David Barton: America’s Religious Heritage as demonstrated in Presidential Inaugurations (part 1)


David Barton on Glenn Beck – Part 1 of 5

Uploaded by  on Apr 9, 2010

Wallbuilders’ Founder and President David Barton joins Glenn Beck on the Fox News Channel for the full hour to discuss our Godly heritage and how faith was the foundational principle upon which America was built.


David Barton did a great job with this article America’s Religious Heritage As Demonstrated in Presidential Inaugurations :

David Barton – 01/2009

America’s Religious Heritage

As Demonstrated in Presidential Inaugurations

Religious activities at presidential inaugurations have become the target of criticism in recent years, 1 with legal challenges being filed to halt activities as simple as inaugural prayers and the use of “so help me God” in the presidential oath. 2 These critics – evidently based on a deficient education – wrongly believe that the official governmental arena is to be aggressively secular and religion-free. The history of inaugurations provides some of the most authoritative proof of the fallacy of these modern arguments.

In fact, since America’s first inauguration in 1789 included seven distinct religious activities, that original inauguration is worthy of review. Every inauguration since 1789 has included numerous of those activities.

The First Inauguration

Constitutional experts abounded at America’s first inauguration. Not only was the first inauguree (George Washington) a signer of the Constitution but numerous drafters of the Constitution were serving in the Congress that organized and directed that first inauguration. In fact, just under one fourth of the members of the first Congress had been delegates to the Convention that wrote the Constitution. 3 Furthermore, the identical Congress that directed and oversaw these inaugural activities also penned the First Amendment. Having therefore produced both the Constitution and all of its clauses on religion, they clearly knew what types of religious activities were and were not constitutional. Clearly, then, the religious activities that occurred at the first inauguration may well be said to have the approval and imprimatur of the greatest collection of constitutional experts America has ever known. Therefore, a review of the religious activities acceptable in that first inauguration will provide guidance for citizens in general and critics in particular.

The first inauguration occurred in New York City. (New York City served as the nation’s capital for the first year of the new federal government; for the next ten, Philadelphia was the capital city; in 1800, the federal government moved to Washington, D. C. for its permanent home). George Washington had been at home at Mt. Vernon when Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, notified him that he had been unanimously elected as the nation’s first president.

On receiving this news, Washington departed from Mt. Vernon and began his trek toward New York City, stopping first at Fredericksburg, Virginia, to visit his mother, Mary¬ – the last time the two would see each other. Mary was eighty-two and suffering from incurable breast cancer. Mary parted with her son, giving him her blessings and offering him her prayers, telling him: “You will see me no more; my great age and the disease which is rapidly approaching my vitals, warn me that I shall not be long in this world. Go, George; fulfill the high destinies which Heaven appears to assign to you; go, my son, and may that Heaven’s and your mother’s blessing be with you always.” 4Washington did go, and he did indeed fulfill the high destinies assigned him by Heaven. A moving painting was made of her giving him her final charge; his mother passed away a few months after that final meeting.

Leaving his mother, Washington continued northward toward New York City. In town after town along the way, special dinners and celebrations were held – including in Alexandria, Georgetown, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Trenton, and other locations. Finally reaching Elizabethtown, New Jersey, Washington boarded a barge that carried him the rest of the way, where another celebration awaited him upon entering New York Harbor.

On April 30th, 1789, George Washington was to be inaugurated on the balcony outside Federal Hall. (Federal Hall was originally named Old Hall, but New York City – in an effort to convince the new federal government that the City was serious about becoming the national capital – remodeled the structure, renaming it Federal Hall. The House and Senate met in two chambers inside that Hall, and the inauguration took place on the remodeled building’s balcony.) Incidentally, religious activities had been planned to precede the inauguration, with the people of New York City being called to a time of prayer. The papers in the Capital City reported on that scheduled activity:

[O]n the morning of the day on which our illustrious President will be invested with his office, the bells will ring at nine o’clock, when the people may go up to the house of God and in a solemn manner commit the new government, with its important train of consequences, to the holy protection and blessing of the Most high. An early hour is prudently fixed for this peculiar act of devotion and . . . is designed wholly for prayer. 5

The preparations for the inauguration had been extensive; everything had been well planned; the event seemed to be proceeding smoothly. The parade carrying Washington by horse-drawn carriage to the swearing-in was nearing Federal Hall when it was realized that no Bible had been obtained for administering the oath. Parade Marshal Jacob Morton hurried to the nearby Masonic Lodge and grabbed its large 1767 King James Bible.

