- Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers by Daniel L. Dreisbach
Bible, Scriptures, Christianity, Protestantism
The Bible teaches Christians that their faith begins with the Word. Recent scholarship teaches historians of the early republic that their field has witnessed a return of the Word. A bookshelf with recent titles about the Bible in the early United States would include Eran Shalev, American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War (New Haven, CT, 2013); James P. Byrd, Sacred Scripture, [End Page 707] Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution (Oxford, UK, 2013); and Mark A. Noll, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783 (Oxford, UK, 2015). Daniel L. Dreisbach’s Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers is a significant recent addition. As the title suggests, Dreisbach’s subject is biblical literacy. The creation of the United States occurred in a biblically literate culture. Although few scholars would challenge this observation, Dreisbach argues that historians have failed to recognize the high biblical literacy of the nation’s founders. According to Dreisbach, the Bible permeated “both the private expressions and the public pronouncements of those who shaped the new nation and its civic institutions” (3).
Dreisbach focuses primarily on the words of men active in American public life between 1760 and 1800. His subjects are all familiar to historians of the period. He includes individuals of national prominence such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams but also regional elites such as ministers and state-level politicians. Despite their differences, Dreisbach argues that these men were all intimately familiar with the Bible, in particular the authoritative English translation in the King James Bible.
Recognizing this common biblical literacy, Dreisbach seeks to explain “the Bible’s influence on the founders’ political discourse and their experiment in republican self-government” (6). Dreisbach’s emphasis on the role of influence is one of his book’s principal interpretive contributions. His capacious definition of biblical influence considers the Bible as a source of theological lessons, political references, and literary allusions. Dreisbach is interested in explaining how the people in his study used the Bible in their public endeavors rather than merely what they believed about the Bible. A common biblical literacy thus influenced Thomas Paine’s critique of the Bible in The Age of Reason just as it influenced a Connecticut minister’s election sermon that extolled biblical teachings. Ultimately, Dreisbach devotes his book to exploring how leaders of the founding generation used widely familiar biblical texts in varied and sometimes competing ways to inform and shape a new political order of their own making. With this approach, Dreisbach argues for the Bible’s place alongside other intellectual influences on the founding era, including Enlightenment philosophy, republicanism, and British constitutionalism.
Dreisbach’s book consists of nine main chapters divided into two parts. The book’s first part includes three thematic chapters about the [End Page 708] Bible’s influence on specific founders and the larger political culture. Dreisbach’s interpretations of Jefferson’s and Washington’s biblical literacy are among the more noteworthy insights from part one. Dreisbach challenges claims that Jefferson excised all references to the supernatural in his abridged versions of the Gospels. Dreisbach also argues that Washington’s thought seems less inscrutable in light of the biblical allusions he frequently used in his private correspondence.
The book’s second part is longer than the first, and it exhibits greater methodological innovation. Dresibach dedicates each chapter to a single biblical text or a few closely related biblical texts that appealed to writers’ political concerns. Dreisbach braids exegesis with historical interpretation to understand the bible passages as theological statements and also texts that changed meaning over time and by context. In a standout chapter on a people’s right to resist unjust authorities, Dresibach explains Whig interpretations that transformed biblical commands of civic obedience into justifications for rebellion. Sixteenth-century Protestants devised this mode of “resistance theology” (112...