The following words, commonly attributed to social critic Alexis de Tocqueville (although historians question the accuracy of their source), have been incalculably influential on American history, quoted by presidents as ideologically opposed as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

“I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there,” the “Democracy in America” author allegedly wrote. “I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her fertile fields and boundless forests, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her rich mines and her vast world commerce, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her public school system and her institutions of learning, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution, and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”

Although these words cannot actually be traced back to Tocqueville, the observation is nevertheless true.

America was founded on the idea—the firm conviction—that humility before the great God of the Bible was absolutely indispensable. America’s Founders’ counted on the righteousness of the people in order for government of, by, and for the people to work.

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From the Pilgrims to Abraham Lincoln and beyond, this idea is clearly seen. It permeates early American speeches, writings, and governing documents. In times past, our leaders regularly urged the American people to declare their “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.” And for decades, it worked.

As Abraham Lincoln observed, the American experiment succeeded, not by “some superior wisdom and virtue of our own,” but because God blessed it.

In this series, we will examine several examples of how our forebears declared their dependence on God, beginning with the Pilgrims.

“Actuated by an Ardent Zeal for the Glory of God”

The Puritans, of course, came to America in pursuit of liberty, the freedom to worship God as they saw fit. And because of their dire situation, they were totally dependent on Him.

This idea is openly expressed in the Mayflower Compact, one of the earliest governing documents in American history. In that less than 200-word document, we read the phrases: “In the name of God”; “by the grace of God”; “for the glory of God”; and “in the presence of God.” Furthermore, they expressed interest in the “advancement of the Christian Faith.”

Years later, in a Pilgrim sermon preached to commemorate the anniversary of their arrival at Plymouth, Revered Chandler Robbins taught that the “great end of [man’s] being” is to “contemplate the being and the works of God” “until lost in wonder, we shall be ready to exclaim, ‘Great and marvelous are thy works, Lord God Almighty, just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints!’”

The text for his sermon came from Psalms 77:11-12—“I will remember the works of the Lord; surely I will remember thy wonders of old. I will meditate also of all thy work, and talk of thy doings.” He used the passage to argue that Americans had a duty to remember how God had intervened on behalf of their ancestors, particularly the Puritan settlers.

Ultimately, he summed up the main thrust behind everything the Pilgrims did in coming to the New World when he said: “the first settlers of this country… were actuated not by worldly motives, but by… an ardent zeal for the glory of God.”

It was upon this foundation that the greatest nation in the history of the world would soon be built.

Our American Heritage

We, today, are the fortunate beneficiaries of this great inheritance. As we shall see throughout this series, our ancestors believed we would only be great as a nation for as long as we recognized the superior greatness of God and humbly sought His assistance.

If ever we forgot, as Benjamin Franklin put it, “that powerful friend,” they warned that our national greatness would be undermined. Therefore, it behooves us to revisit our heritage and call to mind all that made us great in the first place.

Jakob Fay is a staff writer for the Convention of States Project, a project of Citizens for Self-Governance.

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