The Founders' Go-To Text

In his illuminating Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, Daniel L. Dreisbach shows how early Americans used the Bible both as an intellectual sourcebook and as a tool for moral instruction. He thinks “the Bible was the most authoritative, accessible, and familiar book in eighteenth-century America.” But be comforted, O Unbeliever! This book is not a work of Christian apologetics.

“A claim of biblical influence,” Dreisbach writes, “does not suggest that the founders were theocrats intent on imposing a biblical order on the polity.” On the contrary, he says, “Believers and skeptics alike made use of the Bible.” The American University professor is admirably cautious, avoiding the Scylla of making every Founder a deist and the Charybdis of making every reference to the Bible a mark of true Christian piety.

Nevertheless, Dreisbach has an agenda. He exhorts students of the Founding “to be attentive to how the founders read the Bible and its place in the political culture of the founding era.” His advice is not just for fellow academics. The “biblical illiteracy” of our age “inevitably distorts the conception Americans have of themselves as a people, the nation, and their political experiment in self-government.”

The book has two main parts. In the first, Dreisbach shows the pervasive influence of the Bible on American public culture (chapter 1), the Founding Fathers (chapter 2), and political discourse at the time of the Founding (chapter 3). Part 2 explores specific Bible verses—Micah 6:8 (chapter 5), Proverbs 14:34 (chapter 7), Proverbs 29:2 (chapter 8), and Micah 4:4 (chapter 10)—as well as thematically arranged content on resistance (chapter 6) and liberty (chapter 9). After each chapter in part 2, Dreisbach also offers an example of the Bible in the context of American history; for example, George Washington taking his presidential oath with his hand on an open Bible.

Not everyone sees the Founding through Dreisbachian spectacles. The author quotes the late Wilson Carey McWilliams, for example, as saying that the Founding generation, far from using the Bible, “rejected or deemphasized the Bible and biblical rhetoric.” Also cited is John Fea’s claim that “one is hard-pressed to find any Christian or biblical language apart from a few passing references to God” in the arguments made by colonial leaders prior to 1776.

Dreisbach sets the stage for his rebuttal with Donald S. Lutz’s selective survey of American documents from 1760 to 1805. A single biblical book, Deuteronomy, occurs more often than the Baron de Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws—indeed, Deuteronomy is cited almost twice as often as John Locke’s entire corpus. “The American founders drew on a variety of sources and authorities,” Dreisbach notes, “but no source was better known or more authoritative and accessible in their culture than the Bible.” He makes clear that he takes the word “Founders” to include far more than Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. The term describes “a cast of thousands who played their patriotic part at the local, state, and/or national levels.”

The book is at its best—and shows how it is “the product of three decades of research”—when Dreisbach makes a point about the Bible and then uses a Founder to illustrate his observation or, even better, quotes a Founder making his point for him. Such is the case when Dreisbach claims that “the founding generation wove biblical language, often without quotation marks or explicit references” because “quotation marks and citations were unnecessary to identify the source of words so familiar to a biblically literate people.”

Dreisbach’s opponents may take issue with him here. Perhaps the Founders used biblical phrases without even knowing they were in the Bible. Dreisbach thinks the reverse is far more likely. The Founders knew the Bible, even if historians do not: “The failure to recognize Washington’s numerous biblical references perhaps indicates widespread biblical illiteracy among modern scholars.”

But whether quotation marks were unnecessary for the Founding generation isn’t a matter on which Dreisbach is speculating. He turns to historical testimony. When Benjamin Franklin—hardly the poster child for Christian America—agreed to translate and publish a Boston minister’s sermon for a European audience, he told the minister he would have to insert scriptural citations for the biblically illiterate non-Americans:

It was not necessary in New England where every body reads the Bible, and is acquainted with Scripture Phrases, that you should note the Texts from which you took them; but I have observed in England as well as in France, that Verses and Expressions taken from the sacred Writings, and not known to be such, appear very strange and awkward to some Readers; and I shall therefore in my Edition take the Liberty of marking the quoted Texts in the margin.

