Joseph Moore is Assistant Professor of History at Gardner-Webb University. This interview is based on his new book, Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ into the Constitution (Oxford University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Founding Sins?
JM: Founding Sins was supposed to focus on the antebellum South, but somehow became about the Atlantic World and America’s long religious history. I originally tried to write a dissertation about anti-slavery South Carolinians. The problem was obvious- there weren’t many! In the archives at Duke I discovered sermons from these odd backcountry Presbyterians called ARPs. I found a speech given publicly in 1840 condemning slavery and suggesting colonization as a moderate form of abolition. I figured these Presbyterians didn’t fit into mainstream narratives, so I started tracing their story backward to Revolutionary Pennsylvania, New York, and Vermont. Before I knew it I was tracing their backstory in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Founding Sins?
JM: The United States was not founded as a Christian nation because Jesus was not in the Constitution but slavery was- that was the Covenanters very long argument with America. My argument in the book is that by remembering their story we learn that America’s first religious right disagreed with Christian nationalists today and showed the modern religious right just how far it could push Christian America rhetoric, and what other Americans would not tolerate.
JF: Why do we need to read Founding Sins?
JM: John Fea rightly said that the Christian America debate is so complex because there isn’t agreement on what we mean by “Christian,” “founding” and “nation.” I think historians and commentators have explored the first two, but Covenanters were fervently concerned with the third. What does it mean to be a nation? According to the Covenanters, a nation was its documents. It was, in essence, what it said it was. In the Constitution, the nation became the first major western political state not to base law on God’s authority. Law was based in “We the People.” The Covenanters’ argument was well known in early America, but in the 20th century it got forgotten and left behind. We need to hear it again to understand what people were saying about a Christian America in the founding era.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JM: Probably when my grandparents took me to a Revolutionary War reenactment in Camden, SC but that was only because they let me hold the musket.
JF: What is your next project?
JM: I am currently working on two projects at once. The first explores the history of anti-slavery southerners more broadly and in a broad Atlantic World framework. The second explores religion and financial literacy in Early America.
JF: Thanks, Joseph!