Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
-Star Spangled Banner (1812)
From its very inception, America and Christianity have been inseparable. Among the first European settlers of American continent were persecuted Christians from a number of countries.
Every school child knows the story of the Pilgrims who arrived in 1620, fleeing both English persecution and Dutch moral relativism. Not so well known is the story of Squanto, the Indian who saved the Pilgrims from starvation.
About ten years before the Pilgrims arrived, Squanto was among a group of Indians kidnapped by English traders and sold into slavery in Spain. Squanto was bought by a Spanish monk who taught him about Jesus. Squanto made his way to England where he was employed by John Slaney, who helped him to return to America in 1618. When Squanto returned, he found that his entire village had been wiped out by a plague. Everyone that he knew was gone.
When the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower in 1620, they landed at the location of Squanto’s village. Fields had already been cleared and the land was fertile. However, the Pilgrims landed in December and many of them died before spring.
Imagine their surprise in the spring when they met Squanto, an Indian who spoke English and introduced himself by asking if they had any beer! Squanto adopted the Pilgrims and taught them how to cultivate the land, hunt, fish, and became their guide and intermediary with the surrounding tribes. He lived with the Pilgrims until he died and then left all his possessions to them.
The story is all the more amazing because the Pilgrims had no intention of settling in Plymouth. They had originally set out for Virginia. When they realized that they were far north of Virginia, they set sail again, this time for New York. Strong winds at sea forced them back to Massachusetts.
Governor William Bradford wrote that Squanto “became a special instrument sent of God for good….” Without Squanto, the Pilgrims might well have become a “lost colony” and the American tradition of Thanksgiving to God would never have happened.
In addition to the Pilgrims and Puritans, many other groups seeking religious freedom also made their homes in the New World. There were Quakers in Pennsylvania, Calvinists in Rhode Island, Catholics in Maryland, and Shakers in upstate New York. Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, Episcopalians and others also made their homes in America. Jews were also welcomed into the colonies.
As Michael Medved points out, the colonists did not seek individual religious freedom to follow their own conscience. Instead they sought purity. To that end, many colonies, and later many states, had official state religions long after the adoption of the first amendment.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
-Battle Hymn of the Republic (1863)
On July 9, 1755, George Washington should have been a dead man. Twenty years before the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord, Washington was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Virginia militia. During this period of the French and Indian War, he fought with British General Edward Braddock.
The British force was attempting to take the French Fort Duquesne near what is now Pittsburgh and remove the French from the Ohio Valley. They walked into a trap. After crossing the Monongahela River, the British force was attacked by a smaller force of Indians and French soldiers. The British were caught in the open while the attackers fired at them from behind cover.
One by one, the British officers fell dead or wounded. General Braddock took a mortal wound in the lung. Finally, Washington was the only remaining British officer. The Indians took aim at him.
Washington’s horse was shot out from under him twice as the Indians fired round after round at him. Twice he remounted horses left by dead or wounded comrades. In spite of being specifically targeted by Indian sharpshooters, Washington was untouched. He rallied the men who were left and escaped the killing ground. After the battle, Washington found that four bullets had passed through his coat, but none had hit his body.
A few weeks after the battle, Rev. Samuel Davies, later President of Princeton, said in a sermon, “I may point out to the public that heroic youth, Col. Washington, whom I cannot but hope Providence has hitherto preserved in so signal a manner for important service to his country” (Medved, God’s Hand on America).
Years later, one of the Indian chiefs told Washington, “Seeing you were under the special guardianship of the Great Spirit, we immediately ceased to fire at you… The Great Spirit protects that man [Washington] and guides his destinies – he will become the chief of nations, and a people yet unborn will hail him as the founder of a mighty empire. I am come to pay homage to the man who is the particular favorite of Heaven, and who can never die in battle.” (Mac, p.13)
Washington was never injured in battle.
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm they soul in self control,
Thy liberty in law…
May God thy gold refine
Til all success be nobleness
And every gain divine.
-America the Beautiful (1895)
Twenty years later, George Washington fought his old comrades in the British army. As his ragtag band of Continentals faced overwhelming odds against a well trained and disciplined foe, Washington and his army were saved again through divine intervention.
On August 29, 1776, the Americans were falling back as the British attacked their fortifications around New York City. The British and their Hessian allies outnumbered the Americans almost four-to-one. The Americans were low on powder and had their backs to the East River. They expected to a British attack at any moment. They expected to be beaten. They expected to hang.
