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American Gospel
Cover of American Gospel
American Gospel
God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation
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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
  • Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham reveals how the Founding Fathers viewed faith—and how they ultimately created a nation in which belief in God is a matter of choice.
    At a time when our country seems divided by extremism, American Gospel draws on the past to offer a new perspective. Meacham re-creates the fascinating history of a nation grappling with religion and politics–from John Winthrop's "city on a hill" sermon to Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence; from the Revolution to the Civil War; from a proposed nineteenth-century Christian Amendment to the Constitution to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s call for civil rights; from George Washington to Ronald Reagan.
    Debates about religion and politics are often more divisive than illuminating. Secularists point to a "wall of separation between church and state," while many conservatives act as though the Founding Fathers were apostles in knee britches. As Meacham shows in this brisk narrative, neither extreme has it right. At the heart of the American experiment lies the God of what Benjamin Franklin called "public religion," a God who invests all human beings with inalienable rights while protecting private religion from government interference. It is a great American balancing act, and it has served us well.
    Meacham has written and spoken extensively about religion and politics, and he brings historical authority and a sense of hope to the issue. American Gospel makes it compellingly clear that the nation's best chance of summoning what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" lies in recovering the spirit and sense of the Founding. In looking back, we may find the light to lead us forward.
    Praise for American Gospel
    "In his American Gospel, Jon Meacham provides a refreshingly clear, balanced, and wise historical portrait of religion and American politics at exactly the moment when such fairness and understanding are much needed. Anyone who doubts the relevance of history to our own time has only to read this exceptional book."—David McCullough, author of 1776
    "Jon Meacham has given us an insightful and eloquent account of the spiritual foundation of the early days of the American republic. It is especially instructive reading at a time when the nation is at once engaged in and deeply divided on the question of religion and its place in public life."—Tom Brokaw, author of The Greatest Generation
  • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
  • Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham reveals how the Founding Fathers viewed faith—and how they ultimately created a nation in which belief in God is a matter of choice.
    At a time when our country seems divided by extremism, American Gospel draws on the past to offer a new perspective. Meacham re-creates the fascinating history of a nation grappling with religion and politics–from John Winthrop's "city on a hill" sermon to Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence; from the Revolution to the Civil War; from a proposed nineteenth-century Christian Amendment to the Constitution to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s call for civil rights; from George Washington to Ronald Reagan.
    Debates about religion and politics are often more divisive than illuminating. Secularists point to a "wall of separation between church and state," while many conservatives act as though the Founding Fathers were apostles in knee britches. As Meacham shows in this brisk narrative, neither extreme has it right. At the heart of the American experiment lies the God of what Benjamin Franklin called "public religion," a God who invests all human beings with inalienable rights while protecting private religion from government interference. It is a great American balancing act, and it has served us well.
    Meacham has written and spoken extensively about religion and politics, and he brings historical authority and a sense of hope to the issue. American Gospel makes it compellingly clear that the nation's best chance of summoning what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" lies in recovering the spirit and sense of the Founding. In looking back, we may find the light to lead us forward.
    Praise for American Gospel
    "In his American Gospel, Jon Meacham provides a refreshingly clear, balanced, and wise historical portrait of religion and American politics at exactly the moment when such fairness and understanding are much needed. Anyone who doubts the relevance of history to our own time has only to read this exceptional book."—David McCullough, author of 1776
    "Jon Meacham has given us an insightful and eloquent account of the spiritual foundation of the early days of the American republic. It is especially instructive reading at a time when the nation is at once engaged in and deeply divided on the question of religion and its place in public life."—Tom Brokaw, author of The Greatest Generation
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    Excerpts-
    • From the book I. GOD AND MAMMON

      FORTUNE, FEAR, AND THE FIRST COLONIES


      For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
      —JOHN WINTHROP, "A MODEL OF CHRISTIAN CHARITY," 1630

      No man...can be so stupid to deny that all men naturally were born free, being the image and resemblance of God himself.
      —JOHN MILTON, "THE TENURE OF KINGS AND MAGISTRATES," 1649

      America as we like to think of it had nearly ended before it began. In the North Atlantic in the autumn of 1620, the passengers aboard the Mayflower—102 English Puritans seeking religious freedom, new lands, and better livelihoods—found themselves in the midst of a storm at sea. As the crew struggled to save the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, as William Bradford called them, thought they were going to die.

      When the ship finally came within sight of Cape Cod after sixty-five days, wrote Bradford, "they were not a little joyful," and when at last they reached land, "they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof."

