What America’s Founders Really Thought About the Bible

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Today’s guest post is from Daniel L. Dreisbach, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C.  He has authored or edited 10 books, including Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press, 2017), from which this article is adapted.  You can follow him on Twitter at @d3bach

John Adams, in his retirement, was disheartened.  What had his life in politics counted for? he wondered.

The renewal in 1805 of a 30-year friendship with Doctor Benjamin Rush reinvigorated him.  Their frank correspondence, touching on all manner of topics, lifted his spirits.  “Dr. Rush’s letters are of inestimable value to me,” the former president recalled.

A Philadelphia physician, social reformer, and a venerated signer of the Declaration of Independence, Rush was respected by the leading political figures of the day.  He would later negotiate a rapprochement between former presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson a decade after the bitter political campaign of 1800 had left their relationship in tatters.

In one conversation about the “perfectibility of man” and religion’s role in making “men and nations happy,” both Rush and Adams lamented the moral decay they witnessed in the world around them.  “By renouncing the Bible,” Rush interjected, “philosophers swing from their moorings upon all moral Subjects. . . .  It is the only correct map of the human heart that ever has been published.  It contains a faithful representation of all its follies, Vices & Crimes.”  He then concluded:  “All Systems of Religion, morals, and Government not founded upon it, must perish, and how consoling the tho[ugh]t! — it will not only survive the wreck of those Systems, but the World itself.  ‘The Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it [Matt. 16:18].’”

“The Bible,” Adams promptly responded, “contains the most profound Philosophy, the most perfect Morality, and the most refined Policy, that ever was conceived upon Earth.  It is the most Republican Book in the World, and therefore I will still revere it. . . .  [W]ithout national Morality,” he continued, “a Republican Government cannot be maintained.”

Adams, as I note in my book Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, was not alone among his contemporaries in making this remarkable claim.  John Dickinson, the acclaimed “penman of the Revolution,” for example, similarly observed, “The Bible is the most republican Book that ever was written.”  Such sentiments were common in the political discourse of the age.

The Bible is many things to the Christian.  It is God’s Word; “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27); a guiding lamp (Ps. 119:105); and a divine handbook “for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

But is it a republican book?  What’s republican about the Bible?

The founding fathers were obsessed with all things republican, even at times wearing togas like the republican leaders in ancient Rome.  They studied great republican leaders and theorists from both ancient and modern times.

To the founders, republicanism meant, at least, this:  popular government, committed to the rule of law, in which government authority is derived from the consent of the governed and exercised through freely and fairly chosen representatives of the people.

On July 4th, 1776, the patriots threw off the monarchy and, pledging to each other their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor, embarked on a bold experiment in republican self-government.

First Prayer in Congress, September 1774, in Carpenters Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Copy of print by H. B. Hall after T. H. Matteson., 1931 - 1932.  National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.
First Prayer in Congress, September 1774, in Carpenters Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Copy of print by H. B. Hall after T. H. Matteson., 1931 – 1932. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Although they held a wide range of views about Jesus, salvation, and even the Bible’s divine origins, the founding generation looked to the Bible for insights into human nature, civic virtue, social order, political authority and other concepts essential to the establishment of a new political society.  Many saw in Scripture political and legal models – such as republicanism, separation of powers, and due process of law – that they believed enjoyed divine favor and were worthy of emulation in their polities.

There were Americans, for example, who believed the Hebrew “republic,” which encompassed approximately a half millennium of Jewish history from the exodus until Saul’s coronation, was a model of and divine precedent for a republican government well designed to promote political prosperity.  Political discourse in conventions, pamphlets, and political sermons of the founding era includes numerous appeals to the Hebrew republic as a model for their own political experiment.

In an influential 1775 Massachusetts election sermon, Samuel Langdon, the president of Harvard College and later a delegate to New Hampshire’s constitutional ratifying convention, opined:  “The Jewish government, according to the original constitution which was divinely established, . . . was a perfect Republic. . . .  The civil Polity of Israel is doubtless an excellent general model . . .; at least some principal laws and orders of it may be copied, to great advantage, in more modern establishments.”

The influential founder Roger Sherman, who participated in framing both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. similarly extolled “the civil polity of the Hebrews,” which he said “was planned by Divine Wisdom” and was a commendable exemplar of civil government.

Most of what the founders knew about the Hebrew commonwealth they learned from the Bible.  They were well aware that ideas like republicanism found expression in traditions apart from the Hebrew experience, and, indeed, they studied these traditions both ancient and modern.  The republic described in the Hebrew Scriptures, however, reassured pious Americans that republicanism was a political system that enjoyed divine favor.

But for Adams, more important than the model of Hebraic republicanism, the Bible was republican because it was an indispensable handbook for republican citizenship.  In particular, the Sacred Text, more than any other source, taught the civic virtues required of citizens in order for republican self-government to succeed.

Historian James H. Hutson described the essential connections among religion, virtue, and republican self-government as “the founding generation’s syllogism”:  “virtue and morality are necessary for free, republican government; religion is necessary for virtue and morality; religion is, therefore, necessary for republican government.”

The political discourse of the founding era is replete with expressions of religion’s vital contributions to a republican regime.  This notion was espoused by Americans from diverse religious, intellectual, and political traditions.  David Ramsay, a delegate to the Continental Congress and the first major historian of the American Revolution, expressed this idea succinctly in 1789:  “Remember that there can be no political happiness without liberty; that there can be no liberty without morality; and that there can be no morality without religion.”  Benjamin Rush similarly opined in 1786:  “Without [religion], there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.”

A self-governing people, in short, had to be a virtuous people who were controlled from within by an internal moral compass, which would replace external control by an authoritarian ruler’s whip and rod.  The whip and rod were clearly unacceptable for a free, self-governing people.  A moral people respected social order, legitimate authority, oaths and contracts, private property, and the like.  For these Americans, the Bible was the well-spring of religion, and biblical morality was the source of this essential virtue.  Therefore, many founders regarded the Bible as indispensable to a regime of republican self-government and liberty under law.

This is why John Adams, believing that “without national morality a republican government cannot be maintained” and that “the Bible contains . . . the most perfect morality, and the most refined policy, that ever was conceived upon earth,” described the Bible as “the most republican book in the world.”

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