The Bible was laid upon a crimson velvet cushion (held by Samuel Otis, Secretary of the Senate) and, with a huge crowd gathered below watching the ceremony on the balcony, New York Chancellor Robert Livingston was to administer the oath of office. (Robert Livingston had been one of the five Founders who had drafted the Declaration of Independence; however, he was called back to New York to help his State through the Revolution before he could affix his signature to the very document he had helped write. As Chancellor, Livingston was the highest ranking judicial official in New York.) Beside Livingston and Washington stood several distinguished officials, including Vice President John Adams, original Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay, Generals Henry Knox and Philip Schuyler, and a number of others. The Bible was opened at random to the latter part of Genesis; Washington placed his left hand upon the open Bible, raised his right, and then took the oath of office prescribed by the Constitution. Washington then bent over and kissed the Bible, reverently closed his eyes, and said, “So help me God!” Chancellor Livingston then proclaimed, “It is done!” Turning to the crowd assembled below, he shouted, “Long live George Washington – the first President of the United States!” That shout was echoed and re-echoed by the crowd below.

Critics today claim that George Washington never added “So help me God!” to his oath 6 – that associating religious intent with the oath is of recent origins. After all, the presidential oath of office as prescribed in Article II of the Constitution simply states:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

But overlooked by many today is the fact that the Framers of our government considered an oath to be inherently religious – something George Washington affirmed when he appended the phrase “So help me God” to the end of the oath. In fact, it was universally acknowledged by every American legal scholar of that day that any legally-binding oath was overtly religious in nature. As signer of the Declaration John Witherspoon succinctly explained:

An oath is an appeal to God, the Searcher of Hearts, for the truth of what we say and always expresses or supposes an imprecation [a calling down] of His judgment upon us if we prevaricate [lie]. An oath, therefore, implies a belief in God and His Providence and indeed is an act of worship. . . . Persons entering on public offices are also often obliged to make oath that they will faithfully execute their trust. . . . In vows, there is no party but God and the person himself who makes the vow. 7  

1. A number of legal authorities, university professors, and news writers have criticized inaugural religious activities. See, for example, Alan M. Dershowitz, “Bush Starts Off by Defying the Constitution,” Los Angeles Times, Wednesday, January 24, 2001 Metro section, Part B, p. 9; Larry Judkins, Religion Page Editor, Sacramento Valley Mirror, “Dershowitz Piece Misleading: All Presidents Flaunt Constitution,” in Positive Atheism Magazine, Thursday, January 25, 2001 (at: http://www.positiveatheism.org); “President Bush Announces Religious Agenda on Inauguration Day,” Americans United for Separation of Church and State, January 20, 2001 (at:http://www.au.org/site/News2?abbr=pr&page=NewsArticle&id=6095); et. Al.(Return)

2. Noted atheist Michael Newdow filed suit in federal court to have prayers barred from the Presidential Inauguration of 2001, 2005, and in 2009 to have inaugural prayers halted and to prevent the Chief-Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court from saying “So help me God” when administering the oath of office to the president. (Return)

3. Significantly, many of the U. S. Senators at the first Inauguration had been delegates to the Constitutional Convention that framed the Constitution including William Samuel Johnson, Oliver Ellsworth, George Read, Richard Bassett, William Few, Caleb Strong, John Langdon, William Paterson, Robert Morris, and Pierce Butler; and many members of the House had been delegates to the Constitutional Convention, including Roger Sherman, Abraham Baldwin, Daniel Carroll, Elbridge Gerry, Nicholas Gilman, Hugh Williamson, George Clymer, Thomas Fitzsimmons, and James Madison.(Return)

4. Benson J. Lossing, Our Country: A Household History for All Readers (New York: Henry J. Johnson, 1877), Vol. IV, p. 1121. (Return)

5. The Daily Advertiser, New York, Thursday, April 23, 1789, p. 2. (Return)

6. See, for example, Newdow v. Roberts, complaint filed by Newdow on December 29, 2008, pp. 20-21, par. 103-104 of the complaint. See also Cathy Lynn Grossman, “No proof Washington said ‘so help me God’ – will Obama,”USA Today, January 9, 2009 (at:http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2009-01-07-washington-oath_N.htm). (Return)

7. John Witherspoon, The Works of John Witherspoon (Edinburgh: J. Ogle, 1815), Vol. VII, pp. 139-140, 142, from his “Lectures on Moral Philosophy,” Lecture 16 on Oaths and Vows. (Return)



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