Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
This article was originally published July 3, 2021 by Dr. Marshall Foster, Founder of the World History Institute. Dr. Foster is a renowned historian and a member of the IPS Scholars Council. For more information, please visit Marshall’s website at www.worldhistoryinstitute.com where you can access additional resources.
The hope of lasting liberty unfolded in the wilderness of North America—3,000 miles from the power-hungry rulers of Europe. Heroes of liberty had come to the New World without an army, in search of religious and political freedom. For the first time in history since the days of ancient Israel, a nation was to be created following the bottom-up, divine blueprint of a constitutional republic as taught in the Scripture. In stark contrast, topdown systems of tyranny had dominated the entire world. The colonists realized that “the history of government on this earth has been almost entirely the history of the rule of force held in the hands of a few.” 1
Join, or Die. This political cartoon attributed to Benjamin Franklin was originally published on
May 9, 1754. It is the earliest known pictorial representation of colonial union in America.
Sadly, there has been an educational blackout regarding the true roots of America’s exceptional freedoms. Few Americans today know the foundations of freedom that were built in colonial America. Modern histories of America, almost universally, neglect the century and a half of colonial history (1607-1776). Instead they have taught the myth that America was dreamed up by our Founders or by great thinkers of the European Enlightenment. But the truth is, the biblically literate, politically astute colonists set the trajectory for America’s future success. They wrote their own brilliant, biblically-based constitutions and agreements long before the founding era.
The colonial writings reveal a world that has been forgotten by historians and political scientists. After twenty years of research on America’s forgotten origins, Professor Donald Lutz documents that the roots of America’s freedom and prosperity did not come from the Founding Fathers or the constitution. He says, rather, that “local government in colonial America was the seedbed [roots] of American Constitutionalism.” 2 In his important
book, Lutz compiles eighty of these local constitutions, agreements and covenants written by the early colonists themselves.
Nearly all of the colonists who settled the east coast of America were Christians deeply influenced by the Reformation. They were part of what historians have called the “Biblical Century” (the 17th century). During that pivotal span, millions of Europeans were able to own and read the Bible in their own language for the first time in history. Harvard Professor Eric Nelson says that during this period Christians began to regard the Hebrew Bible as a political constitution. He says that “readers began to see in the five books of Moses not just political wisdom, but a political constitution … No longer regarding the Hebrew Bible as the Old Law—a shadowy imitation of the truth, which had been rendered null and void by the New Dispensation—they increasingly came to see it as a set of political laws that God Himself had given to the Israelites as their civil Sovereign.” He says that political scholars would now have to look “to the perfect constitution designed by the omniscient God.” 3
As the American colonists formed their towns and colonies, they created models of limited self-government, based upon the Hebraic, biblical model. What developed over time in colonial America was not a theocracy, or “state church” dominance of society. The colonists had come out of Europe with its forced religion or irreligion. They knew that Christianity could not be forced. But they did, as Christians, apply their faith to the choice of their leaders and to the political affairs of their republic.
The American Colonies were blessed with freedom and prosperity during the 17th century. But by the dawn of the 18th century many colonists began to slowly lose their passion for the faith. Some came under the influence of skepticism rampant in the European Enlightenment.
The English, deeply touched by the Reformation, had come close to forming a Christian Republic under Oliver Cromwell. But when Cromwell died, they returned to dependence upon a king. They crowned Charles II and he resumed monarchical tyranny in church and state. By the 18th century, England was extending its Empire around the world, funded by the slave trade they had created. The biblical conscience and constitutional instincts of the English were a fading memory. Greed, immorality and arrogance ruled the day in the English Empire, especially among the ruling class.
Then in 1720, the London Stock Market crash created a financial depression which swept into the colonies. At the same time France (with its army in Canada) threatened a massive invasion to burn and destroy the colonial cities and enforce military rule. Religious and civil liberty were in great peril.
Suddenly, in the dark days of the 1730s, a Great Awakening thundered up the coast of the colonies. Jonathan Edwards and other pastors planted a fire for faith and freedom in the hearts of the people. George Whitefield, a famous English evangelist, fanned the flames of revival in 1740, as he began the first of seven speaking tours that would stretch out over the next thirty years. Tens of thousands of colonists up and down the coast gathered on hillsides to hear him preach up to five times a day. One third of the people of New England and one half of the people in the southern colonies were brought to personal faith in Christ. This spiritual awakening lasted a generation.
The impact of the Great Awakening was enormous. The Colonies, each independent, recognized “God’s sovereignty over all, including kings; they strove for holiness in government as well as in their own lives …. The Great Awakening, therefore, created the potential for a political awakening.” 4
The clergy were the intellectual, cultural and spiritual leaders of the colonial era. They were the pillars of communication. Their influence in colonial America was comparable to the impact of today’s social media, educational establishment and the entertainment industry all combined.
Yale historian Harry Stout writes: “Over the span of the colonial era, American ministers delivered approximately eight million sermons …. The average 70-year old colonial churchgoer would have listened to some 7,000 sermons in his or her lifetime, totaling nearly 100,000 hours of concentrated listening. This is the number of classroom hours it would take to receive ten separate undergraduate degrees in a modern university, without ever repeating the same course!” 5 These sermons dealt intelligently with every issue of culture and averaged 20 to 50 pages in length.
