"HISTORY SPEAKS" BLOG
“[It’s] the most comprehensive and penetrating analysis of the relationship between character and society in America that has ever been written.”
That’s how one historian described Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America; a work many consider among the most influential literary works of the 19th century.
Published in two volumes between 1835 and 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville analyzed the social and political life of early America.
Born in the wake of the French revolution, he was a diplomat, philosopher, historian and aristocrat. Initially he traveled to America in 1831 to study our prisons, but quickly found something greater underfoot.
Alexis de Tocqueville discovered America’s Christianity.
He penned: “Upon my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things, to which I was unaccustomed. In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country…”
Alexis de Tocqueville observed how our “notions of Christianity and of liberty” were so intertwined it was “impossible to…conceive one without the other.” He noted in his travels how our Puritan forefathers immigrated and established both a “democratic and republican religion.”
He summarized how “religion in America…must be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country…[imparting] a taste for freedom.”
Alexis confessed his inability to “know whether all Americans [had] a sincere faith” but was “certain” that we fully accepted religion and all other institutions being connected. “This opinion,” he wrote, “is not particular to a class of citizens or a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.”
Alexis de Tocqueville affirmed this thesis from a court case he observed in Chester County, NY (August 23, 1831). In this case, a witness admitted to the judge his atheism. In Alexis’ “enlightened” France, atheism was common and gave no concern in matters of integrity. And yet this American judge “refused his testimony” because atheism was reason to lose the “confidence of the court.” Alexis also documented a local newspaper’s report for how this judge was surprised to discover “a man living who did not believe in the existence of God…[and] knew of no case in a Christian country, where a witness had been permitted to testify without such belief.”
Alexis de Tocqueville wasn’t alone in his perception of America’s Christian roots.
His traveling partner—Gustave de Beaumont—penned his own memoir known as the Marie ou l’Esclavage aux E’tas-Unis (1835). Beaumont documented over a dozen different sects of Christianity in early America and wrote: “Religion…is not only a moral institution but also a political institution … In the United States, the law is never atheistic … All of the American constitutions proclaim freedom of conscience and the liberty and equality of all the confessions…”
Beaumont noted how the Massachusetts’s Constitution recognized “only Christians.” He cited how Maryland’s Constitution declared “all of the faiths are free” and gave legislature the power to tax “for the support of the Christian religion.” The Vermont Constitution recognized “only the Christian faiths” and mandated “every congregation of Christians [to] celebrate the Sabbath.” Pennsylvania required a belief in God as part of its citizenry. Beaumont further documented how most states demanded profession of Christianity to serve in public office.
Beaumont summarized: In general, anyone who adheres to one of the religious sects, whose number is immense in the United States, enjoys all of his social and political rights in peace. But the man who would claim to have neither a church nor religious beliefs would not only be excluded from all civil employment and from all political offices … but … would be an object of moral persecution of all kinds. No one would care to have any social relations with him … No one in the United States believes that a man without religion could be an honest man.”
In 21st century America such religious fervor would be considered prejudicially extreme, even among the Christian faithful.
We’d never consider excluding someone from employment or political office if they were not Christian. Nor would we discount the court testimony of the agnostic or atheist.
But in early America—founded as a Christian nation–we did…and it was a preferred state of living.
Alexis de Tocqueville also opined on how America could lose our democracy and freedom.
It would happen, he said, in slow measures as Americans “in a restless search for…petty, vulgar pleasures” eventually numbed to its political “protective powers” who removed “autonomy… from each citizen.”
“It is …difficult to imagine,” de Tocqueville concluded, “how men who have completely given up the habit of self-government could successfully choose those who should do it for them…The vices of those who govern and the ineptitude of those governed would soon bring it to ruin and…revert to its abasement to one single master.”
It’s why Alexis de Tocqueville’s unabridged Democracy in America should be required reading in America’s history classes. He documented, as an outsider, our Christian founding and deep religious fabric. He also offered a blueprint for how “we the people” could lose our cherished liberty and democracy.
Essentially, it’s how one French man saw America’s past…and future.
NOTES AND SOURCES
 Robert Bellah, Self, Symbols, and Society: Classic Readings in Social Psychology, edited by Nathan Rousseau (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002): 322.
 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 1 (New York: George Adlard Publishing, 1839): 307.
 Ibid., 304.
 Ibid., 305
 Alexis de Tocqueville, The Republic of the United States of America (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1851): 334.
 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 2 (New York: J.&H.G. Langley, 1840): 342.
Since the 1980s, it’s been a popular refrain to refer to America’s founding as secular in nature. Proponents of secularism often use selective quotes to promote their nonreligious agendas (1). Many Founding Fathers are now considered “Deist” (read: agnostic, atheist). These include heavyweights like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and George Washington.
Perhaps we should let America’s Founding Fathers speak to the nature of our national origin.
JOHN ADAMS: “The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity. I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.”
JOHN QUINCY ADAMS: “In the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior. The Declaration of Independence laid the cornerstone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity.”
PATRICK HENRY: “The great pillars of all government and of social life [are] virtue, morality, and [Christian] religion. This is the armor, my friend, and this alone, that renders us invincible.”
JOHN JAY: “Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.”
JAMES McHENRY: “Public utility pleads most forcibly for the general distribution of the Holy Scriptures. Without the Bible, in vain do we increase penal laws and draw entrenchments around our institutions.”
GOUVERNEUR MORRIS: “There must be religion. When that ligament is torn, society is disjointed and its members perish… [T]he most important of all lessons is the denunciation of ruin to every state that rejects the precepts of religion.”
JEDIDIAH MORSE: “To the kindly influence of Christianity we owe that degree of civil freedom and political and social happiness which mankind now enjoys. All efforts made to destroy the foundations of our Holy Religion ultimately tend to the subversion also of our political freedom and happiness…Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican forms of government – and all the blessings which flow from them – must fall with them.”
DR. BENJAMIN RUSH: “I do not believe that the Constitution was the offspring of inspiration, but I am as satisfied that it is as much the work of a Divine Providence as any of the miracles recorded in the Old and New Testament.”
DR. BENJAMIN RUSH: “The only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican forms of government is the universal education of our youth in the principles of Christianity by means of the Bible.”
GEORGE WASHINGTON: “You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are.”
DANIEL WEBSTER: “Whatever makes men good Christians, makes them good citizens.”
NOAH WEBSTER: “The Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children under a free government ought to be instructed. No truth is more evident than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.”
Other than Thomas Paine, who did subscribe to agnostic French Deism, the rest of the Founding Fathers were quite Christian in their lifestyles, values and beliefs. Heavyweight founders like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington all attended church (Franklin is buried at Christ Church in Philadelphia, PA). Several of the Founders were clergymen.
So no, America was not founded as a secular nation.
Rather America was designed to reflect “CHRISTIAN” ideals and biblical values, namely liberty, justice and equality for all U.S. citizens.
