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The Role of Faith in America's Founding

Air Date 07/04/2019

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Historian Rod Gragg describes the spiritual foundation that established the creation of our nation in a discussion based on his book Forged in Faith. He shares fascinating stories to help listeners better understand their history and the state of the country today.

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Episode Transcript



Rod Gragg: The Declaration of Independence is a document that’s based on faith. And if you’re honest and you look at the founding of America, then it is - the evidence is clear that it was founded on a Judeo-Christian worldview, on this biblical values and is what Adams called the general principles of Christianity. It’s there.

End of Excerpt

John Fuller: Happy Fourth of July from Focus on the Family. Today we’re joined by historian Rod Gragg as he shares about the faith of our Founding Fathers and why we should remember them. I’m John Fuller. And your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly.

Jim Daly:
John, I love reflecting on how God has blessed our nation. And Independence Day is a great time for us to do that. Our Founding Fathers were fascinating men, uh, whom God used in amazing ways. And like the rest of us, they were imperfect people. And we’ve all acknowledged that, and we know that. But to study them is to study flawed people who needed God’s redemption. I think what they did so well was understand the heart of man, both our goodness and our evil, and create a system that really is the best system of governance on the face of this planet. We can be grateful and learn a lot from their example and from the desire many of them had to stand on Christian principles. Our guest today is historian Rod Gragg. He’s dedicated a lot of his time to study the faith of the Founding Fathers. And I am looking forward to this discussion, John.

John: As am I. Rod is an award-winning author of more than 20 books. And, he’s worked as an adjunct professor of history. He and his wife live near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and they have seven children and eight grandchildren.


Jim: Rod, welcome to Focus on the Family.

Rod: Thank you, and happy Independence Day.

Jim: Yeah, this is it, Fourth of July. Looking forward to the barbecues and the things we’ll do with the family. Let me start - because our time is so limited - I am so interested in this topic. Rod, Christianity played such a key role in the founding of our nation. Why is it important for us to understand that today?

Rod: Well, you know, I think we - it’s hard to know where we’re going, unless we know where we’ve been. And I think that the United States is really unique. American culture is different. Americans are different. We’re really a unique people. And all those roots go back to those early days. And those early days that founded and forged this nation were established on a bedrock of the Judeo-Christian worldview, a biblical worldview.

Jim: Yeah, and we’re gonna get to some of those examples. President John Adams wrote about the influence of Christianity on society. And I want to read a quote, because I think it’s powerful. And you don’t hear this in high schools and universities. That’s part of the problem that we have. But let me read this from Adams: “The general principles of which the fathers achieved independence were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young gentlemen could unite. And what were these general principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity.” I mean, for those people who twist history and try to say that, you know, Christianity did not play a significant role in the founding of this nation, they just have it wrong, don’t they?

Rod: Well, the evidence is contrary to that entirely. And I think it’s important to remember that America was established - colonial America - those 13 original colonies were - were established and found in a very brief window of time that came in the wake of a revival of Christianity that swept across England, became known as the English Reformation.And on the streets, people would be talking about doctrine and the application, and in the workplace. And the Bible was - officially went out to the churches as pulpit Bibles and had to be chained to the pulpits.

And the people crowded around to read the Bible in English for the first time, so much, the pastors in the Anglican Church complained they couldn’t preach. And it really changed the entire culture. And in that wake of that extraordinary event and in a very brief window of time, English colonists bearing those core values spilled into America. And from New England to Georgia, those were the core values - that Judeo-Christian worldview, that biblical worldview - that really became the foundation of American culture, law and government. And it was exceptional and unique to the world.

Jim: And again, that’s why the second president, John Adams, I think, so succinctly said it. Our nation was founded on Christian principles. You also included in your book, Forged In Faith, some results of a - I believe it was a college survey of what college students know about the founding of the country.

As an example, I think only 10% could identify who Jonathan Edwards was. I think 1% identified George Whitefield. And you know, some of that’s the fact that people aren’t taught that. There’s people listening saying, “I don’t know who George Whitefield is.” That’s the problem. We simply are forgetting our roots. I think twice as many students guessed that Samuel Adams was an alcoholic beverage instead of a Founding Father. And only 1% knew about the Great Awakening. So, let’s do some education today. Let’s get into it. Touch on Jamestown, the first colony here in the U.S. Many of the settlers were people of faith. We’ve noted that. You have a powerful story of one of them, a minister named Robert Hunt, and his influence on the community. Who was he, and what did he do?

