Christian Influences on the American Founding: An Interview with Mark David Hall
Mark David Hall is Herbert Hoover Distinguished Professor of Politics and Faculty Fellow in the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University. He recently sat down with Kyler Schubkegel to discuss the Christian influences on the American Founding.
KS: Dr. Hall, thank you for taking time with me today. I’m going to start right in—a popular image paints the Founding Fathers as primarily deists, with only a fairly remote connection to historical Christianity, but I know that you’ve argued otherwise. Tell me more about why you choose to at least partially rebut that popular image.
MDH: Yeah, well, first of all, it’s a factual claim about a historical matter, and I think we should get our historical facts right. So scholar after scholar, popular writer after popular writer has made claims to the effect that many of the founders were deists, most of the founders were deists. And so just simply out of a concern to get our history right, I explore these claims. I look at the evidence that’s presented, and what you find is you have evidence of maybe three or four elite founders that clearly depart from orthodox Christianity, and yet these founders routinely talk about God interfering in the affairs of men and nations.
As well, you have claims made about other elite Founders, like an Alexander Hamilton, a George Washington, a James Madison, claims that these Founders are deist as well. And yet, in their cases, there is not even evidence that they depart from orthodox Christianity, and there certainly isn’t any evidence that they embraced deism. And so just as a matter of getting our history correct, I think it is important to recognize that there’s virtually no evidence. I would say probably the only clear deists in the American founding are Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine, and Thomas Paine, as you know, is from England. So you kind of have one homegrown American deist.
Let me say, though, it’s one thing to critique the claim that most of America’s Founders are deists, it’s another thing to argue that most of the Founders are orthodox Christians. I actually don’t go in that direction, because in many of the Founders we simply don’t have the evidence to make a strong argument. We might know they’re church members, we might know that they were elders or vestrymen in the churches. Maybe they’re not on record as heretics or something, but we simply don’t know if they were orthodox Christians or not.
KS: How do you think that Christianity, or even Christian culture—Christian ideas or Christian culture—might have shaped the Declaration of Independence, and then maybe the Constitution as well?
MDH: To start with the Declaration of Independence, I think to understand the Declaration and the War for Independence, it’s absolutely critical to recognize that between 50-75% of Americans—of white Americans in the late eighteenth century—are Calvinist, followers of John Calvin. John Calvin and the early reformers broke with, more or less, fifteen hundred years of Christian political reflection on Romans 13 that said you may not rebel against government. Romans 13 means what it says, Christians have to subject themselves to the government. If Caesar tells you to do something that goes against the Word of God, you refuse to do it, of course, but you take the consequences—you take the punishment. John Calvin breaks from this. He’s not the first one, but he’s the beginning of a tradition that goes in a remarkably different direction than most any Christian thinker before.
And this is a tradition that developed through Rutherford and Ponet and others, even someone like a John Milton (who’s coming out of this tradition even though he may not be an orthodox Christian), and Americans had drunk very deeply of these wells. And so they were on the lookout for tyrannical power, and they believed they had good Biblical reasons to resist tyrannical power. So when the Stamp Act came along in 1765, right away particularly these New England Calvinists are leading the charge—John Adams and others—that no, this is an illegitimate act of tyranny and we may justly resist this. And I think these concerns absolutely animate the War for Independence.
One way to think about this is, you have roughly fifty British colonies in the late eighteenth century. Parliament and the Crown are doing kind of the same sorts of things to all fifty colonies throughout the world, right? And yet it’s primarily in New England (and in the southern colonies for other reasons) that offer the most resistance.
Let me just end with this: the most famous line in the Declaration makes an explicitly theological claim: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Now, it’s often pointed out, “This was drafted by Thomas Jefferson, and we know he wasn’t an orthodox Christian,” and that’s true. And yet there was a committee of five which included Roger Sherman, the old Calvinist from Connecticut. And as even Thomas Jefferson later said, “I didn’t try to do anything new in the Declaration of Independence. I’m just harmonizing the sentiments of the time.” The Continental Congress altered Jefferson’s draft. The fifty-five or so men who voted for this, when they thought about the Creator, when they thought about nature’s God, there’s just no question that they’re talking about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the creator God who endows his creatures with rights that may be justly protected against tyrants. So I think that there’s a profoundly Christian reading of the Declaration of Independence that is lost because we tend to read it in light of Thomas Jefferson alone, and that’s just an inaccurate way to read this text.
KS: And how about the Constitution, or the early Constitutional order? Was that substantially impacted by Christian thought or Christian culture at the time?
MDH: Yeah, I think so. Absolutely. So I’ve already mentioned, most obviously, the founders’ views of human nature informed this Constitutional order, which is in many ways designed not to pass legislation, right? And this was purposeful, because we want to separate power, we want to avoid concentration of power, we want lots of checks and balances.
