Bible Vast Early America

What Did the Founding Fathers Think about the Bible?

An awareness of the Bible’s place in the political culture of the American founding enriches our understanding of the nation’s history and provides insight into who we are as a people.

Perhaps no book influenced America’s Founding Fathers more than the Bible. But their use of the book didn’t always have religious ties like it did for the settlers of Plymouth Colony. For example, the Holy Bible was often referenced by leaders like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin—men who didn’t believe in its Divine origins. In this interview, Daniel L. Dreisbach explains what the Bible meant to America’s founders.

Read Daniel Dreisbach’s book about the Founding Fathers and the Bible published by Oxford University Press.

Table of contents

What is the overarching premise of Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers?

This is a book about ideas and the sources of ideas, specifically the ideas that shaped the nation’s founding in the last third or so of the eighteenth century. What did the founders read and study for insights into human nature, civic virtue, social order, political authority, the rights and responsibilities of citizens, and other concepts essential to creating a new political society?

The founding generation drew on and synthesized diverse traditions in forming their political and constitutional thought. Among these influences are English common law and British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism (in manifold forms), and various experiments in and expressions of republicanism.

It was the one book a family was most likely to have in their home.

The central claim of my book, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, is that the Bible is another important, yet often overlooked, influence. If we want to truly understand the ideas that contributed to the American founding and the nation’s innovative experiment in republican self-government and liberty under law, then I think we must study the biblical tradition—both Hebraic and Christian—alongside these other perspectives.

In addition to giving insights into human nature, morality, rights, and legitimate authority, there were Americans in the founding era who thought the Bible could foster the civic virtue that gives citizens the capacity for self-government.

In various representative assemblies of the period, as well as in pamphlets, political sermons, and private papers, founding figures appealed to the Bible for principles, precedents, and normative standards to define their political and legal pursuits. Some founders also saw in Scripture, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures, political and legal models – such as republicanism – they thought worth their consideration. There were founders, for example, who thought the Bible offered guidance on principles of due process of law, such as the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. In the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin specifically cited “Scripture” in a discussion on the qualifications for good rulers.

The book challenges a prevalent view in popular culture and the academy, which is that the founding era was an age of Enlightenment when rationalism was in the ascendency and revelation was, if not rejected outright, relegated to the sidelines. I often hear that the founding was a strictly secular project.

In challenging that view, I do not argue that the Bible was the only or even primary source of the ideas that informed the founders. Drawing attention to the Bible’s significant contributions to the founding is not meant to diminish, much less dismiss, other intellectual influences on the founders. Rather, acknowledging the Bible’s often ignored role in the founding enriches our understanding of the broad range of ideas that inspired and informed the founding generation’s political thoughts and shaped their civic projects.

What most surprised you when researching Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers?

Pervasive biblical language

I have spent years reading the political literature of the founding era, and I have often encountered quotations from and allusions to the Bible in this literature. Once I began to focus on the use of the Bible in the political discourse of the founding, I was surprised by how pervasive biblical language is in this literature.

In my book I give an example of a single sentence in one of George Washington’s letters to the Marquis de Lafayette in which I count seven different quotations from or allusions to the Bible. The Bible, specifically the King James Bible, is woven into the language, literary expressions, and thoughts of this generation of Americans.

Appeals to the Bible

I was also surprised by how frequently the founders appealed to the Bible in discussing their political experiment in republican self-government.

There’s a phrase that always captures my attention when I hear it. John Adams and other founders described the Bible as a “republican book.”

I find that a remarkable statement. In what sense is the Bible “republican”? (“Republican” here means government by consent of the governed as exercised by representatives of the people.)

An unchallenged assumption of the age was that a self-governing people must be a moral people, governed from within by internal monitors replacing external control by an authoritarian ruler’s whip and rod. Republican governments cannot be maintained “without national morality,” Adams explained, and “[t]he Bible contains . . . the most perfect morality . . . that ever was conceived upon earth.”

