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Today’s guest post is from Daniel L. Dreisbach, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C.  He has authored or edited 10 books, including Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press, 2017), from which this article is adapted.  You can follow him on Twitter at @d3bach

John Adams, in his retirement, was disheartened.  What had his life in politics counted for? he wondered.

The renewal in 1805 of a 30-year friendship with Doctor Benjamin Rush reinvigorated him.  Their frank correspondence, touching on all manner of topics, lifted his spirits.  "Dr. Rush's letters are of inestimable value to me," the former president recalled.

A Philadelphia physician, social reformer, and a venerated signer of the Declaration of Independence, Rush was respected by the leading political figures of the day.  He would later negotiate a rapprochement between former presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson a decade after the bitter political campaign of 1800 had left their relationship in tatters.

In one conversation about the "perfectibility of man" and religion's role in making "men and nations happy," both Rush and Adams lamented the moral decay they witnessed in the world around them.  "By renouncing the Bible," Rush interjected, "philosophers swing from their moorings upon all moral Subjects. . . .  It is the only correct map of the human heart that ever has been published.  It contains a faithful representation of all its follies, Vices & Crimes."  He then concluded:  "All Systems of Religion, morals, and Government not founded upon it, must perish, and how consoling the tho[ugh]t! -- it will not only survive the wreck of those Systems, but the World itself.  'The Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it [Matt. 16:18].'"

"The Bible," Adams promptly responded, "contains the most profound Philosophy, the most perfect Morality, and the most refined Policy, that ever was conceived upon Earth.  It is the most Republican Book in the World, and therefore I will still revere it. . . .  [W]ithout national Morality," he continued, "a Republican Government cannot be maintained."

Adams, as I note in my book Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, was not alone among his contemporaries in making this remarkable claim.  John Dickinson, the acclaimed "penman of the Revolution," for example, similarly observed, "The Bible is the most republican Book that ever was written."  Such sentiments were common in the political discourse of the age.

The Bible is many things to the Christian.  It is God's Word; "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27); a guiding lamp (Ps. 119:105); and a divine handbook "for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16).

But is it a republican book?  What's republican about the Bible?

The founding fathers were obsessed with all things republican, even at times wearing togas like the republican leaders in ancient Rome.  They studied great republican leaders and theorists from both ancient and modern times.

To the founders, republicanism meant, at least, this:  popular government, committed to the rule of law, in which government authority is derived from the consent of the governed and exercised through freely and fairly chosen representatives of the people.

On July 4th, 1776, the patriots threw off the monarchy and, pledging to each other their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor, embarked on a bold experiment in republican self-government.

First Prayer in Congress, September 1774, in Carpenters Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Copy of print by H. B. Hall after T. H. Matteson., 1931 - 1932.  National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

First Prayer in Congress, September 1774, in Carpenters Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Copy of print by H. B. Hall after T. H. Matteson., 1931 – 1932. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Although they held a wide range of views about Jesus, salvation, and even the Bible's divine origins, the founding generation looked to the Bible for insights into human nature, civic virtue, social order, political authority and other concepts essential to the establishment of a new political society.  Many saw in Scripture political and legal models - such as republicanism, separation of powers, and due process of law - that they believed enjoyed divine favor and were worthy of emulation in their polities.

There were Americans, for example, who believed the Hebrew "republic," which encompassed approximately a half millennium of Jewish history from the exodus until Saul's coronation, was a model of and divine precedent for a republican government well designed to promote political prosperity.  Political discourse in conventions, pamphlets, and political sermons of the founding era includes numerous appeals to the Hebrew republic as a model for their own political experiment.

In an influential 1775 Massachusetts election sermon, Samuel Langdon, the president of Harvard College and later a delegate to New Hampshire's constitutional ratifying convention, opined:  "The Jewish government, according to the original constitution which was divinely established, . . . was a perfect Republic. . . .  The civil Polity of Israel is doubtless an excellent general model . . .; at least some principal laws and orders of it may be copied, to great advantage, in more modern establishments."

The influential founder Roger Sherman, who participated in framing both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. similarly extolled "the civil polity of the Hebrews," which he said "was planned by Divine Wisdom" and was a commendable exemplar of civil government.

Most of what the founders knew about the Hebrew commonwealth they learned from the Bible.  They were well aware that ideas like republicanism found expression in traditions apart from the Hebrew experience, and, indeed, they studied these traditions both ancient and modern.  The republic described in the Hebrew Scriptures, however, reassured pious Americans that republicanism was a political system that enjoyed divine favor.

But for Adams, more important than the model of Hebraic republicanism, the Bible was republican because it was an indispensable handbook for republican citizenship.  In particular, the Sacred Text, more than any other source, taught the civic virtues required of citizens in order for republican self-government to succeed.

Historian James H. Hutson described the essential connections among religion, virtue, and republican self-government as "the founding generation's syllogism":  "virtue and morality are necessary for free, republican government; religion is necessary for virtue and morality; religion is, therefore, necessary for republican government."

The political discourse of the founding era is replete with expressions of religion's vital contributions to a republican regime.  This notion was espoused by Americans from diverse religious, intellectual, and political traditions.  David Ramsay, a delegate to the Continental Congress and the first major historian of the American Revolution, expressed this idea succinctly in 1789:  "Remember that there can be no political happiness without liberty; that there can be no liberty without morality; and that there can be no morality without religion."  Benjamin Rush similarly opined in 1786:  "Without [religion], there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments."

A self-governing people, in short, had to be a virtuous people who were controlled from within by an internal moral compass, which would replace external control by an authoritarian ruler's whip and rod.  The whip and rod were clearly unacceptable for a free, self-governing people.  A moral people respected social order, legitimate authority, oaths and contracts, private property, and the like.  For these Americans, the Bible was the well-spring of religion, and biblical morality was the source of this essential virtue.  Therefore, many founders regarded the Bible as indispensable to a regime of republican self-government and liberty under law.

