Arts & Culture & Public Square

Review: Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers

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For the last twenty years, one of the most hotly contested fronts in American culture wars has been the faith of the founding fathers.

At one extreme, some scholars argue that all the founding fathers, even Jefferson and Franklin, were born-again, evangelical Christians. At the other extreme, some noted historians take the position that the founding fathers were not Christians at all, and that Christianity had little to no impact on the formation of this nation.

Daniel Dreisbach’s new book, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, does not enter into this debate, but rather rises above it. With impeccable scholarship and elegant prose, Dreisbach demonstrates how the Bible informed the thinking of both devout Christians and religious skeptics during America’s early years. He writes,

…to understand the social, legal, and political history of the American founding, one must read the Bible.

Dreisbach lays a firm foundation for his claim in Part 1, emphasizing the important, multifaceted role the Bible played in the formative years of our country:

The Bible was the most accessible, authoritative, and venerated text in early colonial society. Not only was the Bible an essential text for faith and worship, but also it was a primary textbook for education, letters, law, and civil government.

This is not to say that Dreisbach argues the scriptures were the only influence “to which patriotic Americans turned to give content and definition to their political, legal, and constitutional projects.” The founding generation certainly looked to other sources of thought, including republican, Enlightenment, British constitutional, and other intellectual influences.

But we cannot diminish the role the Bible played during the founding era. And Dreisbach’s stated aim in this work is to illuminate the perhaps missed, forgotten, or ignored role of the Bible in “late eighteenth-century political and legal thought [and] provide a more complete picture of the ideas that contributed to [America’s] founding.”

Dreisbach shows how the political discourse of the founders abounds with quotations from and allusions to the Bible—even their own language resembled, imitated, or evoked the distinctive intonations of the Bible. And, the Bible was a widely respected and referenced text even though some well-known skeptical founders questioned its divine origins or the authenticity of the text transmitted through the centuries.

The Bible influenced not just political discourse, but aspects of public culture, including language, letters, arts, education, and law, and it significantly impacted individual founders.

Referencing the law of Moses (Exodus 20:3-17; Deuteronomy 5:7-21), Dreisbach tells us a young John Adams wrote in his diary:

a society that adopted the Bible as its only law book and lived according to its precepts would be a Utopia.

Noah Webster echoes this sentiment:

The moral principles and precepts contained in the scriptures ought to form the basis of all our civil constitutions and laws.

In Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, we also learn how the King James Bible was read aloud in colonial America because it was how most people learned to read. Interestingly, most Americans in the founding era learned to read in order to read the Bible on their own.

The founders also looked to the Bible to address questions of political theory: the role of civil government, civil liberties and civic responsibilities, and the rights of citizens to oppose tyrannical governments. In fact, many Americans of the early national era, Dreisbach tells us, looked at human nature, civic virtue, social order, and political authority, among other ideas about civic life, through the lens of the Bible.

Dreisbach states:

An accessible, affordable vernacular Bible, along with the ability to read it, was thought by many to be intimately connected to the promotion of civic virtue required for republican self-government.

Dreisbach’s book is a gentle reminder to us of the importance of scripture in this current age—a time in which we see biblical engagement steadily declining. This is a book all of us should read with an eye toward how the Bible can inspire our current generation to overcome the issues facing us today.

Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers also provides a great reminder of what God promised in Isaiah 55:11:

…my word…will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

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  • I just finished the book and enjoyed it very much. His chapter on the history of interpreting Romans 13 was especially helpful. However, he seems to be unaware of some other history that deeply influenced the founders, though this is a minor criticism of the book. Eric Nelson in “The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought” shows how the passage in I Sam in which the Israeli leadership rejects God and demands a king impacted political thought from the Reformation forward. Until then, theologians had accepted monarchies, oligarchies and republics as legit forms of government. Afterwards they determined that God wanted only a republic for Christians. The founders took that for granted and never consider another form.

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