Review of ‘Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?’ (revised edition) by John Fea

John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction, rev. ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2016).

Few questions in American politics generate as much controversy as the relationship between church and state. On one side are Christian nationalists who contend that the nation was founded on religious principles. On the other side are secularists who argue it was founded on Enlightenment principles. The controversy between them is evident, most obviously, in the seemingly endless First Amendment cases brought before our nation’s courts to determine whether that amendment’s “establishment” and/or “free exercise” clauses have been violated. But behind the evident legal controversy lies the latent historical controversy, in which the same contending parties dispute the facts and significance of the Founding Era.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? by John Fea is an excellent introduction to that question and should be read by both Christian nationalists and secularists alike, for it corrects the historical errors both sides commit and draws a balanced portrait of the role religion did (and did not) play in the American Founding.

In the Introduction to the book, Fea—an evangelical historian at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania—explains why the question the title of his book asks is so controversial, namely, because both sides to the controversy are seeking a “usable past” to buttress their side in contemporary political debates. Historians, he goes on to argue, should avoid such present-mindedness and seek to understand the past on its own, often complex terms.

Fea then unfolds his argument in three parts:

Part One examines the history of the idea of Christian nationalism from the ratification of the Constitution (1789) to the present day. Chapter 1 examines the dominance of evangelical Christianity in America from 1789 to the end of the Civil War. Chapter 2 surveys the different concepts of Christian nationalism at play in post-bellum society until the Scopes Monkey Trial (1925). Chapter 3 continues the story until 1980, focusing especially on how Christian nationalism affected mainline Protestantism, American Catholicism, Cold War religious unity, the Civil Rights Movement, and the emerging Religious Right. Chapter 4 looks closely at that last group, noting the resurgence of conservative, evangelical Christian nationalism since 1980.

Part Two answers a question: “Was the American Revolution a Christian event?” Chapter 5 shows that both Virginia and Massachusetts colonies were explicitly, legally, and institutionally Christian communities with established churches, but that the nature of their establishments varied widely and their actual practice often fell well short of Christian ethical norms (as, for example, the practice of African slavery and ill treatment of the aboriginal populations). Chapter 6 argues that the intellectual underpinnings of and justifications for the American Revolution were based more on secular Enlightenment ideas than biblical principles. Chapter 7 extends this argument by showing how pro-revolution clergy often read those Enlightenment ideas into their preaching of the Bible, rather than deriving their preachments from biblical principles.

Chapters 8, 9, and 10 examine the form of religion that influenced the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and Constitution, respectively, and note the controversies over religious freedom that gripped the colonies during these years. The God of the Declaration (“nature’s God”) is ambivalent, capable of being recognized by both Christians and Enlightenment theists alike. (For an excellent study of the common theological ground between these two groups during the Founding, see God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution by Thomas S. Kidd.) The Articles of Confederation left the establishment or disestablishment of religion in state hands, with Massachusetts retaining its established Congregationalism (until 1833) and Virginia disestablishing its Anglicanism through the yeoman efforts of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, against the contrary efforts of Christian nationalists such as Patrick Henry. Regarding the Constitution, Fea notes the irony that leading Christian nationalists—such as Patrick Henry, again—were anti-Federalists in the ratification debates precisely because the Constitution did not acknowledge the nation’s Christian heritage. And he concludes by discussing what Jefferson’s “wall of separation” did and did not mean at the time.

Part Three investigates the religious beliefs of George Washington (Chapter 11), John Adams (Chapter 12), Thomas Jefferson (Chapter 13), Benjamin Franklin (Chapter 14), and John Witherspoon, John Jay, and Samuel Adams (Chapter 15). Of these, only the last three can be considered “orthodox” in Christian doctrine and practice. Fea describes Washington as a latitudinarian Anglican more interested in religion’s social utility than in Christian doctrine or practice. Adams is a “devout Unitarian,” Jefferson a “follower of Jesus” who separated the supernatural husk from the moral kernel of Jesus’ life and teaching, and Franklin as an “ambitious moralist.” They disagreed on doctrine but agreed on one thing: “religion was necessary in order to sustain and ordered and virtuous republic” (a point which Kidd also argues in God of Liberty).

