New Course: Religion and the American Founding

I am currently working on the syllabus for “Religion and the American Founding” (HIS 399), a new upper-division history elective I will be teaching at Messiah College this spring. The course will focus on the question of whether or not the American founders set out to establish a Christian nation. I decided to teach this course at this time because I have been working on a book, tentatively titled, “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Primer for Christians,” which should appear in 2011 with Westminster/John Knox Press. The book will be targeted toward students, Christian ministers, laypersons, people of faith, and anyone else who continues to be confused by this topic. I am hoping that regular interaction with a group of 20 or so undergraduates from a variety of church traditions will help me think through exactly what I want to say in this book.

I have assigned the following texts for the course:

Nicholas Guyott, Providence and the Invention of the United States
Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory
David Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers
Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, The Search for Christian America
Mason Locke Weems, The Life of Washington
Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution

My VERY tentative outline looks something like this:

Week One: The Idea of a Christian Nation in American History
Reading : Guyott

Week Two: The Contemporary Defenders of Christian America
Reading: Marshall and Manuel; my chapter; and something by David Barton

Week Three: Defining our Terms: “Christian,” “Founded,” “Nation.”
Reading: Not sure yet.

Week Four: How to Think Historically
Reading: Chapter in Noll, et. al; chapter in Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts; and the introduction to Gordon Wood’s The Purpose of the Past.

Week Five: Did George Washington Pray at Valley Forge?
Reading: Weems

Week Six: The Religious Beliefs of the Major Founders: Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison
Reading: Holmes; Noll, Hatch, Marsden; and primary documents.

Week Seven: The Evangelical Founders: Witherspoon, Jay, Adams, Henry
Reading: Holmes; Noll, Hatch, Marsden; and primary documents

Week Eight: A Just War?
Reading: Noll, Hatch, Marsden; perhaps Jonathan Mayhew’s sermon on Romans 13; still searching for something else.

Week Nine: Nature’s God: Is the Declaration of Independence a Christian Document?
Reading: Still working on something suitable to go with the Declaration itself.

Week Ten: Religion and the Critical Period
Reading: Still working on something suitable. I will probably use some of the state Constitutions as primary documents.

Week Eleven: “A Godless Constitution?”
Reading: Kramnick and Moore

Week Twelve: Student paper presentations.

I do not begin the course until February 1st, so I still have time to get everything in order. If anyone out there has some suggestions for short readings–both of a primary or secondary nature–feel free to comment here or contact me off-line. Any suggestions would be helpful since this is the first time I have taught this course. Thanks.

Once I start teaching I will try to keep readers up to date on how things are going.


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