Leaders of American History: A Legacy of Respect for God and the Bible

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Leaders of American History

A Legacy of Respect for God and the Bible

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The framers of the U.S. Constitution believed that it involved miracles. The author of a book titled Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May to September 1787 wrote: “Miracles do not occur at random, nor was it the author of the book who said there was a miracle at Philadelphia in the year 1787. George Washington said it, and James Madison. They used the word in writing to their friends: Washington to Lafayette, Madison to Thomas Jefferson” (Catherine Drinker Bowen, 1986, p. xi).

These and many others among America’s past leaders displayed humility before the Creator God of the Bible, realizing their helplessness apart from Him. Abraham Lincoln, one of the giants of American history who served as president during the Civil War of the 1860s, declared, “I do not care whether God is on my side; the important question is whether I am on God’s side, for God is always right” (quoted by Erwin Lutzer, Is God On America’s Side? The Surprising Answer and How It Affects Our Future, 2008, p. 72).

Yet times have changed. Many leaders today are often reticent to openly proclaim trust in God except in carefully nuanced rhetoric—or they are openly hostile to biblical values. This is part and parcel with the decline of the culture.

What is the United States like in the 21st century? One writer lamented a decade ago: “We laugh at God’s law. Literally. Tune in virtually any TV or cable channel, and see how long you can listen until somebody mocks what God has said is good.

“The more pointed the mockery gets, the more raucous the laughter. Chastity, fidelity, and heterosexuality are targets of derision. God’s name can still be mentioned on TV and in the movies, but it’s far more likely to be heard (even on the news) in a blasphemous context than any other way” (Joel Belz, “Where Is God?” World, Oct. 5, 2002). And the situation has worsened since this was written.

If you took a survey, many would say that America is still a Christian nation. But to see things more clearly, we should compare the country’s current attitudes and biblical underpinnings, or lack thereof, to those of the nation’s leaders at its founding and in the centuries since.

Founders’ outlook toward God and the Bible

As mentioned, the Founding Fathers of the United States believed that God was present at Philadelphia—and they saw His handiwork in the process of forming the country. During the Constitutional Convention, “at a particularly fierce period of debate in late June 1787, when agreement seemed distant, Benjamin Franklin spoke up. In a passionate, intelligent, and measured tone, Franklin reminded the Convention of what God had done for America thus far” (Jon Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, 2006, p. 88).

Franklin stated: “In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers 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” (quoted by Meacham, p. 89). He then called for regular prayers in the Congress.

A few years later in 1790, Franklin wrote to Yale University President Ezra Stiles, stating, “As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, is the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see” (quoted by William Federer, America’s God and Country: Encyclopedia of Quotations, 2000, pp. 250-251).

The premier Founding Father was of course George Washington, known as the “Father of his country.” He led American forces during the Revolution, headed the Constitutional Convention and served as the first president of the republic for two terms.

When Delaware Indian chiefs brought three youths to be trained in American schools in 1779, General Washington had an aide write these words to them: “Congress will look upon them as their own Children … 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. Congress will do everything they can to assist you in this wise intention” (quoted by Federer, p. 644).

On entering the presidency, “Washington took office by putting his hand on a Bible and declaring ‘So help me God’ ” (Steven Waldman, Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty, 2008, p. 160).

And near the end of his time in office, he wrote an open letter, known as his “Farewell Address,” that warned the American people of the political dangers they must avoid if they are to remain true to their values. “George Washington argued that ‘of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports’ ” (Robert Putnam and David Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, 2010, p. 443).

Another major figure in the founding of America, though not so well-known today, was Samuel Adams—second cousin of second U.S. president John Adams—who was eulogized as the “Father of the American Revolution.” He eventually became the governor of Massachusetts.

Samuel Adams declared: “I conceive we cannot better express ourselves than by humbly supplicating the Supreme Ruler of the world … that the confusions that are and have been among the nations may be overruled by the promoting and speedily bringing in the holy and happy period when the kingdoms of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ may be everywhere established, and the people willingly bow to the sceptre of Him who is the Prince of Peace” (quoted by Federer, p. 24).

John Adams’ son John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, later stated of the founding era, “From the day of the Declaration [of Independence] … they (the American people) were bound by the laws of God, which they all, and by the laws of The Gospel, which they nearly all, acknowledge as the rules of their conduct” (quoted by Federer, p. 18).

Leaders in the Pre–Civil War and Civil War Eras

Daniel Webster was a leading statesman in the decades before the Civil War who served as a U.S. congressman and senator and as secretary of state for three different presidents. A great orator, he stated in a speech on Dec. 22, 1820:

“Our ancestors established their system of government on morality and religious sentiment. Moral habits, they believed, cannot safely be trusted on any other foundation than religious principle, nor any government be secure which is not supported by moral habits … Whatever makes men good Christians makes them good citizens” (quoted by Federer, p. 669).