General Washington ordered his men to “firmly rely on the protection of Divine Providence” saying “God has not brought us this far to desert us.” (Mac, p. 31)
The expected British attack did not come. While he waited, Washington formed a plan. He would evacuate his army across the mile-wide river. The plan entailed a huge risk: if the British heard the sounds of the crossing, Washington’s army would be split.
Just one day before, a regiment of Massachusetts fishermen had arrived to reinforce the Americans. These skilled seamen would move Washington’s army to safety. Throughout the night, the men made repeated trips across the river carrying soldiers, supplies, horses, and cannon.
A Tory woman realized what was happening and sent one of her black servants to warn General Howe, the British commander, that the Americans were escaping. The man successfully reached the British lines with his message, but was stopped by a Hessian sentry who did not speak English. The message did not reach Howe until it was too late.
As morning came, much of the army was still facing the British. Major Benjamin Tallmadge described what happened next: “At this time a very dense fog began to rise out of the ground and off of the river, and it seemed to settle in a peculiar manner over both encampments. I recollect this providential occurrence perfectly well, and so very dense was the atmosphere that I could scarcely discern a man at six-yard distance…. We tarried until the sun had risen, but the fog remained as dense as ever.” (Mac, p. 32)
The fog remained until the last boat, carrying General Washington, had departed. As the fog lifted, the British realized that the Americans had vanished. The first British soldiers to reach the American trenches fired on the last boats, but they were already out of range. The American army survived. A few months later, on Christmas night, they would cross another river, the Delaware, to deliver a stunning defeat to Hessians encamped in Trenton.
Was it random chance that held back the British and allowed a thick fog to cover the battlefield for exactly as long as the Americans needed? General Washington apparently believed that it was no coincidence. Even before the incident, he valued and promoted Christianity in the Continental army. The day after he took command, he issued a general order indicating that he “requires and expects of all officers and soldiers not engaged in actual duty, a punctual attendance of divine services, to implore the blessing of Heaven for the means used for our safety and defense.” (Medved, p. 80)
Washington further stated, “ While we are duly performing the duty of good soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished character of a patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of a Christian.”
Let tyrants shake their iron rod
And slav'ry clang her galling chains;
We'll fear them not. We trust in God;
New England's God forever rains.
Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton, too
With Prescott and Cornwallis join'd,
Together plot our overthrow,
In one infernal league combined.
When God inspired us for the fight
Their lines were broke, their lines were forc'd,
Their ships were shelter'd in our sight
Or swiftly driven from our coast.
The foe comes on with haughty stride,
Our troops advance with martial noise.
Their vet'rans flee before our youth
And generals yield to beardless boys.
What grateful offerings shall we bring,
What shall we render to the Lord?
Loud hallelujahs let us sing
And praise his name on every chord.
-Chester (Marching hymn of the Continental army)
As the new nation grew into the shining city on a hill (Matthew 5:14 and 1630 sermon by Puritan John Winthrop), it kept its ideals as a nation devoted to God. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 states that “religion, morality and knowledge” are “necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind” (http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=8). Upon approval of the First Amendment to the Constitution, Congress issued a request for the President to “recommend… a day of public thanksgiving and prayer” to acknowledge “the many signal favors of Almighty God…” President Washington responded by declaring November 26, 1789 to be devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficient Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be” (Medved, p. 83).
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
-Declaration of Independence
It is widely accepted that the ideas and philosophies that led the creation of the American republic are rooted in the work of theologian John Calvin. As Calvin’s writings helped throw off the oppression of the Catholic Church in the Reformation, they also led to political freedom. Calvin’s acceptance of capitalism helped to end the feudal system of the Middle Ages and led to the Protestant work ethic. This, in turn, led to the creation of a middle class and the ability of commoners to have a greater voice in government. Calvin’s work was carried on by John Knox. Both theologians influenced the Presbyterians and other Protestants who made up the bulk of the Continental army.
Our fathers' God, to thee,
author of liberty, to thee we sing;
long may our land be bright
with freedom's holy light;
protect us by thy might, great God, our King.
-My Country Tis of Thee (1831)
God and the Bible even helped America through its darkest days so far: the days of slavery and War Between the States. While slavery presented an enormous evil, it was also an evil that was common throughout world history.
It was the Christian religion and the Bible that sowed the seeds of equality, which would one day bring the abolition of slavery, as well as eventual racial equality and integration. Jesus taught that men were equal (Matthew 20:25-28). The Biblical book of Philemon broke new ground by teaching that slave owners should consider their slaves as more than property.