This is why John Adams, believing that "without national morality a republican government cannot be maintained" and that "the Bible contains . . . the most perfect morality, and the most refined policy, that ever was conceived upon earth," described the Bible as "the most republican book in the world."

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13 thoughts on “What America’s Founders Really Thought About the Bible”

  1. John S says:

    I know David Barton gets beat up for being misleading if not purposefully erroneous. But he helped me get to the place of seeing that the Bible was the most influential source in the thinking of the founding fathers (broadly speaking) – regardless of their individual personal views about God and doctrine. So is America a ‘Christian nation’? I don’t know exactly what that means, but I would say it is a nation founded on Biblical principles. Agree?

    1. EqualTime says:

      As an atheist (raised Catholic) I can agree that Biblical principals influenced our Founding Fathers, which is self evident. As noted in the article, John Adams appreciated some of the moral pronouncements of the text, as did Deist Jefferson, who incorporated them in his “Jefferson Bible”, which denied the divinity and metaphysical aspects of the New Testament in favor of simple concepts such as “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Here’s my syllogism to counter “religion is necessary for virtue and morality” – The Bible contains verses supporting virtue and morality. The Bible was written by men without the help a god. Therefore a Supreme Being is not required for men to pursue virtue and morality.

      1. Nick says:

        Your syllogism is flawed.

    2. Conrad says:

      Yes Mr. Barton gets attacked by non christian types, but that is Satan’s way. Even though Mr. Barton has original documentation to the contrary they still try to discredit him.

      Were the founders guided by Biblical principles? Yep, even the 3 known deists were influenced by them, but deism in those days was quite different than what we think of it today.

      Is America a christian nation? I prefer what Patrick Henry said, mainly because these united Stated allow people to practice their faith as long as it does not violate the civil or natural law of God, as in sacrifice involving humans and animals and whatnot, but Patrick Henry said, America is more so a nation of christians as opposed to a christian nation.

      1. Yochanan Heimeyer says:

        We agree, Judeo/Christian in nature, definitely influenced our Founders and the “morality” of it’s citizens. Whereas the Muslim Community, would be in conflict with our Declaration and Constitution, as they embrace Sharia Law, which is to the Contrary or any other religious or nonreligious Groups, should not be citizens of our STATE.

      2. Michael Teeter says:

        David Barton gets attacked ruthlessly by the vast majority of Evangelical history professors as well, not just non-Christians (unless you consider every person who disagrees with him a “non-christian types, which would of course be question begging). Virtually nobody with a terminal degree in history teaching at a Evangelical school finds his claims credible. For instance you can read his spats with John Fea at Messiah College, considered perhaps the foremost Evangelical historian, in numerous place or read the letter posted below by Jared S. Burkholder of Grace College and posted on the personal blog of Chris Gehrz of Bethel University (who I had the pleasure of studying under).

    3. Patricia L Snyder says:

      The founding fathers were educated in universities that required chapel and reading of the bible every day of its pupils. These men were, for the most part, raised up to respect their elders, and do right, based on the home, church, and community values, all devised from the scriptures. Yes, America is a christian nation that has allowed, or even encouraged, itself to become perverse and corrupt. The statesmen and women of today, and the judges in the courts, seem to delight in defying the law of christian foundations.

    4. Yochanan Heimeyer says:

      Yes, we agree, our nation was founded, by men of character, on “Christian principles”. However, to be characterized as “a christian nation”, would mean only Christians could be citizens, leaving out Judaism, as well as other minority groups that express themselves differently.

  2. Fabulous information here! I hope America will awaken in time! God bless! If you have time, here is a take on this from me:

  3. Chris says:

    This is what the Rev. Jedidiah Morse had to say in 1799. It still stands true today!

    “To the kindly influence of Christianity we owe that degree of civil freedom, and political and social happiness which mankind now enjoys. In proportion as the genuine effects of Christianity are diminished in any nation, either through unbelief, or the corruption of its doctrines, or the neglect of its institutions; in the same proportion will the people of that nation recede from the blessings of genuine freedom, and approximate the miseries of complete despotism. All efforts to destroy the foundations of our holy religion, ultimately tend to the subversion also of our political freedom and happiness. Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican forms of government, and all the blessings with flow from them, must fall with them.”

  4. Bobby G. says:

    In the 1870’s, the Supreme Court examined the evidence of our nation’s founding, and concluded that, “..the United States is a Christian nation, and anyone who was espoused to deprecate Christianity in America, was considered tantamount to exhibiting treason!”

    So people, we need to get the word out to our fellow citizens that godless and “liberal” attitudes that attempt to silence and over-rule Christian /Biblical principles in our nation, is equivalent to being a traitor!! Gee…this is terrible news for the democrats; who, by the way, wanted to keep slavery because of its economic benefit. ( A little extra FYI for ya’ ! )

    1. Michael Teeter says:

      I cannot find that quote in any Supreme Court case, do you have a citation (i.e. 111 S.Ct. 1111 or 111 US 1111)?

  5. James says:

    It is Republican because the Founding Fathers recognized the ‘Depravity of Human Nature’ [in one form or another, for one reason or another] and limited the size of gov and divided power because of it. It is the Socialistic idea that some elite [socialist] men should have power over others that is the problem.

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Thomas S. Kidd, PhD

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, and the author of many books, including Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father  (Yale, 2017); George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale, 2014) and Baptists in America: A History with Barry Hankins (Oxford, 2015). You can follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his weekly author newsletter.

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