I highly recommend Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? to all readers, but especially to those interested in the debates surrounding the role of religion in our nation’s history and the contentious issues of church-state separation. It is clearly organized, well written, thorough in its research, and judicious in its conclusions. It will—or should!—complexify the simplistic historical interpretations of both Christian nationalists and their secularist opponents. Such complexification, I hope, will tamp down the fires of contention and lead to greater cooperation as both religious and secular Americans see their stake in our collaborative national experiment.

The revised edition of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? features a new cover, corrects mistakes in the previous edition, updates the bibliographies at the end of each section, and includes an Epilogue that discusses new developments since the 2011 publication of the first edition. Otherwise, the text is the same as the first edition.


P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

P.P.S. Check out my Influence Podcast with John Fea on the book.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted at


Review of ‘Why Study History?’ by John Fea

images John Fea, Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013). Paperback / Kindle

Why study history?

John Fea sets out to answer this question in his eponymous new book, which is subtitled, “reflecting on the importance of the past.” Fea is associate professor of American history and chair of the history department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. An evangelical Christian teaching at an evangelical college, he has written or edited several books, including Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction[1], The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America, and Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation. He blogs regularly at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Fea pitches his book primarily to college students interested in the study of history as a major, but also to history teachers and history buffs. I fall into the last category. And as a history buff, I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend this book, for several reasons.

First, it helped me understand what good historians do. In chapter 1, Fea outlines the task of a historian with five Cs: (1) “chronicle change over time,” (2) “study the past in context,” (3) pay attention to “causality” and (4) “contingency,” and remember that “the past is complex.” If this is what historians do, then history is an inherently “revisionist” project, though not a relativist one. We can know the past, but we must admit that our current understandings may be inadequate to it.

Second, Fea helped me navigate the various reasons why people study history. Chapter 2 outlines and critiques some of those reasons: for inspiration, to escape the pressures of modernity, to form a personal or social identity, for role models, to advance certain political positions. Chapter 3 identifies a basic problem with all these reasons in the words of L. P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” When we forget the strangeness of the past, we distort it for present purposes. For Christians, especially in America, one of those distortions is a providential reading of American history that all too often exaggerates our nation’s goodness and downplays its sins. Chapter 4 provides a sympathetic critique of such readings.

The critique of providential readings of history does not mean that Christian historians have no theological resources to bring to bear on their vocation. Chapter 5 shows how the imago dei, the reality of sin, the Incarnation, and moral reflection all should influence how Christian historians do their craft. “The human experience is a drama with many ethical twists and turns,” Fea writes, “but the historian is not always in the business of using his or her voice to preach.”

Fourth, Chapters 6 and 7 showed me how historians—and history-minded citizens—can positively influence civil society. There is an inherent tension between the desire to present the past without ideological blinkers and the desire for history to influence civil society. The way Fea resolves this tension is not by proposing this or that account of history but by emphasizing the virtues of historical consciousness. Studying the past in all its foreignness, seeking to understand it on its own terms and in its own context, draws students of history outside of themselves and their ideological commitments. It is, in other words, a powerful tonic for narcissism.

Finally, in chapter 8, Fea shows history students what they can do with their major. I was not a history major in college, and this chapter had the least relevance to me. Nonetheless, in an era when the financial bottom line plays an often decisive role on what college students choose to major in, and when the humanities especially are taking a lot of hits, it’s nice to see someone present anecdotal evidence for the fact that you can study history and still get a good job.

In an appendix, Fea outlines a proposal for the creation of a “Center for American History and a Civil Society.” If I had some money, I’d definitely invest it in this project. Fea’s vision of how Christians (and others) should study the past and work for a more civil society is one that resonates with me.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

[1] I reviewed Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? here and interviewed Prof. Fea here.

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