The Christian Background of the American Constitution: Colonial America

(by D.A. Bass; this piece was originally given as a radio lecture in the fall of 2003, KID AM radio, Idaho Falls, ID)

Prior to the convening of the Constitutional convention in 1787, our founding fathers studied and absorbed the constitutions of the respective colonies of the new nation. Those thirteen colonies had each been founded upon unique, individual charters and principles: Massachusetts and Connecticut with their Puritan and Yankee ingenuity; Maryland, established by the Calverts as a haven for Roman Catholics; Pennsylvania, chartered to William Penn, a Quaker, who wished to see the Christian religion flourish in openness and toleration; Rhode Island, which became a haven for heretic and outcast alike; in short, while each was founded upon unique, individual charters and principles, they all had this in common: They expressly, overtly acknowledged the Christian religion and the Christian God of the Bible as the source and goal of their respective colony’s principles and structure.

“We, greatly commending and graciously accepting of their desires for the furtherance of so noble a work, which may, by the Providence of Almighty God, hereafter tend to the glory of His Divine Majesty, in propagating of the Christian religion to such people as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God…” 1st Charter of Virginia

The constitution of Connecticut held forth several articles which would be controversial in today’s political climate:

I. “That the Scriptures hold forth a perfect rule for the direction and government of all men in all duties which they are to perform to God and men, as well in families and commonwealth as in matters of the church.

II. That as in matters which concerned the gathering and ordering of a church, so likewise in all public offices which concern civil order – as the choice of magistrates and officers, making and repealing laws, dividing allotments of inheritance, and all things of like nature – they would all be governed by those rules which the Scriptures held forth to them.”

It must be questioned whether the courts of modern Connecticut would put up with what colonial Connecticut incorporated into the Orders of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Connecticut: “That God’s word should be the only rule for ordering the matters of government in this commonwealth.”

Would any court – federal or state – order such a thing today? No, of course not! Instead of genuine humility and gratitude before Almighty God for having given such a rich resource for self-governance and republican principles as found in the Bible and the centuries of Christian tradition, modern socialist courts are filled with shame and arrogance towards the Bible and our rich heritage in Christianity. There is a conscious effort to expunge as swiftly as possible all reference to and reliance upon that text and tradition. Do not be distracted from the real issue in this struggle: The 10 commandments will begin to re-appear in our courthouses when the law of God is written upon the hearts of the men and women who serve there. Do not despair because a few symbols – granite monuments and pledges and mottos – are being challenged. These are all faith symbols, which every culture fashions to express the source and foundation upon which rests the law which governs them. The more pagan and degenerate our land becomes, the more pagan and degenerate will become her symbols. Our culture is in the process of cleansing the land of her Christian symbols precisely because she has already substantially cleansed her soul of her Christian principles! First comes the reality in the soul, and the symbol follows. The symbols are seen as a threat and embarrassment because they no longer represent what we are in our national soul to the majority of those who rule us today. The cross, the crèche, the Scriptures, are all a shame and threat to a secular culture because they are a visible reminder of the biblical, Christian values and principles that they have abandoned in a mad pursuit of an ugly, death-dealing secularism.

But it was not so with our founding fathers. In the colonial period we see the substantial effects of the First Great Awakening upon the thirteen colonies. For example, as the gospel swept through the young nation, she experienced the truth that in Christ all men are brothers.

“Highborn or commoner, great merchant or poor farmer, magistrate or soldier, all were equal at the foot of the cross. Eternal heaven was open to all who accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and it mattered not what their station in life was or how wealthy they were, or who their parents were.” David Manuel and Peter Marshall, The Light and The Glory.

This message found its way into the fabric of the church’s make-up, It was adopted and practiced there and, “it was only natural that it would extend into civil government as well. Here, then was the seed of democracy which would extend into civil government as well. Here then was the seed of democracy which would be embodied in the Constitution of the United States: of the political understanding that all men were equally entitled to vote, and that, in the sight of God, a farmer was as good as King George. For God was no respecter of persons: His laws applied equally to all men.” Manuel and Marshall, The Light and the Glory.

Here we begin to see a profound distinction beginning to emerge upon the distant shores of the American continent. Despite the long tradition of English rights, there was still an entrenched class system of royalty, nobles, commoner, that was centuries old. Although the commoner had his rights, he knew his place and station and only rarely did he have opportunity to improve that station. In America, however, due to the power of Christianity in leveling the playing field for all men, that same commoner had every chance to succeed as the noble, only limited by his skills, intelligence, and energy. Additionally, his vote in the meetinghouse counted every bit as much as the highborn or the rich man’s. He could stand in that same meetinghouse and, as long as he did it decently and in order, voice his opinion and express himself freely on any subject at hand.

Thus, not only did a great ocean and time and distance separate England form her child, but increasingly so did that child’s institutions and colonial constitutions. Every colonial considered himself a good English subject, but slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, he became conscious of the fact that he was far more independent of England than England ever suspected she was of him! This intuitive, implicit liberty was strengthened in the first generation born in the colonies, most of whom had never known anything but republican democracy in its purist, town meeting form. The American colonist knew several liberties of which his continental counterpart was unaware:

• Spiritual liberty – if he were a regenerate, faithful Christian, he was free from his bondage to sin and corruption. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

• Ecclesiastical liberty – The Church of England was the state church. Tax money went to her and the loyalty and service of each British subject was expected to go to her, the conscience of that subject notwithstanding. Moreover, this loyalty was imposed, to a greater or lesser degree. In America, a man was free to associate with whatever Christian church his conscience dictated. In most of the colonies, there was no established church and this set the pattern which would be followed when the Constitution was adopted. There would be no national denomination so that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.”

