The Great Disappointment

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William Miller.

American history, and world history for that matter, is filled with examples of false prophecies. William Miller was perhaps one of the earliest false prophets of the American republic.

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The Second Great Awakening

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A Methodist Gathering. By: J. Maze Burbank.

In the 1810s and 1820s, Americans were drinking as much as seven gallons of alcohol per year per person, drinking at every meal. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 167. Even students at school could see their teacher inebriated while teaching, with drunkenness being commonplace throughout society. Id. This came, however, during the Second Great Awakening, a profound increase in religiosity in American society.

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Injury to the Cause of Christ

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Lyman Beecher. By: Mathew Brady.

The role of religion in Americans’ lives began to change not long after the War of 1812. In fact, the state of Connecticut “disestablished religion in 1818.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 165. It should be noted that the First Amendment to the Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, the First Amendment “restricted the federal government only, not the states.” Id. This would change in the 20th Century when the Supreme Court “incorporated” the freedoms of the Bill of Rights, through the Fourteenth Amendment (not passed until 1868), to the states. Id.

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A Moral Reformation

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Patrick Henry. By: George Bagby Matthews.

As eluded to in Virtue as a Principle and Foundation, vices had come to plague American society shortly after the American Revolution. Patrick Henry said, in 1780, that he “feared that our Body politic was dangerously sick,” as from top to bottom, society appeared to be embracing vice. Patrick Henry to Jefferson, Feb. 15, 1780, Boyd, ed., Jefferson Papers, III, 293.

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Ubiquitous But Controlled Religion

Thanksgiving. By: Jennie Augusta Brownscombe. (1914)

In the early Republic, religion took on a new role in society. In some segments of American society, religion became fervent. For example, in Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801, dozens of ministers of different denominations congregated with approximately 15,000-20,000 in a week-long conversion session. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 596. Amongst the “heat, the noise, and the confusion” were ministers, sometimes six preaching at a time, shouting “sermons from wagons and tree stumps.” Id. Many in the crowd “fell to the ground moaning and wailing in remorse; and they sang, laughed, barked, rolled, and jerked in excitement.” Id.

Meanwhile, the states took varying approaches to dealing with religion in government. New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Georgia “required officeholders to be Protestant,” while “Maryland and Delaware [required] Christians,” while “Pennsylvania and Souther Carolina officials had to believe in one God and in heaven and hell,” while “Delaware required a belief in the Trinity.” Id. at 583 citing James H. Smylie, “Protestant Clergy, the First Amendment and Beginnings of a Constitutional Debate, 1781-91,” in Elwyn A. Smith, The Religion of the Republic (Philadelphia, 1971), 117.

On the federal level, the Constitution of course provided protection for individuals to freely exercise their religion and also prohibited laws respecting an establishment of religion. U.S. Constitution, First Amendment. In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the First Amendment created a “wall of separation between church and state.” Thomas Jefferson to Messrs. Nehemiah Dodge and Others, 1 Jan. 1802, Jefferson: Writings, 510.

The role that religion would ultimately play in American society was not clear in the early years of the Republic. The hysteria that surrounded some of the religious ceremonies like described in Cane Ridge made clear that religion would play a central role to many. Thomas Jefferson, and the drafters of the Constitution realized that while religion may play a central role to the lives of many Americans, it could neither be endorsed nor prohibited by the government.

This careful move by the Founding Fathers ensured that while religion would be freely exercised and even ubiquitous in society, it would not be a democracy characterized by religion and certainly not a theocracy. The system embraced individual freedom and excluded government involvement where unnecessary. Fortunately, this system has largely been preserved by subsequent generations of Americans. Current and future public officials would do well to ignore any populist notions of the role religion should play in society and be keen on preserving the status quo of this effective system.

The Founding Fathers’ Religious Beliefs

Thomas Jefferson Seated at His Desk. By: Gilbert Stuart, 1805.

The religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers may serve as a surprise to some modern Americans. However, it is important to put into context that the Founding Fathers lived in an era that was not filled with the religious fervor that would become commonplace in the 1800s. See Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 576.

Thomas Jefferson hated “the clergy and organized religion.” Id. at 577. He said that the Trinity was “Abracadabra” and “hocus-pocus . . . so incomprehensible to the human mind that no candid man can say he has any idea of it,” and thus, ridiculing it was the best option. Id. quoting Thomas Jefferson to Horatio Spafford, 17 Mar. 1814, to James Smith, 8 Dec. 1822, in James H. Hutson, ed., The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations (Princeton, 2005), 68, 218.

Benjamin Franklin also appeared to harbor at least some dissension about religion, as he advised a friend in 1786 to not publish “anything attacking traditional Christianity” as “[he] that spits against the wind . . . spits in his own face.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 589. Franklin was keenly aware of the fact that Thomas Paine had “destroyed his reputation” by writing “scathing comments about Christianity in his Age of Reason (1794).” Id. citing Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (1794), in Eric Foner, ed., Thomas Paine: Collected Writings (Library of America, 1995), 825.

George Washington, however, “had no deep dislike of organized religion or of the clergy as long as they contributed to civic life.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 585. In fact, during the Revolutionary War, “he had required all troops to attend religious services and had prescribed a public whipping for anyone disturbing those services.” Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (New York, 2006), 35; Forrest Church, So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle over Church and State (New York, 2007), 36.

Underlying these early views was a key concept: the early American public would not tolerate its individuals, in government or not, undermining the sanctity of religion. Thomas Paine’s alienation, after his massive success of Common Sense highlights this fact.

It should also be noted that there were varying views about religion amongst the Founding Fathers. This diverse group of interests would ensure that the early Republic would not become a purely religious nation and not a purely secular nation.

As is evident in so many areas of American history, and world history for that matter, where diverse interests converge and the byproduct is moderation, success is much more likely. The role of religion in America was passed through this filter of moderation, which has ebbed and flowed for the past two centuries but has remained somewhere near the middle of the two options. That moderation has prevented religion from becoming a significant, schismatizing issue.