In post-Christian (secular) America, we are told (and sold) a different narrative by our modern-day history educators, politicians and media, but that doesn’t change the TRUTH.
Founding Father JOHN ADAMS even imagined a wholly CHRISTIAN nation in a 1756 diary entry: “Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited. . . . What a Eutopia – what a Paradise would this region be!”
If America was founded as a secular nation (like France), it would’ve been evident in early America.
However, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville discovered the opposite to be true in 1831.
He penned: “Upon my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things, to which I was unaccustomed. In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country…”
Alexis de Tocqueville observed how our “notions of Christianity and of liberty” were so deeply intertwined that it was “impossible to…conceive one without the other.” He noted in his travels how our Puritan forefathers immigrated and established both a “democratic and republican religion.”
He summarized how “religion in America…must be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country…[imparting] a taste for freedom.” Alexis confessed his inability to “know whether all Americans [had] a sincere faith” but was “certain” that we fully accepted religion and all other institutions being connected. “This opinion,” he wrote, “is not particular to a class of citizens or a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.”
Twenty years later, there were some who wanted to introduce secular philosophy and values into America.
It provoked a Congressional Judiciary Committee to study the matter in 1854. This select committee investigated Founding documents, speeches, journals, biographies, reports and other writings. Their conclusion:
“Had the people, during the Revolution, had a suspicion of any attempt to war against Christianity, that Revolution would have been strangled in its cradle… In this age, there can be no substitute for Christianity… That was the religion of the founders of the republic and they expected it to remain the religion of their descendants.“
Of course, nearly 250 years after the fact, that hasn’t happened.
America is no longer a “Christian nation.”
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t once such a nation. Consequently, those who teach, dispute and promote a secular origin view for the United States of America are simply misguided. Unfortunately, many Americans, particularly younger generations, promote this national myth out of ignorance (and/or spite). It’s all they’ve heard or learned in their history education (which flipped this historic narrative in the 1980s).
This popular (and wrong) narrative reveals why a good history education demands humility, respect and openness. Sometimes we don’t need a novel, “new” truth to sell a book or push an agenda, but rather a revelation of an “old” truth to remind, guard and sustain “who we really are.” American Christians have always made room for those who believed differently, from the Jew to the Muslim, from the irreverent to the irreligious.
Yes, America the “secular” has become the reality of our day.
But it wasn’t the reality in 1776 or 1876 or even 1976.
The times might change, but the TRUTH always marches on.
1. An excellent example of this “selective” quoting is by the liberal Center for American Progress. They lifted a quote from Article 11 of a treaty with Muslim Tripoli that stated “America…was not founded on the Christian religion.” It’s true this statement appeared in the treaty, but it was included to assuage and appease Muslims who were violently anti-Christian and anti-Jew. The phrase was to “politically” communicate that while America was a RELIGIOUS nation, there’s no official STATE religion. This was in effect, true. But even at the time there were those who opposed that language (“America not founded as a Christian nation”) in the treaty. The Secretary of War James McHenry, protested the language of Article 11 before its ratification. He wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott Jr., September 26, 1800: “The Senate, my good friend, and I said so at the time, ought never to have ratified the treaty alluded to, with the declaration that ‘the government of the United States, is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.’ What else is it founded on? This act always appeared to me like trampling upon the cross. I do not recollect that Barlow was even reprimanded for this outrage upon the government and religion.”
2. John Adams Quote: Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington D. C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), Vol. XIII, p. 292-294. In a letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson on June 28, 1813.
3. John Quincy Adams Quote: John Quincy Adams, An Oration Delivered Before the Inhabitants of the Town of Newburyport at Their Request on the Sixty-First Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1837 (Newburyport: Charles Whipple, 1837), pp. 5-6.
4. Patrick Henry Quote: Patrick Henry, Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence and Speeches, William Wirt Henry, editor (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), Vol. II, p. 592, to Archibald Blair on January 8, 1799.
5. John Jay Quote: William Jay, The Life of John Jay (New York: J. & J. Harper, 1833), Vol. II, p. 376, to John Murray Jr. on October 12, 1816.
6. James McHenry Quote: Bernard C. Steiner, One Hundred and Ten Years of Bible Society Work in Maryland, 1810-1920 (Maryland Bible Society, 1921), p. 14.
7. Gouverneur Morris Quote: Collections of the New York Historical Society for the Year 1821 (New York: E. Bliss and E. White, 1821), pp. 32, 34, from “An Inaugural Discourse Delivered Before the New York Historical Society by the Honorable Gouverneur Morris, (President,) 4th September, 1816.”
9. Dr. Benjamin Rush Quote: Benjamin Rush, Letters of Benjamin Rush, L. H. Butterfield, editor (Princeton, New Jersey: American Philosophical Society, 1951), Vol. I, p. 475, to Elias Boudinot on July 9, 1788.
10. Jedidiah Morse Quote: Jedidiah Morse, A Sermon, Exhibiting the Present Dangers and Consequent Duties of the Citizens of the United States of America, Delivered at Charlestown, April 25, 1799, The Day of the National Fast (MA: Printed by Samuel Etheridge, 1799), p. 9.
11. George Washington Quote: George Washington, The Writings of Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1932), Vol. XV, p. 55, from his speech to the Delaware Indian Chiefs on May 12, 1779.
12. Daniel Webster Quote: Daniel Webster, The Works of Daniel Webster (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1853), Vol. I, p. 44, A Discourse Delivered at Plymouth, on December 22, 1820.
13. John Adams, Works, Vol. II, pp. 6-7, diary entry for February 22, 1756.
14. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 1 (New York: George Adlard Publishing, 1839): 304-307.
It’s known as “The Big Switch.” A historical moment when Southern Democrat politicians converted to Republicanism and refashioned the G.O.P. into a racist political party (according to their opponents).
In an heated Twitter exchange between Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Ortez (D-NY) and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), this “big switch” was the grist of the Millennial Democrat’s argument.
The only problem? It’s not true.
But first a little historical context.
The general narrative of this “switch” is capsulized in a 2017 History.com article. Once again, a Millennial writer documented how the Democratic Party–known for its historic racism–split in 1948 after Harry S. Truman (D-MO) first “introduced a pro-civil rights platform” into the Democratic Party. Strom Thurmond (D-SC) and a faction of Southern Democrats, consequently, bolted from Democrats to create the “States Rights” (Dixiecrat) party. The author then stated how Dixiecrats eventually converted to Republicanism–along with Thurmond–in 1964. Later, Nixon’s “southern strategy” and Reagan’s conservatism moved the Democratic “blue” South to become a firm “red” Republican in the 1970s and 1980s.
Consequently, Democrats routinely finger contemporary Republicans as “racists,” pointing to occasional neo-Nazi politicians (David Duke, a one-term Louisiana state legislator), obscure racist organizations (Patriot Front) and Confederate flag-waving MAGA types. In fact, just wearing MAGA clothing is considered “racist” by many individuals on the left.