      Bradford and his company saw the hand of God in their journey, the God of Israel who had, in the Christian worldview, redeemed the sins of the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his account of the voyage and of the founding of Plymouth, Bradford suggested his own generation's epitaph: "May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: 'Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and he heard their voice.'"

      God's kindness might be boundless, but the Pilgrims' kindness had its limits. En route, one of the hired sailors—a "proud and very profane young man, one of the seamen, of a lusty, able body"—was difficult, sneering at seasick passengers, cursing and swearing. Bullying and unsettling, the man frightened the Pilgrims so much that Bradford was not unhappy to see him dead. "But it pleased God...to smite this young man with a grievous disease, of which he died in a desperate manner, and so was himself the first that was thrown overboard." It is not exactly Christian to see the death of a man, however filthy-mouthed, as "a special work of God's providence," to use Bradford's words, but contradiction between profession and practice, between the dictates of faith and man's darker impulses, was to be an enduring theme in the history of the nation the Pilgrims were helping to found.

      A decade later, John Winthrop would urge another company of Puritans to think of the New World as "a city upon a hill," a source of light to all the world. Shine it would, but it has also long been a place of shadows—of persecution, of slavery, of poverty. Still, with courage and with conviction, the settlers fought on. "So they committed themselves to the will of God," said Bradford of the Mayflower's Pilgrims, "and resolved to proceed."

      As it was in the beginning, so it has been since. Succeeding generations of Americans have moved through war and hardship, believing themselves committed to, and frequently alluding to, God, a supernatural force who created the world and remains interested in—and engaged with—history. The common story of America from the Pilgrims onward is a powerful one; it draws on some of the most vivid and...
    About the Author-
    • Jon Meacham is a Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer. The author of the New York Times bestsellers Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, Franklin and Winston, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, and The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, he is a distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University, a contributing writer for The New York Times Book Review, and a fellow of the Society of American Historians. Meacham lives in Nashville and in Sewanee with his wife and children.
    Reviews-
    • Publisher's Weekly

      April 3, 2006
      Historian and Newsweek editor Meacham's third book examines over 200 years of American history in its quest to prove the idea of religious tolerance, along with the separation of church and state, is "perhaps the most brilliant American success." Meacham's principal focus is on the founding fathers, and his insights into the religious leanings of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and Co. present a new way of considering the government they created. So it is that the religious right's attempts to reshape the Constitution and Declaration of Independence into advocating a state religion of Christianity are at odds with the spirit of religious freedom ("Our minds and hearts, as Jefferson wrote, are free to believe everything or nothing at all-and it is our duty to protect and perpetuate this sacred culture of freedom"). Meacham also argues for the presence of a public religion, as exemplified by the national motto, "In God We Trust," and other religious statements that can be found on currency, in governmental papers and in politicians' speeches. Subsequent chapters consider a wartime FDR and a Reagan who grew increasingly enamored of Armageddon. All are well-written, but none reach the immediacy and vigor of the chapters on the nation's birth. Two extensive appendices reprint early government documents and each president's inaugural bible verses. Meacham's remarkable grasp of the intricacies and achievements of a nascent nation is well worth the cover price, though his consideration of Reagan feels like that of an apologist.

    • David McCullough, author of 1776 "In his American Gospel, Jon Meacham provides a refreshingly clear, balanced, and wise historical portrait of religion and American politics at exactly the moment when such fairness and understanding are much needed. Anyone who doubts the relevance of history to our own time has only to read this exceptional book."
    • Tom Brokaw, author of The Greatest Generation "Jon Meacham has given us an insightful and eloquent account of the spiritual foundation of the early days of the American republic. It is especially instructive reading at a time when the nation is at once engaged in and deeply divided on the question of religion and its place in public life."
    • Elaine Pagels, professor of religion, Princeton University, author of Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas "An absorbing narrative full of vivid characters and fresh thinking, American Gospel tells how the Founding Fathers--and their successors--struggled with their own religious and political convictions to work out the basic structure for freedom of religion. For me this book was nonstop reading."
    • Michael Beschloss, author of The Conquerors "Jon Meacham is one of our country's most brilliant thinkers about religion's impact on American society. In this scintillating and provocative book, Meacham reveals the often-hidden influence of religious belief on the Founding Fathers and on later generations of American citizens and leaders up to our own. Today, as we argue more strenuously than ever about the proper place of religion in our politics and the rest of American life, Meacham's important book should serve as the touchstone of the debate."
    • Jonathan D. Sarna, Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, Brandeis University, author of American Judaism: A History "At a time when faith and freedom seem increasingly polarized, American Gospel recovers our vital center--the middle ground where, historically, religion and public life strike a delicate balance. Well researched, well written, inspiring, and persuasive, this is a welcome addition to the literature."
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