Andrew Jackson became the seventh president of the United States on March 4, 1839. After his inaugural address, “Jackson closed with a prayer—for order and for guidance, for himself and for the Union.

“As president, he said, he would depend ‘on the goodness of that Power whose providence mercifully protected our national infancy and has since upheld our liberties in various vicissitudes [or fluctuating circumstances],’ and hoped ‘that He will continue to make our beloved country the object of His divine care and gracious benediction.’ …

“He was playing the role of national pastor … leading the largest possible flock. He bowed once more to the people, and … kissed a Bible” (Jon Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, 2008, p. 61).

On another occasion, Jackson said of the Bible, “That book, sir, is the Rock upon which our Republic rests” (quoted by Richard Lee, editor, The American Patriot’s Bible: The Word of God and the Shaping of America, 2009, introduction).

Then we come to Abraham Lincoln, the country’s 16th president. It was “his belief that this nation is the fulfillment of the Creator’s plan to give democracy to all people” (Philip Ostergard, The Inspired Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln: How Faith Shaped an American President—and Changed the Course of a Nation, 2008, p. 20).

Lincoln read the Bible in his youth and throughout much of his life. “Marching into the chasm of the Civil War, Lincoln immersed himself in the Bible, which he called ‘the best gift God has given to man’ ” (Michael Beschloss, Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989, 2007, p. 121). In his second inaugural address near the end of the war in 1865, he made 14 references to God, several biblical allusions and direct quotations from Psalms and Matthew.

Earlier in life, Lincoln had been a skeptic along with his roommate back in Springfield, Illinois, Joshua Speed, who became a lifelong friend. In 1864, Speed came to stay overnight where Lincoln resided just outside Washington, D.C., during the Civil War.

“Recalling Lincoln’s old complaints about religion, Speed was now startled to find the President in his bedroom, absorbed in his Bible. He told Lincoln, ‘If you have recovered from your skepticism, I am sorry to say that I have not.’

“ ‘You are wrong Speed,’ replied Lincoln, ‘Take all of this book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and better man’ ” (pp. 121-122).

Presidents in the early 20th century

Theodore (or “Teddy”) Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States for two terms from 1901 to 1909, was the youngest in the nation’s history. “Taught by his pious Dutch Reformed father, he had started memorizing the Bible at age three … He once told a Bible study group, ‘It is a good and necessary thing to be intelligent. It is a better thing to be straight and decent and fearless.’ For Roosevelt, a good Christian must not be greedy for earthly rewards” (p. 153).

“Theodore and [his wife] Edith taught all the children, girls as well as boys, the importance of obedience … Both Theodore and Edith believed in robust righteousness … and the Biblical passages they cherished, most notably one about doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with your God.

“There was a quotation from [poet Robert] Browning that Theodore hammered into the children early in support of the New Testament injunction [in James 1:22 James 1:22But be you doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.
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] about being ‘doers of the word and not hearers only’ ” (Herman Hagedorn, editor, The Free Citizen: A Summons to Service of the Democratic Ideal, by Theodore Roosevelt: Selections From His Writings and Stories From His Record, 1958, pp. 18-19).

On Sept. 8, 1906, Teddy Roosevelt said: “You are not going to make any new commandments at this stage which will supply the place of the old ones. The truths that were true at the foot of Mt. Sinai are true now. The truths that were true when the Golden Rule [Jesus’ command to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (see Matthew 7:12 Matthew 7:12Therefore all things whatever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
American King James Version×
)] was promulgated are true now” (p. 22).

Soon after leaving office he said this as part of his thoughts about the founding of the Boy Scouts of America: “No man is a good citizen unless he so acts as to show that he actually uses the Ten Commandments, and translates the Golden Rule into his life conduct—and I don’t mean by this in exceptional cases under spectacular circumstances, but I mean applying the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule in the ordinary affairs of every-day life” ( Boy Scout Handbook, 1st edition, 1911).

Woodrow Wilson was the country’s 28th president—from 1913 through World War I until 1921. Prior to becoming president, he said on Oct. 1, 1911, while governor of New Jersey:

“There are great problems, ladies and gentlemen, before the American people. There are problems which will need purity of spirit and an integrity of purpose such as has never been called for before in the history of this country. I should be afraid to go forward if I did not believe that there lay at the foundation of all our schooling and
of all our thought this incomparable and unimpeachable Word of God …

“No great nation can ever survive its own temptations and its own follies that does not indoctrinate its children in the Word of God” (quoted by Hugh Hewitt, Searching for God in America, 1996, p. 325).

World War II leaders

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), whose time in office of 12 years was the longest of any president, was president when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, bringing the United States into World War II.