It’s a strong and divisive narrative…but what’s the TRUTH?
First of all, the “Dixiecrats,” under Strom Thurmond in 1948), did leave the Democratic Party…but not for racial reasons.
The Truman Administration–following sixteen years of Franklin D. Roosevelt–further desired to federalize and centralize government. The Southern Thurmond “Dixiecrats” believed in traditional “states’ rights” and segregation. The Northern and Western Democratic Party in the 1930s and 1940s was more “progressive” politically. President Roosevelt’s fascination with the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and fascist government programs in Europe guided many of his domestic policies.
Consequently, the 1948 Truman-Democratic platform reflected more centralized and socialist government, thus angering and distancing Southern libertarians. That’s what really split the Democratic Party in 1948. In fact, in a political platform that boasted 4,256 words only 106 (2.4%) were devoted to civil rights (for the black or anyone else). Even more surprisingly was how the party of slavery, segregation, Ku Klux Klan and Confederate secession was quick to pat itself on the back in 1948. In their summary on civil rights the Democratic Party proudly claimed it alone was “responsible for the great civil rights gains” and committed to “continuing its efforts to eradicate all racial, religious and economic discrimination.”
However, such 1940s political posturing was contradicted by a Jim Crow Democratic South that still lynched blacks, refused school, hotel, restaurant, transportation and restroom facilities to “coloreds” and rigged voting procedures to suppress the black ballot. Therefore, it’s hard to believe “great gains” were actually made by Democrats (as it was the GOP that continually battled for racial civil rights from its inception). The Democrat Harry Truman was allegedly an inactive participant in the Missouri KKK, and biographers often noted his latent racism against blacks, Jews, Chinese and Japanese throughout his life. Meanwhile the Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated a KKK member to the Supreme Court (Hugo Black), put Japanese-Americans into detention camps and refused to welcome black Olympians—including the famed Jesse Owens—to the White House.
Nevertheless, the Dixiecrat exodus was more about progressive, fascist, socialism than segregation and black civil rights. In the end, despite predictions of a Thomas Dewey victory, the Dixiecrat exodus produced little gain. Truman won the 1948 presidency in a landslide electoral college vote while the Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond mustered an inconsequential 2.4% of the popular vote.
Second, the Dixiecrats did NOT convert to Republicanism in 1964 (after Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act) as many contemporary historians and journalists suggest.
In fact, most of these racist libertarians returned to the Democratic Party after 1948 and became a significant voting block against civil rights and desegregation throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. According to one historical analysis, of the 1500+ racist “Dixiecrats” only Strom Thurmond and about a dozen others left the Democratic Party for the GOP (less than 1%). Furthermore, Thurmond didn’t switch parties until 16 years after Truman forced his hand to create his “Dixiecrat” party.
Third, Southern whites (the people, not the politicians) did vote more REPUBLICAN in post-1965 elections, but not for racial reasons.
Again, the Democratic Party was moving left, toward socialism, nonreligious/atheism and adopting liberal planks on abortion, women and gay rights. The Bible Belt South in the 1970s and 1980s became less racist as de-segregation and civil rights laws were enforced. Consequently, immigration to southern cities (Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Nashville, Charlotte) by northern and western GOP conservatives rearranged the voting demographic. Southerners are more conservative and that’s why dozens of Democrats switched parties. Did you know notable Republicans Trent Lott, Mike Pence, William Bennett and Rick Perry were all previously Democrat? It’s true. And race was not the reason they switched affiliations…it was due to liberal/socialist policies.
Finally, the Republican Party and its leaders have consistently denounced and resisted the “alt right” ultra-conservative racist organizations.
It’s why these racists formed their own political party in 2009 (The American Freedom Party). Republicans, historically, have always championed civil rights for the black and all ethnicities. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed thanks to widespread Republican support (who had proposed, ironically similar legislation in the Eisenhower administration). All Southern Democrats (including those Dixiecrats) voted against it. Oh, and David Duke? He only identified as Republican when politically expedient. Otherwise, he’s been in the Democrat, Populist or Reformed camp.
Ultimately Strom Thurmond isn’t the best example, but rather Robert C. Byrd (D-WV).
Byrd spent 62 years in public office. He served for over half a century at the national level, as a Representative and, later, a powerful Senator. The senior senator died in office (2010) at the ripe age of 92. Hillary Clinton called Byrd a “friend and mentor.” Barack Obama noted how “the arc of his life bent toward justice.” The press gave Byrd a surprisingly, blessed pass and ignored his racism.
That’s because Robert Byrd proved a quintessential post-WW2 Democrat. Originally a member and leader of the Ku Klux Klan in West Virginia (an affiliation he later disavowed), Byrd refused to fight in World War 2 because it meant serving alongside blacks. He routinely voted with other segregationists in the 1950s. As a senator, Byrd filibustered and voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He abstained his vote for the 1965 Voting Act. He also voted against the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice.
This same Robert Byrd then politically transformed from a known racist to a beloved mentor. How? Simple. He towed the party line…for nearly 57 years! It’s possible to argue Byrd didn’t lose his racism but rather, like most good politicians, shelved it. He enjoyed his power and position. It wasn’t the first time Byrd did what was necessary. In fact, the whole reason Byrd initially joined the KKK was for “political power.” To his credit, Byrd did leave the organization, but still it showed him to be a political opportunist. Once in national office, at least until 1967 (when being a segregationist went out of fashion), he retained his racist roots. Byrd told a reporter: “Don’t get that albatross [the KKK] around your neck. Once you’ve made that mistake, you inhibit your operations in the political arena.”
It’s all politics. And it still is, for those who really listen close. It’s why we need to flip the script. We must tell the real story of what happened in 1948 and 1964.
The Republican Party didn’t change, but rather it was the Democratic Party’s transformation (becoming more progressively left) that split their party. The South was also fundamentally transformed by civil rights legislation led by Republicans, not Democrats, in Congress. We should also note that until Democratic “Great Society” welfare policies of the Johnson administration gave black voters an economic reason to vote “blue,” Black America was a Republican voting block.
Between 1865 and 1965, Black America backed Lincoln’s “Grand Old Party” (The G.O.P.). Notable Blacks like Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jackie Robinson were all Republicans.
So the “big switch” was neither big nor a switch.
It was the Democratic party in turmoil. It was a South being forced to end segregation and other civil rights abuses. It was the result of Republicans emigrating to Southern states post-1965 because it now reflected their more conservative values.
It was also about Southern politicians recognizing the writing on the wall…and their future in it.
This wasn’t their father’s (or grandfather’s) South anymore. It was a new day. And both Nixon and Reagan took advantage of it.
