The Founders Read the Bible. But They Also Read David Hume.

Steven Green writes with great common sense and a refreshing absence of ideology. He makes a very important point: that the founders, like the rest of the American public, were “religiously literate,” steeped in biblical lore and language. The Bible and the stories in it were the common possession of pretty much the entire American public to a degree that is hardly comprehensible today. Biblical analogy was the most obvious method for eighteenth-century politicians to communicate with the people, and as Dr. Green points out, they all did it, even those who had private doubts: thus, George Washington’s fondness for Micah’s image of the vine and the fig tree tells us nothing about Washington’s personal beliefs but a great deal about his ability to communicate in a manner that would move his audience. In today’s culture such a rhetorical reliance on scripture would be impossible, not only because secularists would take exception but because large swathes of the public, including (especially?) highly educated people, have little to no knowledge of the Bible. A modern politician is far more likely to draw analogies from football or baseball, or from some very familiar cultural product like Star Wars or Harry Potter, than from scripture. Insofar as we have a common culture anymore, sports and entertainment are the things that constitute it.

Dr. Green is also right, I think, when he states that the fact that “religion influenced the founders’ thinking, or that they used common religious terms in their writings, indicates little about their personal devotion or the degree to which they intended to incorporate Christian principles into the organs of government they helped create,” and that “Enlightenment rationalism and secular Whig political ideas” were also highly significant to the founders and their theories of government. And he does well to remind us that it is very, very difficult to “fit” individual founders into any modern religious category, and probably pointless to try.

Thomas Kidd makes exactly the same point in his response: “the debate about deism runs into conceptual dead ends, partly because our classic definition of a deist doesn’t serve us well historically.” But Dr. Kidd falls into the same trap that I feel Dr. Hall did, in asserting that the rhetorical use of scripture at that time is proof, or at least a strong indication, of belief. Does Jefferson’s reference, during his second inaugural address, to the Israelites and providence mean that he himself believed in this history? Dr. Kidd claims that “Jefferson likely believed what he was saying.” Really? A perusal of Jefferson’s private correspondence would lead one to think otherwise. “Similarly,” Dr. Kidd claims, “Jefferson really believed that God had created all men equal and given them their unalienable rights. (What he meant by ‘all men’ is hugely controversial.)” I would add that what he meant by “God” is also controversial, and that in fact he wrote that men were endowed with their unalienable rights by “their Creator.” When the word “God” does appear in the text of the Declaration it is in the phrase “Nature and Nature’s God,” which literate people of that time would have understood as a being quite different from the jealous Jehovah of the Old Testament. And when Dr. Kidd writes that Jefferson “was fascinated with Jesus and with the New Testament” I would venture that he was particularly fascinated with Jesus’s remarkable takeover of the Western world: Jefferson himself privately referred to Christianity as “our particular superstition” and, in a remarkable letter to his nephew, urged the young man to read the Bible with the detachment of a scholar. “Shake off all the fears, and servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion…Read the Bible, then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature, you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy and Tacitus….But those facts in the Bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from God. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong, as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature…” Straight David Hume.

I have not read Dr. Kidd’s book on Franklin, but I was very surprised when he wrote that “Franklin was trending back toward his parents’ traditional faith” in old age. His parents’ traditional faith was a staunch Presbyterianism. Franklin’s famous letter to Dr. Ezra Stiles, written just a few weeks before his death in 1790, deserves extensive quotation. While I agree with Drs. Green and Kidd that it is not easy to assign people of the eighteenth century to modern religious categories, the personal creed that Franklin lays out here is a very far cry indeed from the strict Calvinism in which he was brought up:

Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the universe. That he governs it by his providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental points in all sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them.

As for Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think his system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question that I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble. I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as it probably has, of making his doctrines more respected and better observed, especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the unbelievers in his government of the world with any particular marks of his displeasure.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

Response Essays

  • Brooke Allen argues that while the American founders thought virtue was essential to good government, there were other ideals of virtue besides those of religion. She suggests that the idea of civic virtue did much of the work, in the founders’ minds, that was supposed to preserve the republic. She adds that while a large majority of Americans were Calvinists at the time of the founding, the founders owed more of their political thought to Montesquieu than they ever did to Calvin.

  • Faith played a strong role in the American founding, says Prof. Thomas Kidd. But it may not be the role we expect. “Deism” meant several different things at the time, and it’s not always clear what the founders meant when they used the term to describe themselves. And even religious freethinkers in the 18th century would be thoroughly versed in the Bible; this was a mark of education, but not necessarily of orthodoxy.

  • Prof. Steven Green argues that the founders were trying to create a government based on consent, and not on any theory of divine right. The document was not “godless,” because the founders were not godless men themselves. They were concerned, however, that consent remain at the forefront, and so they avoided the language—common at the time—that would have asserted a divine institution.