At a time when our country seems divided by extremism, American Gospel draws on the past to offer a new perspective. Meacham re-creates the fascinating history of a nation grappling with religion and politics–from John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon to Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence; from the Revolution to the Civil War; from a proposed nineteenth-century Christian Amendment to the Constitution to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for civil rights; from George Washington to Ronald Reagan.
Debates about religion and politics are often more divisive than illuminating. Secularists point to a “wall of separation between church and state,” while many conservatives act as though the Founding Fathers were apostles in knee britches. As Meacham shows in this brisk narrative, neither extreme has it right. At the heart of the American experiment lies the God of what Benjamin Franklin called “public religion,” a God who invests all human beings with inalienable rights while protecting private religion from government interference. It is a great American balancing act, and it has served us well.
Meacham has written and spoken extensively about religion and politics, and he brings historical authority and a sense of hope to the issue. American Gospel makes it compellingly clear that the nation’s best chance of summoning what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” lies in recovering the spirit and sense of the Founding. In looking back, we may find the light to lead us forward.
Praise for American Gospel
“In his American Gospel, Jon Meacham provides a refreshingly clear, balanced, and wise historical portrait of religion and American politics at exactly the moment when such fairness and understanding are much needed. Anyone who doubts the relevance of history to our own time has only to read this exceptional book.”—David McCullough, author of 1776
“Jon Meacham has given us an insightful and eloquent account of the spiritual foundation of the early days of the American republic. It is especially instructive reading at a time when the nation is at once engaged in and deeply divided on the question of religion and its place in public life.”—Tom Brokaw, author of The Greatest Generation
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I. GOD AND MAMMON
FORTUNE, FEAR, AND THE FIRST COLONIES
For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
—JOHN WINTHROP, “A MODEL OF CHRISTIAN CHARITY,” 1630
No man…can be so stupid to deny that all men naturally were born free, being the image and resemblance of God himself.
—JOHN MILTON, “THE TENURE OF KINGS AND MAGISTRATES,” 1649
America as we like to think of it had nearly ended before it began. In the North Atlantic in the autumn of 1620, the passengers aboard the Mayflower—102 English Puritans seeking religious freedom, new lands, and better livelihoods—found themselves in the midst of a storm at sea. As the crew struggled to save the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, as William Bradford called them, thought they were going to die.
When the ship finally came within sight of Cape Cod after sixty-five days, wrote Bradford, “they were not a little joyful,” and when at last they reached land, “they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof.”
Bradford and his company saw the hand of God in their journey, the God of Israel who had, in the Christian worldview, redeemed the sins of the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his account of the voyage and of the founding of Plymouth, Bradford suggested his own generation’s epitaph: “May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: ‘Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and he heard their voice.’”
God’s kindness might be boundless, but the Pilgrims’ kindness had its limits. En route, one of the hired sailors—a “proud and very profane young man, one of the seamen, of a lusty, able body”—was difficult, sneering at seasick passengers, cursing and swearing. Bullying and unsettling, the man frightened the Pilgrims so much that Bradford was not unhappy to see him dead. “But it pleased God…to smite this young man with a grievous disease, of which he died in a desperate manner, and so was himself the first that was thrown overboard.” It is not exactly Christian to see the death of a man, however filthy-mouthed, as “a special work of God’s providence,” to use Bradford’s words, but contradiction between profession and practice, between the dictates of faith and man’s darker impulses, was to be an enduring theme in the history of the nation the Pilgrims were helping to found.
A decade later, John Winthrop would urge another company of Puritans to think of the New World as “a city upon a hill,” a source of light to all the world. Shine it would, but it has also long been a place of shadows—of persecution, of slavery, of poverty. Still, with courage and with conviction, the settlers fought on. “So they committed themselves to the will of God,” said Bradford of the Mayflower’s Pilgrims, “and resolved to proceed.”
As it was in the beginning, so it has been since. Succeeding generations of Americans have moved through war and hardship, believing themselves committed to, and frequently alluding to, God, a supernatural force who created the world and remains interested in—and engaged with—history. The common story of America from the Pilgrims onward is a powerful one; it draws on some of the most vivid and important themes of Israel, investing the United States with a sense of earthly grandeur and divine purpose. “The civilization of New England has been like those fires lit in the hills that, after having spread heat around them, still tinge the furthest reaches of the horizon with their light,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville. There is a persistent idea in the popular American imagination that the nation was founded by what are sometimes called Planting Fathers seeking religious freedom—a vision of the past which gives religion pride of place as the country’s earliest reason for being. In recent times conservative Christians have been particularly attracted to this version of our beginnings, and a 1755 observation of John Adams’s suggests the same narrative had already taken shape by the time of the Revolution. “Soon after the Reformation, a few people came over into this new world for conscience sake,” Adams wrote. “Perhaps this apparently trivial incident may transfer the great seat of empire into America.”