 “How The ‘Party of Lincoln’ Won Over the Once Democratic South” by Becky Little, August 18, 2017: https://www.history.com/news/how-the-party-of-lincoln-won-over-the-once-democratic-south
 Read the 1948 Democratic Platform: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/1948-democratic-party-platform
 Harry S. Truman’s racism was noted by historians and biographers. See “Truman’s Racist Talk Cited by Historian” (Seattle Times, November 3, 1991: https://archive.seattletimes.com/archive/?date=19911103&slug=1314805) and “The Best Kind of Bigot: Harry Truman and His Hatreds” by Eric Fettman (New York Post, July 3, 2003: https://nypost.com/2003/07/31/the-best-kind-of-bigot-harry-truman-and-his-hatreds/).
 “Why Was Jesse Owens Deprived of Presidential Recognition,” The Telegraph, May 27, 2016: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/race/how-america-snubbed-jesse-owens/
 The 1948 Presidential Election: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1948_United_States_presidential_election
 “The Democrats’ Lott”. The Wall Street Journal. December 23, 2002: https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB1040607367889016753
When it comes to America’s naval history, few had more influence on battleship design than a man named John Ericsson.
In fact, it’s a Swedish story better than ABBA.
Ericsson was a Swedish American who revolutionized steamship propulsion through his invention of the screw propeller.
He also invented the first submarine boat, self-propelled torpedo and torpedo boat. His innovations made large ships move faster and further, reimagining the use of navies in war. Thank God he was on our side.
Two of Ericsson’s most revolutionary naval ship designs were the USS Merrimack (1855) and the USS Monitor (1862).
During the Civil War, the Confederacy resurrected the de-commissioned Merrimack and transformed it into a iron-plated naval destroyer (renaming it the CSS Virginia). The Merrimack was a formidable foe in the water. The Union suffered great losses to this naval monster (including 16 war ships).
On March 8, 1862, the CSS Virginian sunk two of the Union’s best: USS Congress and USS Cumberland. It was a moment of fate. After all, the very next day the Union launched a new Ericsson designed warship named the USS Monitor—who immediately went to battle the Confederate’s CSS Virginia. After a four-hour battle, the Monitor eventually crippled and disabled the Virginia…permanently. The Monitor, surprisingly, suffered no damage. After that victory, the Union owned the coastal waterways. It just kept launching more Ericsson “monitor” ships.
On May 29, 1926, President Calvin Coolidge honored John Ericsson as the “great son of Sweden” and “a great American.”
But there’s something often missed in this story. And that’s Ericsson’s Swedish and religious heritage.
At one time, Sweden was one of the more religious nations on earth.
Influenced heavily by the Protestant Reformation, this Nordic country converted to Christianity. In fact their prominent and popular Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus (a.k.a. “The Lion of the North”) proved rather zealous for religious freedom and expansion. He is also credited with making Sweden a powerful force (politically and militarily) among the European nations of his day. His greatest notoriety was on the seas. Adolphus was an influential and noted naval commander known as the ”father of modern warfare.” During the Thirty Year Wars, his defense of Protestant Christianity inspired many Europeans to name their churches and societies after him, including Germany’s Gustav-Adolf-Werk foundation.
Gustavus Adolphus wanted to help colonize America with Swedes for the purpose of trade…and religion.
He desired to create another nation “made more civilized and taught morality and the Christian religion…[through] propagation of the Holy Gospel.” One of the skill sets Swedes brought to America was ship making and naval innovation—later incredibly helpful in naval battles with the British, French and Confederates.
The state of Delaware was where most early Swedes migrated…and Sweden continued to export into America not just its people, but Bibles, hymnals, and pastors. In the years leading up to 1789, Sweden sent forty-one prominent clergymen who “laid the basis for a religious structure” in America. These Swedes built the first flour mills, ships, brickyards, and roads. They also introduced the sciences of forestry and horticulture. And they built nearly 2000 churches and schools.
Wherever a Swede landed on America soil, their first task (after building their own shelter) was to erect a place to worship and launch a school to train clergymen and teachers. They also continued to influence and innovate naval operations for a young nation.
John Ericsson was one of those Swedish descendants.
By the way, the Swedes were also abolitionist. They despised the slave trade.
John Ericsson was so committed to liberating slaves, he refused payment for his design of the Union warship the USS Monitor. “It was my contribution to the Union cause,” he told Lincoln, “…which freed 4,000,000 bondsmen (black slaves).”
Like all Swedish-Americans, Ericsson cherished America and its commitments to equality, justice and liberty.
He once penned: “I love this country. I love its people and its laws, and I would give my life for it.” In fact, a famous photo features skyscraper builders high above the New York skyline enjoying lunch. Although their identities remain a mystery, the Swedes claim at least two of them.
It’s why we cannot forget John Ericsson. Nor should we dismiss the contributions of the Swedish that helped forge the American ideas of liberty, equality, and justice. Many nationalities contributed to the building of America, but few have given more than the Swedes.
It’s something to think about the next time you listen to ABBA, dine on Swedish meatballs or shop at IKEA.
The story of the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken is one worth knowing.
Harlan Sanders (1890-1980) was a true late bloomer.
He was also a man who relentlessly refused to give up on his dreams. And later, even his own soul.
Sanders didn’t open his first restaurant until he was 40 years old, and then spent a dozen years before he launched his first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Salt Lake City (1952).
Sanders spent half his life in failure, poverty and dead ends.
The hard-charging kid from Henryville, IN struggled to keep jobs. He quit too soon. He got laid off. And, occasionally, even fired. In one infamous tale, Sanders brawled with his own client in a courtroom. This heated moment ended his brief stint as a lawyer. One biographer noted the temperamental Sanders suffered from a lack of “self-control, impatience, and a self-righteous lack of diplomacy.” His focus was relentless. His energy was tireless. And he evolved into a raging, vulgar workaholic with a horrendous temper.
Sanders sold life insurance, worked the railroad and ferries, sold tires, ran a service (gas) station, and many other jobs to pay his bills. But it was his gas station that sparked a new idea. His travelers who stopped to refuel were also hungry to be fed themselves. Sanders developed a roadside grill that sold chicken, ham and steak dinners.
The famed food critic Duncan Hines once visited his Corbin, KY restaurant and penned in popular travel guide: “A very good place to stop en route to Cumberland Falls and the Great Smokies. Continuous 24-hour service. Sizzling steaks, fried chicken, country ham, hot biscuits.” It was such publicity that created fresh opportunity and honor for Sanders. In 1939 he opened a motel next door. His governor named him a Kentucky “colonel.”
Sanders was 50 years old when he created his “secret” chicken recipe.
Then he spent the next two decades of his life building a brand and becoming the face of a new type of fast food restaurant. At 60 years of age, Sanders fully adopted the “Kentucky colonel” image. He changed his attire to all white, grew a goatee and, from that point forward, was known simply as “The Colonel.” For the next decade he lent that image to his company to create an iconic brand for chicken that was “fingerlickin’ good.” In 1964, he sold his business for $2 million dollars and put a price on his image going forward. The Colonel was rich and famous…but hardly happy. He was 73 years old and miserable.
