More Newport

Katie Garland hard at work in her office space at the Newport Historical Society

It helps to have friends in high places.  My former student and trusted research assistant Katie Garland, a student in the University of Massachusetts Public History Program and currently interning at the Newport Historical Society in Rhode Island, has been writing some excellent blog posts on “How Christian an Understanding,” and event, sponsored by the Newport Historical Society, on the early history of religious freedom in Rhode Island and the nation.

In her post “What Was George Washington’s View on Abortion?” she reflects on some of my thoughts at the event.  Here is a taste:

Cracking a few jokes to open his portion of the program, John Fea listed a few questions which he has been asked about religion and history such as “What was George Washington’s view on abortion?” and  “Would Thomas Jefferson have voted for Barack Obama?”  While these may seem like silly questions, they remind us, in an extreme way, of the problems that we encounter when we do not think historically.  Fea suggested that the discipline of history is limited and we must be careful about jumping from the eighteenth century (or any other time in the past) to the present.  Abortion was not an issue in Washington’s time, and Jefferson never had an opportunity to vote for Obama, so we should not make leaps from their ideological commitments to our political controversies today.

In encouraging the audience to think historically about the past, Fea was referencing the Preface of his book, in which he admits that the titular question (Was America founded as a Christian nation?) is quite complicated.  In order to answer it, we must first decide on the definitions of “founded,” “Christian,” and “nation.”  Does “founding” refer to 1607 when Jamestown was settled, or 1620 when the Pilgrims arrived, or the American Revolution in the 1770s and 1780s?  Would a “Christian” nation write Christian doctrine into its founding documents or only allow Christians to participate in government?  Or does “Christian” refer to the beliefs of the founders or the people at large?  Did America become a nation in 1776 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, or 1789 with the ratification of the United States Constitution, or even later?  Does “nation” refer to the national government, the state governments, or the people themselves? Just as when we used the 5 Cs of historical thinking to understand Mary Dyer’s execution, thinking historically about this topic provides us with a number of questions to answer!

Thanks, Katie.  And here are some more pics from the event, compliments of the Rhode Island ACLU Facebook page:

Panelists included Daniel Cowdin (Salve Regina University), John Barry (author), and Michael Feldberg (George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom)

The event was held in the Great Quaker Meeting House in Newport

Ruth Taylor of the Newport Historical Society introduced the panel

2 thoughts on “More Newport

  1. For the record, Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction by John Fea, published February 23, 2011.

    November 21, 2010:

    Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?
    Forget about the answer—
    there are problems with the question
    by Tom Van Dyke

    Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?

    Lord knows our American Creation blog has spent so much cyberink about “Christian.” Do you have to buy into the whole deal, like Jesus is God, died for our sins? Many did, but not all, by any means.

    Do you have to go to Holy Communion, like George Washington mostly didn't? Many didn't, not even most.

    Or could you be a “Unitarian Christian,” like John and Abigail Adams [if not perhaps John Locke himself], and you still believed that the Bible was Divine Writ and Jesus was the Messiah, just not the Second Person of the Holy Trinity?

    And as they ask today of a sect that followed after the Second Great Awakening in the 1820s, Are Mormons Christian?

    God only knows.


    So let's move on, then—what is a “nation”?

    Its borders? Its government? The sum of its laws?

    Or is it something greater [or less]? Its people, its culture, its ethos? After all, France was still France whether under Louis XVI, the Directory, or Napoleon. [Or under Hitler or Sarkozy, for that matter. It was still France.]

    Which brings us to “Founded.” What the hell does that mean?

    Plymouth Rock? The ratification of our Godless Constitution? The Bill of Rights that came some months later, the promised payoff to the anti-Federalists?


    “America.” “Founded.” “Christian.” “Nation.”

    So little time, so many words.
    America, are you now or have you ever been founded as a Christian nation?

    AMERICA: Yes. No. Sort of. Can you rephrase the question?


Comments are closed.