WACO, Texas — Was America founded as a Christian nation?
This is one of the most heated historical debates in America today, with its implications reverberating from prayers at high school graduations to Ten Commandments monuments on courthouse lawns.
On one side of the debate, you have traditional Christians who say the Founders were Christians, and that they built the nation on principles of faith. On the other, you have secularists who argue that the Founders were deistic doubters, if not outright atheists, and who see the Founding as an Enlightenment-inspired, nonreligious event. One's opinions on this subject often reflect what kind of role you think faith ought to play in modern America, too.
A deeper look shows that the role of faith in the Founding was more complicated than this politicized debate suggests. One of the greatest ironies in the Founding period was that the people who pushed hardest for the separation of church and state were evangelical Christians. To them, state support for churches (almost all the colonies had a denomination established by law) led to religious corruption and the persecution of dissenters.
Nowhere was the evangelical attack against state churches more vehement than in Virginia. From the founding of Jamestown in 1607, the Anglican Church (the Church of England) had been the official denomination of the colony, just as it was in the mother country.
For more than a hundred years, this system worked fairly well, as the colony rarely had to contend with dissenting non-Anglicans.
The situation changed dramatically in the 1740s, when the Great Awakening began to rumble through Virginia, led first by Presbyterians, then Baptists.
The Great Awakening was a series of massive religious revivals and the greatest social upheaval in colonial American history. Thousands of Americans found their faith renewed, or stirred for the first time, as traveling revivalists spoke of God's love and mercy for sinners.
In Virginia, the Anglican Church generally did not support the Great Awakening; to church and political authorities the new evangelical movement seemed like a spiritual insurrection.
Revivalists criticized Anglican parsons for lifeless preaching, and for failing to recognize the prodigious work of God going on around them. In doing so, they brought the sacrosanct authority of the colony, and its church, into question. In a religious sense, this was the first American Revolution.
Presbyterian dissenters were relatively polite, simply arguing that the government should afford them toleration. They complied with procedures to procure special licenses to preach.
The Baptists, by contrast, were utterly belligerent. They scoffed at licenses and held services — and outdoor baptisms — wherever they saw fit. By the late 1760s, Baptist churches were growing so fast that Virginia authorities unleashed a storm of persecution on them.
In a 1771 episode in Caroline County, southeast of Fredericksburg, a Baptist pastor named John Waller was confronted during a service by the local Anglican parson and a sheriff's posse. The parson shoved the butt end of a whip into Waller's mouth, forcing him to stop preaching, and the posse dragged him outside and horsewhipped him.
Similarly, in Culpeper, Va., a Baptist itinerant named James Ireland was jailed, and his followers (especially African-Americans) whipped. Even at the jail, Ireland could not escape his tormenters, who tried to suffocate him by burning brimstone and "Indian pepper" outside his cell.
Undeterred, Ireland preached to the remnant of his congregation through the cell grate, only to have hooligans urinate on him. All told, more than 30 Baptist pastors were jailed for illegal preaching in the years leading up to the American Revolution.