The translation that “every body” read in the Founding era was the King James Version, which has two advantages: It uses few words, and the words it uses are short. But, Dreisbach says, it also “enjoyed the favor of English authorities.” Why? He hides the answer in a footnote on page 250: “The marginal notes in the Geneva Bible,” its chief rival, “were an irritant to civil rulers, especially James I, because they were said to articulate a right to resist tyrannical rulers.” As Dreisbach makes clear, the Founders did not require margin notes to defend a revolution.

The author forthrightly allows that “the founders had a mixed record when it comes to their fidelity to biblical contexts and historical interpretations of biblical texts.” But he makes clear how the Founders knew the Bible, even those who criticized it or rejected certain Old Testament passages—even those who found the book altogether abhorrent.

Some Founders turned to the Bible for political purposes. For example, Thomas Paine called monarchy an invention of “the Heathens” and appealed to the Hebrew Scriptures with its “kind of republic administered by a judge and the elders of the tribes.”

But some Founders were Bible students, teachers, or even commentators. John Witherspoon was a clergyman as well as president of the College of New Jersey; his student, James Madison, could read the Bible in Greek and Hebrew. Roger Sherman published a sermon on the Lord’s Supper; John Dickinson left behind a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, and Samuel Osgood wrote “a 500-page commentary entitled Remarks on the Book of Daniel, and on the Revelations (1794).” Something tells me I’d rather read Dreisbach on Osgood than Osgood on Daniel.

The Founders made a serious push to get the Bible into people’s hands. Elias Boudinot served as the first president of the American Bible Society; John Jay served as the second. John Quincy Adams, Francis Scott Key, and John Marshall served as vice-presidents.

Dreisbach exhibits impressive craftsmanship in his chapters on single verses. His chapter on Proverbs 14:34 (“Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people”) shows his method at its best. He first sets the stage with some appropriate quote from a Founder, places the verse in its biblical context, and proceeds to show the extent to which the writer or speaker used, adapted, or modified the verse.

George Mason’s concern for national righteousness is as striking as it is prophetic:

In a speech in the Constitutional Convention on the corrupting effects of slavery, Mason argued that slavery produces “the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves,” he declared, “is born a petty tyrant.” The scourge of slavery, he continued, will “bring the judgment of heaven on a Country. As nations can not be rewarded or punished in the next world they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes & effects providence punishes national sins, by national calamities.”

When considering Proverbs 29:2 (“When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn”), Dreisbach goes so far as to consider whether the King James Version correctly translates the Hebrew text. He also nicely catalogs the different ways the same Founder could use a verse. For example, George Washington uses Micah 4:4 both as an expression of hospitality (“I should be very happy in seeing you under my vine and fig tree”) and as a picture of religious liberty (in his1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island).

To conclude, let me offer three small criticisms. First, though insightful and enjoyable, chapter 6—on resistance literature in the 16th and 17th centuries—fits inelegantly with the overall theme of reading the Bible with the Founders. Second, Dreisbach occasionally repeats the same stories or offers the same lengthy quotations. (The story of the Great Seal of the United States is told on page 90, again on pages 106–107, and yet again on page 133.) Finally, I have one question about the Founders’ views on liberty. In chapter 9, Dreisbach speaks of an “autonomous individual liberty” familiar to us but less familiar to the Founders. But in chapter 10, he speaks of “an atomistic idea of freedom” that “resonated with many Americans for whom the ‘rugged individual’ was an archetypal persona.” Which is it? It isn’t clear.

Nevertheless, the book is exquisite, rich in insights and encyclopedic in scope. Late in life, Dreisbach tells us, John Adams called the Bible “the best book in the World.” His son John Quincy agreed: “The first and almost the only Book deserving of universal attention is the Bible.” Reading the Bible with the Founding Founders shows how they gave this “best book in the World” near “universal attention”—with near universal results, too, from belief to unbelief, from politics to piety.