Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers

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Daniel L. Dreisbach
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     2016.
     320 pages.
     $34.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780199987931.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The fruit of some thirty years of research (236), Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers takes a close look at the Bible’s prominence, if not dominance, in public discourse as well as in the private culture of eighteenth-century America, during the “founding era” [c. 1760 to 1880] (13).

A former Rhodes scholar, author Daniel Dreisbach, professor in the Department of Justice, Law and Criminology at American University in Washington, DC, surveys the use of the 1611 King James Version—and occasionally the Geneva Bible—during this formative period. In so doing, the author draws on a treasure trove of archival material, including state papers, political sermons, newspapers, and pamphlets, as well as private writings. The result is an impressive and resounding demonstration of how ubiquitous and pervasive the Bible was in all areas of public and private life, from literacy training, to primary and secondary education, to public affairs and political discourse.

In so doing, Dreisbach is careful to avoid making any grandiose claims about the Bible in relation to God and country, except to say that the Bible had an enormous impact in all areas of American life and thought. He avoids making the outright claim that America is a “Christian nation” which, he readily concedes, is a “complex question that merits scrutiny” (18). That said, this book offers relevant insights into that very question.

The aim of the author’s grand project is to “open a window on the biblically literate culture of the founding era,” thereby providing “insights into the grand American experiment” (19). In ten chapters, divided into two parts, Dreisbach looks at the influence of the Bible on American culture and political discourse from a variety of perspectives.

Throughout the book, the author notes that biblical literacy, if not fluency, is a prerequisite to fully understanding and appreciating the influence of the King James Version of the Bible, especially during an era in which biblical allusions abounded and in which scriptural references—whether direct or indirect—were neither explicitly referenced to chapter and verse, nor set apart by quotation marks.

During that time, one did not need to be a professed orthodox Christian in order to invoke the Bible. Biblical phrases, metaphors, symbols, and verses were used to rhetorical effect. Of particular interest is the use of specific Bible verses for particular purposes. Three such verses are singled out in three chapters: Micah 6:8 (chapter 5), Proverbs 14:34 (chapter 7), and Proverbs 29:2 (chapter 8).

In chapter 5, “What Does God Require of Us?: Micah 6:8 in the Literature of the American Founding,” Dreisbach takes John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon aboard the ship Arabella as his point of departure. Winthrop, once described as America’s forgotten founding father, invoked Micah 6:8—indirectly, not directly—in part of his sermon, which was with laden with familiar biblical allusions. Dreisbach observes that Winthrop “borrowed the language of Micah 6:8” to provide guidance on how to create a ‘model of Christian Charity’,” which, in turn, would serve as a “city upon a hill,” as Winthrop famously said, in which the Puritan New England Commonwealth would serve as a “beacon and moral polity for the world” (98). The author demonstrates how Micah 6:8 served as a call to “national virtue” (104).

This call to national virtue is further developed in chapter 7, “The Exalted Nation: Proverbs 14:34 in the Characteristics of a Righteous People.” The key phrase here is: “Righteousness exalted a nation.” Although this proverb does not specify a law or code that a righteous nation should follow, this sacred text was a clarion call to patriots to be mindful that a strong national moral character was a prerequisite for America to achieve greatness.

America’s moral character was dependent, in part, on the integrity of its magistrates. Chapter 8, “When the Righteous Rule: Proverbs 29:2 and the Character of a Godly Magistrate,” surveys the use of this proverb in outlining the prerequisites for public office. These essential qualifications are described as follows: (1) “Men Who Are Able”; (2) “Men Who Fear God”; (3) “Men Who Are Truthful”; and (4) “Men Who Hate Covetousness And Exhibit Public-Spiritedness.”

Dreisbach succeeds in identifying the most popular and prominent biblical texts and themes of this American era. He compares how the founding fathers read and interpreted these Biblical passages with traditional interpretations of these very same Scriptures.

This volume is well researched with a wealth of information. For instance, Dreisbach, who also has a juris doctorate, makes an interesting observation as to the original intent of the First Amendment: “The unifying theme of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution was the citizen’s immunity in faith and worship: the freedom to express one’s beliefs in religious worship and exercises that involve speech [preaching and evangelizing], press [printing the Bible and religious literature], assembly [gathering for corporate worship], and petition [appealing to civil government to protect religious exercise]” (25).

This reviewer, who also has a law degree, was never exposed to this particular interpretation of the First Amendment in law school. Current First Amendment jurisprudence has greatly extended the privileges and protections guaranteed under the First Amendment.

Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers abounds in anecdotal evidence. The resulting contribution of this book is that the sheer wealth of material adds abundantly to our knowledge of how pervasively, profusely, and profoundly the Bible was invoked, for rhetorical and edifying purposes, throughout the founding era. Whether or not America was founded as a “Christian nation” is almost beside the point, considering that the founding era, as Dreisbach describes and documents, was so ubiquitously and universally biblical.

The author’s style is clear and accessible. Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers is easy to read, informative, and enjoyable. Modest in its purpose and scope, this book is recommended for university and public libraries alike.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Buck is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
March 23, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel L. Dreisbach is Professor in the Department of Justice, Law, and Criminology at American University in Washington, D.C. He received a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Oxford University, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar, and a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Virginia. He has written extensively on the intersection of religion, politics, and law in the American founding.

Keywords: 

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