of the Constitution
Following the Revolution there was great uncertainty as to whether
the states could or should form one nation. Many things divided
these 13 former colonies. Unlike other countries, the states did
not have a common religious denomination to provide a sense of unity.
There was a growing ethnic diversity in some former colonies
nearly half the citizens had come from nations other than Great
A sense of concern for
the new nation brought leaders to Philadelphia in the summer of
1787. There were young people (Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey was
27) and also individuals with experience in business and politics.
By the end of June the
convention seemed on the verge of disbanding, with nothing accomplished.
Alarmed by the turn of events, Benjamin Franklin addressed the convention:
"In the beginning of
the contest with Britain,
we had daily prayers in this room
for Divine protection.
Have we now forgotten this powerful
Friend? Or do we imagine we no longer need His assistance?
"I have lived, Sir, a
long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see
of this truth that God governs in the affairs of men.
I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth prayers imploring
the assistance of heaven
be held in this Assembly every morning
before we proceed to business."
While a clergyman was
not hired, historians have long noted that Franklins concerned
words caused many members to individually seek divine help to guide
them as they planned a new nation. Soon new wisdom appeared and
acceptable compromises were affected. By September 17, 1787, 39
persons representing 12 of the states put their signatures to the
document, which we now know as the Constitution; which created our
nation. This document makes these United States probably the oldest
nation in the world operating under the same written political arrangement.
1700s: Faith of our
Historians argue over the extent to which Americas founding
fathers were professing Christians. Some textbooks today, if even
mentioning their religious beliefs, claim they were primarily deists
whose views of God were tempered by the skepticism of the Enlightenment.
But personal statements and writings give voice to the impact of
the gospel on some of the best-known figures in Americas early
Doctor, I wish you to
observe how real and beneficial the religion of Christ is to a man
about to die. This is all the inheritance I can give to my dear
family. The religion of Christ can give them one which can make
them rich indeed.
on his death bed
My custom is, to read
four to five chapters [of the Bible] every morning immediately after
rising from my bed. It employs about an hour of my time. It is essential,
my son, in order that you may go through life with comfort to yourself,
and usefulness to your fellow-creatures, that you should form and
adopt certain rules or principles, for the government of your own
conduct and temper.
John Adams in
a letter to his son
O most Glorious God,
in Jesus Christ my merciful and loving Father, I acknowledge and
confess my guilt, in the weak and imperfect performance of the duties
of this day. I have called on Thee for pardon and forgiveness of
Let me live according to those holy rules which Thou
hast this day prescribed in Thy holy word; make me to know what
is acceptable in Thy sight.
in a booklet of prayers he wrote
1831: A European visits
the United States
One of the most astute observers of 19th-century American culture
wasnt even American; he was an aristocratic Frenchman. Alexis
de Tocqueville crossed the Atlantic in 1831 apparently to study
penal institutions in America. Though he did write about our prisons,
he is best known for Democracy in America, a mapping of the
Tocqueville was fascinated
by our "democratic revolution" and our religious fervor,
which (approvingly) he found nowhere to be in short supply. "The
political associations that exist in the United States are only
a single feature in the midst of the immense assemblage of associations
in that country," Tocqueville observed, "
a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general
or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations
to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct
churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes;
in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools." Americans
were building a nation. They were also building, in the hearts of
many, the kingdom of God.
"The Americans," Tocqueville
wrote, "combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately
in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the
one without the other."
the portion of his book dealing with religion in America with the
following observation: "[Religion] is more needed in democratic
republics than in any others. How is it possible that society should
escape destruction if the moral tie be not strengthened in proportion
as the political tie is relaxed? And what can be done with a people
which is its own master, if it be not submissive to the Divinity?"
Forced newcomers to the New World, African slaves had their
lives destroyed, their families shattered. In the midst of suffering,
however, the African community came in contact with authentic Christianity.
Though the principles of the gospel were contradicted by the manner
in which some Americans lived out their faith, slaves by the thousands
found hope in a relationship with Jesus Christ.