Therefore, he described the Bible as “the most republican book in the world” because it inculcates in self-governing citizens the civic virtue necessary for a republican system of government to succeed.

How important the context of the time in understanding the influence of the Bible on the Founding Fathers?

An appreciation of the social milieu and political culture of the founding era certainly helps us understand why the Bible figured so prominently in the founders’ political pursuits and discourse. It has been estimated that, at the time of independence, 98% or more of Americans of European descent identified with some form of Protestantism. And Protestants have long regarded the Bible as authority in all matters of faith and practice.

The Bible was the most accessible and familiar book in the lives of Americans at this time. It was the one book a family was most likely to have in their home.

The arts and letters of the time give evidence that Americans were a biblically literate people. The Bible was woven into the formal education of the youth, starting with those just learning to read and continuing through higher education. Familiar legal principles and rules reflected biblical influences.

Given the pervasive influences of Christianity and its sacred text on the culture, it would have been surprising, indeed, had the Bible not been among the sources the founders looked to at this critical moment.

Did the Bible produce a more literate society—or did a more literate society allow the Bible to have a more dramatic effect on the society?

That’s a very interesting question. This is a case, I think, where the street runs both ways. First, it is often said that Christians are a people of the book. The origins of Christianity and Christian thought lie in “the Word,” and Christians are a people of “the Word.” The Gospel of St. John opens with this declaration: “In the beginning was the Word.” And Jesus, according to the Apostle, was “the Word . . . made flesh.”

So, for Christians, “the Word,” as well as access to and understanding of “the Word,” is of enormous importance. This includes the ability of believers to read the revealed “Word of God.” This is especially true of those Protestant Christians who affirm the Bible as authority in all matters of faith and practice, an idea encapsulated in the popular phrase of the Reformation, sola scriptura—“Scripture alone.”

We should note that, partly for this reason, Protestant cultures on both sides of the Atlantic placed great emphasis on literacy education. Let’s also remind ourselves that the vast majority of Americans in the founding era identified with Protestant Christianity.

Not surprisingly, in the colonial and early national eras, a Bible could be found in almost every home and literacy rates were among the highest in the known world. I think it is fair to say that the Bible was the most accessible, authoritative, and venerated book in late eighteenth-century America.

Just because a founder invoked Scripture does not indicate whether that founder was a believer.

We should also mention that the English Bible was a vital tool in producing a highly literate society. Many, perhaps most, in the founding generation learned to read with a copy of the King James translation of the Bible in front of them. It was, first of all, the most available book in most households. Second, the short, plain words and limited vocabulary of the King James Bible made this translation ideal for teaching people to read.

These facts alone recommended it as an effective textbook for literacy education. By the way, expanding literacy for the purpose of increasing knowledge of the Bible unleashed an insatiable appetite for more printed material on a vast array of topics.

Daniel L. Dreisbach lectures about religion and politics in American history at the C. S. Lewis Institute.

Did all the Founders believe the Bible to be the revealed word of God?

The founders held a range of theological views on God, Jesus, and even the divine origins and authority of the Bible. Some believed the Bible was the revealed “Word of God”; others denied that it was divine revelation.

What I find interesting, however, is that even those founders who doubted that the Bible was God’s Word thought it was a great, perhaps the greatest, textbook for teaching morals and ethics. For this reason, they thought it was useful for nurturing the civic virtue that gives citizens the capacity for self-government in a republic.

I would also add that just because a founder invoked Scripture does not indicate whether that founder was a believer or a skeptic. Both, including some who doubted the Bible’s divine origins, appealed frequently to Scripture in their political discourse. Indeed, some of the most skeptical, heterodox founders, like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, were the most prolific in referencing the Bible in their political writings.

Both Franklin and Paine were gifted polemicists who knew their audiences, and I think they appealed to Scripture because they knew this was language that would resonate with their readers.

What did Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin think about the Bible?

