American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation

American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation

by Jon Meacham

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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham reveals how the Founding Fathers viewed faith—and how they ultimately created a nation in which belief in God is a matter of choice.

At a time when our country seems divided by extremism, American Gospel draws on the past to offer a new perspective. Meacham re-creates the fascinating history of a nation grappling with religion and politics–from John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon to Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence; from the Revolution to the Civil War; from a proposed nineteenth-century Christian Amendment to the Constitution to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for civil rights; from George Washington to Ronald Reagan.

Debates about religion and politics are often more divisive than illuminating. Secularists point to a “wall of separation between church and state,” while many conservatives act as though the Founding Fathers were apostles in knee britches. As Meacham shows in this brisk narrative, neither extreme has it right. At the heart of the American experiment lies the God of what Benjamin Franklin called “public religion,” a God who invests all human beings with inalienable rights while protecting private religion from government interference. It is a great American balancing act, and it has served us well.

Meacham has written and spoken extensively about religion and politics, and he brings historical authority and a sense of hope to the issue. American Gospel makes it compellingly clear that the nation’s best chance of summoning what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” lies in recovering the spirit and sense of the Founding. In looking back, we may find the light to lead us forward.

Praise for American Gospel

“In his American Gospel, Jon Meacham provides a refreshingly clear, balanced, and wise historical portrait of religion and American politics at exactly the moment when such fairness and understanding are much needed. Anyone who doubts the relevance of history to our own time has only to read this exceptional book.”—David McCullough, author of 1776

“Jon Meacham has given us an insightful and eloquent account of the spiritual foundation of the early days of the American republic. It is especially instructive reading at a time when the nation is at once engaged in and deeply divided on the question of religion and its place in public life.”—Tom Brokaw, author of The Greatest Generation

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781588365774
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/20/2007
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 10,066
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Jon Meacham is a Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer. The author of the New York Times bestsellers Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, Franklin and Winston, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, and The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, he is a distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University, a contributing writer for The New York Times Book Review, and a fellow of the Society of American Historians. Meacham lives in Nashville and in Sewanee with his wife and children.

