Review: Founding Sins

Timothy L. Wesley

Timothy L. Wesley is Assistant Professor of History at Austin Peay State University.

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Timothy L. Wesley, "Review: Founding Sins," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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Joseph S Moore. Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ into the Constitution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 232 pp. ISBN 9780190269241.

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In Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ into the Constitution, Joseph S. Moore traces the American rise and fall in prominence and importance of the Covenanters. Presbyterians with ties chiefly to Scotland, Covenanters were convinced that nations should be established entirely in covenant with God. Having governed Scotland in the middle of the seventeenth century as a part of a Presbyterian alliance, Covenanters experienced persecution after being defeated by Cromwell’s English Puritan forces. “By the end of 1651,” Moore writes, “Scotland was defenseless, and the Covenanter alliance was a mere puppet for parliamentary rule out of Westminster” (20). By the time the “Glorious Revolution” (1688) made Presbyterianism safe again, the Covenanters had grown too radical even for their fellow Presbyterians throughout the realm. Harassed in the Old World and hopeful that immigration might occasion the creation of a sustainable yet sanctified state of their own, Covenanters “crossed the Atlantic and became America’s other Puritans” (8).

Thus it was that the Covenanters were on hand to participate in the ideological contest (and chaos) that was America’s founding. Patriots during the Revolution, they nevertheless soon maligned the Constitution as an unholy writ mandating oaths, legitimizing slavery, and most damnably, ignoring Jesus Christ. Having denigrated the nation’s “godless” founders, Covenanters next “took up arms against the federal government in the Whiskey Rebellion” (2). As that participation and other similar turns in the book make clear, Covenanters relentlessly challenged the legitimacy of secular power in America, convinced that any such authority was invalid. Covenanters were for example among the most vociferous members of the abolitionist chorus, zealously conservative participants in one of America’s most liberal movements. Their religious and political descendants continued their critique of the profane American state throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and if one looks hard enough, twentieth centuries. But their numbers and influence as “America’s original religious right” dwindled sharply over time (157). In their unfailingly condemnatory tone toward both competing faith traditions and America itself, fundamentalist Covenanters ultimately and all but completely alienated fellow religious reformers and liberal secularists alike.

Founding Sins is in many ways an exemplary history book. Thoroughly researched and skillfully crafted, it rescues these important players in America’s religious and political past from near anonymity. In so doing, its author weighs into the heated historiographical debate over the Christian or secular origins of the nation, a debate that is more than merely academic in the current political climate. And while some may take exception to the author’s critical consideration of contemporary conservative heritage rhetoric later in the book, there is really nothing that is biased or otherwise controversial in Moore’s recounting of the Covenanters’ tale. There doesn’t need to be. By telling the story of a group of religious activists who longed to establish the nation upon Christian principles and who, after failing in that effort, spent long decades bemoaning the nation’s innate godlessness, Moore leaves the Covenanters themselves to answer the “so what” question. Always a nation with lots of Christians in it perhaps, America was plainly not founded as a Christian nation. And that was assuredly not because the Covenanters, America’s original Christian nationalists, didn’t try.