• Political liberty – while technically under the king, functionally the colonies ruled themselves via the colonial legislatures. Generally, the representatives of these legislatures were elected by qualified voters from the mass of men who populated those colonies. The farmer who was clearing his land on the outmost parts of the hinterland had a vote which bore as much weight as the wealthiest, landed merchant of Boston. The simplest farmer was proud and independent and unwilling to relinquish one inch of his standing in the assembly of voters.

• Economic liberty – the American colonist’s potential for success was limited only by his own skill, energy, and God’s providence. He did not have the layers of class and aristocracy to wade through that he found in England. If the cities were too crowded and opportunities too scarce for his liking, he only needed to pack up his family and push the frontier a little further west and clear some more land for his own farm. His land was his own, and the fruits of land and labor he was able to see directly, and no one could tax it or seize it without his having a say-so. The principle, “No taxation without representation” rested secure in both English tradition and code, as well as in colonial tradition and code.

Imagine his consternation when British policy began to shift towards laying an increasing burden upon this prosperous offspring of mother England. This began to happen in the mid-eighteenth century when the tyrant king George III asserted his authority over what he saw as a cow ready for the milking, i.e., the American colonies. Thus, the outrage of the Townsend Acts of 1767, which imposed duties on glass, tea, paper, and so on, passed without the consent or vote of a single colonist. Thus, the outrage of the Stamp Act of 1765 that required a stamp of the British Crown on every legal document produced in America, despite the fact that the British Crown had little or nothing to do with the day to day life of the colonist and his local legislature and who, in turn, had no representative across the wide sea to speak for him in Parliament, where all of these tyrannies were being perpetrated! Thus, the outrage of the rough and arrogant British troopers regularly quartered in colonial homes and given to taking whatever they wanted – including colonial horse, silver, and maiden. Thus, the outrage of redress for these and other monstrous grievances were routinely ignored and scoffed at by the ministers and judges of the Crown. Justice became as much an orphan as many of the children of the colonies whose fathers were in jail, impressed into the British navy far at sea, or who were in their graves because of peremptory sentences passed down by judges accountable only to the king.

What were they to do? Was not a Christian to be obedient to proper authority?

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” Romans 13:1,2

If this were the only scripture that spoke to proper rule and authority, then we would be consigned to bear tyranny no matter what our circumstances and opportunities. It would be fallen, sinful man who would dictate government (which is the case often anyway) and the Christian would never be able to speak to issues like justice and mercy, the proper limits of power, and the duties and qualities of both prince and subject. Instead, our founding fathers were completely familiar with the body of material that bore upon these and other topics developed over centuries of thought and practice. They were intimately familiar with not only their Bibles, but also with other deeply Christian men and philosophers who had bent their talents to reflecting upon these subjects, men like Montesquieu, Samuel Rutherford, Algernon Sidney, and, of course, Mr. John Locke, philosopher of the revolution. These men developed the idea that not only was their explicit obedience expected of the subject, but also an implied contract (that Locke called the social contract). This social contract existed between him and those who exercised rule. King, legislature, and judge must follow the commandments of the scriptures, one of which stated: “He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.” 2 Samuel 23:3

It was widely acknowledged that the ruler who violated this contract forfeited his right to the obedience and loyalty of his subjects. Even good king James I, no friend to democracy, noted: “A king ceases to be a king and degenerates to a tyrant, as soon as he leaves off to rule according to his laws.”

If only George III had listened to his predecessor! But, instead, George III added, as Thomas Jefferson articulated in the Declaration of Independence, “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.” Jefferson did not pen this in an intellectual and biblical vacuum. His readers knew precisely whence his thought. Resistance to tyrants was a well established doctrine in civil philosophy. Samuel Rutherford, for example, in his Lex Rex, observes: “He who resisteth the man who is the king, commanding that which is against God, killing the innocent, resisteth no ordinance of God, but an ordinance of Satan; for a man commanding unjustly and ruling tyrannically, hath in that no power from God.” (XXIV, 3) King George III amply fit this description. Jefferson made this clear in his bill of particulars in the Declaration. The catalogue of wrongs is daunting and takes up the large bulk of the Declaration, even though the opening paragraphs are usually quoted, and not much else. Jefferson does this because “the candid world” to which he addressed the Declaration would have expected a biblical and philosophical rationale for the serious matter of rebellion. If it could be demonstrated that George III was not “ruling over men justly, ruling in the fear of God,” then America’s case was made. Besides providing posterity with a set of inspirational prose, the Declaration thus accomplished its goal of making the argument for separation from the mother country. Thus, Jefferson could look to God for justification of America’s cause, “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states.”

Thus, we discover that in everything from the colonial charters and constitutions to the Declaration of Independence, penned on the eve of the Revolution, the Christian religion suffused the thought and souls of the men who made them. To divorce God from our institutions today and expunge the memory of Him and His Book is only to pull out from underneath our collective feet the very foundation that causes us to stand as a country! In fact, what we hope to demonstrate in our next lecture is the close connection between biblical principles and preceding charters with the Constitution. To say, “God is nowhere mentioned in the text of the Constitution, and that is the basis for government,” is really only a canard. The Constitution itself is intimately connected with the atmosphere in which it was created, and not made in a vacuum!

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