Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, authors of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, discuss the limited presence of Jesus during the American Revolution.
In much recent historical literature about Jesus in America, the United States is depicted as a “Jesus nation,” speaking to the prominence of Christ as an infinitely malleable figure in America. Yet this was not necessarily true of the founding era. When Russian diplomat Pavel Svinin came to the new United States in the first years of the nineteenth century, he was amazed to find busts and images everywhere. In homes, in civic spaces, in businesses, he kept running into the same image. It wasn’t Jesus. It was George Washington. “It was noteworthy that every American considers it his sacred duty to have a likeness of Washington in his home,” Svinin explained, “just as we have images of God’s saints. . . . Washington’s portrait is the finest and sometimes the sole decoration of American homes.”
This was a telling observation. In the new United States, Americans had icons of Washington, but not of Jesus. Most had never viewed paintings or etchings of Christ. Their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had probably never seen a visual representation of God’s son. If they had, it was at most a small and crucified figure with few details. Churches remained without paintings, murals, stained-glass windows, or other visual imagery. The iconoclastic world the Puritans had made was still, in part, with Americans.
Throughout the colonies just prior to and during the American Revolution, fears abounded that the British were trying to “enslave” the colonists and lord tyrannical laws over them. In response, a cohort of colonists banded together, declared their independence, and set the world afire in a fight for independence. Jesus was part of the Revolution and formation of the United States, but not as much as one might expect. As a physical presence, he was almost completely absent. And in the language of law and legislation for the new republic, he was virtually as nonexistent. In comparison to how prominent Jesus would become in the United States of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Revolution and founding of the new nation were profoundly Christ-less.
The American Revolution was a momentous event, and Jesus was both part of and limited in the action. Anti-Catholic iconoclasm was brought into the political whirlwind of the 1760s and 1770s. Shortly after the Boston Tea Party, a Connecticut pastor declared that a Catholic conspiracy was behind the new British taxes and controls. If the British succeeded, disaster would strike. The colonists would have their Bibles taken from them, and they would be compelled to “pray to the Virgin Mary, worship images, [and] believe the doctrine of Purgatory, and the Pope’s infallibility.” There was no way the heirs of Puritanism would stand for such a thing.
Without doubt, Jesus was an important presence in the revolutionary age. After the Boston Massacre, one minister told his congregation that they should be willing to fill the “streets with blood” because their rights came not from Parliament, but from the “blood” of Christ. During the war itself, chaplains encouraged the troops to remember that it was “Christ Jesus, who came to give freedom to the world.”
To many of the founding fathers, as historian Stephen Prothero has shown, Jesus was “enlightened sage.” His moral teachings and selfless examples instructed Americans in a political code of how to make their new republican government survive and thrive.
Thomas Jefferson considered Christ’s moral message so profound (yet buried under centuries of church dogma) that he constructed his own gospel. He cut out the miraculous and supernatural stories of the New Testament and pieced together an ethical tale of Jesus. He thought he could have more of the true Jesus by having fewer of the stories presented in the Bible. Moreover, Jefferson kept this enterprise hidden. It was yet another of his many life secrets. The removal of passages and the clandestine nature of Jefferson’s Bible were emblematic of the nature of Jesus in the Revolution. Christ was limited, often at a distance, and even removable.
When it came to sacred forces, colonists seemed far more likely to consider the Antichrist working around them politically than Jesus. As the British tried in vain to tax and legislate the colonies, many Americans bristled that the Antichrist was now controlling not just Catholics but also Britain itself. The British opposition to colonial freedom became attached to the Antichrist. One pamphlet from 1777 determined that the numbers 666 were somehow in the Hebrew and Greek words for “Great Britain” and “Royal Supremacy,” while others associated the British with “the beast” and the “whore of Babylon.”
Christ was almost completely absent in the core founding documents and places of the United States. He was never alluded to in the Declaration of Independence. Tom Paine never mentioned Jesus in Common Sense, neither did the author of Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. Even the evangelical Patrick Henry failed to speak the name of Christ in his “Give Me Liberty” speech. Jesus made no appearance in the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution. John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison never invoked his name in their Federalist Papers. In the first twenty annual presidential addresses, neither George Washington, nor John Adams, nor Thomas Jefferson ever spoke the name Jesus or Christ. When the new American capital of Washington, D.C. emerged slowly from the marshes, moreover, Jesus was absent as a physical presence. There were no statues or paintings to him there.
When Americans did see Christ, they saw blinding light or fixated on the red blood of his torn body. The connection between whiteness and Christ had yet to be made, mass produced, and mass marketed. The story of how Jesus became an emblem of American and white supremacy was one for the nineteenth century. It too was one as fractured, conflicted, and torn as the nation itself would be in less than one hundred years. The birth of the white American Christ in the early nineteenth century was an advent that Americans have been glorifying and fighting with ever since.
Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey are authors of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. For videos, teaching materials, reader-submitted stories, and more, visit colorofchrist.com. You can be a fan on Facebook and follow the authors on Twitter @edwardjblum and @pharvey61.