I think it is fair to say that Jefferson and Franklin were skeptical of the claim that the Bible was divine revelation. Another familiar name I would add to this company is Thomas Paine.

No figure in the founding era was more openly contemptuous of the idea that the Bible was God’s Word than Paine. His book The Age of Reason, published in the mid-1790s, was an extended attack on the legitimacy of the Bible. These critics of revealed religion doubted that we could trust the authenticity and accuracy of the biblical text handed down to us. They had problems with what they regarded as the irrational accounts of the supernatural found in the Bible, such as the stories of Jesus’s miracles and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Jefferson thought that Jesus’s followers had fabricated these additions to the Gospels.

Again, I find it interesting that, despite this skepticism, all three of these figures professed great admiration for Jesus’s moral teachings. Jefferson, especially, wrote on numerous occasions that the moral instruction of Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded in the Gospels, was “the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man.”

This combination of skepticism and admiration regarding aspects of the Bible prompted Jefferson to prepare two abridgements of the Gospels during his lifetime. These projects have been referred to as “The Jefferson Bible,” a title Jefferson never used. Both reveal serious biblical study and are often offered as evidence of Jefferson’s “rational religion.” He edited these abridgements of the Gospels to emphasize Jesus’s biography and moral teachings, skipping most of the miracles recorded in the Gospels. Jefferson, I think, thought of these works as textbooks on ethics.

How did the Founding Fathers view “the finger of that Almighty Hand” in establishing and protecting their new republic?

The phrase “finger of God” has a biblical source (see, for example, Exodus 31:18; Deuteronomy 9:10), and it shows up frequently in the political literature of the founding.

When reflecting on the late revolution, for example, James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper 37:

It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.”

James Madison, Federalist Paper 37

Just a couple days ago, I came across a letter published in a New York newspaper a few days after the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in which the writer said that, “without the finger of God,” the proposed government under the “New Constitution” “never could have been suggested and agreed upon by such a diversity of interests.”

The phrase was typically used to acknowledge the intervention and direction of Divine Providence in the political affairs of the nation. A belief in the active role of Divine Providence in human affairs was widely held by Americans at this time. This view acknowledges the role of a superintending Divine authority who oversees and directs the steps of humankind and all the affairs of the material world to accomplish Divine ends. George Washington, for example, made frequent reference to Providence at work in the world around him and even acknowledged “the miraculous care of Providence” in sparing his life during military combat.

The “finger of God” is an interesting image of not only the power of God at work but also the communication of His will to humankind.

Did Benjamin Franklin’s famous call for prayer in the 1787 Constitutional Convention result in prayers being offered from that time forward?

You are referring to one of the most memorable speeches at the Constitutional Convention meeting in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. At a critical moment, as deliberations reached an apparent impasse and tempers frayed, the elder statesman Benjamin Franklin addressed his fellow delegates, making a poignant appeal for Divine intervention and harmony.

Franklin moved that:

henceforth Prayers, imploring the Assistance of Heaven and its Blessing on our Deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to Business.”

Benjamin Franklin

At the age of eighty-one years, Franklin was the oldest and most venerable delegate. He did not speak often in the convention chambers, but when he did, the delegates listened attentively.

His remarks that day in support of the motion were rich with biblical references:

I have lived, Sir, a long time; and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this Truth, that GOD governs in the Affairs of Men. And if a Sparrow cannot fall to the Ground without his Notice [Matthew 10:29; Luke 12:6], is it probable that an Empire can rise without his Aid?

We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that “except the Lord build the House, they labour in vain that build it” [Psalm 127:1]. I firmly believe this; and I also believe, that, without his concurring Aid, we shall succeed in this political Building no better than the Builders of Babel [Genesis 11:1-9]; we shall be divided by our little, partial, local Interests, our Projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a Reproach and a Bye-word down to future Ages.

Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman promptly seconded the motion, but Alexander Hamilton and several others expressed reservations. One delegate, for example, reminded the Convention that they had not made a practice of beginning their daily sessions with prayer, and a reason why they could not start now was because they did not have the funds to pay a chaplain. And so the Convention apparently declined to act on Franklin’s proposal.

