Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers
Reviewed by David Brodnax, Sr., History, Trinity Christian College
“The American founders read the Bible” (1). This first line in Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers aptly summarizes Daniel L. Dreisbach’s exploration of the Christian scriptures’ theological, literary, and rhetorical impact on the people who created American democracy. With this historical work, Dreisbach, a professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University, enters a debate in which some evangelicals argue that America was founded on Christian principles and should return to them, while others who fear attacks on pluralism and the rise of theocracy note that some of the founders rejected traditional Christianity. The author seeks not to take a side in this debate, but to show that the Bible should be considered alongside Enlightenment and classical sources as ideologically influential in this history.
Part I of the book examines the King James Bible’s influence on public culture. The scriptures were the only source of stories, morals, and language with which nearly all English speakers were familiar, Dreisbach explains, and thus they helped to shape American linguistic development, education, and public law, as well as the founders’ views of politics and government. Many of the founders believed that the moral principles of Christianity should be the basis for their new legal system, and various Constitutional principles were based on interpretation of scripture; for instance, the system of checks and balances may have come from the notion that all people are fallen. Devout founders like John Jay believed that the Bible was the inspired, perfect Word of God, and they expressed this belief by leading Bible societies, translating the scriptures into English, and other activities. Even unorthodox founders like Thomas Jefferson, who argued that finding truth and wisdom in the Bible was like finding “diamonds in a dunghill,” also declared that Jesus’s teachings were “the most benevolent and sublime probably that [have] been ever taught.” Regardless of where they stood on Christianity itself, all of the founders were influenced by the Bible’s teachings, language, and cadences, in part because they all had a strong theological foundation in their own education; “no generation of American statesmen,” Dreisbach argues, “was more theologically informed than the founding generation” (56). The Bible also figured significantly in their notions of public virtue, that republican self-government only worked if the people were internally governed by a proper moral code. Although other scholars have noted that the Bible as a whole was important to the founders, and some have examined specific Enlightenment, classical, and English influences, Dreisbach takes the innovative step of exploring specific biblical passages to understand better how the founders used them to “enrich a common language and cultural vocabulary” through scriptural references, to enhance the power of their own words, to identify standards and rules for public life, to show the role of providence in America, and to better understand “the character and designs of God” (73). He explores, for instance, the numerous ways that George Washington used biblical language and maxims, the “bible-like language” that founders used to “[infuse their] rhetoric with solemnity, sanctity, and authority,” and the proposal by Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson to use depictions of the Exodus story in the national seal (78).
In Part II, Dreisbach examines specific biblical passages, putting each in its theological and scriptural context and then showing how the founders saw them as relevant to their own situation. Of particular interest here is the conflict between the Romans 13 requirement to “be subject unto the higher powers” and the Acts 5 declaration that “we ought to obey God rather than men,” not surprising in light of the fact that the subjects of this book had decided to no longer be subject unto the English government. The author looks at centuries of thought and action on the issue of obedience to power, beginning with Martin Luther and John Calvin during the Reformation, and working up to how founders like the silversmith Paul Revere and the Boston preacher Jonathan Mayhew used words and images to argue that, in Mayhew’s words, “no civil rulers are to be obeyed when they enjoin things that are inconsistent with the commands of God.” Dreisbach also pays great attention to the challenges that the founders faced in using the Bible to support their vision of political liberty: “Patriotic Americans candidly acknowledged that many of their favorite New Testament texts on liberty were primarily concerned with Christian liberty, as that concept has historically been defined in Protestant theology,” he writes, “but they disagreed about whether it was a perversion of Scripture to apply these texts to their immediate political aspirations” (191). Additionally, he explores how Micah 4:4’s prophecy that “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid” was interpreted as a metaphor for freedom of religion. This part of the book also includes short vignettes about historical events such as the opening prayer at the beginning of the Continental Congress, Benjamin Franklin’s call for prayer at the Constitutional Convention, George Washington’s first inaugural ceremony, and the Liberty Bell.
Dreisbach’s deep research into the founders’ individual backgrounds is invaluable to his argument and to our understanding of the topic. For instance, in response to the frequent claim that only one minister signed the Declaration of Independence, he notes that four other signatories had once served as ministers or had been educated for careers in the ministry. This does not change the fact that most signatories lacked this clerical background, but it does show that the Bible was important to the founders in ways that are not immediately obvious. At the same time, though, the many historical voices in Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers belong almost exclusively to prosperous white men from Protestant backgrounds. Charles Carroll of Carrollton (the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration) is not mentioned. The brief mention of Abigail Adams indirectly draws attention to the fact that the founders’ wives are largely absent, and the mention of numerous prominent white ministers who held no formal political power makes one wonder what African-American ministers like Lemuel Haynes had to say. These exclusions are in some ways unavoidable in a book about politics during a time of great racial, gender, and anti-Catholic discrimination, but Dreisbach’s laudable efforts to expand his focus beyond the few most memorable founders and include other voices makes one wonder if that expansion could have gone further.
On a related note, Dreisbach’s argument has little to say about the role of slavery, both biblically and during the Revolutionary period. Like many of the founders themselves, he does not answer Samuel Johnson’s famous question, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” He might have explored how the slaveholding founders used scripture to justify the existence of slavery in a democracy based on Biblical principles, similar to how he addresses the concerns about using New Testament concepts of spiritual liberty to justify political liberty. He might also have addressed the disagreement between slaveholding founders and those who wanted slavery abolished. Instead, the book simply is almost entirely silent on this issue. The many pages dedicated to Washington’s beloved Mount Vernon plantation—his metaphorical “vine and fig tree”—have little to say about the 300 African Americans whose forced labor sustained this place of refuge and wealth or about how this figured into Washington’s interpretation of scripture. This is, of course, consistent with the views of the slaveholding patriarchs of the Old Testament, but the book’s silence on this issue enables readers who do not know the history of American slavery to come to certain conclusions about the founders without also considering the ways in which they, their interpretations of scripture, and their vision of democracy were deeply flawed and exclusionary.
There are several other minor concerns. Some of the evidence used to support the argument comes from beyond the founding generation; Simon Greenleaf (born in the last year of the war) is noted as one of the vice presidents of the American Bible Society, while an 1864 speech by Abraham Lincoln is quoted at the beginning of one chapter. This book is clearly about the Revolutionary period and not the broader Early Republic/Civil War era, but the occasional inclusion of later voices can be somewhat jarring. Finally, although book reviews must always be careful not to suggest that the author should have written a different book, the argument may have benefitted from more information about how the Bible influenced prominent Loyalists who were also part of this ideological world. Aside from these criticisms, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers is a thoughtful, well-researched, well-written, and altogether masterful analysis of the role that scripture played in the creation of American democracy. Its clear prose and historical contextualization makes it accessible to history majors and minors and perhaps even advanced students in introductory history courses, but scholars of early American history will also gain a great deal by reading this book. It may also be accessible to some general readers, and this is hugely important in light of the debate about the role of religion in American politics today. Everyone who has taken a side in this debate can learn something from Dreisbach’s work.