemic alcoholism, child prostitution, [and] child labor,” among others.
It sounds a bit like our world today.
In Wilberforce’s time, slavery provided jobs and income to port cities. Much of the British economy relied on the trade. Uprooting this ingrained evil would be arduous and take years.
Just as the First Great Awakening produced an America free from British control, the second one produced an America where ownership of human beings was no longer the law of the land. But the change the Second Great Awakening produced did not end with the issue of slavery.
Other reforms that period produced in both England and America included many causes that Wilberforce and his contemporaries in Great Britain and America championed: child labor laws, workplace protections for employees, prison reform, and laws to prohibit abortion.
It was the Second Great Awakening that prompted America to outlaw abortion in the first place.
Efforts to end slavery in England and America were interdenominational. These social revolutions weren’t the result of savvy political strategy. They came from the living Christian faith of these awakened people.
Their love for their neighbors spawned the laws they produced. The laws reflected their culture.
Two hundred and forty years ago, a Congress of men assembled, yelled at each other, and crafted a Constitution unimaginable through history.
America is divided today, but in a different way from when we began.
As Christian faith fostered freedom for them, it will take the living faith of awakened men and women today to reawaken civility and reinforce religious liberty.
Photo Credit: The Betsy Ross Flag. How many stars and stripes can you count? Photograph by Makaristos, courtesy Wikimedia.
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