The only simple answer to that question is: it depends.
Were all the founding fathers evangelical Christians? Far from it. Did the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution establish this land as a Christian country? Definitely not. And yet, Christianity has certainly been the defining religious influence in our history. Virtually every key Revolutionary era leader took for granted the need for Bible-infused virtue if the Republic would survive. And many of these leaders were sincere, orthodox, evangelical Christians.
Like John Witherspoon.
On May 17, 1776, John Witherspoon (1723-94) preached one of the most significant sermons in the history of this country. Preaching at Princeton, the Scottish pastor turned college president, delivered his most famous address. It was a General Fast Day, appointed by the congress of the American colonies for prayer and humble supplication before God in the face of an unknown, and possibly war-filled, future.
Witherspoon’s sermon, based on Psalm 76:10, was entitled The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men. It is widely regarded as one of the principal sermons that prepared the way for the Declaration of Independence, a document that Witherspoon himself—the lone clergymen—would sign on July 4, 1776.
Scholars who care about these things almost always draw attention to the second half of Witherspoon’s sermon where the Scotsman, for “the first time” he said, introduced a “political subject into the pulpit.” But before he got to talking about independence, the Presbyterian minister had a more important point to make.
“In the first place,” he began, “I would take the opportunity on this occasion, and from this subject, to press every hearer to a sincere concern for his own soul’s salvation.” His argument was as simple as it was forceful: if you are right to care about your earthly affairs, how much more your eternal state?
I do not blame your ardor in preparing for the resolute defense of your temporal rights. But consider I beseech you, the truly infinite importance of the salvation of your souls.
Is it of much moment whether you and your children shall be rich or poor, at liberty or in bonds?
Is it of much moment whether this beautiful country shall increase in fruitfulness from year to year, being cultivated by active industry, and possessed by independent freemen, or the scanty produce of the neglected fields shall be eaten up by hungry publicans, while the timid owner trembles at the tax gatherers approach?
And is it of less moment my brethren, whether you shall be the heirs of glory or the heirs of hell?
Is your state on earth for a few fleeting years of so much moment?
And is it of less moment, what shall be your state through endless ages?
Have you assembled together willingly to hear what shall be said on public affairs, and to join in imploring the blessing of God on the counsels and arms of the united colonies, and can you be unconcerned, what shall become of you for ever, when all the monuments of human greatness shall be laid in ashes, for “the earth itself and all the works that are therein shall be burnt up.”
Witherspoon was doing nothing different from what he had done with previous Fast Day sermons in Scotland. Conversion always came before current events. Although Witherspoon grew increasingly interested and involved in politics from the time he arrived in Philadelphia in 1768, he never ceased to be concerned for “the ministry of reconciliation . . . committed to me.”
In urging his hearers to attend to the day of salvation at hand, Witherspoon did not call men to general deistical interest in benevolence and divine things; he called them to Christ.
Suffer me to beseech you, or rather to give you warning, not to rest satisfied with a form of godliness, denying the power thereof. There can be no true religion, till there be a discovery of your lost state by nature and practice, and an unfeigned acceptance of Christ Jesus, as he is offered in the gospel. Unhappy they who either despise his mercy, or are ashamed of his cross! Believe it, “there is no salvation in any other. There is no other name under heaven given amongst men by which we must be saved.”
Unless you are united to him by a lively faith, not the resentment of a haughty monarch, but the sword of divine justice hangs over you, and the fullness of divine vengeance shall speedily overtake you. I do not speak this only to the heaven, daring profligate, or grovelling sensualist, but to every insensible secure sinner; to all those, however decent and orderly in their civil deportment, who live to themselves and have their part and portion in this life; in fine to all who are yet in a state of nature, for “except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
The fear of man may make you hide your profanity: prudence and experience may make you abhor intemperance and riot; as you advance in life, one vice may supplant another and hold its place; but nothing less than the sovereign grace of God can produce a saving change of heart and temper, or fit you for his immediate presence.
The sermon is worth reading in its entirety (go here, scroll down, and click on the Dominion of Providence), both for its political-historical significance and also to learn from Witherspoon’s great concern for conversion and personal holiness even in the midst of such national tumult.
We give thanks for liberty on this day—temporal freedoms, yes; eternal deliverance most of all.