There is no doubt in the minds of Americans that our founders consisted of men of many denominations, including Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, Lutherans, and Catholics, among others. And there’s been many debates as to who were or were not Deists. But despite the arguments, what is quite clear is that the founders as a group had one goal concerning the foundation of America and that was the importance of a Christian worldview.
An example of that involved the Congress of the Confederation’s oversight and approval of a project to print the Bible within the United States. This was when Aitken’s Bible was endorsed by Congress.
The war with Britain cut off the supply of Bibles to the United States with the result that on Sept. 11, 1777, Congress instructed its Committee of Commerce to import 20,000 Bibles from “Scotland, Holland or elsewhere.” On January 21, 1781, Philadelphia printer Robert Aitken (1734-1802) petitioned Congress to officially sanction a publication of the Old and New Testament which he was preparing at his own expense. Congress “highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion . . . in this country, and . . . they recommend this edition of the bible to the inhabitants of the United States.” This resolution was a result of Aitken’s successful accomplishment of his project (http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel04.html)
Both the Christian founders as well as the Deists strove equally to form a government that was conducive to religious liberty, but moreover encouraged Christianity since it was beneficial to society.
Joseph Story, who became the youngest Supreme Court Justice in 1811 at the age of thirty-two, stated in his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States that:
We are not to attribute this [First Amendment] prohibition of a national religious establishment to an indifference to religion in general, and especially to Christianity (which none could hold in more reverence, than the framers of the Constitution)…at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, and of the Amendment to it now under consideration, the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America was that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the State.
Snow, Joseph, A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States: Containing a Brief Commentary on Every Clause, Explaining the True Nature, Reasons, and Objects Thereof; Designed for the Use of School Libraries and General Readers. Boston: Marsh, Capen, Lyon, and Webb, 1840. 259,261 (§441).
Later, in the 1824 Supreme Court case Updegraph v. Commonwealth, the Court stated that “Christianity, general Christianity, is, and always has been, a part of the common law.”
Updegraph v Commonwealth, 11 Serg. & Rawle, 394 Penn. 1824
If the Court made rulings based on Christianity as part of the common law, it follows that the law drawn up by the Founders also based on common law would, in turn, be based on Christianity, but many liberals can’t get their minds wrapped around that truth.
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This Amendment contains two important clauses that relate to religion and the state. The Establishment Clause prohibits Congress from making any “law respecting an establishment of religion.” Many seem to think this is referring to separation of church and state. However, the next phrase, the Free Exercise Clause, protects citizens from government action that “prohibit[s] the free exercise thereof,” meaning not only can the government not establish a particular denomination of religion, it also cannot prohibit citizens from freely practicing the religion of their choosing. The debate occurs over which clause has priority.
The clause with priority determines how the other clause is understood. James Madison of Virginia, the original author of the Bill of Rights, stated in the Annals of Congress, that he “apprehended the meaning of the [First Amendment] to be, that ‘Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law.’
1 Annals of Congress 730 (August 15, 1789)
It’s more than evident that the Founders saw the establishment of religion as coersion of belief by the government instead of mere tolerance and acceptance of it. The colonists still felt the bruises of intolerance they had suffered at the hands of the Church of England. They weren’t about to repeat the same ordeal over again. Still, the 1853–1854 House Judiciary Committee set out to determine exactly what was necessary for government action to be considered an establishment of religion. The Committee found very specific requirements that allowed for a surprising amount of government action of a religious nature before stepping outside its bounds. Their conclusion read:
[For an activity to constitute an establishment of religion:] It must have a creed defining what a man must believe; it must have rites and ordinances which believers must observe; it must have ministers of defined qualifications to teach the doctrines and administer the rites; it must have tests for the submissive and penalties for the nonconformist … In this age there can be no substitute for Christianity; that, in its general principles, is the great conservative element on which we must rely for the purity and permanence of free institutions. That was the religion of the founders of the republic, and they expected it to remain the religion of their descendents
U.S. House of Representatives Report No. 124, 33rd Congress, 1st Session, Chaplains in Congress and in the Army and Navy, March 27, 1854.
Eventually all 13 colonies signed onto the Constitution. Christian foundation and all. But it was the North Carolina delegation that was very much insistant about including religion in the ratifying process.
Bradford, M.E., Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1993, 80.
These delegates wanted nothing less than an openly Christian nation. They argued that rightful political authority is inseparable from the acknowledgment of the Supreme Creator.
Bradford, M.E., Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1993, 92.
The general consensus was that the Establishment Clause was mostly unnecessary because the religious make up of all but a very few colonies was so diverse that no particular sect or denomination would be able to establish itself as the exclusive religion.
North Carolina’s Constitution included a variation of the Establishment Clause similar to that of the federal Constitution and most of the other states. However, North Carolina included Article XXXII, stating “that no person who shall deny the being of God, or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State.” In 1835 “Protestant” was changed to “Christian” and remained that way until well into the twentieth century. By 1971, this language had been removed in the wave of secularism under the guise of “separation of church and state.” The intent of North Carolina’s Founding Fathers, though, is undeniable. North Carolina, as a part of the United States of America, was intended to be a decidedly Christian state with a decidedly Christian government in a nation founded on Christian principles.
In the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Conventions, North Carolina’s Founding Father’s tended by and large to be more reserved in their support and vocal participation in the various gatherings. There is little first-hand evidence of their personal perspective, opinions, and beliefs. However, their support for the Constitution of the United States and the North Carolina Constitution signals acceptance of both documents. While they did not agree with the amount of power being given to the federal government, the preservation of federalism within the Constitution put them at ease enough that, ultimately, they did support it.