Sailing for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Christopher Columbus reached America in the Bahamas on Friday, October 12, 1492. Columbus and his men knelt down and gave thanks to God for their safe voyage and claimed the island a Spanish possession. He christened the island San Salvador – Holy Savior. Curious and friendly natives came out to meet them. As he thought he had reached India, Columbus named the inhabitants Indians, a name which has remained with Native Americans to this day.
Juan Ponce de León, who had sailed with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493, was the first known European to explore the North American mainland in search of the Fountain of Youth. He sailed from Puerto Rico, where he had served as governor, and landed near Cape Canaveral on Easter weekend April 2, 1513. He named the land La Florida in honor of Pascua Florida, the Spanish Feast of Flowers at Easter time. He claimed Florida as a Spanish possession. It would be over fifty years and six explorations before the first permanent settlement in 1565 would take place!
The newly-designated Spanish Governor Pedro Menéndez de Avilés sailed on the San Pelayo and upon reaching Florida named the first permanent settlement St. Augustine. That same day the first Mass of Thanksgiving was celebrated with the Timucuan Indians in attendance on September 8, 1565. The first Catholic Church was built there at the site called Nombre de Dios or the Name of God.
One of the first actions of colonists from England to our American shores was to establish Churches, such as the Congregationalist Church of Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, the Episcopal Church of Jamestown, Virginia in 1639, and the Catholic Chapel in St. Mary’s City, Maryland in 1667. Early houses of worship were often held in a pastor’s home, such as Roger Williams, who founded the First Baptist Church of America in Providence, Rhode Island in 1638.
The early writings of the English colonists clearly indicate the Christian heritage of our country. Four of the original thirteen Colonies in America were primarily established for religious freedom, to escape religious persecution in England. William Bradford and the Pilgrims composed the Mayflower Compact just before they landed at Plymouth in 1620. In a speech with reference to Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14), John Winthrop, the first Governor of Massachusetts, delivered the sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, to the Puritan Protestants on the way to Massachusetts in 1629. He urged the Puritans to be good examples, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” Catholics under Lord Baltimore received a Charter in 1632, and his younger son Leonard Calvert sailed on the Ark and Dove, arriving on March 25, 1634 in Maryland. The Maryland General Assembly passed the historic Toleration Act of Maryland in 1649, to promote religious harmony among Catholics and Protestants and for toleration of Christian religions. In addition to founding the First Baptist Church in Providence, Rhode Island in 1638, Roger Williams wrote his famous book in defense of religious tolerance, The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, in 1644. King Charles II granted the Quaker William Penn an extensive proprietary Charter in America on March 4, 1681. Penn and the King together decided to name his new colony Pennsylvania in memory of Penn’s father. William Penn arrived on the Welcome in the Fall of 1682 and soon founded Philadelphia.
United We Stand, Divided We Fall
Jesus in Mark 3:25 has often been quoted in American history as a rallying cry for unity – “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” John Dickinson referred to the phrase during the Revolutionary War in his Liberty Song of 1768, as well as Abraham Lincoln in 1858 on the eve of the Civil War during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. This gave rise to the popular expression “United we stand, divided we fall.”
The final writings from the Second Continental Congress during the War for American Independence, in addition to revealing the deep religious convictions of our Founding Fathers, show a subtle but definite progression of thought from conciliation with Britain towards independence. Congress called for two National Days of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer, on July 20, 1775 and May 17, 1776; these two days were the origin of our yearly National Day of Prayer.
The July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence asserted the natural dignity of the human person, that God has given man certain inalienable rights, among them Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. The idea of human dignity, that we are created in the image of God, forms the theological basis for human equality and liberty. The Declaration of Independence serves as the perfect philosophical expression of our Biblical heritage and establishes the core principles of our Nation, the United States of America. Christian culture is also evident in the first National Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of the Second Continental Congress in 1777.
In his November 19, 1863 Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln declared that “this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom.” The belief and expression “Nation under God” in the Gettysburg Address became part of our Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America.
It was left to the unlikely figure of President Lincoln to recognize the Christian culture of our Nation. In his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, President Lincoln remarked near the close of the Civil War: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” President Lincoln saw the Civil War as a Divine judgement upon our Nation for slavery, for “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword … ‘for the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether'” (Psalm 19:9). But in a magnanimous gesture, he appealed for “malice toward none, with charity for all … to bind the nation’s wounds.”
Recognized in both the War of American Independence and the War of 1812, it took the Civil War for the USA to again recognize God in public. The first circulating currency to bear the phrase In God We Trust was the two-cent coin of 1864. George T. Morgan designed the beautiful Liberty Silver Dollar series, produced from 1878 through 1904 and again in 1921; it was the first complete silver dollar set to include the inscription. Since that time, the inscription In God We Trust has appeared on nearly all of our coins and dollar bills. In God We Trust was formally established as the national motto of the United States of America on July 30, 1956 under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Religious freedom in the formation of our Republic has created a nation that today is greater than 75% Christian in a pluralistic society. To this day, the President takes the oath of office on the Bible and concludes “So help me God.” We still sing The Star-Spangled Banner and God Bless America at baseball games! Maintaining our faith and trust in God is important to the future of our children and grandchildren.
Our Christian Heritage
Author: Jesus Christ Savior
Our anonymous author is a physician and a Masters graduate in Theology and Christian Ministry from Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio. He teaches Sunday Bible Class at St. James Catholic Church and serves both Pastoral Care and the Medical Staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital.