Mark David Hall—the Herbert Hoover distinguished professor of politics and faculty fellow in the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University—is swimming against a certain scholarly stream in his new book, Did America Have a Christian Founding? Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth (Thomas Nelson, 2019). Unlike a David Barton, Hall is a serious historian committed to historical honesty and going where the evidence leads him. In this regard, Hall is part of an important school of thought—represented by scholars like Thomas Kidd, Daniel Dreisbach, Mark Noll, and others—showing the (complicated) influence of Christian ideas on the Founding of America.
If someone were to ask me whether America had a “Christian founding”—the question that headlines this book—I would have to know how they defined that term before I could offer an answer.
Hall write that there are five options of what we could mean by a “Christian founding”:
[Option 1: The Founders Were Self-Identified Christians]
One possibility is simply that the founders identified themselves as Christians, which they clearly did.
In 1776, every colonist, with the exception of about two thousand Jews, identified himself or herself as a Christian. Approximately 98 percent of them were Protestants, and the remaining 2 percent were Roman Catholics.
But these facts alone are not particularly useful.
These men and women
- may have been bad Christians,
- may have been Christians significantly influenced by non-Christian ideas, or
- may even have been Christians self-consciously attempting to create a secular political order.
As we shall see, there are good reasons to reject these possibilities, but even so, it is necessary to dig deeper.
[Option 2: The Founders Were All Sincere Christians]
A second possibility is that the founders were all sincere Christians.
This would be a more interesting finding, yet sincerity is difficult for scholars, or anyone else, to judge. In most cases, the historical record gives us little with which to work.
Even if we can determine, say, that a particular founder was a member, a regular attender, and even an officer in a church, it does not necessarily mean that he was a sincere Christian. Perhaps he did these things simply because society expected it of him.
[Option 3: The Founders Were Orthodox Christians]
Third, we might mean that the founders were orthodox Christians.
In some cases—for example, with Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Roger Sherman, and John Witherspoon—there is abundant evidence that they embraced and articulated orthodox Christian ideas.
But the lack of records makes it difficult to speak with confidence on this issue with respect to some founders.
Nevertheless, because of the many misleading statements on the subject, I demonstrate that there is no evidence to support the popular claim that many or most of the founders rejected orthodox Christianity or were deists.
[Option 4: The Founders Only Acted Like Christians]
A fourth possibility is that the founders acted like Christians in their private or public lives.
Some historians have argued that the founding cannot be called Christian because some founders did not
- join churches,
- take communion, or
- remain faithful to their spouses.
Moreover, they say, in their public capacity the founders did not act in a Christian manner because they
- did things such as fight an unjust war against England and
- did not immediately abolish slavery.
In some cases, these critiques do not take into account historical context, such as the difficulty of joining Calvinist churches in eighteenth-century America, which complicates claims regarding low church membership.
In other cases, these critiques neglect the traditional Christian teaching that even saints sin.
If the standard of being a Christian is moral perfection, no one has ever been a Christian.
[5. Option 5: The Founders Were Influenced by Christian Ideas]
A final possibility for the meaning of a “Christian founding” is that the founders were influenced by Christian ideas.
I believe this is the most reasonable way to approach the question, Did America have a Christian founding?
In doing so, it is important to note that nominal Christians might be influenced by Christian ideas, just as it is possible for an orthodox Christian to be influenced by non-Christian ideas.
Book after book has been written about whether the founders were most influenced by Lockean liberalism, classical republicanism, the Scottish Enlightenment, and so on. I contend that an excellent case can be made that Christianity had a profound influence on the founding generation.
Given Mark David Hall’s definition of what he means by “Christian founding,” Hall’s answer to the title of his book is a “resounding yes.” He does not mean that American was to be established as a theocracy with creedal affirmation or constitutional requirement to worship Christ. He does not claim that all of the founders were orthodox Christians (though he thinks historians have exaggerated the number of deists among the founders, especially in terms of denying orthodoxy and affirming deism). Nor does Hall claim that Christianity is the only influence for the founders. Instead, his argument is twofold: (1) orthodox Christianity had a very significant influence on America’s Founders and (2) this influence is often overlooked by scholars and students of the American Founding.
There will be things to quibble with in the book (compare, for example, this older post by Thomas Kidd on the challenge of defining 18th-century deism, whereas Hall works with a fairly specific definition), but this is a very thoughtful book that deserves careful study and attention.