Rod: Well, Hunt was a chaplain that was recruited to go to Jamestown. And Jamestown was, as you say, the first successful English colony in America in 1607. And it really - there’s a lesson to be learned there, in a sense, about the foundation of American - our American experience from Jamestown, but not kind of the way we expect. It stands in - in really, contrast let’s say, to the Pilgrims at Plymouth, faith-based colony from day one and a faith-based focus, or the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay, came 10 years later, and the other colonies all - all the way down from Massachusetts Bay to Georgia. Jamestown was different, in that it was really a rough and tumble. It was a for-profit colony. And their focus was really more on building fortunes than building faith. And they - they barely survived. And it was harsh. It was rugged. They made a lot of mistakes. They did about everything you could do wrong. And yet, even in that environment, you see this - this foundation of faith, in the fact that the charter for Virginia said that one of the missions of the colony was what it called the propagation of Christian religion. They - they raised a cross, where they landed on Cape Henry, before they made their final landfall. They brought this chaplain, Robert Hunt, with them. They were called to prayer, these rough and tumble people...

Jim: How many people?

Rod: ...Twice a day.

Jim: ...How many people are we...

Rod: ...One hundred and four men and boys. Didn’t bring women, didn’t bring families - big mistake. Something the Pilgrims did right, and so did the Puritans - but called to prayer twice a day, required to worship service twice on Sunday. 1619, later, after the survivors managed to establish the first legislative assembly in America, they did so in a church, and they opened it with prayer. So, even in Jamestown, which was known for its secular approach, here was this foundation of the Judeo-Christian worldview, on which America would be founded.

Jim: And Hunt provided that kind of undergirding for an emphasis on Christian values and call to prayer and those kinds of things. He almost died on the voyage over, correct?

Rod: Yeah, and he - he died a couple of years - or a year after being in, when most of them were dying. But he had a tremendous influence there. He - he rigged up a chapel right away with an old sail and church,and people were attending. He was a great inspiration, when things went wrong and people began to die. He was a man of courage, fortitude. He was devout. And he also was a man who put Captain John Smith, in a mighty way - in - in charge, who really helped Smith become the leader who saved Jamestown.

Jim: So, let’s talk about Captain John Smith. What did he do that was significant, and how did he rely on his Christian values and principles to help that colony survive? Something like two-thirds of them died.

Rod: Yeah, it was - it was a terrible time. And when you study that, you see how horrible it was. And it was - they –: they came and, they established what was called a common store system, which was an early form of socialism. And the idea, which looked good on paper, was that everybody would work equally, and then everybody would share equally in the food, except that some didn’t think they had to work. Some did not want to work. Others worked a lot harder. And they fell into all this - disunity and bickering and fighting among themselves as they began to die. And it really was a desperate time.

And Captain John Smith, who wasn’t necessarily devout - he was a professional soldier. He had this remarkable career behind him. He belonged to St. Sepulchre church in London, which is still there today. But, he came in, actually, in chains, didn’t get along with some of the leaders. And then when they opened their mission, a letter saying, “Who’s in charge?,” they found out he was supposed to be one of the people in charge. And it was Hunt, the chaplain, who really was promoting Smith. And so, Smith took charge, and one of the first things he did was do away with that socialism, that common store system. And he - he quoted from 2 Thessalonians and said, “If a man does not work, neither shall he eat.” And…

Jim: That was motivating (laughter).

Rod: That was very motivating. He said if you’re going to eat, you’ve got to work like everyone else, no matter if you’re gentry, or if you’re lazy, no matter; you have to do that. And he enforced that kind of discipline, which had its foundation, of course, in a - in a biblical ethic and biblical principles. And then the leaders, the governors, who followed him, followed that same disciplined approach - very tough at times, but it really turned around and saved that colony, so that it did become the first successful English colony in America.

Jim: You know, like the Scripture says, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Those are words that are valuable today, aren’t they?

Rod: It’s true.

