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Book Review: So Help Me God

I recently finished the book:

Church, F. Forrester. 2007. So help me God: the founding fathers and the first great battle over church and state. Orlando: Harcourt.

Before I say anything about the book’s narrative content, I want to stress that this is a very well documented book. Aside from consulting the collected writings of:

  • Abigail Adams
  • John Adams
  • Alexander Hamilton
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Dolley Madison
  • James Madison
  • James Madison
  • George Washington

Dr. Church has compiled a 17 page bibliography of primary and secondary sources. From this bibliography, Dr. Church documents his history with 43 pages of end-notes. So if you challenge his assertions while reading this 450 page book, read the associated endnotes, pull those sources and draw your own conclusions.

The plan of the book is simple enough. The story of church/state relations in the United States from 1789-1825 is told as a play in five acts. One Act for each of America’s five presidents. These would be George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe.

The book answers the burning question of whether the Founding Fathers intended the United States to be a secular country or a Christian nation with a resounding: YES! It depends on who you asked. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson would have given you very different answers. This outcome makes sense to me. We’re still fighting over the question now. It makes sense the question was first asked at the Founding.

Dr. Church does a good job of humanizing our first five Presidents and explores what is known of their faith and church going habits pretty thoroughly. He also points out some surprising facts about early US history and has the contemporary news clippings to prove it:

  • In the early Republic, much of the country considered July 4th to be a pagan festival that good Christians were obliged to avoid.
  • Wearing Red, White and Blue proved that your were a French influenced atheist and person of loose morals. Patriotic people, at least in New England, wore black.
  • Baptists were huge fans of separating Church and State. Episcopalians demanded state churches and public financing.
  • New Englanders considered the War of 1812 to be the judgment of God against an immoral nation. They were on the verge of seceding and joining “Christian” England when the Americans unexpectedly won.
  • Sunday worship services were held on the floor of the House of Representatives.
  • Clerical influenced newspapers treated Jefferson’s election even more harshly than Fox treated Obama’s election.

If you’re interested in navigating the twists and turns of religion in early America, I think you will find this book interesting and engaging. But you may leave it with more questions than answers.

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Just in case anyone out there is worried that I only read non-fiction, this past weekend I read Borders of Infinity by Lois McMasters Bujold. I love reading about Miles!

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