So the elderly Sanders set about changing his life.
His reputation for a quick temper, vulgar (even racist) language and driving personality created both shame and guilt for the aging Colonel. Despite his millionaire status and famous mug, his business dealings brought no peace. He penned in his autobiography: “But all this while I knew I wasn’t right with God. It bothered me especially when I’d take the name of the Lord in vain. I did my cussin’ before women or anyplace. … I knew the terrible curse of cussin’ would probably keep me out of heaven when I died.”
The Colonel’s hard attitudes and forceful personality were initially softened by a new marriage to his long-time mistress Claudia in 1957. However he still spent the 1960s searching his soul to find true inner peace. His mother brought him up in a strict Adventist faith that only tortured him with guilt and shame. Sanders was looking for something different…something lasting.
In 1969, Sanders visited a revival service at The Evangel Tabernacle in Louisville, KY. On that night, his whole life changed (including his temper and profanity). The Colonel rekindled his religious faith, much like Johnny Cash, to embrace a simpler form of Christianity that finally exorcised his demons. On his 80th birthday, he and Claudia were baptized in the Jordan River. The couple faithfully attended church from that day forward. Among his friends were Billy Graham, Pat Boone and Jerry Falwell.
Sanders died ten years later at the age of 90.
His body laid in state at both the Kentucky capitol and the Kentucky Fried Chicken headquarters for thousands of people to pay their respects. Over 1,200 distinguished people and government dignitaries attended his funeral at Southern Seminary on December 20, 1980. By the time of Sanders’ death, there were an estimated 6,000 KFC outlets in 48 countries worldwide, with $2 billion in sales annually, but what his friends and family remembered most was his joy, love and peace.
Colonel Harlan Sanders.
A failed, arrogant, stubborn, vulgar workaholic who found the real “secret recipe” to life wasn’t in chicken but God.
And now you know the rest of HIStory.
Many legal scholars believe the Dred Scott decision was the worst by a U.S. Supreme Court.
Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes called it the Supreme Court’s “greatest self-inflicted wound.”
But why did it happen? Who was Dred Scott? And why should we know his story?
DRED SCOTT was born a slave in Virginia (1799). His slave owner took him to Alabama and eventually relocated to St. Louis, MO. Then Scott was sold to a U.S. army surgeon named Dr. John Emerson, who moved him to Illinois and later to the Wisconsin territory. At the time, both Illinois and Wisconsin territory were “free” (meaning slavery was abolished and illegal). But that didn’t mean it wasn’t practiced. Like today, many people do illegal activities in their private lives.
In 1837, Scott met and married Harriet Robinson–who was sold by her owner to Dr. Emerson.
The Scott couple lived in “free” territory for two years (1836-1838), half the time separated from their army surgeon master who the U.S. Army had transferred to the slave state of Louisiana. That’s when the surgeon married and reunited the two families, eventually returning to Missouri (another slave state). In 1843 Dr. Emerson died and the Scott family was passed in the will to his widow. That’s when things get messy.
The Dred Scott legal case originated in his desire to free himself and his family.
Scott first tried to purchase his freedom from his surgeon’s widow but was denied. So he took his matter to the courts. Dred Scott’s argument was simple: because he and his family had lived freely (separated from his master) in Wisconsin territory (where slavery was abolished and illegal) then he was technically freed at that time. And the rule of the day was “once free, always free.”
The first Missouri circuit court to hear the case agreed. Scott should be a free man, however the Missouri Supreme Court overturned that ruling in 1852. In doing so, the bench set a new precedent that a “slave” state did not have to honor a “free” state’s laws. A major part of their argument also included the fact Dred Scott should’ve filed for his freedom when in Wisconsin and not Missouri. For whatever reason, perhaps from ignorance of the law or busyness, Scott had not done this work.
Eventually the case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, who ruled 7-2 against Dred Scott.
It was purely a political and unprecedented decision by activist judges. After all, every one of seven justices in the majority were pro-slavery Democrats appointed by Democrat presidents (the pro-slavery party of its day). The two dissenting justices were affiliated with the anti-slavery Whig/Republican parties.
This Supreme Court decision stated that, according to the U.S. Constitution, no African (black) was ever intended to be, nor could be, an American citizen.
Consequently, Dredd Scott had no “standing” to even file a case. That right was exclusively only for citizens of the United States. Furthermore, the Court stated Congress had no authority to ban slavery in territories (nullifying the Missouri Compromise of 1820). Finally they noted that “due process” (5th Amendment) prohibited the government from even freeing slaves brought into federal territories from slave-holding states.
Essentially, Dred Scott (and all Blacks, nearly all who were now born in America) were viewed as pure property. This case had ramifications even for “free” blacks in “free states” who owned property and voted. In one single decision the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the natural born “rights” of a group of people, based purely on their skin color. It was a crushing blow, not just for blacks (in slavery or not) but for the abolitionist cause to end slavery in America.
The Dred Scott decision was also the first step in the march towards Civil War (1860-1865).
And yet this story is not without its twists.
Who, for example, initially financed Scott’s legal case and footed his bills? It was actually the adult children of Scott’s original owner. His kids became staunch abolitionists in the years after selling Scott to Dr. Emerson. Slavery was an evil of which they repented using their pocketbook.
But what happened next for Dred Scott, his wife and two daughters was even more amazing.
In a wild twist of irony, the Missouri widow who owned the Scott family remarried in 1850. Her new Massachusetts husband was a fiery and staunch abolitionist Republican doctor named Calvin C. Chaffee. In 1854 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for Massachusetts. Both the marriage and election happened years before the 1857 Dred Scott decision. As a result of that ruling, Scott and his family were returned to the new Mrs. Chaffee as she was still their owner. However, the new bride was also an abolitionist like her congressman husband! She no longer believed in owning slaves and knew exactly what to do with Dred and his family.
Unfortunately, when she tried to emancipate Dred and his family, there were legal complications. To avoid the courts, Mrs. Chaffee deeded the Scott family to another Republican congressman named Taylor Blow (R-MO), who immediately freed Dred, his wife Harriet, and two children Eliza and Lizzie on May 26, 1857…just three months after this terrible Supreme Court ruling!
Dred Scott was a liberated man.
Unfortunately, his freedom on this side of eternity did not last. Scott’s life tragically ended sixteen months later due to tuberculosis. His body was returned to Missouri and buried at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis. That’s where most stories end, but in Dred Scott’s case he became more celebrated after his death.
In fact, to this day, there’s a long-standing tradition to place Lincoln pennies on his grave for good luck. That’s because the Dred Scott decision was the inspiration for Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, as well as the genesis for the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. In these constitutional amendments all the wrongs were corrected for Dred Scott and Black Americans. They were now all free from slavery, rightful citizens of the United States and able to universally vote.
But it all started with a man named Dred Scott.
And now you now the rest of HIStory.