Quakers were among the first to oppose slavery. The abolitionist movement made its largest gains with William Wilberforce, an English Member of Parliament and Christian who was instrumental in banning slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833. In America, John Brown, who saw himself as a prophet, became a martyr for the abolitionist movement. The fearless Harriet Tubman’s faith in God inspired her to lead untold numbers of slaves to freedom.
Many, including Abraham Lincoln, saw the War Between the States as a punishment for the sin of slavery. In his second inaugural speech, Lincoln said, “If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether" (http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/speeches/inaug2.htm).
God Bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Thru the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America, My home sweet home.
-God Bless America (1938)
Even after the War Between the States, it took another hundred years for we the people of the United States to fully realize equality between races, sexes, and ethnicities. Along the journey, God and the Bible inspired people such as the Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Jr. and countless lesser known Christians to spread the word that God had created all men equal.
At the same time that Americans were confronting their racist demons and after the defeat of fascism, they were also fighting the Cold War against an atheistic enemy. The Soviet Union was attempting to export its communist philosophy around the world. Eastern Europe and China fell to the communists and nations around the world, from Europe to Africa to Asia were threatened. According to the Black Book of Communism, communist regimes were responsible for 94 million deaths. (With communist regimes still active in China, North Korea, and Cuba, the number is still increasing.)
The Cold War was America’s longest war. In the end, America was victorious as the Soviet Union disintegrated and oppressed people around the world stood up to take back their freedom. In another example of divine timing, President Franklin Roosevelt removed Vice President Henry A. Wallace from the Democratic ticket in 1944 and replaced him with Harry S Truman.
Harry Truman became Vice President on January 20, 1945 and president a few months later when FDR died on April 12. Wallace was a communist sympathizer (like many New Dealers). If he had become president, he would not have resisted the communist onslaught. In contrast, Harry Truman helped preserve Western Europe and South Korea as well as playing a role in the establishment of the nation of Israel. If Truman had not become president, the world would be a very different place and the toll of communism would have been much higher.
In contrast to other national powers throughout history, America is not an imperialist power. Where other nations have fought and conquered to add to their empires, America fights and conquers, as Woodrow Wilson put it, to make the world “safe for democracy” and the principle that “peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.” The conquests of America are today seen as beacons of democracy, stability, and prosperity: Germany, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and, in the future, Iraq.
“I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
There have been many other instances of what our Founders referred to as “Divine Providence.” The relationship between Americans and God has been close from the earliest days of our nation. God has both blessed us and punished us. Nevertheless, America has remained the “promised land” and the “shining city on the hill.” It is my fervent prayer that the United States of America will remain, as Abraham Lincoln said, “the last, best hope of earth.”
Happy Independence Day and may God continue to bless and protect America
What our founders and leaders had to say about God and the Bible:
"I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever."
- Thomas Jefferson, 1871
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. “
"The foundations of our society and our government rest so much on the teachings of the Bible that it would be difficult to support them if faith in these teachings would cease to be practically universal in our country."
- Calvin Coolidge, 1923
“...The longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that ‘except the Lord build the House, they labor in vain that build it.’ ”
– Benjamin Franklin
“Were my soul trembling on the wing of eternity, were this hand freezing to death, were my voice choking with the last struggle, I would still, with the last gasp of that voice, implore you to remember the truth: God has given America to be free.”
– Patrick Henry
“The Americans combine the notions of religion and liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive of one without the other.”
-Alexis de Tocqueville
"I care not if God is on my side. My constant hope and prayer is that I may be found upon God's side."
“We cannot read the history of our rise and development as a nation, without reckoning with the place the Bible has occupied in shaping the advances of the Republic. Where we have been the truest and most consistent in obeying its precepts, we have attained the greatest measure of contentment and prosperity.”
– Franklin Roosevelt
“A nation or civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on the installment plan.”
-Martin Luther King
“Without God, there is no virtue, because there’s no prompting of the conscience. Without God, we’re mired in the material, that flat world that tells us only what the senses perceive. Without God, there is a coarsening of the society. And without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure. If we ever forget that we’re one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.”
– Ronald Reagan
Mac, Toby and Tait, Michael, Under God, Bethany House, Minneapolis, MN, 2004.
Medved, Michael, The 10 Big Lies About America, Crown Forum, New York, 2008.
Kennedy, D. James, What if Jesus Had Never Been Born, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 1994.
“God’s Hand On America,” Michael Medved Radio Show Podcast, December 25, 2008.
July 4, 2009