George Washington’s Favorite Bible Verse
And other lessons from two good books on the founding era
I once heard a story from an art teacher who led a college group on a tour of the great cathedrals of Europe. After visiting several, some students asked why so many paintings featured a woman with a baby.
Several historians see a parallel in their field. As our culture has become more secular, we are losing touch with the motivations of past generations. In the case of the American founding era, the Bible was so ubiquitous that people often quoted it without citation, certain that their listeners would catch the allusions. That’s not the case today.
And while we often bemoan the spiritual implications of a “post-biblical culture,” there are academic problems as well. Modern ignorance of the Bible’s message and influence becomes a real barrier to understanding the historical record. And indeed, many recent histories ignore or dismiss the role of the Bible in the thought of the founders.
Two books written in the past few years counter that trend. They remind us of the ways that the Bible—the most accessible and most-read book during the colonial and revolutionary periods—influenced the thinking of the founding generation. Both books—Mark Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word and Daniel Dreisbach’s Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers—are carefully researched and fully annotated, and both are, thankfully, a pleasure to read.
The books will also appeal to those of us struggling to help others engage with the Bible and respond appropriately to its message. As we consider the successes and challenges of people at the same task in past generations, we can find much food for thought.
The motivations of the historical actors
Both authors look carefully and critically at the ways the Bible was used and interpreted by different groups. Noll’s book, part of a planned series on the role of the Bible in American public life, is more comprehensive, addressing the history from Columbus to the end of the Revolutionary War. Dreisbach restricts himself to the founding period, but his book is more interdisciplinary. Readers of this blog will be especially interested in Part II, which offers a careful treatment of the content and images in the Bible passages used (and sometimes misused) by the founders.
The books provide a wealth of historical detail. Did you know that Deuteronomy was the most frequently cited book in the political literature of the founding era, even more so than secular sources like Locke and Montesquieu? Or that George Washington’s favorite verse was Micah 4:4: “But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken it”? Dreisbach’s theological and political exegesis of this passage in historical context is enlightening (chapter 10).
The overall tone of both books is well balanced. Both authors attempt to uncover the differing motivations of the historical actors; to tease out how a passage is being used—for literary, rhetorical, religious, or political reasons—and when passages are used in context or not; and to distinguish, in Noll’s terms, their own “historical judgment” from their “moral judgment” on the topics under discussion.
We rarely experience the Bible alone
Several questions surfaced in my reading. In different ways, both authors ask whether Bible readers were seeking to discern God’s will in Scripture or merely enlisting God in support of some venture or idea. Apparently the founders shared our temptation to use proof texts as a shortcut to claiming God’s favor for things we’ve already decided to do.
Noll pays attention to the question of authority in interpretation. We rarely experience the Bible alone; even the most ardent advocate of sola scriptura will draw on authorities both explicit (traditions, churches, creeds) and implicit (leaders, loyalties, cultural contexts, mental habits, hermeneutical assumptions) in determining the meaning, weight, import, and application of different biblical passages. This has always been the case. Is it ever possible to read the Bible in a completely unfiltered way? Can we even recognize our own assumptions?
For instance, in the time of America’s founding, the book of Exodus was read very differently by slaves, freedom fighters, and defenders of the empire. And what equivalent of “empire” might we be unknowingly defending now? That is, what powers or structures do we assume as normative, do we excuse or defend in our Bible reading? Do we allow our reading of the Bible to question our political positions, economic commitments, or identity group?
Of course things have changed over two-and-a-half centuries. Today we are more sensitized to the marginalized and the Bible’s call for justice. Both authors note that the founding generation generally did not apply their favorite biblical texts on liberty to the chattel slavery around them. But are there other passages and themes that we ignore or misapply today? I for one was struck by the discussion on covetousness in Dreisbach’s chapter 8. Perhaps hearing the voices of these earlier Americans will be helpful.
In some sense, the answers you get from the Bible depend on the questions you put to the Bible. It is often sobering to read these histories. But in another and deeper sense, it is refreshing to see how the Bible stands up to use and abuse. God still speaks through its pages, empowering and unsettling, shaping and reshaping us. Personal engagement with the Scripture will necessarily lead to public interaction. The Bible questions us, and ultimately resists readings and applications that go against its grain.
- Mark A. Noll. In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public life, 1492–1783 (Oxford UP 2016)
- Daniel L. Dreisbach. Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (Oxford UP 2017)
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