In the early morning hours of February 3, 1943 the U.S.A.T. Dorchester–packed with 902 servicemen–was hit by a Nazi torpedo.
The surprise attack killed several soldiers and trapped dozens of others. The ship quickly began to sink in the icy waters off Greenland and every man was for himself. Chaos abounded.
Meanwhile, on board the sinking ship, four chaplains–a Methodist, a Roman Catholic, a Dutch Reformed and a Jew–consoled the panicked sailors desperate to board a life boat.
When the chaplains had saved as many men as they could, eyewitnesses in the life boats observed how these four religious leaders linked arms, prayed, quoted Scripture and sank with the ship.
In 1998, the U.S. Congress designated February 3 as “Four Chaplains Day.”
Few four-letter words spark more fear, insult and outrage than Nazi.
And well it should.
Nazism carries a boatload of baggage, even for generations that never experienced the Holocaust and fascism of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.
“Nazi” is a nickname linked to a political ideology characterized by dictatorial rule, forcible suppression of opponents and harsh, even violent, control of a society. Make no mistake. Adolf Hitler was a bonafide fascist. And yet his “right wing” politics were remarkably married to progressive, socialistic and “left wing” ideologies.
Perhaps a little historical context will help.
The term “Nazi” is a German abbreviation for the National Socialist Workers Party (Nationalsozialistische Arbeiterpartei).
Originally, Hitler wanted the word “socialist” removed from his party name but relented to appease the radical leftists he needed to get elected. The moderate middle is where most fascists launch their political careers. Hitler was no different. He was also the first to co-opt television in order to broadcast his political ideology. Thanks to the cover of German politicians and a state media in his hip pocket, Hitler and his Nazi party could hide their sins, foil opposition and push an increasingly radical and destructive dogma.
Ultimately, it wasn’t about improving Germany but controlling Germany.
The Nazi Party wanted to reimagine the nation through a message of hope and change.
Maybe that’s why Hitler’s first act as Chancellor of Germany was to institute socialized health care (1933). Initially, this benign and benevolent legislation was appreciated by the German people. Who wouldn’t want affordable health care? However, hindsight proved a devil in the details. There’s nothing “affordable” about socialized medicine.
Few knew Hitler’s ultimate goal was a “master race.” All other races were genetically inferior and socially unnecessary.
Adolf Hitler was a charismatic communicator.
His speeches generated enthusiasm and his messages on German nationalism inspired patriotism that eventually produced fanaticism. The irony? Germany had been the heart of intellectual, scientific and religious exploration for four centuries. Some of the world’s best thinkers were German. It was, after all, where Protestant Christianity started. And yet these Germans were all slowly seduced by the lie.
At the heart of Hitler’s delusion was German socialism.
Government was the answer to every problem.
Consequently, as socialized health care normalized the German people, it conditioned them towards a more sinister and deadly reality. Since socialized health care (for all Germans) was an expensive venture, it proved fiscally prudent to eliminate those German people who weren’t pulling their weight.
The first targets were the disabled, elderly, incurable, insane and demented, most of whom were already under institutional state care.
Hitler’s Nazi party utilized the guise of social engineering to exterminate the unnecessary. The oldest Germans were particularly costly, however individuals with chronic disease, or mentally off the rails or crippled were also expensive eyesores.
The “merciful” solution was to kill them for the good of all Germany.
Consequently Hitler’s Nazi Party systematically eliminated anyone labeled as “lebensunwertes leben” or “life unworthy of life.”
Naturally these fascist state-led murders caught the attention of the German Lutheran and Catholic churches, who vehemently denounced such atrocities. However, by then, it was too late. Modern Germans weren’t as “religious” as their forefathers. Liberal Christianity originated in Germany through the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834). By the early 20th century, liberalism had decimated the German Church and left a wake of apathy, agnosticism and atheism.
The German people were easy pickings because they no longer had a moral compass.
Consequently, once able-bodied Germans were conditioned to “merciful” euthanasia, Hitler moved to other social “undesirables”: beggars, criminals, homosexuals and homeless. These groups were either executed or sterilized (to prevent further reproduction). As the weak and undesirable were eliminated, the average white, healthy, younger, working German grew in prominence and political clout. This reality made it easy for Hitler to further apply Nazi eugenics and euthanasia to non-German ethnicities: Jews, blacks, Slavs and gypsies.
The rise of a new Aryan master race transformed Germany.
Adolf Hitler and the Nazis got many of their ideas from America.
In the early 20th century, a eugenics movement emerged in the United States that wanted to socially engineer a perfect human race. Influenced by Darwinian evolution, scientific progress and a desire to curb the “undesirable” immigration of Italians and Jews, American eugenicists felt they should manipulate who could reproduce.
American eugenicists focused initially on the blind, deaf, diseased, insane and poor. However, they also felt “dumb” people were equally a problem.
In 1927, a legal case made its way through the courts involving an 18-year-old Carrie Buck (with a mental age of nine). She was the offspring of an equally “feeble minded” 52-year-old mother.[i] The eugenicists wanted to sterilize Carrie (who already had an illegitimate child). Once committed to a state agency, Carrie was deemed unfit and scheduled for sterilization. The prosecution argued this action was inhumane and unethical.
The U.S. Supreme Court eventually heard the case of Buck v. Bell in 1927—and surprisingly ruled in favor of the eugenicists “for the protection and health of the state.” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. famously quipped in his opinion on the case: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”[ii]
One of America’s most influential eugenicists was none other than Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood.
Today abortionists try to distance the pioneer from their pro-choice cause. Some even say Sanger was only loosely affiliated with the eugenics movement in order to politically strengthen her personal agenda. Regardless of her involvement, it’s clear where Sanger stood. She once penned that eugenics, including “planned parenthood” through birth control, was “the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives.”[iii] The problem is who defines the word “defective?” It’s why Hitler’s application of that word was far different from Sanger’s.
It was eugenicists like Sanger that caught and captivated Hitler’s attention.
In his desire to create a “master race,” forced sterilization and mercy killings proved perfect tools.
Ironically, Hitler’s rise to power was not without the help of strange bedfellows. His far-right fascism was aided by the “Brownshirts”–a violent protest group composed of radical leftists and homosexuals. However, once these Brownshirts were no longer useful to Hitler, they too were eliminated in what became the hellish “Night of the Long Knives” (June 30 – July 2, 1934). Throughout the 1930s, the Nazi Party slowly suppressed all critical voices, eliminated all undesirables and squelched any political criticism.
German politics was eventually saddled to a one-horse party.
Once in complete power Nazis could rewrite the rules to insure their power. With complete control of the media, the German people were told only what Hitler and his Nazi party wanted them to know.
But Hitler still wasn’t done.
His next move? Disarm the German people.
With no way to resist Hitler’s forces nor politically fight for the right to defense, the Germans either complied or died.
