American Zion investigates what Eran Shalev calls “biblicism” or “Old Testamentism” from the American Revolution to the Civil War. It is a consequential and worthwhile study but not without its errors and omissions, including the lack of a geographical or denominational landscape of his subject. Some familiar tropes about American religion are retained (e.g., chosenness was a source of anxiety). Others have been mercifully discarded (e.g., Exodus and eschatology as overarching interpretations). Despite any shortcomings, however, the essays herein are thoughtful and both general readers and academics will find it a valuable resource.
The virtues of American Zion lie in its treatment of both familiar and unfamiliar subjects. Shalev ably demonstrates that ministers and others were not only “Israelizing America,” they were also “Americanizing Israel.” The ancient Hebrew polities were not merely rhetorical or metaphorical; they often provided literal direction for America. Shalev convincingly demonstrates that the “Hebrew Republic” became a model for American politics, though he overstates the importance of recent scholarship and does not satisfactorily connect Hebraic republicanism [End Page 122] in Britain and Europe to its use in America. Shalev also provides an enlightening overview of Americans wrestling with the possible identity of Indians as lost Israelites. He tells a fascinating story of how American popular histories written between 1740 and 1850, in the style of the King James Bible (“pseudobiblicism”), prepared the way for the Book of Mormon. He convincingly demonstrates how antislavery arguments distanced America from ancient Israel and made the comparison less appealing. There are entertaining narratives about Mordecai Manuel Noah’s failed attempt to establish a biblical government on Grand Island near Niagara Falls, though what this says about American “Old Testamentism” in general is unclear.
Along with these virtues are evident shortcomings, however. Shalev relies too heavily on secondary sources in his characterization of the religious development of America. He argues that Americans turned to the New Testament in a substantial way only after 1820. How did he miss numerous, if not ubiquitous, citations of Romans 13, I Peter 2, Galatians 5, or Matthew 5—some of the most cited texts in political sermons between 1763 and 1800? If anything, the increased usage of the New Testament in the early nineteenth century that Shalev notes was not simply due to “multitudes” becoming attuned to the message of redemption (p. 151). While there was certainly a lot of gospeling on the expanding frontier, spending any time with sermons prior to 1820 will disabuse one of the notion that the New Testament ever played second chair to the Old in private or public Christianity in America. What Shalev overlooks is that Americans since the Second Great Awakening were increasingly willing to stretch the Gospel in social directions as evangelicalism matured and seeds were sown for religiously motivated progressivism. As for the New Testament being used in Lincoln’s eulogies more than Washington’s (p. 157), it was obviously much easier to make the martyred Lincoln a national Christ figure who bore the sins of slavery and war.
Shalev’s treatment of classical republicanism in America is also disappointing. He returns to the theme of his earlier monograph, Rome Reborn on Western Shores (2009), which demonstrated the influence [End Page 123] of Rome on early America. While it is true that Americans blended the Bible with classical republicanism in their political thinking, they were hardly the first Protestants, or Christians, to do so. What Shalev never precisely addresses is what the enduring legacy of that intersection is (given that classical republicanism faded in the early nineteenth century) or whether the Bible can stand on its own conceptually as a political source. Was America really only “Rome reborn” all along, or was it, indeed, as he argues here, a new Zion? This distinction needs a much more precise treatment. Sometimes Shalev seems to argue that the Bible was only classical republicanism for the masses. Elsewhere he settles on the metaphor of an “amalgam fused...