By Dr. Rick Chromey
One night a stranger sought refuge in a rural tavern.
The hungry, unkempt visitor was exhausted from his travel. He longed for solitude, but soon found he had interrupted a debate regarding the “merits of the Christian religion.” In a long, contentious argument, several young men discussed Scriptural truth, Christ’s divinity, and God’s nature. The weary outsider remained silent.
“Well, my old gentleman,” someone yelled to him, “what do you think?”
The tired old man could no longer ignore the contest. As he rose to speak, every eye turned. For the next hour, he lectured the bawdy tavern crowd into stunned silence as he systematically and rationally destroyed every irreligious argument they presented.
Who was this slovenly man who spoke so eloquently in defense of Jesus?
Finally someone dared to ask.
“My name is John Marshall,” the stranger answered, “Chief Justice of the United States.” 1
John Marshall was born in Germantown, Va. in 1755. During the Revolutionary War, he served under George Washington and near its end, left the military to practice law. Eventually Marshall served in the Virginia House of Delegates and the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1800, John Adams appointed him Secretary of State and a year later to the U.S. Supreme Court.
As chief justice, Marshall worked under six different presidents for 34 years – the longest tenure in U.S. history. He authored over a thousand legal decisions to frame America’s constitutional identity. Most notably was Marbury vs. Madison (1803) that forged the principle of judicial review, allowing courts to “review” and rule against unconstitutional federal and state laws. Marshall’s Court ruled against Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act (1830) that relocated 46,000 Indians to the West so Southern slavery could expand on the vast acreage left behind.
In matters of religion, John Marshall proved enigmatic. For most of his life he preferred Unitarian Christianity yet attended Episcopal services. He refused church membership yet considered himself “a sincere friend of religion.” 2 Marshall was a product of the First Great Awakening.
It’s why Marshall endorsed Rev. Jasper Adams’ sermon pamphlet titled The Relation of Christianity to Civil Government in the United States (1833). 3 Marshall penned a surprising observation: “The American population is entirely Christian. It would be strange, indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity.” 4
In early 1835, another clergyman named Alexander Keith deeply influenced Marshall. His work Evidence of the Truth of the Christian Religion persuaded the aging judge to finally abandon his Unitarian position.5
Shortly thereafter, Marshall traveled to Philadelphia for medical care. Unfortunately, his health worsened, and he died July 6, 1835. Two days later, his funeral was held, where he was eulogized for integrity, intelligence, charity and faith.
Across the city of Philadelphia, bells rang to honor the storied judge, including the famed Liberty Bell. She was first rung on the same day 59 years earlier (July 8, 1776) to invite a public reading of the Declaration of Independence.
According to legend, it was John Marshall’s funeral that cracked the bell named “Liberty.”
His death signaled the end of the Founding Father generation.
After 1835, a new generation of Americans emerged that couldn’t recall the American Revolution. They also faced new American problems like slavery, the Civil War, immigration, Indian relations, and westward expansion.
For nearly a century, two “great” Christian revivals or “awakenings” – the First Great Awakening (1730-1770) and the Second Great Awakening (1795-1835) – had tattooed the psyche of a young nation. In 1831, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed:
“Upon my arrival in the United States the religious aspect … was the first thing that struck my attention. . . In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country…” 6
Early America was a distinctly Christian culture. But change was coming (thanks to a secular French Revoluion). The first fissures in the Liberty Bell surfaced in 1835. The same year John Marshall died and the Second Great Awakening ended.
Similarly, by 1835, French secularism found root in a Christian nation.
Two decades later, this secular minority population flexed its muscle. Enough that Congress commissioned a committee to investigate America’s founding to answer the “Christian nation” question. Their final judgment:
“Had the people, during the Revolution, had a suspicion of any attempt to war against Christianity, that Revolution would have been strangled in its cradle… In this age, there can be no substitute for Christianity… That was the religion of the founders of the republic and they expected it to remain the religion of their descendants.” 7
In 1835, with John Marshall’s death, a secular “crack” in America first appeared.
The Christian America of our Founding Fathers was history.
“Liberty” would never ring the same again.
1 Albert J. Beveridge, The Life of John Marshall, Volume 4, The Building of the Nation, 1815-1835 (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916): 70-71. Available for download at Google books.
2 Ibid., 69.
3 The Relation of Christianity to Civil Government in the United States: A Sermon Preached in St. Michael’s Church, Charleston, February 19, 1833, by Rev. J. Adams (Charleston: A.E. Miller Publisher), 1833. Available for download at Google books.
4 Charles Hobson, ed., The Papers of John Marshall, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006): 278.
5 Alexander Keith, Evidence of the Truth of the Christian Religion: Derived from the Literal Fulfillment of Prophecy (Edinburgh: Waugh & Innes, 1826, 2nd ed.). Available for download at Google books.
6 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 1 (New York: George Adlard Publishing, 1839): 307.
7 Reports of Committees of the House of Representatives Made During the First Session of the Thirty-Third Congress (Washington: A. O. P. Nicholson, 1854), pp. 6-9.
Dr. Rick Chromey is an historian, author and speaker who helps people interpret history, navigate culture, and explore faith. Since 2022, he’s worked as a Lewis and Clark historian for American Cruise Lines on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Annually he speaks to audiences of all ages on topics related to leadership, classroom management, natural motivation, U.S. history, creative communication, and Bible/theology.
Christian Living readers are invited to subscribe to Rick’s inspirational (history, culture, faith) Morning MANNA! (M-F) email at www.mannasolutions.org