For me, the issue was settled back in 1975 when I first started reading about the Calvinistic influence on American history. There was a history professor at our local community college who was the most scholarly teacher on staff and a thorough-going Calvinist. A friend told me to take his class because “he teaches the Five Points of Calvinism, and you need to know that for American literature.” She was right, for American literature is a tug of war between Calvinists (beginning with the Puritans) and those retreating from Calvinism (from Hawthorne to Twain to Crane to Hemingway).
Since 1975, the issue has been raised in a number of ways regarding the question of America’s founding. Did America have a Christian founding? By founding, do we mean colonial America or the independent American Republic? What does it mean that America did or did not have a Christian founding? And, what difference does it make now?
I am guessing that I have read or heard over 100 full length books, essays, and lectures on the topic of Christianity and America. I even gave a few of those lectures and have written on it myself in my book. So, Mark David Hall’s newest book Did America Have a Christian Founding?, published by Nelson Books, is a welcome guest to the discussion. But Dr. Hall is not a late arrival to the party. He has written and contributed to more than a dozen books on the relationship between religion and politics. These studies include a thorough study of Roger Sherman, who is often overlooked among the Founders and yet was a solid believer. This book, therefore, is not an author’s exploration of new ground, but rather the scholarly contribution of one who has combed the sources repeatedly.
I will not at this time attempt a chapter by chapter survey of the book, but will instead focus just a bit on the opening chapter. The issue is Deism. I once heard someone say, “Whether history repeats itself is not clear, but historians repeat each other.” Both specialized books and monographs and history textbooks assure us that by the time of the American War for Independence and the writing of the Constitution, Deism had supplanted Christianity as the prevailing religious and philosophical worldview. And, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and a few other key figures were all basically card-carrying Deists.
This whole contention is problematic. (I have long waited to use that stuffy word “problematic.”) There was not a denomination or church group that adhered to the title Deist, but that is not the real issue. The language attributed to Deism and that attributed to Christianity is identical at points. I might say, “It is going to rain today.” One might interpret that to mean that I believe that the falling of rain is not the direct intervention and providential control of weather by God, but is the acting of laws of nature that God created, but doesn’t direct minutely. Should I say, “God is going to send rain today”? Nothing wrong with that. As James 4:15 points out, we ought to couch all of our language in terms that indicate God’s present, active control.
I don’t think James is giving us a directive so that we have to be this mechanical. But there should be an underlying presupposition, a worldview, a philosophy of life, that indicates and reinforces our conviction of God’s presence. Yet, the Founders were not writing about an “it” or a force or laws of nature. They used terms like Providence, Governor of the Universe, Architect of the world, and so on. This language was no more denying orthodox Christianity than my saying “Jesus is Lord” denies the Trinity.
A few people of the time did prescribe to Deism. These included such men as Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine. Allen, best known now for his name being attached to furniture, played a minimal role (heroic though it was) in the war. Paine was a brilliant, quirky wordsmith with erratic tendencies. The “best known” Deists, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, were either the two worst Deistic hypocrites of all time or were personally inconsistent in their practice. R. J. Rushdoony demolished the myth of Franklin’s and Jefferson’s Deism for me when I read the first of This Independent Republic decades ago.
Dr. Hall begins each chapter with a list of quotations from prominent historians and sources that go against his theses. He provides more quotes and references in the ample endnotes to the book. Then, he begins systematically answering and refuting the claims. There are no strawmen here. The best and most reputable scholars only are allowed in the ring in these matches.
I highly recommend this book. If you are a history teacher or student, get it immediately. If you are a pastor, get it quickly. If you are a patriot, get it soon. If you cannot buy it right now, ask your personal Santa Claus for the book. Don’t end 2019 without this work in your hands and on your shelf.