But the story doesn’t end there. In a spirit of compromise, Edmund Randolph of Virginia proposed that the Convention request that a sermon be preached the following week, on July 4th, to commemorate the anniversary of independence. Although no vote was taken on Randolph’s proposal, on the morning of the Fourth, George Washington and other delegates processed to a local Philadelphia church where they joined in prayer and listened to a patriotic oration suitable to the occasion.

This controversial topic has been marred by inaccurate and misleading claims.

How did some of the Founding Fathers see the establishment of America as a New Israel?

From the Pilgrim fathers to the founding fathers (and even to later generations), there were Americans who saw themselves as a chosen people – God’s new Israel.

Americans, for example, have often recounted their history as if they were reliving the Exodus story. The precise contours of the analogy differed depending on who made it and when, but they were often elaborate comparisons. The religious persecution they had endured in England and from which they fled or the tyranny they experienced under George III was their Egyptian bondage. The Stuart monarchs and, later in the revolutionary era, George III were their intransigent Pharaoh; and the treacherous waters of the Atlantic Ocean, which they traversed in search of the promised land, was their Red Sea.

Americans have drawn on this theme to help them understand who they are as a people and to see their place in the world. To some extent, it has shaped their identity, mission, and aspirations. Interestingly, this theme has been embraced by both pious and skeptical citizens across the generations, woven into the national mythology, and manifested in diverse national expressions and symbols.

The president of Yale College, Ezra Stiles, delivered a 1783 election sermon before Connecticut’s highest officials in which he described the United States as “God’s American Israel.”

Another prominent Congregationalist clergyman declared in a 1788 election sermon entitled, “The Republic of the Israelites an Example to the American States,” that “instead of the twelve tribes of Israel, we may substitute the thirteen States of the American union.”

One New England clergyman observed at the end of the eighteenth century:

“It has been often remarked that the people of the United States come nearer to a parallel with Ancient Israel, than any other nation upon the globe. Hence, ‘OUR AMERICAN ISRAEL,’ is a term frequently used; and common consent allows it apt and proper.”

Abiel Abbot

Was the justification for the rebellion against England rule found in the Bible?

One of the most challenging biblical texts for pious, patriotic Americans contemplating resistance to what they regarded as oppressive, tyrannical British rule was Romans 13:1-6. This may have been the most referenced biblical text in the political literature of the founding era.

Romans 13 (and several similar texts, such as 1 Peter 2:13-17) instructs citizens to be subject to those in authority over them. Could resistance to the British crown and Parliament be reconciled with this text? Many political pamphlets and sermons addressed this vexing question; and, quite frankly, Americans were divided on whether Scripture would approve of resistance to British colonial authority.

Drawing on a resistance theology refined in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, many patriotic Americans adopted an interpretation of this text that held that God ordained and established civil government, but only to serve the common good. A civil government that oppresses its people and acts contrary to the people’s interests deposes itself, ceases to be a legitimate government, and, therefore, citizens are no longer obligated by Scripture to obey it.

This interpretation led many Americans to conclude that they had not only a right but also a duty to resist the “tyrannical” rule of George III and Parliament.

Some reject the idea that the Bible had great influence on the Founding Fathers. Why do you think that is?

Much that has been written on this controversial topic has been marred by inaccurate and misleading claims. The polemical literature, especially, is rife with quotations of questionable authenticity.

So, when I proposed this book to my publisher, I emphasized that every quote would need to be documented with a reference to the best available primary source. And that’s what I did. Every quotation is documented. So readers, if they are so inclined, can go to the primary source I relied on and check whether I have quoted founders correctly and used their words in their proper context.

The more challenging aspect of your question is why have so many people today rejected “the idea that the Bible had great influence on the Founding Fathers.”

