America a 'work of God's spirit'

Christmas has become a secular, materialistic occasion for many in America and elsewhere. Nonetheless, the holiday, rooted in a hallowed and inspiring Christian tradition, provides an opportunity to reflect on just a few of the positive ways in which religion has helped shape this country.

Consider the 13 original American colonies. Before the American Revolution, they existed largely as separate entities lacking much of a connecting cultural or political tissue. Religion came to provide a crucial connection, however.

Historian Paul Johnson summed up the development this way: "Religious evangelism was the first continental force, an all-American phenomenon which transcended colonial differences, introduced national figures and made state boundaries seem unimportant."

Jonathan Edwards, an influential evangelical leader and intellectual, referred to America in 1740 as "this work of God's spirit, that is so extraordinary and wonderful." Nearly two centuries later, British author G.K. Chesterton, a Catholic, memorably labeled the United States "a nation with the soul of a church."

Various writers have explained how religion provided a vital constructive role in life on the frontier of the 18th and 19th centuries. William Sweet, a historian of American religion, observed: "A random turning of the pages of any of the old record books of the early frontier churches will soon convince one that the church was a large factor in maintaining order in these raw communities."

The cause of religious tolerance had a mixed record in early America. Roger Williams is well-known as a proponent of religious pluralism in Rhode Island, for example. Yet it's also a fact that Catholics and Jews were denied citizenship in early Rhode Island.

Still, early America also contained shining examples of tolerance. Consider the Philadelphia of Ben Franklin's day, a center of striking religious diversity. Historian Johnson described it thus:

"Philadelphia, its 'City of Brotherly Love,' saw the last great flowering of Puritan political innovation. It was the city of the Quakers, a Presbyterian stronghold, the headquarters of the Baptists, an Anglican center and the home of a number of German pietistic groups, and of Moravians, Mennonites and other sects, as well as a place where Catholicism was tolerated and flourished."

The Puritans have been caricatured as joy-killing sourballs. Yet Puritanism as an intellectual force had incalculable positive effects on early America. The essayist Samuel Morison exaggerated only slightly when he wrote, "Puritanism was a cutting edge which hewed liberty, democracy, humanitarianism and universal education out of the black forest of feudal Europe and the American wilderness."

And Christopher Dawson, a Catholic intellectual, noted that Puritanism had nothing short of a decisive influence on "the modern Western beliefs in progress, in the rights of man and the duty of conforming political action to moral ideals."

In his 1835 work "Democracy in America," French author Alexis de Tocqueville said that he was struck by how liberty and religion complemented each other so well in the America of Abraham Lincoln's twentysomething years.

"In France," Tocqueville wrote, "I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other. But in America, I found that they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country."

America is a country that towers as a champion of religious liberty, a land where one can be a full citizen regardless of the content of one's religious beliefs or the complete lack of them. That heritage is one to be appreciated and honored by all Americans, no matter what their approach to matters spiritual.

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