Read an Excerpt

For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
No man…can be so stupid to deny that all men naturally were born free, being the image and resemblance of God himself.
America as we like to think of it had nearly ended before it began. In the North Atlantic in the autumn of 1620, the passengers aboard the Mayflower—102 English Puritans seeking religious freedom, new lands, and better livelihoods—found themselves in the midst of a storm at sea. As the crew struggled to save the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, as William Bradford called them, thought they were going to die.
When the ship finally came within sight of Cape Cod after sixty-five days, wrote Bradford, “they were not a little joyful,” and when at last they reached land, “they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof.”
Bradford and his company saw the hand of God in their journey, the God of Israel who had, in the Christian worldview, redeemed the sins of the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his account of the voyage and of the founding of Plymouth, Bradford suggested his own generation’s epitaph: “May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: ‘Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and he heard their voice.’”
God’s kindness might be boundless, but the Pilgrims’ kindness had its limits. En route, one of the hired sailors—a “proud and very profane young man, one of the seamen, of a lusty, able body”—was difficult, sneering at seasick passengers, cursing and swearing. Bullying and unsettling, the man frightened the Pilgrims so much that Bradford was not unhappy to see him dead. “But it pleased God…to smite this young man with a grievous disease, of which he died in a desperate manner, and so was himself the first that was thrown overboard.” It is not exactly Christian to see the death of a man, however filthy-mouthed, as “a special work of God’s providence,” to use Bradford’s words, but contradiction between profession and practice, between the dictates of faith and man’s darker impulses, was to be an enduring theme in the history of the nation the Pilgrims were helping to found.
A decade later, John Winthrop would urge another company of Puritans to think of the New World as “a city upon a hill,” a source of light to all the world. Shine it would, but it has also long been a place of shadows—of persecution, of slavery, of poverty. Still, with courage and with conviction, the settlers fought on. “So they committed themselves to the will of God,” said Bradford of the Mayflower’s Pilgrims, “and resolved to proceed.”
As it was in the beginning, so it has been since. Succeeding generations of Americans have moved through war and hardship, believing themselves committed to, and frequently alluding to, God, a supernatural force who created the world and remains interested in—and engaged with—history. The common story of America from the Pilgrims onward is a powerful one; it draws on some of the most vivid and important themes of Israel, investing the United States with a sense of earthly grandeur and divine purpose. “The civilization of New England has been like those fires lit in the hills that, after having spread heat around them, still tinge the furthest reaches of the horizon with their light,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville. There is a persistent idea in the popular American imagination that the nation was founded by what are sometimes called Planting Fathers seeking religious freedom—a vision of the past which gives religion pride of place as the country’s earliest reason for being. In recent times conservative Christians have been particularly attracted to this version of our beginnings, and a 1755 observation of John Adams’s suggests the same narrative had already taken shape by the time of the Revolution. “Soon after the Reformation, a few people came over into this new world for conscience sake,” Adams wrote. “Perhaps this apparently trivial incident may transfer the great seat of empire into America.”