Jim: I mean, you think about it. Moving ahead slightly to the 1730s and the ‘40s, the Great Awakening, something we mentioned in the opening - that only 1% of college students could recognize or describe what the Great Awakening was. I’m thrilled to be able to educate all of us and ask you to describe what the Great Awakening was in the 1730s and ‘40s. What took place? And how did that kind of set the table for the Founding Fathers to write the Constitution, do everything that they needed to do?

Rod: Well, you put that in a context, and the context is that the 13 colonies were very diverse in their faith. You had the Congregationalists in New England, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut. You had the Baptists in Rhode Island. You had Dutch Reformed in New York and New Jersey. You had Presbyterians in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Quakers in - in Pennsylvania, Catholics in Maryland, the Anglicans in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Jewish communities in New York, Philadelphia and Charleston. A real diversity, but they were all people of the Book. And they brought with them that Judeo-Christian worldview that became, as we discussed earlier, the foundation of American culture, law and government. And America prospered on that.

And then a time came where that prosperity began to have a negative effect. And people began to - it was feared by pastors in America in the 1730s, ‘40s, that many people in America were kind of losing that flame of faith, that it was growing dim, especially on the frontier, where things were tough, and in the inner cities, where they were tough, but just kind of across the bay. And then there –there arose this extraordinary event that came to be known as the Great Awakening. And it’s, usually, origin is set in 1741 in Enfield, Connecticut, a sermon preached by a visiting pastor from Massachusetts, Jonathan Edwards, remarkable man, true intellectual, entered Yale at 12, graduated valedictorian at 17, just extraordinary man, who came and preached the sermon as a visiting pastor. And it turned the congregation upside down. And this extraordinary revival of Christianity began. And it started spreading.

And you could kind of take it back about six to 10 years earlier. It began with some other things, including prayers by a youth group in this guy’s church. But it was like a flood of faith that swept across the 13 colonies on the eve of the American Revolution. And the results were more than 100 churches were - new churches were planted in New England alone, movement to end slavery arose, movement to help the people in the inner cities, to reach out to the Native Americans. Half dozen colleges were established to teach the Bible in a biblical perspective.

And most importantly, it united the American people around three points - one, a belief in inalienable rights, that our rights of life and liberty come not from government, but from God; secondly, what was called the higher law, a belief that you are biblically to submit to all authority, unless that authority conflicts with God’s authority, the higher law; then you choose the higher law. And then a third thing was a view of equality before God. That all people, whether princes or paupers, kings or commoners, all people are equal in the sight of God, which really flew in the face of the divine right of kings and other things. And those really prepared the American people in such a way that it was like what had happened in England earlier. Farmers in the field would stop and talk about biblical doctrine. Women would chat with their neighbors about how to apply Scripture. It really made America have this extraordinary foundation of faith right on the eve of the American Revolution. And it was that faith that really was what gave them the strength to go through there and what gave them the focus of what their motivation and purpose was.

Jim: Well, and what I love in the way you’re describing it, the - the authentic way, is how God prepared hearts. I mean, He was active in the formation of the nation.

John: Yeah, that really was an organic growth of the faith back in the early days of this country. And we’re talking to Rod Gragg on Focus on the Family. This is just fascinating. And you can get Rod’s book, which has a lot of great detail, much more than we can cover today. It’s called Forged In Faith: How Faith Shaped The Birth Of The Nation 1607-1776. We’ve got copies of the book and also a CD or download of our conversation at

Jim: Rod, let me continue on that Jonathan Edwards line, because historians today have kind of reworked - in my opinion, I’d like for you to comment on this - the Founding Fathers, what they were about, certainly raising their sins to a higher level, perhaps, than their accomplishments In fact, they claim they were deists, they were people that were influenced, but they weren’t real Christians. What do you say to that assessment that some historians apply to the Founding Fathers?

Rod: Well, there were some deists. There were some humanists. But um, there really were few deists among the Founders. Some people say maybe Benjamin Franklin. Although, Franklin believed in a personal God. He was really probably a theist. He was not a Christian, but he was a theist. He was good friends and the publisher of George Whitefield, the great evangelist, the Billy Graham of his day, who had a tremendous impact on the Great Awakening in America.