The reality is more complex, for many motives propelled the English across the Atlantic. The first years of the country’s history were full of pious pilgrims, dashing gold hunters, ambitious London investors, anxious Jews in flight from persecution in Brazil, intense spiritual seekers guided by an “Inner Light,” and stern Puritan politicians intent on building a City of God in the middle of a fallen world. It was an eclectic cast of characters, some in search of God, others on the prowl for mammon—and even those for whom freedom of religion was a driving force soon found themselves doing unto others what had been done unto them.
LAWS DIVINE, MORAL, AND MARTIAL
The first permanent English settlers arrived in search of gold, not God. The language of the First Charter of Virginia was lovely, the sentiments warm, the king’s expectations clear. Issuing the document to the Virginia Company of London on Thursday, April 10, 1606, James I said he was happy to bless “so noble a work” in the hope that the mission to the New World would carry the “Christian religion to such people as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God….”
With the Lord out of the way, James quickly turned to mammon. The company was to take possession of “all the Lands, Woods, Soil, Grounds, Havens, Ports, Rivers, Mines, Minerals, Marshes, Waters, Fishings, Commodities…”—and on and on, for three paragraphs. Then came the order to “dig, mine, and search for all Manner of Mines of Gold, Silver, and Copper.” To defend the enterprise, no “Robbery or Spoil” would ever go unpunished, and the company was authorized to “pursue with hostility the said offenders” in the event of plunder. The First Charter of Virginia is 3,805 words long; only 98 of those words, or about 3 percent, are about God. Faith, Captain John Smith wrote of the Virginia Company, was “their color, when all their aim was nothing but present profit.”
Armed with the king’s commission, three ships—the Discovery, the Godspeed, and the Susan Constant—with 144 men, led by Captain Christopher Newport, left London in December 1606. They reached the banks of the James River in May 1607, just thirteen months after the charter was issued. They knew about the ninety-eight words referring to God and built a makeshift chapel for morning and evening prayer, and two services on Sundays. Before long the colony’s minister died, and Captain John Smith recalled that it took two or three years before “more preachers came,” a sign, Smith thought, that God had “most mercifully hear[d] us.” On the whole, however, evidence of God’s care was scanty. Within weeks of the Jamestown landing Indians attacked, killing two and wounding ten. Smith went on an expedition, was captured and saved from execution only, he believed, by the intervention of the chief’s daughter Pocahontas. When Smith returned to the settlement, he found only a third of the original company still alive. Things were at their bleakest.
“Word of the colony’s dismal beginnings soon reached London. Instead of taking delivery of “Gold, Silver, and Copper,” the officers of the Virginia Company—and King James—were hearing of starvation and slaughter. Smith denounced those Englishmen whose disappointed hopes of discovering new riches drove them to return to London, where they told all who would listen that America was “a misery, a ruin, a death, [and] a hell.” In June 1609, Sir Thomas Gates was sent from England to bring order to the chaos with instructions whose title left little doubt as to their content: “Laws Divine, Moral and Martial.”
Gates set sail aboard the Sea Venture; one other ship accompanied it. On Monday, July 24, 1609, a hurricane struck. The Sea Venture fought the storm for three days. “Prayers might well be in the heart and lips but drowned in the outcries of the officers,” wrote William Strachey, a Sea Venture passenger. “Nothing [was] heard that could give comfort, nothing seen that might encourage hope.” Miraculously, the ship came upon a reef at Bermuda, and the 150 or so survivors built two boats out of the wreckage, christened them Deliverance and Patience, and set sail again, arriving at Jamestown on Monday, May 23, 1610. While the episode became celebrated in England when Strachey’s account circulated in London (Shakespeare is said to have drawn on it as he wrote The Tempest), the hosannas in Virginia were more muted, for Gates immediately imposed martial law—a new code rife with ecclesiastical requirements and penalties for those who fell short of stringent religious rules.