The reality is more complex, for many motives propelled the English across the Atlantic. The first years of the country’s history were full of pious pilgrims, dashing gold hunters, ambitious London investors, anxious Jews in flight from persecution in Brazil, intense spiritual seekers guided by an “Inner Light,” and stern Puritan politicians intent on building a City of God in the middle of a fallen world. It was an eclectic cast of characters, some in search of God, others on the prowl for mammon—and even those for whom freedom of religion was a driving force soon found themselves doing unto others what had been done unto them.
The first permanent English settlers arrived in search of gold, not God. The language of the First Charter of Virginia was lovely, the sentiments warm, the king’s expectations clear. Issuing the document to the Virginia Company of London on Thursday, April 10, 1606, James I said he was happy to bless “so noble a work” in the hope that the mission to the New World would carry the “Christian religion to such people as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God….”
With the Lord out of the way, James quickly turned to mammon. The company was to take possession of “all the Lands, Woods, Soil, Grounds, Havens, Ports, Rivers, Mines, Minerals, Marshes, Waters, Fishings, Commodities…”—and on and on, for three paragraphs. Then came the order to “dig, mine, and search for all Manner of Mines of Gold, Silver, and Copper.” To defend the enterprise, no “Robbery or Spoil” would ever go unpunished, and the company was authorized to “pursue with hostility the said offenders” in the event of plunder. The First Charter of Virginia is 3,805 words long; only 98 of those words, or about 3 percent, are about God. Faith, Captain John Smith wrote of the Virginia Company, was “their color, when all their aim was nothing but present profit.”
Armed with the king’s commission, three ships—the Discovery, the Godspeed, and the Susan Constant—with 144 men, led by Captain Christopher Newport, left London in December 1606. They reached the banks of the James River in May 1607, just thirteen months after the charter was issued. They knew about the ninety-eight words referring to God and built a makeshift chapel for morning and evening prayer, and two services on Sundays. Before long the colony’s minister died, and Captain John Smith recalled that it took two or three years before “more preachers came,” a sign, Smith thought, that God had “most mercifully hear[d] us.” On the whole, however, evidence of God’s care was scanty. Within weeks of the Jamestown landing Indians attacked, killing two and wounding ten. Smith went on an expedition, was captured and saved from execution only, he believed, by the intervention of the chief’s daughter Pocahontas. When Smith returned to the settlement, he found only a third of the original company still alive. Things were at their bleakest.
“Word of the colony’s dismal beginnings soon reached London. Instead of taking delivery of “Gold, Silver, and Copper,” the officers of the Virginia Company—and King James—were hearing of starvation and slaughter. Smith denounced those Englishmen whose disappointed hopes of discovering new riches drove them to return to London, where they told all who would listen that America was “a misery, a ruin, a death, [and] a hell.” In June 1609, Sir Thomas Gates was sent from England to bring order to the chaos with instructions whose title left little doubt as to their content: “Laws Divine, Moral and Martial.”
Gates set sail aboard the Sea Venture; one other ship accompanied it. On Monday, July 24, 1609, a hurricane struck. The Sea Venture fought the storm for three days. “Prayers might well be in the heart and lips but drowned in the outcries of the officers,” wrote William Strachey, a Sea Venture passenger. “Nothing [was] heard that could give comfort, nothing seen that might encourage hope.” Miraculously, the ship came upon a reef at Bermuda, and the 150 or so survivors built two boats out of the wreckage, christened them Deliverance and Patience, and set sail again, arriving at Jamestown on Monday, May 23, 1610. While the episode became celebrated in England when Strachey’s account circulated in London (Shakespeare is said to have drawn on it as he wrote The Tempest), the hosannas in Virginia were more muted, for Gates immediately imposed martial law—a new code rife with ecclesiastical requirements and penalties for those who fell short of stringent religious rules.

