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1787: Ratification 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 Britain.

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 Franklin’s 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.

– J.C.H.

1700s: Faith of our fathers
Historians argue over the extent to which America’s 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 America’s early history.

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.

– Patrick Henry 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 sins. … 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.

– George Washington 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 wasn’t 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 American spirit.

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, "… associations of 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."

Tocqueville concluded 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?"

– E.G.

1700s-1800s: Early African-American Christianity
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 Zion’s 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 His Spirit.

– E.G.

1831: Social action spurred by revival
It has been said that America’s 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. Finney’s 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 nation’s 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).

– K.H.

1857: When prayer made headlines
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 Greeley’s 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.

– K.H.

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