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  • The Founders and the Bible by Carl J. Richard
  • Adam Jortner
The Founders and the Bible. By Carl J. Richard. ( Lanham, Md., and other cities: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016. Pp. x, 385. $42.00, isbn 978-1-4422-5464-0.)

Carl J. Richard makes an interesting move at the beginning of this study of the Bible in the writings of the American revolutionaries: rather than rely on the very famous Founders (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin), he instead widens the circle to about thirty "fairly orthodox [End Page 400] founders," including John Witherspoon, Elias Boudinot, Benjamin Rush, and others (p. 2). Why not take these men (and they are all men) and examine their reading of the Bible to ascertain what the Founders thought about religion? That is a nifty idea, and a full discussion of the biblical thoughts of a collection of less-prominent Founders would make for a thoughtful book. Unfortunately, Richard almost immediately claims that many of the Founders were orthodox Christians as opposed to Deists, as though such positions were mutually exclusive. Soon thereafter Richard casually suggests that the Founders were also all abolitionists, led on by that same Christian faith. Audacity can be a virtue, but claims like these are so out of tune with current historiographical thinking that they would each require their own volume (if not several).

Moreover, Richard takes the copious biblical references by the Founders as an acknowledgment of a uniform biblical norm. Traditional Protestant positions on the Bible as elucidated by some Founders are paired with much vaguer moral or religious statements by other Patriots to create the illusion of a standard "biblical" outlook. Consider Richard's discussion of the afterlife; he writes, "The biblical doctrine of the afterlife provided the founders with priceless comfort" (p. 229). John Jay, for example, consulted 1 Corinthians 15—Paul's explanation of Christ's atonement—when his wife died. Richard then also cites James Madison's and Benjamin Franklin's references to what the former termed '"a future State'" as another case of a "biblical" argument by the Founders (p. 225). Those are radically divergent ideas of heaven, but Richard passes over the differences. This book seemingly assumes that since the idea of an afterlife is found in the New Testament, all ideas concerning an afterlife are therefore biblical, and thus, the Founders were biblical thinkers.

Elsewhere, Richard undertakes to prove the Founders' passion for the Bible by citing Charles Cotesworth Pinckney's participation in the Bible Society of Charleston. He follows that by writing, "John Marshall urged his progeny to study the Bible" (p. 55). The Marshall letter justifying this claim, however, refers only to "Religion"—not to the Bible at all. Such an approach risks conflating the Bible with Christianity and Christianity with religion, an easy equation few Christians or Founders would agree with.

Nor does Richard get his Bible right. He claims at one point that in the Hebrew Bible, "there is never any instruction to convert Gentiles by force" (p. 290). Deuteronomy says otherwise: "ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them" (12:3). Technically, the Israelites did not convert Gentiles; they killed them. Nevertheless, it is hard to justify Richard's contention that the Bible unequivocally instructs each person to "make a free choice regarding whether to follow God" (p. 290).

Indeed, Richard has a tendency to assume that the Bible is a self-contained volume with a single message. He critiques the postmillennial urge of some Founders by writing that postmillennialism "contradicted biblical teachings regarding the universal depravity of humanity, the apocalyptic nature of the end times, and the necessity of the Messiah's global rule." Americans who believed in a peaceful, human-driven millennium were "arrogant" and "forgot biblical teachings" (p. 277). For Richard the popularity of universalist and [End Page 401] postmillennial ideas in early America was not cultural or intellectual; it was wrong. Richard is not, therefore, merely analyzing what the Founders thought about the Bible; he is telling us the proper interpretation of the Bible. That...


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