The pastors taught the role of biblical religion as the prime interpreter for political matters of the day. “Rather than humanism or Deism holding ideological preference … in reality, the Christian doctrines flowing from the Reformation were at the forefront during the formation of America. Furthermore, they positively impacted social and political affairs … Theology was influencing politics. It always will. Likewise, eternal political principles were proclaimed from pulpits with regularity and vigor.” 6
These biblical principles, taught from pulpits in every colony, proclaimed inalienable rights for each individual which had been denied by tyrants through the ages. These rights included, equality before the law, the right to trial by jury, the choice of leaders by the people, private ownership of property, the right to life as sacred, the separation of powers in government, with checks and balances against corruption. Note that the Word of God was the source and guarantor of these “inalienable rights,” not the king or government.
The pastors communicated these truths through sermons, books and pamphlets. They taught the people several hours on Sunday, in weekly townhall meetings, in election sermons and sermons on days of fasting and prayer. The clergy were also the presidents of nearly all of the colleges. For example, Harvard’s rules declared, “Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.” The Great Awakening, the clergy and the colleges prepared the American colonists to withstand the firestorm to come.
Steeples of New England—picturesque evidence of early America’s strong Christian character.
It became clear to the colonists, especially during the war with France in the 1750s, that England had planned to suppress the liberties of the American colonists. The British sent over royal governors and military officers who were incompetent, corrupt, immoral and cowardly. The premier English parliamentarian, William Pitt, attacked the military leadership of his own army. He spoke of their “… tyranny over the common man, their extravagance, Idleness and Luxury.” 7 The colonists were forced to board English troops in private homes. The soldiers proceeded to abuse families and steal all they could. A British commander “sent [hundreds of soldiers] into New York in the middle of the night to conduct a house-to-house search for able-bodied men; by the dawn’s early light eight hundred men were in captivity.” 8 They were forced like thousands of others, onto warships as near slaves.
As the colonists thought about the English arrogance and brutality they had just witnessed, they realized as John Adams said: “There seems to be a direct and formal design on foot to enslave America.” 9
Colonial leaders including Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry and John Witherspoon, perceived that unless the independent colonies could unite, they could never defeat the British juggernaut. They knew that a house (or a nation) divided cannot stand. There were two groups of patriots that needed to merge if they were to have any hope. One group, spiritually revived in the Great Awakening, were infuriated at English attempts to destroy religious liberty. The King had a plan to forcibly impose the Church of England upon the colonies. The other group emphasized tax issues, personal liberty, material gain and small government.
Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry were committed to uniting these two groups. They, as businessmen and ardent believers, knew that “the best coalition builders often were those who understood both camps because they themselves shared the love of God that animated one side and the dislike for bureaucrats and taxes that propelled the other.” 10
Sam Adams, the Father of the American Revolution, had worked for decades to teach his fellow citizens in Boston the biblical basis of liberty. In 1773, Samuel Adams created the social media of his day when he began the Committees of Correspondence. Within a few months, eighty towns throughout New England joined the Committees. Four hundred more towns joined by 1774. Adams taught that “the religion and public liberty of a people are so intimately connected, their interests are interwoven, and cannot exist separately.” He said, “It does not take a majority to prevail…But rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brush fires of freedom in the minds of men.”
Patrick Henry, the great coalition builder from the south, was the first great speaker to inspire both factions of patriots opposed to British tyranny. Henry, who like Adams had been converted to Christ in the Great Awakening as a teenager, used his great abilities to unite people of varied interests around higher principles. His ability at coalition building was put to the ultimate test in his famous speech to the Virginia Legislature in 1775. His impromptu speech, the last one of the day, many believe was the greatest oration in American history. Henry appealed to the Virginia leaders and future presidents and called them to sacrifice all for the “holy cause of liberty.” He asked his skeptical audience “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” His answer was clear: “Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” His once skeptical audience rose to their feet in unison and committed themselves to fight for their freedom and for that of their children. The British began the war three weeks later.
Rev. John Witherspoon, president of Princeton College, knew very well the tyranny of the English. He was a Scott and had witnessed the English army ravaging his homeland, killing thousands of Scots, destroying their heritage and condemning thousands to exile or slavery in America. Rev. Witherspoon, a Scottish patriot pastor, was recruited to come over to America to be President of Princeton College. In the coming years he inspired and educated many of the future leaders of our country. He taught the biblical basis for a self-governing republic and the biblical mandate to resist tyrannical rulers. Among his students was James Madison, the Father of the Constitution. Witherspoon was so effective as an educator that one British officer during the war with England proclaimed that Witherspoon was “a political firebrand, who perhaps had not a less share in the Revolution than Washington himself.” 11
John Adams, our second President, when asked about the American Revolution said, “What do we mean by the American Revolution? The war? That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people … a change in their religious sentiments [convictions].” 12 The choice of the colonists to bow to King Jesus long before the war led to their lasting liberty in the founding of the United States in the 1770s.
— Dr. Marshall Foster
1 Federer, William, Change to Chains (Amerisearch, 2011) p. 19.
2 Colonial Origins of the American Constitution (Liberty Fund) Lutz, Donald S. Ed, Indianapolis, 1998) p. xx.
3 Nelson, Eric, The Hebrew Republic (Harvard University, 2010) p. 16.
4 Olasky, Marvin, Fighting for Liberty and Virtue (Regnery Publishing, 1995) p. 78
5 Hall, David W. Ed, Election Day Sermons (The Kuyper Institute, 1996) p. 13
6 Ibid, p. 108
7 Olasky, op. cit., p.101
8 Ibid, p. 108
9 Ibid, p. 126
10 Ibid, p. 121
11 Ibid, p. 130
12 D’Souza, Dinesh, What’s So Great About Christianity (Regnery Publishing, 2007) p. 72