American Genesis: The American Conscience

If you have ever read a text on the Christian history of America, you might have noticed a heavy reliance on the personal writings and expressions of the Founding Fathers. Such writers usually focus on the Christian intent of the Founders, citing their personal opinions in speeches or writings on the foundations of American liberty. It is a good argument, but sometimes difficult to defend to the person who is only familiar with what is perceived as a purely “secular” document—the Constitution. 

            If America’s Founders wanted a so-called Christian Nation founded unmistakably on biblical ideas about government and citizenship, why didn’t they plainly say so, in simple terms in the federal Constitution? One could imagine the Preamble reading something like this: 

            We the people, in order to form a more perfect union under God, and His Son, Jesus Christ, do ordain and establish this Constitution upon the laws of God set forth in the Holy Bible.

            Such language would have settled all debate about the Founder’s intentions long ago. While such a preamble is not the case in reality, you will see from this study that the various state governments did use language in kind to our hypothetical preamble elsewhere in their first constitutions. That language remained in effect for many of these constitutions as the Civil War approached—more than half a century later. 

            The intent of the Founders was influenced by many things, their experiences with the British Parliament and King, a knowledge of European history, their desires to live as free men in a free country, and most importantly, their own culture. From the first colonists to the Continental Congress, the Bible was the defining source in American culture for morality, education, and political liberty. 

            Unlike personal writings and speeches, the first constitutions tell us what our leaders collectively agreed to; what they desired for America through the consensus they struck. Constitutions, after all, are drafted by committees, altered, debated, discussed, and finally voted on by legislatures or other specially selected bodies. While the first constitutions did not have the voting approval of the people, they still reflected the culture of the day—just as many of today’s laws and elected representatives also reflect our culture—be it for better or for worse. 

            The United States Constitution is neither a secular or religious document. It is very simply, the rule book for American liberty. Constitutions are the ultimate consensus of the majority. Christians and deists, Protestants, and people of other persuasions came together to establish binding agreements for the methods to govern themselves following independence. This is why these documents are so significant. When you read the early constitutions, you quickly realize that they represent, not the opinion of the religiously minded or the secular patriot, but the very heart and soul of American culture itself. 

            In Deuteronomy 6:20-25 God gave Israel instructions on passing their nation’s history and heritage to each successive generation. In verse 24, God made the very survival of the nation dependent upon the values passed on to the nation’s descendants. This passage applies to us today. History is always important for understanding the present and the future. 

            In recent history, the concept of separation of the church from the state has become a popular means of striking down legislation, which might be motivated by the Judeo–Christian ethic. A study of the constitutions of America’s first States, following independence, reveals that while a type of separation existed, it was not in the 21st century tradition. Rights to conscience were supreme, but those rights were exercised in a manner unlike that which exists today. 

            So let’s begin our study by looking at America’s conscience, as the various state constitutions applied it. 

            In 1652, what we know as Maine was actually part of Massachusetts’s territory. It didn’t become a separate state until 1820. Maine’s Constitution was similar in many respects to the first constitutions of the first 13 states. Many contained their state’s Declaration of Rights at the beginning, and not the end of the constitution—unlike our federal document. Doing so signified that the state founder’s first order of business was the rights and liberties of the people, followed by the responsibilities, and limitations of government. These states included a Declaration of Rights as the most important element of their constitutions. 

            It was a month and a half prior to the passage of the Declaration of Independence that the Continental Congress sent a recommendation to the States, 

“…to adopt such a government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general.” 

            The colonies’ experiences with the many violations of British law circumventing their rights, helped facilitate the need for such strong declarations regarding the rights of the people. Maine’s Article I, Paragraph 2 begins: 

            “All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent, and unalienable rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and of pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness.” 

            This is interesting wording, expanding upon the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. Maine’s representatives, in the spirit of the congressional recommendation to form State governments that would “best conduce the happiness and safety” of people, said rights included “life,” but also went further to recognize “property” rights as well. This is relatively consistent with the scripture, which in the Old Testament Law, recognized not only individual property rights, but family, or tribal property rights in Leviticus 25:23, 29-34. 

            Continuing, Maine’s paragraph 3 of Article 1 reads (in brief): 

            “All men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences, and no one shall be hurt or molested, or restrained in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshipping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience…and all religious societies in this state, whether corporate or incorporate, shall at all times have the exclusive right of electing their public teachers, and contracting with them for their support and maintenance.” 

            Conscience is a critical concept to understand the idea of religious freedom during the 1700s and 1800s. Conscience, in pre-20th century American culture, did not mean, believe what you will, do what you will. It did not even reflect the notion found in Judges 17 where every man did “what was right in his own eyes.” Conscience had a uniquely Christian flavor. 

            One of the greatest warriors for “rights of conscience” was Pennsylvania Founder, William Penn. During Penn’s years living in England, he was brought to trial repeatedly for holding religious views contrary to the established Church of England. As a Quaker, his religious views were strict, yet Penn’s testimonies on behalf of his persecuted brethren encouraged the allowance of difference in how men serve God based upon their Christian faith. Some of this came out of Penn’s own troubles. On one particular occasion, he was ordered by a presiding judge to plead guilty to violating religious laws, which were enforced by England’s legal system. Penn refused. 

            Thomas Jefferson, who was not even close in form or spirit to Quaker beliefs, wrote in the Virginia Statute on Religious Liberties, his basic agreement on such principles: 

            “Whereas Almighty God has created the mind free; and that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments…tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy…” 

            Most of the first constitutions contained provisions for worship according to “conscience,” though some, like Delaware’s Article I, Section I, went further, to say it was the 

            “Duty of all men (to) frequently assemble together for the public worship of” God. 

            These clauses, like Delaware’s, recognized the duty of men to serve God, but the clauses were not empowered with legal force to compel people to participate in religious service. Thus, as a constitution these clauses directly, and overtly recognized the Creator and man’s relationship with him, but also left a wide berth for the application of the individual rights of conscience. 

Tomorrow: American Genesis: Education.

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