Set in Stone

America's Embrace of The Ten Commandments

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Jenna Weissman Joselit
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What do Cecil B. DeMille, Laura Schlessinger, and Paul Anka have in common? In addition to contributing to twentieth-century American popular culture, historian Jenna Weissman Joselit reveals in Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments, that these three individuals—and indeed, scores of others—played roles in popularizing the Ten Commandments for mass audiences, and strengthening the Decalogue’s position as a foundation of American national identity. Weissman Joselit argues that the Commandments were physically and figuratively “planted … in the landscape” of the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For Americans, they became “vital to, even an anchor of, their national identity” (3).

Weissman Joselit employs a case-study approach to trace the development of Americans’ receptions and reformulations of the Commandments from the mid-nineteenth to the early twenty-first centuries. The author begins with the fascinating account of David Wyrick, an Ohio surveyor who unearthed from an Indian burial mound in 1860 what he claimed was a carved version of the Ten Commandments produced by the lost tribes of Israel. Weissman Joselit argues convincingly that Wyrick along with several other nineteenth-century archaeologists and biblical scholars were “look[ing] to the past—and the soil—to establish an ancient pedigree” for a young nation that would soon experience the Civil War (14). By connecting the land and people with Israel, Americans used the Ten Commandments to provide their country with a firmer foundation at a time when their very survival as a people seemed to be in question.

The author then shifts her narrative to the twentieth century to connect Wyrick’s claimed ties to Israel with Cecil B. DeMille’s attempts to bring to life the story of the ancient Israelites in his 1923 film The Ten Commandments as well as his 1956 follow-up film of the same name. DeMille’s second film premiered amid deepening tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War, another era in which Americans struggled to define their national identity. Weissman Joselit argues that in the 1950s—a period which saw the start of a campaign led by the Fraternal Order of Eagles to build on the popularity of DeMille’s film—Ten Commandments statues began popping up in city squares across the country. She then explains that many Americans saw these monuments as protection for the United States in dangerous times, and as symbols of a covenant between God and the American nation. The author also notes that the second DeMille film was explicitly “intended as a stern rebuke to Communism” (131). The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Jewish Congress, Weissman Joselit writes, led campaigns against the statues, but the latter group’s opposition waned as Jewish leaders were reluctant to challenge the new, Judeo-Christian, Tri-Faith America consensus, a topic which has been explained in more detail in Kevin M. Schultz’s 2011 book, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise (Oxford University Press). Weissman Joselit completes this strand of her narrative with an analysis of recent Supreme Court cases dealing with the Commandments’ public display.

The book’s second chapter examines how the Commandments became a part of the fabric of everyday life, transforming into “helpful hints” for people’s quotidian problems (64). The author argues that during the same period in which the Commandments statues were becoming common features of the American landscape, the Commandments themselves were not actually desacralized or diminished, but were rather extended in their reach and power. The second half of the book shifts its focus by examining how American Jews struggled between distinctiveness and assimilation. Given that Jews were the original recipients of the Commandments, as the author explains, they were able to claim a share of American national identity. Just as Commandments monuments spread rapidly during the early Cold War, so too, did they proliferate at postwar synagogues, which were often indistinguishable architecturally from many Christian churches. The Commandments acted as the “visual companion” of the new Tri-Faith America in the 1950s, which for Protestants, Catholics, and Jews was rooted in a common civil religion (99). Jews were helped in this process of Americanization by blockbuster films such as DeMille’s first The Ten Commandments, which “reclassif[ied] the covenant between God and the Israelites as a covenant between God and the American people” (124-25). By the time of DeMille’s second take on the Commandments, the Decalogue had become a solid source of national cohesion, and a sturdy foundation for the strengthening Judeo-Christian identity.

Weissman Joselit’s scholarship is built on a strong evidentiary base representing a wide range of primary sources, including nineteenth-century academic journals, newspapers, personal correspondence, films, and trade publications. The author’s interpretations of sculpture, stained glass, prints, and film demonstrate the usefulness of such items in historical analysis, and also how much may be missed in scholarship focusing exclusively on print sources. The author and publisher deserve praise for the vivid images that appear throughout the text, which appreciably advance the narrative. Weissman Joselit does a fabulous job personalizing the book by inserting herself into the narrative and drawing back the curtain on research methods. Her account of “dangling precariously from a topmost balcony” of a building to get a better look at a stained-glass window typifies the book’s refreshing humor while also revealing for the non-academic reader the difficulties—even if not always of the physical sort—that are sometimes characteristic of the research process. While this book includes a helpful bibliographic essay, it is not immediately apparent in what ways the present study differs from its antecedents. The author’s chronology is also at times confusing. This may be a consequence of the book’s case-study approach, which raises an additional question: Why these examples and not others?

Set in Stone is an important contribution to the continuing elaboration and complication of the postwar period’s Tri-Faith American narrative. It raises—and answers—critical questions about American civil religion and national identity. The author effectively interprets the American landscape as a religious one and explains the historical contingency of the Ten Commandments. Academic and popular audiences would benefit from close readings of Weissman Joselit’s imaginative and deeply engaging book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

William S. Cossen is the book review editor for H-SHGAPE [Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era] and faculty member of The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology.

Date of Review: 
September 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jenna Weissman Joselit is the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and professor of history at George Washington University. She is the author of several books on American daily life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including The Wonders of America,winner of the National Jewish Book Award in History, A Perfect Fit: Clothes, Character, and the Promise of America, and A Parade of Faiths: Immigration and American Religion.


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