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American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put this book down. The discussion of America's private and public religion and religious style is topical and the author goes back to the colonial period to analyze several significant steps in the development of our American religious outlook. My husband recommended it to me and I have recommended it to everyone I know who enjoys American history, religious history, or wants to know more about how private and public religion interact in today's America. It is a balanced look, including both Christian, Jewish and other perspectives, and uses historical research to put each facet of the journey into perspective. The book does not choose one religion over another and the author is careful to delineate between public representations of religion and the course of private religion in this country. I feel it is a must-read in the changing religious and political climate of early 21st century America.
PointedPundit on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In his latest book, ¿American Gospel,¿ Jon Meacham provides an eloquent, yet at the same time, depressing look at the United States¿ spiritual foundation.This well-written book portrays how our Founding Fathers created a nation guided by faith, yet not controlled by it. To them, belief in God was a matter of choice.At a time when our political system appears dominated by dimwits and charlatans, Meacham surveys the past for a perspective on how this nation has grappled with mixing religion with politics. Unlike today¿s extremist views, the Founding Fathers wanted the country guided by what Benjamin Franklin called a ¿public religion.¿ God endowed all human being with inalienable rights and they should be free to worship Him without governmental interference. Neither today¿s secular left nor ¿evangelical¿ right articulates this delicate balancing act.From John Winthrop¿s ¿City on a Hill¿ and Thomas Jefferson¿s Declaration of Independence to Martin Luther King¿s civil rights campaign, the author shows how our leaders struggled to balance their personal religious convictions and its place in their public lives.At a time when politicians seem more interested in sound bites, Meacham¿s portrait shows how inspiring individuals can be when they sincerely struggle with their conscious to determine the religion¿s proper place in their public life.This book should be required reading for anyone in or aspiring to public office.
the_hag on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It was a semi-interesting read¿but coming in at 250 page for 200 years of history??? I think perhaps it¿s a bit short in that respect. He made some interesting points and overall it was enjoyable, if a bit bland and lacking in a real ¿point¿ or conclusion. I¿m glad I got this one from the library, because it¿s not really one I would want to have for my personal library and I can¿t really see myself needing to refer to it again in the future, or even really recommending it to others. I give it a B-, an interesting summary but it has no real depth.
mramos on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Jon Meacham, Newsweek managing editor, examines U.S. national traditions and the intention of the founding fathers when they created freedom of religion more then two centuries ago. Contends that faith and freedom are intractably linked. 'A nation will thrive only by cherishing freedom and protecting faith.' This book is well written and researched. It is also an easy read and a topic that merits much more discussion. But you must pay attention while reading. For you will see that Meacham is biased. And inconsistent when and where he feels the use of religion should or should not be used in government. He is uninformed on the make up of the Pre-Civil war south and he seems to gloss over the parts of this countries disfavor of Roman Catholicism. He is so set on his thesis that America is tolerant of religion he forgot these transgressions and did not address them. Yet still points out times where politics and religion have met throughout history where it meets his thesis, ignoring all those that do not. In summation this author is far from objective. And seems to have a preconceived desire to convince us his thesis is correct at any cost. Meacham uses insinuation, omission of opposing points of view or more importantly: opposing facts, broad generalization, attempts at impugning the morality of the Founders and colonists, and a glaring failure to account for etymology all run rampant through out this book. At the end of the book he states, "In choosing to explore the connections between religion and public life," ...which he does explore as long as it supports the thesis he has put forth. On page 397 and 398 he states; "In a way the genesis of this book can be traced back nearly twenty years, when Herbert Wentz introduced me to Robert Bellah's idea of civil religion," Which tells us he already had preconceived idea of this book and how he would defend them regardless of historical evidence. Meacham finds "public religion" good when he likes a person's views and bad when he doesn't. His retelling of history may soothe some secularists, but it is not likely to calm some religious believers' fears. Tolerance runs one direction. Though the author is biased and does not have a deep knowledge on the subject I still will give him three stars for getting the discussion re-started.
cmbohn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I went to a discussion group last year where we talked about the Constitution, the Founding Fathers, and religion. I wish I had read this book before going, because I would have been more able to defend my case. This book examines the true religious principles that guided the writing of the Constitution.The basic idea of the book is that religious freedom has always been important in the history of America. The Founding Fathers did not want to eliminate God, or Providence as they often referred to him, completely from public life, but that they felt it best to leave the matter as open as possible, so that each person could define that Providence however they wished. They also designed the Constitution and the Republic to make it more difficult for minorities to control the whole, but also so that they would also be protected.Meacham does a great job in this book. I found it extremely readable, and certainly relevant. The book is not very long, but it has over 100 pages of appendix, including source notes, bibliography, and selected documents that he quotes in the book. The only thing it lacked was an index, which I would have appreciated.Still, such a great book. Here is my favorite quote:"Democracy is easy; republicanism is hard. Democracy is fueled by passion; republicanism is founded on moderation. Democracy is loud, raucous, disorderly; republicanism is quiet, cool, judicious--and that we still live in its light is the Founders' most wondrous deed."
Atomicmutant on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A nice rumination on the topic of faith in the public sphere throughout the history of this country. I found it to be absolutely well-balanced on the subject. If you're an atheist looking to get upset about the mingling of Church and State, you will come to understand the concept of a unique American 'public religion' and how it has been applied throughout the countries' history. If you're a Christian Fundamentalist, you're going to have to admit that this is indeed a secular republic founded on non-religious principles. The founding fathers, and other leaders since, have all wrestled with the conflation of public and private religious practice, and this book outlines that tension. Elastic though it is, America's concept of religion in the public sphere seems to hover around a center that, were both sides to calm down just a bit, might suffice for all of us.
Freebirdcsmi More than 1 year ago
American Gospel is an excellent book that is a quick and interesting read. The author's research is thorough and well documented. My favorite aspect of the book is that the author did not take sides in what can be a hotly contested debate. Instead of giving one side more credence than the other, Mr. Meacham remained firmly in the middle and presented the evidence in an even manner. Having come from a very religious home, I've always been told that America was founded as a Christian nation. After reading Mr. Meacham's book--which uses primary documents and the words of the Founders themselves, not just regurgitated commentary--I know that was not the case. I appreciate the fact that Mr. Meacham made that case. But I also like the fact that he stressed the importance of religion--Public Religion, as he calls it--in our nation and society. If you are at all interested in the principles and ideas that founded this great nation, this book is a must-read. I highly recommend it to anyone.
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I read this book on my Nook. It seems that the last third of the book did not fit the nook profile. I'll have to visit Barnes & Noble for an explanation.
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