And maybe people talk about Thomas Jefferson, but - and at different times in his life, maybe you could peg Jefferson as a deist or a theist. But his theology was more conflicted than it was stable in any area. And the one thing that was stable was throughout his life, he claimed that he was a Christian.): And the thing you see is, for instance, with the Declaration of Independence – Jefferson, the principal author - is that these Founders understood - when they approved - when Jefferson drafted and Congress revised and approved the Declaration of Independence in 1776 - they understood that the American people had to live with that, and some of them were gonna die for it. And so, it had to be acceptable to them. And so, they knew that it had to reflect the Judeo-Christian worldview. But, as you quoted John Adams, that’s what they wanted. They understood the general principles of Christianity were the foundation. And that’s what they wanted.

Rod: And, you know, this modern kind of misconception that the American Revolution was fought over taxes and - not true. In fact, the root and the cause of this was - of the revolution - was the belief that American people had, in increasing numbers, that the king and the parliament were usurping the higher law, that they were attempting to place - for whatever good purposes or not - man’s law above God’s law. That’s why it’s no accident the Declaration of Independence begins with a statement that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable or unalienable rights, which the declaration cites as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” - the freedom to make your way in the world.

Then it goes on to cite a long list of offenses by king and parliament, particularly king, which they believed had attempted to usurp higher law. And then it concludes with a benediction, in which they - they pledge their reliance on what they called divine providence. And they knew who that was. And also, they - they pledged to themselves that they would always, in the defense of this, have their fortunes, their lives and their sacred honor at stake. And so, what’s extraordinary about this revolution, compared to others at the same time, such as the French Revolution, which was very man-centered, extremely secular, very anti-anything to do with religion, is that this was a faith-based revolution, a revolution of law, which was extraordinary, because the great cause that they had wasn’t they had to pay a few cents on a piece of paper - on a paper tax, but instead that they believed for a series of reasons, many of which they listed on that Declaration of Independence, that the government of Great Britain was attempting to usurp the higher law - God’s law - and replace it with man’s law. And that’s why these Americans, who believe this way, marched off to war under battle flags that were inscribed with the slogan, “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.”

Jim: Ah, that’s an amazing statement. And, you know, again, what people fail to understand so often is if they would have lost that war, they would have paid with their lives.

Rod: Well, that’s an excellent point. And if - if any of those Founders had - any of those signers of the Declaration of Independence - if they had been captured and convicted of treason, sent across the Atlantic and up the Thames River to the Tower of London through the Traitors’ Gate, they would have - they could have suffered a - a grisly fate called “drawn and quartering,” in which the victim would be hanged until almost dead and then cut down, and then disemboweled and beheaded in a much more grisly way than we can talk about it this way. And that did happen to some, but none of them. But they knew that it could have happened. And that’s why Benjamin Franklin at one point reportedly joked that, “We must all hang together, or we must - or surely will hang separately.”

Jim: Right, and that was the point.

Rod: But the fact that they were willing to undergo that...

Jim: Yeah.

Rod: They were willing to take that risk for generations to come.

Jim: Rod, this next comment could be controversial, but I think it’s an important insight. So often, especially in modern culture, we’re hypercritical of the Founding Fathers, because of the issue of racism and the fact that slavery was occurring during their era. Yet, it was said to me the other day - and I thought it was so profound the way it was said - if you look at it, slavery around the world had been already an institution for 3,000 years. You know, my background is Irish. And I know that some of the Irish people were taken as slaves. Certainly, Africans were taken as slaves and then exploited. The - the interesting way of looking at this, though, is these Founding Fathers created a document, like you said, “All men are created equal.” They laid the groundwork that within 80, 90 years, Abraham Lincoln could take that and then apply it to all people. It’s almost, you know, it built upon itself. Even though they didn’t do away with slavery at that time, they did create the runway for Abraham Lincoln to apply the document within 80 or 90 years. So, a institution that had lasted 3,000 years was put down in America within a hundred years. I find that kind of remarkable, and we don’t talk about that.

Rod: Well, as the language of the Declaration of Independence, that wouldn’t go away. I mean, slavery is reprehensible. We all understand and we all know that. And it harmed everyone it touched, most especially those African-Americans who were slaves. And it was controversial then, just as it is now and for good reason. Thomas Jefferson - the remarkable irony here is that some of those who were the most opposed to slavery were slave owners. Benjamin Franklin, who really came to hate slavery and wanted it ended, had been not only a slave owner but slave trader. George Washington owned slaves. And by the end of his life, he had come to - to abhor that institution. Thomas Jefferson, slave owner, wrote in the language, which we can see in his original draft - he wanted to use the Declaration - as an - of Independence - as an opportunity to bring an end to slavery or to start an ending to slavery. And they decided not to.