In colonial America,
Africans were the subjects of missionary efforts sporadically
under the Anglicans and Presbyterians, then concertedly after the
Great Awakening under the Baptists and Methodists. The latter two
with their emphasis on experience, religious affections,
and free grace for all were the most successful. Africans
soon led revivals and pastored churches. The Baptists, by 1810,
had a number of African congregations. The Methodists in 1816 organized
the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), and in 1821, the African
Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AME Zion).
The real boom came after
the Civil War. In 1865, the AME claimed 20,000 members. Two decades
later, it claimed 400,000. In that same period, the AME Zions
membership mushroomed from 6,000 to 300,000; the Baptists, from
20,000 to 900,000.
Africans, as much as
Europeans, shaped American Christianity, emphasizing physical responses
to the divine, worship that embraced the power of music, and a worldview
that did not separate the sacred from the secular. Their God was
at work in the world, ready to fill willing, broken vessels with
1831: Social action
spurred by revival
It has been said that Americas Second Great Awakening (in
the first half of the 19th century) had a greater impact on American
culture than any other in history. The outpouring in Charles G.
Finneys meetings in Rochester, N.Y., in 1830-31 was the major
impetus for national awakening and widespread reform.
For six months the revival
burned, closing taverns and houses of ill repute, and introducing
multitudes to a genuine relationship with Christ. The converted
were largely among the affluent doctors, lawyers, bankers,
judges and businessmen. Finney turned the resources of the new converts
toward benevolent causes, both official and unofficial. The move
of God spawned what came to be known as "the Great Eight benevolent
societies" and dozens of others organizations that propelled
Christians onto the streets, ministered to the nations needy
and cut deep into the core of secular hardness.
Just as the Evangelical
Awakening in England brought about the end of slavery there, so
the Second Great Awakening struck a blow to American slavery. Before
the Civil War, when acceptance of slavery was the norm, Finney preached
against it, refused Communion to slaveholders and guided Oberlin
College (as president) to be a main way station on the Underground
Railroad, the escape route for slaves. (Rochester also served this
cause.) Oberlin blazed a trail by having integrated classes of blacks
and whites and of men and women.
Finney believed that
righteous life followed a reborn spirit and that true righteousness
must impact the world, not just the church.
One study of the period
states, "The most important factor of this wave of revival was not
the number of conversions it achieved, but the emphasis it placed
on the reformation of society by the Spirit of Christ, operating
through the newly regenerate" (From Sea to Shining Sea by
Peter Marshall and David Manuel).
1857: When prayer
In 1857 America was in turmoil. Religion was in decline and the
debate over slavery was turning ugly. Then, the New York Stock Exchange
crashed and panic erupted. Clearly stimulated by the panic, a small
noon prayer meeting in New York began to grow.
It overflowed three rooms
and it was necessary for other churches to be opened. These, too,
quickly filled and soon a large theater was too small to accommodate
the crowds. Churches started evening prayer meetings. Soon, 150
interdenominational prayer meetings gathered in Brooklyn and Manhattan
alone. The fire of prayer leaped to Philadelphia where large buildings
many of them public buildings overflowed.
Before the movement was
four months old, the prayer meeting fervor had spread across the
nation. In the Chicago Metropolitan Theater, as many as 2,000 gathered
daily. Louisville, Ky., Cleveland and St. Louis counted daily attendance
in the thousands.
The meetings were expressly
for prayer, but people began accepting Christ as their Savior
right in the prayer meetings. A meeting in Michigan saw 500 conversions;
one in Connecticut claimed 400. Everywhere prayer meetings became
de facto evangelistic services as thousands were converted. New
York Harbor became an unlikely center of revival as crewmembers
and passengers on a number of ships were saved before going ashore.
New York newspapers gave
extensive coverage to the revival. Horace Greeleys New
York Tribune devoted an entire issue to it. The Washington
National Intelligencer said, "The Revivals, or Great Awakening,
continue to be the leading topic of the day
from Texas, in
the South, to the extreme of our Western boundaries and our Eastern
limits; their influence is felt by every denomination" (March 20,
1858). It reported that not one unconverted person could be found
in some of the towns of New England. Indeed, during one two-month
period, weekly conversions averaged 50,000. Papers nationwide reported
a radical, positive change in the moral climate.
By 1859 more than 2 million
Americans 1 in every 15 had been won to Christ, in
a movement we now call the Prayer Meeting Revival.