In the century and a half-long Age of Exploration, Europeans who through the Middle Ages oftentimes did not have the resources to travel beyond their nations’ borders began setting sail for distant lands in Africa and Asia in search of trade routes. Christopher Columbus, financed by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to find a new route to India, embarked on his famous voyage with the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria and unexpectedly landed on a new continent – what would be North America.
In Florida, California, and Latin America the Portuguese and Spanish controlled conquest. In the late 15th century, Spain had finally ended the Reconquista against the Moors for the Iberian Peninsula, a conflict that had raged on and off for 800 years, and was finding her footing under the new unity that Ferdinand and Isabella’s marriage brought. Ferdinand and Isabella sought to extend their power by acquiring land for Spain and converts to Roman Catholicism. Thus two distinct aims motivated the explorers in the Spanish regions: political power and missionization.
On the east coast of North America, what would be New England, different causes attracted Europeans. In England, a sect of the Anglican Church formed, called the Puritans, that emphasized the individual experience of grace and the mission of the elect to create a nation under God. Works like John Foxe’s Book of the Martyrs inspired the English that God had given them a special place in establishing His Kingdom.
The Puritans wanted to purify the Church of England, hence their name. They believed that the English Reformation of the 16th century and the changes under Queen Elizabeth I had not fully rid the Anglican Church of corruption, believing that the bishops and priests still held too much power, nor brought it far enough into Protestantism. Most Puritans stayed in the Church, but a minority, called Separatists, split to create their own. One group settled in Scrooby, Holland, and eventually boarded the Mayflower to settle in Plymouth, MA, seeking religious refuge. These were the Pilgrims.
After the Pilgrims, the promise of religious freedom inspired the chartering of such states as Pennsylvania by William Penn, Rhode Island by Roger Williams, and Maryland George Calvert. These territories provided refuge for Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, who faced persecution for their beliefs either in the Old World or in existing colonies of the New World.
Christianity influenced the governments of these early settlers, as evidenced in documents like the Pilgrim’s Mayflower Compact, which the leaders drew up to foster unity among the diverse group. In this agreement, the Pilgrims vowed to join in a “civil body politic” for “the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our King and Country” (emphasis added). These Christian roots continued in the realm of education when Massachusetts passed the Old Deluder Satan Act of 1647, which required that every town of 50 or more families have a schoolmaster to instruct the children so that the “old deluder, Satan” might not keep them from knowledge of the Scriptures.
To avoid the follies of mixing political and ecclesiastical matters that they knew from the Old World, after the American Revolution the Founding Fathers instituted in the Constitution of the new nation a separation of church and state in the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. This clause reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Nevertheless, Christian religion, having been the ground on which the first settlers built their societies, maintained an influential presence.
In the early and mid-19th centuries, the vision of a Christian America strengthened. In his 1835 sermon A Plea for the West, minister Lyman Beecher captured this spirit: “There is not a nation upon earth which, in fifty years, can by all possible reformation place itself in circumstances so favorable as our own for the free, unembarrassed applications of physical effort and pecuniary and moral power to evangelize the world.”
To accomplish this, Beecher looked to the West, a rowdy land where settlers had flocked in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Christian voluntary society and revivals set the Westerners on fire for God. Surely America was a Christian nation!
Or maybe not. During and after the Civil War, the emergence of the theory of evolution, the increase in industrialization that brought an influx of immigrants holding different religious beliefs, and an higher criticism of the Bible that the Enlightenment encouraged challenged the Christianity of the United States.
Today, the identification of America as a Christian nation is a matter of great debate. One side argues that America’s Christian roots make it a Christian nation; the other side argues that Christianity hasn’t influenced the nation as much as supposed and/or that present-day religious pluralism renders America un-Christian. Opponents of a Christian America also point to the exploitative past of the nation, whether in the African slave trade or the abuse of Native Americans.
What do you think? Given its founding and current affairs, would you say that America is or is not a Christian nation?
For the full text of the Old Deluder Satan Act, see this page.
For the full text of Beecher’s A Plea for the West, see this article.