One reason, I think, is because so much of what we read in the popular and scholarly literature emphasizes Enlightenment influences almost to the exclusion of all other influences. And few of us have read and studied sufficiently the literature of the founding to challenge this emphasis. Moreover, the language of the Enlightenment is much more familiar and congenial to the modern mind than the more archaic language of the Bible or even the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Furthermore, in our increasingly secular world, there may be a discomfort with or, perhaps, hostility toward explicitly religious texts and themes. Some commentators fear that the mere acknowledgement of Christianity’s and the Bible’s influences on the American experiment will diminish the Enlightenment’s influences and buttress the alleged theocratic impulses of some twenty-first century citizens.

I think also, some commentators find a focus on the God of the Bible and biblical religion divisive or even offensive to twenty-first-century, secular sensibilities.

In an admonition seldom mentioned in the scholarly literature, for example, George Washington warned in his “Farewell Address” of September 1796 that, because religion and morality are “indispensable supports” for republican self-government, one who labors to subvert a public role for religion and morality cannot call oneself a patriot.

Such rhetoric, unexceptional in its time, is discordant with the secular ethos of our time.

When you survey the cohort of Founding Fathers, do you believe that this was an age in which an unusually large number of great minds co-existed in the same time period?

This was a remarkable generation – perhaps the greatest generation of Americans. This generation, in the last half of the eighteenth century and at great personal costs, articulated the rights of colonists, fought for and secured independence from Great Britain, and established new constitutional republics at both the national and state levels.

It included individuals with great courage, extraordinary leadership skills, and profound insights and creativity regarding the new science of politics. They read widely, studied carefully the political experiments of the past, and thought deeply about the challenges of creating a Novus ordo seclorum. And what they came up with in the Constitution of 1787 is a remarkable system of civil government that has served us well for over two centuries.

The founders were by no means perfect, and we still live with the legacy of some of their mistakes and unfinished business. We can fairly criticize them for not always living up to their ideals, but the expressions of equality, liberty, and opportunity that they wrote into our founding documents provoked challenging conversations and set in motion movements that, I believe, produced – not immediately, but eventually – a world that provided greater equality, liberty, and opportunity than the world into which they were born.

The founding generation was biblically literate, but, you write, we are becoming increasingly biblically illiterate. Should this concern us? Does the Bible still have a role to play or influence in the US Government today?

Does it matter, in other words, whether we acknowledge the Bible’s contributions to the founding, and does it matter whether the Bible is studied alongside other intellectual influences on the founding fathers? Yes, I think it matters a great deal if we want to understand the broad range of ideas that shaped the founders’ political thoughts, actions, and deeds.

An awareness of the Bible’s place in the political culture of the American founding not only enriches our understanding of the nation’s history but also provides insight into who we are as a people and the values reflected in our systems of civil government and laws.

Why, for example, were the founders obsessed with the separation of powers and checks on government powers? I think it arises from a biblical anthropology that views humankind as fallen and sinful and not to be entrusted with power unless that power is checked.

Knowledge of the Bible and its place in the American political experiment, in short, helps Americans better understand themselves and their political community. Conversely, the increasing biblical illiteracy of the modern age almost inevitably distorts the conception Americans have of themselves as a people, their history, and their political experiment in republican self-government and ordered liberty. This danger alone should inspire Americans to study the Bible and its role in the life of the nation.

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About Daniel L. Dreisbach

Daniel L. Dreisbach is a professor at American University in Washington, D.C. He earned 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. His research interests include the intersection of religion, politics, and law in the American founding era. He has authored or edited ten books, including Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State (New York University Press, 2002). He has published numerous book chapters, reviews, and articles in scholarly journals, including American Journal of Legal History, Constitutional Commentary, Journal of Church and State, Politics and Religion, and William and Mary Quarterly. Professor Dreisbach is a past recipient of American University’s highest faculty award, “Scholar / Teacher of the Year.”

Further reading

American Founding Fathers and the Bible resources

By Jerry Winder

History geek. Seeker of truth. Believer.

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