Many younger Germans, now indoctrinated with Nazi ideologies through German political and educational institutions were willing to die for their furor. That’s when Adolf Hitler took his Nazi army on the road to spread his deadly gospel. He invaded and occupied other countries to further infect Nazism. It was Nazi aggression and occupation that sparked the second World War in Europe. Even in faraway America the Nazi party had affectionate devotees among German Americans.
Adolf Hitler duped the German church to serve his cause.
At first, he seemed sympathetic to Christianity, but once elected, Hitler turned hostile and imposed Nazi socialism upon the German Christians. He eventually embraced Islam as a better “religious” solution to eliminate opposition…inspiring Muslims to rally and fight for his Nazi cause.
But not everyone bent the knee.
A new brand of German Protestantism emerged to stand against Nazism.
It was known as the “Confessing Church.” No matter what the Nazis did, they could not intimidate nor manipulate these Protestant Christians. Two of the movement’s greatest leaders were Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller. It was Niemoller who famously penned:
“In Germany they first came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up.”[iv]
That’s the way fascism works. It’s why America needs freedom of speech, assembly and the press. It’s why the Second Amendment is critical to a free society. It’s why “cancel culture” and racist demagoguery, media suppression and “fake news,” unfair elections and illegal immigration, abortion and euthanasia are warning bells to greater tyranny. It’s why politicians who prefer to suppress opposing viewpoints and demonize the minor party, rather than work with them for the good of the whole nation, should be noted and removed.
The story of Hitler and Nazism is not a unique moral tale.
It can happen again.
[i] “Buck v. Bell” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buck_v._Bell
[ii] “The Supreme Court Ruling That Led To 70,000 Forced Sterilizations,” NPR interview (March 7, 2016) with Andy Cohen, the author of Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. https://www.npr.org/2017/03/24/521360544/the-supreme-court-ruling-that-led-to-70-000-forced-sterilizations
[iii] “Fact Check: Was Planned Parenthood Started To ‘Control’ The Black Population?” by Amita Killy (August 14, 2015): https://www.npr.org/sections/itsallpolitics/2015/08/14/432080520/fact-check-was-planned-parenthood-started-to-control-the-black-population
[iv] Martin Niemoller, as quoted: https://www.nehm.org/the-holocaust/
Benjamin Franklin was a scientist, patriot, politician, diplomat…and Deist. That’s a fact according to many modern historians. After all, Franklin himself advocated for Deism. He once wrote that his skepticism of Christianity made him “a thorough Deist.”[i] Of course it should be noted he wrote that conviction at the tender age of fifteen in a private journal.
Deists reject the divinity of Jesus, miracles and biblical revelation.
Consequently, many historians also argue Franklin was agnostic. Still others contend Franklin’s religion was eclectic, self-styled and personal. His Christian background was also evident in many of his writings, values and statements. Could Franklin’s Deism be mostly a youthful fancy…a temporary phase of life?
What’s the truth?
First, Benjamin Franklin was more religious than most Americans today.
He was a product of the First Great Awakening (1730s – 1770s)–a religious revival in America and parts of Europe that was culturally transformative. The question in Franklin’s day wasn’t whether you believed in God or not, or even in Jesus, but rather what kind of Christian are you? The issue was denominationalism–schisms of Christianity–that divided Americans.
Raised Presbyterian, Franklin struggled with divisive denominationalism and his church’s rigid traditions that separated both Christians and Americans. Like most young people, he found his preacher’s sermons boring and lacking in moral principles. Consequently, Franklin avoided church services and reserved Sundays for personal Bible study.[ii] Later in life Franklin embraced Freemasonry—a fraternal organization that blends good works and God.
Nevertheless, Franklin remained marked by Christianity.
He gleaned much of his pithy wisdom from the Bible. His popular series Poor Richard’s Almanac (1732-1757) was packed with proverbs that sounded biblical. In 1747, as the “president” (governor) of Pennsylvania, Franklin proposed a fast and prayer day. He reminded Pennsylvanians of their “duty…to acknowledge their dependence on…Almighty God.” Franklin preached “…there is just reason to fear that unless we humble ourselves before the Lord [and] amend our Ways, we may be chastized with yet heavier Judgments.”[iii]
In the mid-1750s, Franklin penned a recruitment pamphlet for Europeans intending to send their kids to America. Part of Franklin’s pitch was America’s colonial Christian culture. Franklin boasted how America had no adolescent misbehavior…because it was devoted to Faith and Christianity. He noted America was so Christianized that it was possible to grow old and never personally meet “either an Atheist or an Infidel.” Franklin extolled how America’s Christian culture produced “mutual forbearance and kindness” and a “remarkable prosperity” that brought “favor” to the nation.”[iv]
Benjamin Franklin’s America was a Christian America.
In a 1778 correspondence to France (widely known as secular and Deist) , Franklin practically bragged about “a Bible and a newspaper in every house, a good school in every district…the principal support of [America’s] virtue, morality and civil liberty.” Another time Ben remarked “Whosoever shall introduce into public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world.”[v]
Essentially, Franklin saw America as a place where religion was prevalent, thoughtful, respected, and productive.
Whatever were his youthful Deist views regarding Jesus’ divinity, his affection for Jesus was undeniable. Franklin’s concluded, “As to Jesus of Nazareth…I think the system of morals and His religion as He left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see.”[vi] In his 1789 autobiography, the elder Franklin outlined thirteen virtues that guided his life—including frugality, silence, temperance and cleanliness. His top virtue? Humility… which he noted needed to “imitate Jesus.”[vii]
Franklin also pursued various Christian disciplines like prayer, charity, and service.
He prayed daily, petitioning for Divine strength, wisdom and blessing upon his work. He declared he “was never without religious principles…never doubted…the existence of the Deity; that [God] made the world, and governed it by his Providence.” Franklin noted the importance of “doing good to man” and belief in both a final judgment and eternal life.[viii] Consequently, he was no agnostic and certainly no secularist. Franklin was firmly committed to a belief in Creator God and Jesus, as well as to His Providence and Governance of this world. He may have temporarily–as a young teenager–embraced Deism, but his later writings and statements betrayed that theological idea. Franklin also disagreed with the more irreligious writings of Thomas Paine.
Later in life, Benjamin Franklin gravitated back to church attendance.
Historian Carl Van Doren detailed Franklin’s latter church experiences and recorded how Franklin’s family owned a pew at the famed Christ Church (Episcopal) in Philadelphia, PA. It’s where Benjamin Franklin attended Sunday services with his family and witnessed the baptisms of his two youngest children. Both his parents, his wife and Franklin himself are buried at Christ Church. He also financed clergy salaries, supported building programs, and helped with church accounting.[ix] These are hardly the acts and lifestyle of an agnostic or unbeliever.
Franklin described in his own Autobiography a longtime friendship with famed revivalist George Whitefield. In fact, Franklin faithfully attended Whitefield’s crusades and printed his sermons and journals.[x] Franklin was so impressed by Whitefield he financed an auditorium solely for his Philadelphia revivals…then later donated that space to launch the University of Pennsylvania.
