- American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War by Eran Shalev
To what, exactly, does the “Judeo” in “Judeo-Christian tradition” refer? Invented by twentieth-century pluralists who wished to uphold America’s heritage of religious heterogeneity and tolerance in the fight against European totalitarianism, “Judeo-Christian” still evokes the idea of an alliance built upon a historical continuum, from Jewish heritage to Christian completion. The story of the “Four Immortal Chaplains,” whose profoundly ecumenical act of self-sacrifice helped to save the lives of more than two hundred American servicemen on the North Atlantic on February 3, 1943, epitomized this view of the United States as a nation whose citizens shared a common religious tradition. The two Protestant ministers, one Catholic priest, and one rabbi aboard the U.S.S. Dorchester were America; their unified utterance of prayers in Hebrew, Latin, and English as the ship went down gave powerful testimony to the idea that “E Pluribus Unum” could have a religious application. The twentieth-century invention of an American Judeo-Christian heritage would not have made sense, however, if it had not been for the fact that Americans already knew, or thought they knew, what the “Judeo” part meant. Its origins lay in earlier times, in the history of American Hebraism and, more specifically, in the history of American readings, interpretations, and applications of the Old Testament.
It is an oft-repeated adage that colonial-era English settlers, especially those of a more Puritan bent, preferred the Old Testament to the New. As Eran Shalev points out, the Hebrew Bible was far more useful than the New Testament as a tool for articulating congregational practices, social policies, and political ideologies. New England Puritans “frequently characterized themselves as the modern equivalents of the Chosen People, as a New Israel,” and the Hebrew Bible suited such purposes perfectly because it was a religious text whose sacred contents could be understood to apply across a range of secular, or at least modern, contexts. (3) The Old Testament’s narrative account of the Hebrews allowed its readers to conceive of “a God [who was] still operative in history.” (5) While several generations of historians have offered interpretations of this New Israel formulation within the colonial era, the study of the Old Testament as a mainstay of early-republic era discourse is a relatively new undertaking. American Zion presents several compelling chapters of groundbreaking research and close readings on this subject. The book concentrates on a succession of case histories, beginning with a study [End Page 36] of Revolutionary War-era sermons by New England ministers and ending with Shalev’s exploration of the various uses to which the Hebrew Bible was put by both pro- and anti-slavery activists in the antebellum period. The emphasis in each chapter is on the versatility of the Old Testament—its applicability to a range of ideological uses across political and cultural spectrums.
Some of Shalev’s most fascinating material takes shape around his reading of the Book of Mormon, which constitutes one of several examples of what he refers to as an Old Testament-inflected “pseudobiblicism.” Whatever its exact origins, the Book of Mormon reads like the Old Testament or, more specifically, like the King James translation of the Old Testament. In its intricate rendering of pre-Columbian American history, it resembles the chronicle of the Jews’ migrations found in the Torah. “It was,” Shalev points out, “first and foremost a historical account of events that took place in America written in biblical language.” (107) What is most important to Shalev, however, is not just the Book of Mormon, but a much wider range of Old Testament-influenced American writing that took shape during the period of the early republic. Shalev’s reading of Smith’s “Gold Bible” acknowledges the “futility” of establishing pseudobiblicism as the explanation for the Book of Mormon’s origin, but, as he points out, establishing a direct causality is more or...