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Retro Essay: Declaring the United States a “Christian Nation” does not make it one

Retro Essay: Declaring the United States a “Christian Nation” does not make it one

In January 1886, the Seventh-day Adventist Church published the first edition  of The American Sentinel with the motto, “Corrupted freemen are the worst of slaves.” Edited by Alonzo Trevier Jones, the issue focused on the subject of whether the United States could be made a truly “Christian nation” through an amendment to the U.S.Constitution that had been proposed by the National Reform Association. Jones, a dedicated Christian himself, was vehemently against the concept. He wrote the following, citing heavily from a satirical piece in the N.Y. Independent, a weekly newsmagazine that focused on religious issues. We are reprinting the American Sentinel piece here because it is still timely 130 years later.


“A Christian Nation.”

By A.T. Jones

There is no such thing as a Christian nation on earth. The queen of England is the head of the church, and the Government supports the church. But the recent revelations of iniquity in high places in London leads us to think it might appropriately be named “the great city which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt.” Rev. 11 : 8. Only a very small proportion of any nation is truly Christian. The ” National Reform Association ” says that this is a Christian nation, and therefore we must have a religious amendment of the Constitution that we may properly represent ourselves to the world. They also say that nothing will make us a Christian nation but such an amendment. The N. Y. Independent, in January 1875, thus pointedly exposed their inconsistency:

“This being a Christian nation, we have a right to acknowledge God in the Constitution; because, as things are now, this is not a Christian nation, and needs such recognition to make it one.

“This having always been a Christian nation, we have a right to keep it such; and, therefore, we need this Amendment, since hitherto, without it, we have only been a heathen nation.

“In other words; we need to make this a Christian nation because we are already such; on the ground that if we do not make it such we are not a Christian nation.

“Because the people are substantially all Christians we have a right and have need to make the Constitution Christian, to check our powerful element of unbelievers.

“We mean to interfere with no man’s rights, but only to get certain rights, now belonging to all, restricted to Christians.

“This Religious Amendment is to have no practical effect, its object being to check infidelity.

“It is to interfere with no man’s rights, but only to make the unbeliever concede to Christians the right to rule in their interest, and to give up like claims for himself.

“It is meant to have no practical effect; and therefore, will be of great use to us.

“We want to recognize God, and Christianity as our national duty to Deity; but intend to give no effect to such recognition—pleasing God by judicially voting ourselves pious and doing nothing more.

“We shall leave all religions in equality before the law, and make Christianity the adopted religion of the nation.

“Christianity, being justice, requires us to put down infidelity by taking advantage of our numbers to secure rights which we do not allow to others.

“Justice to Christians is one thing, and to infidels another.

“We being a Christian people, the Jewish and unbelieving portion of our people are not, of right, part of the people.

“And so, having no rights which we, as Christians, are bound to respect, we must adopt this Amendment in our interest.

“Passing this act will not make any to be Christians who are not Christians, but it is needed to make this a more Christian nation.

“The people are not to be made more Christian by it; but, since the nation cannot he Christian unless the people are, it is meant to make the nation Christian without affecting the people.

“That is, the object of this Amendment is to make the nation Christian without making the people Christians.

“By putting God in the Constitution he will be recognized by nobody else than those who already recognize him; and, therefore; we need the amendment for a fuller recognition of him.

“If we say we believe in God and Christ in the Constitution, it is true of those believing in him and a lie as to the rest; and, as the first class already recognize him, we want this Amendment as a recognition by the latter class, so that our whole people shall recognize him.

“Whether we have an acknowledgment of God in the Constitution or not, we are a Christian nation; and, therefore, it is this recognition of God that is to make us a Christian nation.

“Dr. A. M. MILLIGAN was one of the main spokes in the National Reform wheel. He died not long since, and, in writing of him afterward, Mr. M. A. Gault, a secretary and one of the chief speakers of the National Reform Party, said:—

“I heard him once remark that he was mainly indebted to his theological professor, Dr. James R. Wilson, for his inspiration on National Reform. I can say that I received my inspiration on that subject from Dr. A. M. Milligan.

We think that this is just the correct statement of the scheme of National Reform inspiration. We are satisfied that that is the exact size of the channel along which the stream of National Reform inspiration flows. And we are sure that the religio-political aspirations of ambitious clerics is the highest point to which the source of National Reform inspiration can ever be traced.  A. T. J.

About Greg Hamilton

Greg Hamilton
Gregory W. Hamilton has served as President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA) for 19 years. His graduate work at the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Constitutional Studies at Baylor University culminated in the work titled "Sandra Day O'Connor's Judicial Philosophy on the Role of Religion in Public Life," which remains an original work of scholarship. The Northwest Religious Liberty Association is a nonpartisan government relations, and workplace mediation, program that champions religious freedom and human rights in the legislative, judicial, civic, academic, interfaith, ecumenical and corporate arenas, and is recognized as the premier religious liberty advocacy organization in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Greg’s abiding interest in U.S. foreign policy—specifically in U.S. international religious freedom policy—has led him to appreciate, as a pastor, how religion is a key component toward prophetically understanding how the world’s religious and political leaders seek to use religion to resolve major conflicts and bring about world peace.