Shortly afterward he drew a contrast with the contempt for the human race shown by the enemy Axis powers: “In his January 1942 State of the Union message, weeks after Pearl Harbor and the Nazi declaration of war, FDR said, ‘We are inspired by a faith that goes back through all the years to the first chapter of the Book of Genesis: ‘God created man in His own image.’ We on our side are striving to be true to that divine heritage’ ” (Gelernter, p. 212).

Roosevelt also stated, “An ordering of society which relegates religion, democracy and good faith among nations to the background can find no place within it for the ideals of the Prince of Peace. The United States rejects such an ordering, and retains its ancient faith” (quoted by Hewitt, p. 355).

Most remarkable is when Roosevelt by broadcast led the entire nation in prayer at the time of the D-Day invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944. He said, in part:

“Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity … They will need Thy blessings … We know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph … Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom …

“And for us at home … help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice. Many people have urged that I call the Nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts …

“And, O Lord, give us Faith. Give us Faith in Thee … With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy … Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister Nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace … Thy will be done, Almighty God” (from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum).

Harry S. Truman succeeded to the presidency when FDR died on April 12, 1945, and led the nation to victory over the next several months. He afterward stated: “Now that we have preserved our freedom of conscience and religion, our right to live by a decent moral and spiritual code of our own choosing, let us make full use of that freedom … If men and nations would but live by the precepts of the ancient prophets and the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, problems which now seem so difficult would soon disappear” (quoted by Hewitt, pp. 357-358).

Post–World War II and the future

America won its greatest foreign war by the grace of the Great God of Heaven. What has happened since? Napoleon Bonaparte said, “The most dangerous moment comes with victory.” America received God’s help when it, along with its Allies, won World War II. Yet since World War II, the nation has become overconfident spiritually and has slid into a trough of immorality.

There have been a few high points of principled leadership since World War II. Ronald Reagan, president during the 1980s, was a visionary who looked to restore American greatness, especially through returning respect for God and morality to public life. And he stood for resisting the godless forces of international communism bent on world conquest.

What was part of the reason for President Reagan’s success? “Reagan was in fact a determined Christian, which he owed to his late mother … who taught her son that everything was part of God’s ‘Divine Plan.’ … The President took the Bible literally. Of Jesus, he wrote a friend, ‘Either he was what he said or he was the world’s greatest liar.’ He felt that but for his belief in God, he would be ‘scared to death.’ … Reagan also believed that the Messiah’s second coming would be preceded by Armageddon, the end of the world” (Beschloss, p. 285).

Indeed, a time of terrible trial and upheaval for the world is certainly coming—and, tragically, it will spell terrible consequences for the United States of America. For despite the high points, the overall trend has been an erosion of morality throughout the land and in the nation’s highest offices.

It was more than half a century ago that the following words were written: “We have become increasingly convinced that moral values are mere conventions … and changing with time” (Pitirim Sorokin, The American Sex Revolution, 1956, p. 145). While the slide has been going on for a long time, it is increasing in velocity now.

As things get worse, laws are ignored or modified to reflect public morality. This should not be! The moral laws of the Bible are intended for all men everywhere for all time. Jesus said, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17 John 17:17Sanctify them through your truth: your word is truth.
American King James Version×
). Truth does not change. That which God condemned as sin millennia ago is still sin, and sin brings consequences.

A nation cannot scoff at the biblical commands regarding morality or that nation will continue to decline. “There is no example of a community which has retained its high position on the cultural scale after less rigorous sexual customs have replaced more restrictive ones” (Sorokin, pp. 110-111).

What will be the price for America for casting the Bible and its values aside? Unbeknownst to most, this nation is descended from the ancient biblical nation of Israel. The ancient kingdom of Israel was crushed in the 700s B.C., its people carried away into captivity by the Assyrian Empire. Over time they lost their identity and eventually came to be known in history as “the lost 10 tribes.” Yet they were never truly lost, and through them God carries out His promises to Abraham (read the fascinating story in our free booklet The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy ).

Like its ancient ancestors, America will go into captivity too if it does not repent. The pages of history are strewn with the debris of fallen empires and nations. We will be no different if we do not wake up and repent.

America’s heritage of Christian morality does not give the nation a pass. Rather, it makes the nation even more accountable. Yet God promised that if a nation that practices evil turns from its wicked ways, He will relent from bringing punishment on it (Jeremiah 18:8 Jeremiah 18:8If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do to them.
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). Yet America’s leaders do not seem willing to make the needed changes—and the same is true for other nations of the world.

What should individuals do if their nation as a whole does not repent? Each one must personally take steps to examine his or her own life and commit it more fully to God. God says that He will judge every person according to his own ways and that those who repent will not suffer ruin (Ezekiel 18:30 Ezekiel 18:30Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, said the Lord GOD. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin.
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This promise is in your Bible! Will you personally give God and His Word the respect they are due?