Religion in the Founding Era
Digital History ID 172
When Alexander Hamilton was asked why the framers of the Constitution had omitted the word "God" from the document, he reportedly replied: "We forgot." Few of the nation's founders were devoutly religious. They were gentlemen of the Enlightenment, who valued rational inquiry and rejected religious enthusiasm. Thomas Jefferson's views were not unusual among the founders. He considered himself a Christian and called the teaching of Jesus Christ "the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man." At the same time he apparently did not believe in Christ's divinity or in the authenticity of biblical miracles.
During the 1790s, however, alarm over irreligion and secularism mounted, particularly after leaders in revolutionary France abolished Christianity and the worship of God. Open expressions of religious commitment became more pronounced. Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), the author of the following letter, was America's most distinguished physician. Here, he views benevolence toward other human beings as the highest expression of religious sentiment.
This is the anniversary of the favorable issue of that illness in which you bore so distinguished a part as a friend and a nurse two years ago. Many of the ideas of that memorable period have lately been familiar to me. The vanity of wealth, the littleness of greatness, the value of time, the evil of Sin, the goodness of God, and the grace of a redeemer have all appeared to me lately nearly...as [clearly] as when I viewed them through the curtain of death.... I have felt in a particular manner a sense of my obligations to God in having spared me a little longer to my family....
I have lately been much delighted in reading twelve of Mr. [John] Wesley's sermons bound up in the American Magazine. In one of these he describes the rise and progress of Christianity in the human heart in a collection of circles. The outside one includes "Attendance upon public worship." The second, "Acts of piety towards God, such as prayer, praise, and a conformity to the ordinances of the Gospel." The third includes "Acts of charity and mercy to our fellow creatures." The fourth includes "Holy tempers such as...humility--gentleness--self-denial--purity--forgiveness and love of enemies, and the like....
In contemplating this ingenious acc[oun]t of the rise and progress of religion in the soul, we are struck with our duties to our fellow creatures being placed within and above the outward duties to God. How great is the love of God to his distressed children, when he dispenses with the duties to himself in their favor, and admits of an act of charity to a fellow creature as a more acceptable offering to himself, than prayer or praise.
Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute
Additional information: Benjamin Rush to his sister Polly Stockton
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