Let me give you another fun way in which I think our early Constitutional order was profoundly influenced by Christian ideas. Every single Supreme Court justice prior to John Marshal, with one exception, is clearly on record as saying judges have the ability to strike down an act of Congress or an act of the state legislature, if it goes against God’s natural law—not the Constitution, but natural law. And, in fact, they did this upon occasion. James Wilson, an early Supreme Court justice, if you read his law lectures, he begins by saying there are four types of law: God’s eternal law, the divine law, physical laws and moral laws. He quotes Augustine: “an unjust law is no law at all.” He goes on to say how human laws must be in accord with natural law, or they are void. And he creates a whole system of Christian jurisprudence that, if you read it, at times you feel you’re reading Thomas Aquinas. He gets his Aquinas through Richard Hooker, but again it’s a profoundly Christian approach to jurisprudence. Wilson helps write the Declaration, he helps write the Constitution, and, as I said, he’s an early Supreme Court justice. Again, I think, for those who have eyes to see, the influence of Christianity in the early Republic and the War for Independence is just manifold.
KS: Do you think that education—either educational philosophy or particular practices of education in early America—contributed at all to the Christian consciousness or ideas that were producing those documents?
MDH: Absolutely, they did. And again, here you have to go back to the influence of Reformed Christianity or Calvinism on the American founding. Of course, reformers in general believe in Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone. They also believe in the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. And so one of the things you see in Protestant countries almost immediately is huge jumps in literacy. By the time you get to the Puritan New England colonies, you have almost universal male literacy, which is just phenomenal. I mean, this is just unheard of in the history of the entire world.
And again, particularly in New England, you have laws right away where parents are required to make sure their children learn how to read and (explicitly) so they can read the Bible. You have Massachusetts Bay passing laws requiring towns to have schools. Now, this might sound like public education, but basically these are co-op sorts of things, where the families would get together, tax themselves, hire a teacher, who would then teach them how to read and write and do arithmetic. Towns of certain size had to have a grammar school, where children would learn not English grammar but Latin and Greek grammar. And then, of course, one of the first things they do is create Harvard to train ministers, largely. And so this goes on throughout New England.
New England is the intellectual center of America well into the nineteenth century. Again, literacy is widespread. Connecticut has a wonderful law, which I like, that requires every family to have a Bible and a catechism, select men from the town will come around and make sure they do and that they’re catechizing their children, and if a family can’t afford a Bible or a catechism, the town will provide one for them. And so, yeah, education is just widespread. It’s, again, in New England particularly coming from the thoroughly Calvinist position, Westminster standards and this sort of thing, confessions of faith. And I think that this is a profoundly driving force behind the American War for Independence.
KS: Interesting. And then, how do you think that the Founders understood their own articulations of the new nation, as we’ve been talking about in the founding documents, in the context of Christian history and thought? Did they see themselves as an explicit continuation of Christian reflection?
MDH: Yeah, that’s a great question. I would say, one way of getting at the question is, it was just undisputed—the following syllogism was undisputed: religion is necessary for morality, morality is necessary for republican government. Everyone bought into this...They absolutely thought it was appropriate to draw from their Christian convictions when creating the Constitutional order, when creating public policy.
Let me give you one fun example of this. In the Continental Congress, George Washington, who always had a problem with people deserting because the pay was low and what not, he wanted to increase the number of times a deserter could be whipped with a whip to 500. Roger Sherman of Connecticut objected to this, appealing back to Leviticus and saying, “No, no, no, 40 should be the limit. 39.” Which, of course, was why Jesus was only whipped 39 times, right? So here he’s explicitly appealing to a very specific passage in Leviticus which we usually think of as kind of harsh and undesirable, but here it’s actually used to achieve a relatively liberal end. Instead of 500 lashes, the army would be limited to 40. No one would object to this sort of thing. It was just considered obvious that you would go to your Christian convictions, your moral convictions.
After I’ve said all this, let me do say that the Founders clearly and unambiguously designed the Constitutional order for Christians and other peoples of faith and non-Christians. So the Constitution clearly bans religious tests for office. In the ratification debates, some Anti-Federalists complained, saying, “Wait a minute! This means a Roman Catholic could be elected President, or a Muslim, or a Jew, or an atheist,” and the Federalists basically said, “Yes!” Now the Federalists were clear, most of these outcomes wouldn’t be a good thing, but at least they recognized our Constitutional order permits it.
One of my favorite letters from the era is, a small Jewish synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, wrote to George Washington a letter congratulating him on becoming president [see banner image]. He wrote back, and he makes it crystal clear that Jews are welcome in America, that they’ll have religious liberty. It’s a wonderful, wonderful letter.
Kyler Schubkegel is a student in the William Penn Honors program at George Fox University.
Portrait of Roger Sherman PD-Old. Banner image of letter from Moses Seixas (on behalf of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island) to George Washington public domain.