Benjamin Franklin’s religion found flight during a fiery debate at the 1787 Constitutional Convention.
The issue was prayer…particularly the practice of prayer to guide the Constitutional Convention. Various factions of political thought had created a moment where there was question if a Constitution could be created to satisfy every state. At one point the aged Franklin rose and stated:
.. In the beginning of the contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the Divine Protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. … And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance. I have lived, Sir, a long time and 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 they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: … I therefore beg leave to move—that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that service.
None of this sounds like the rhetoric of an irreligious Deist or agnostic secularist.
Benjamin Franklin was never a faithless man.
He believed in God and, despite any Deist and Masonic dispositions, maintained deep appreciation for Christianity. Yes, he struggled with religious divisiveness, pomposity, and hypocrisy, but Franklin still valued how Christianity framed American culture. In elderhood Ben Franklin attended, to what degree we cannot say, a Christian church in Philadelphia and was eventually buried in that same church’s graveyard.
Maybe that why Benjamin Franklin’s faith is hard to define—particularly over 230 years after his passing. Perhaps spiritual ambiguity is exactly what Franklin preferred.
Regardless, like a lightning strike on a kite string, Franklin’s faith proved just as unpredictable, unique and, to a degree, shocking. For this Founding Father, religion and Christianity, in particular, remained a faithful friend to guide and guard his life.
Perhaps Benjamin Franklin’s faith story is best summarized in his famous proverb: “God helps those who help themselves.”
[i] The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (New York, NY: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1848): 97.
[ii] Benjamin Franklin by Carl Van Doren (New York, NY: The Viking Press, 1938): 131.
[iii] Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, PA: Theo. Fenn and Company Volume 5, 1851): 169. Accessed on Google Books.
[iv] The Works of Dr. Benjamin Franklin (New York: Frederick Campe and Company, 1835): 306. Accessed on Google Books.
[v] As quoted in George Bancroft, History of the United States, From the Discovery of the American Continent (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1866), Vol. IX, p. 492.
[vi] Benjamin Franklin, Works of Benjamin Franklin, John Bigelow, editor (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), p. 185, to Ezra Stiles, March 9, 1790.
[vii] Franklin added “and Socrates” as someone else to model.
[viii] Excerpted from Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: https://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/111frank2.html
[ix] Van Doren, Franklin, 132.
[x] Autobiography of Franklin, 1848, 164-170.
[xi] Max Farrand, The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1911), Vol. I, pp. 451-452, from James Madison’s Notes on the Convention for June 28, 1787.
In 1739 a young colonial Georgia preacher wrote a “Hymn for Christmas Day.”
His opening line was “Hark! how all the welkin rings.” Welkin is an old Dutch word for “heaven.”
The lyricist’s name? Charles Wesley.
In the late 1720s, he and his older brother John had founded a new form of Protestant Christianity known as “Methodism”–featuring a novel “method” for connecting people to God. Methodism became wildly popular at Oxford University when they were students.
It’s why, in 1735, the young Wesleys migrated to America to help lead a new colony known as “Georgia.”
The Wesley brothers came to pastor the colonists and preach to the Indians. Unfortunately, their high hopes were soon dashed. John’s efforts to evangelize the Indians fell flat. And fellow Georgia colonists despised the Wesleyan strict religiosity of “methodism.” After a year. the discouraged and defeated brothers returned to England.
That’s when they met Peter Boehler, a Moravian missionary soon headed for Georgia.
Boehler reignited the Wesleys’ spiritual fire, converting them to a new understanding of the indwelling Holy Spirit and Grace. John journaled about this “grace” he had never known: “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” Armed with this new theological perspective, the Wesley brothers decided to return to George to serve, pastor and teach again.
The Wesley brothers also loved contemporary music, including bar tunes.
They felt these modern secular tunes were the perfect vehicle for communicating Christian theology. Theology, after all, proved more memorable if sung. Consequently, the theologian Charles soon became a master lyricist. In his life he composed over 6500 hymns, including the Easter classic: “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”
But it’s his composition “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” that most people–whether you’re a believer or not–still know and love.
And yet we only know it because a friend of the Wesleys–the famed Methodist evangelist George Whitefield–got involved. It was Whitefield who suggested Charles change that opening line from “Hark! how all the welkin rings” to “Hark! the herald angels sing.” And then to help the young lyricist, Whitefield included this Christmas song in his famous “Collection of Hymns for Social Worship” (1754).
That particular book became the primary hymnal of the First Great Awakening. During the mid-1700s a religious revival swept through Great Britain, America and other British colonies that transformed the religious landscape. Preaching and singing became central to Protestant worship services. Hymnals were as valued as Bibles in the church, thanks to Whitefield and Wesley.
In America, the influence of religious awakening reached the highest levels of government and culture.
Ben Franklin penned a mid-1750s recruitment pamphlet for Europeans intending to send their kids to America. Franklin boasted about our Christian colonial culture, claiming it had no adolescent misbehavior. Franklin further noted America was so Christianized that it was possible to grow old and never personally meet “either an Atheist or an Infidel.” He extolled how America’s Christian culture produced “mutual forbearance and kindness” and a “remarkable prosperity” that brought “favor” to the nation.” In 1778, Franklin wrote to the French there’s “a Bible and a newspaper in every house, a good school in every district…the principal support of [America’s] virtue, morality and civil liberty.”
And to think “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” helped to light that path.
But what about that beautiful tune? Originally Wesley envisioned a slow and somber melody. He even proposed the same tune as “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” For a hundred years it’s impossible to know exactly what tune the lyrics employed. However, in the mid-1800s, W.H. Cummings adapted a Felix Mendelssohn cantata to perfectly fit “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Mendelssohn’s original music was a secular ode to technology and Gutenberg’s printing press. In fact, if Cummings hadn’t adapted either Mendelssohn’s music and Wesley’s hymn, both probably would’ve been lost to history.
However, when the Mendelssohn music was matched to Wesley’s rich lyrics it created a new Christmas classic.
For many people, it’s their favorite Christmas hymn. It’s likely a song you’ll hum or sing sometime this week. You might be humming it right now.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Glory to the newborn king. Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinner reconciled. Joyful all ye nations rise. Join the triumph in the skies. With angelic hosts proclaim: “Christ is born in Bethlehem.” Hark! The Herald Angels Sing: Glory to the newborn king!”
Christ, by highest heaven adored. Christ, the everlasting Lord. Late in time behold him come. Offspring of the Virgin’s womb. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see. Hail the incarnate Deity. Pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing: Glory to the newborn king!”
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all He brings. Risen with healing in His wings. Mild He lays His glory by. Born that man no more may die. Born to raise the sons of earth. Born to give them second birth. Hark! The herald angels sing: “Glory to the new-born king”