In 1776, the first draft of the Declaration of Independence protested that Britain's supposedly "Christian king" had "waged a cruel war against human nature" and violated "sacred rights of life & liberty" by enslaving Africans.

Further, it said, slaves often suffered "miserable death" in transit to America and King George had suppressed every attempt "to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce."

The Continental Congress quickly deleted this moralistic language from a slave owner, Thomas Jefferson.

Students of history are regularly rewarded with such surprises. They'll discover this one and many more in the college textbook "Unto a Good Land: A History of the American People" (Eerdmans). The 10-year production from six historians and 50 consultants covers Indian life before Columbus through the 2004 election and war in Iraq.

No dry academic exercise, the flowing narrative makes this an enjoyable read for anyone seeking a broad overview of American history.

Historian A.J. Scopino at Central Connecticut State University says it's "a splendid work of social and cultural history wherein religion earns its proper place."

That religion aspect distinguishes "Good Land" from competitors. One cannot understand America and ignore its ever-present piety, so different from Europe. This textbook also fits the trend to treat the arts, science, minorities, women's history and popular culture alongside the usual political and military power games.

Though "Good Land" is carefully nonsectarian and notes religion's influence for both good (civil rights) and ill (witchcraft trials), it may prove a tough sell at secular universities.

Other random discoveries:

Though Columbus believed his explorations were divinely ordained, he nearly lost royal sponsorship because a committee of clergy, Spain's only educated scholars, opposed him, but he was backed by a Franciscan friar who had Queen Isabella's ear.

Ever wonder why Brazil became a Portuguese colony while Spain claimed the rest of South America? That division was worked out in response to the pope's carving up of the world map the year after Columbus sailed.

In the early 1600s, King James denounced users of the "filthie noveltie" of tobacco for "sinning against God, harming your selves both in persons and goods." Virginia's governor fretted that farmers endangered their health by raising profitable tobacco instead of needed vegetables.

Up in Massachusetts, meanwhile, pioneer colonists were declaring that American Indians held property rights to any land they cultivated and maintained. The basis cited for this law? Genesis 1:28 and 9:1, and Psalm 115.

"The first individual to bring some degree of unity to the colonies was not a politician," we're told, but evangelist George Whitefield. He drew huge audiences from Boston to Georgia beginning in 1739.

The states approved the U.S. Constitution by a mere eyelash, and there was considerable opposition to the rule that "no religious test shall ever be required" to hold public office.

As of 1827, the U.S. South had 106 anti-slavery societies compared with only 24 in the North, and Southern agitators outnumbered Northerners nearly four to one. Later, abolitionism swelled in the Northeast and "the primary motivation was religious."

FDR's New Deal was a big deal. But many of its ideas originated in prior decades with fervently Protestant presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and the 1919 social reform platform from America's Roman Catholic bishops.

Back to Jefferson. As a public official he championed freedom of conscience but personally held fervent religious opinions.

He literally took scissors to the New Testament to delete miraculous parts he disliked while leaving moral teachings.

He decided to establish the University of Virginia because the College of William and Mary refused to abandon its Episcopal Church ties.

He predicted with wishful thinking that there wasn't a youth living in America "who will not die a Unitarian," oblivious to the emerging evangelical movement that has persisted in various forms to the present day.