And the reason they decided not to, for better or worse, is that they believed that the vote was so close - and it was, on independence - that if they got embroiled in a debate on something so huge, so powerful, as slavery, that there would be no independence. Better, they believed, to kick that can down the road. Now, when some of them and others at the Constitution had the opportunity to deal with that, sadly, they kicked the can down the road again for the same reason. They thought they couldn’t get the Constitution passed if they got into this big debate over slavery. But there were some who were really grieved that the can was kicked down the road. And, one of them was Thomas Jefferson, who later said that it was - “Slavery was like a fire bell in the night.” And in fact, that language that all men are created equal, they understood that if they let slavery stand, it was hypocrisy and - and that language, that “all men are created equal and are endowed by the creator, with inalienable, God-given rights of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness,” that language would not go away, as you point out. And it was like the fire bell in the night. And it rang, and it rang, and it rang, until finally slavery was dealt with. It just wouldn’t go away.

Jim: Rod, that is so well said. And, you know, again, that situation was horrific. And in some ways, with sex slavery, continues to be a problem around the world. And humanity will continue to work on this. Tragically, when you look today, Rod, at where we’re at, we have forgotten those Christian principles where, really, people, may be thinking they’re doing the right thing, have so separated faith from the public square that you can’t utter God’s name, you can’t reference Him. How can we reclaim the truth that the Declaration of Independence is a faith-based document? And if you’re not willing to embrace that, you’re kind of turning your back on what this country was founded on.

Rod: Well, it’s there. And it’s not what I say or you say or any of us say. It’s the evidence. And the evidence speaks for itself. The Declaration of Independence is a document that’s based on faith. And the predecessor to that was called the Declaration of Taking Up - the Necessity of Taking Up Arms, which was a prelude to this that they had passed earlier. And it also speaks to that. And so you - you really can’t separate it. If you’re honestly and you look at the founding of America, then it is - the evidence is clear that it was founded on a Judeo-Christian worldview, on this biblical values and is what Adams called the general principles of Christianity. It’s there. And to see it on this Fourth of July, you just have to read the Declaration of Independence.


Jim: Well, I so appreciate that. It’s nothing new under the sun. We’re back to the garden - right? - with the same debate. Is it about God or is it about us? And I so appreciate what you’ve done to inform us, Rod. What a wonderful book, Forged In Faith. And I hope the listeners will be drawn into this to teach it to your kids. This is one of those books. I may do the $25 book report, John, where I get my boys to read it and I pay them 25 bucks ‘cause it’s worth it. What an investment, to have them read this wonderful book, Forged In Faith. And if you can do it without paying your kids a little cash, that’s good (laughter). But I want some motivation, ‘cause I want them to do that book report. I hope you’ll ask us for a copy of the book. And if you can give a gift of any amount, we’ll send it to you as our way of saying thank you to help us do ministry here at “Focus on the Family,” to bring your broadcasts like this one. 

John: Yeah, offices are closed today, July Fourth. But write our number down and give us a call later, 800, the letter A and the word family, or online, of course, 24/7. We’re at Donate today and get your copy of Forged In Faith by Rod Gragg. And when you do, know that it’s a great resource and that your donation is helping Focus on the Family continue to produce programs like this and reach around the world with our help for families.

Jim: Rod, thanks again for being with us.

Rod: Thank you. My pleasure.

John: Well, on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for joining us today for Focus on the Family. I’m John Fuller inviting you back as we once again help you and your family thrive in Christ.

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Rod Gragg

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Author and historian Rod Gragg has written more than 20 books on topics in American history and other subjects. His books include the award-winning Covered With Glory, about the battle of Gettysburg, and My Brother's Keeper, highlighting those who protected Jewish people during the Holocaust. Rod has been a frequent speaker at venues around the nation and a guest commentator on major media programs including Fox and Friends and Morning Joe. He and his wife reside in South Carolina and have seven grown children and eight grandchildren.