One of the besetting problems of “Christian America” history writing is that it often interprets biblical quotes from the Founders as evidence that they were personally devout. Sometimes personally devout Founders did also speak in the language of the King James Bible, of course. But a broader range of Founding Fathers – including the skeptical Benjamin Franklin – spoke in the language of the King James because it was the coin of the realm. Even people who had little formal education, like Franklin, (the devout) Patrick Henry, or (the Calvinist-leaning skeptic) Abraham Lincoln thoroughly knew their Bibles from childhood, and spoke its language. So when you observe someone in America before 1877 speaking in the Bible’s phrases, you need to know more about that person before you can declare them a believing Christian.
To cite just one example, consider an exchange between Franklin and John Adams when they were diplomats in Paris during the Revolution. Franklin knew that the Americans always needed fresh infusions of cash from the French. He told Adams – like Franklin, a son of traditional Congregationalists from Massachusetts – that he still had “two of the Christian Graces, Faith and Hope: But my Faith is only that of which the Apostle speaks, the Evidence of Things not seen [Hebrews 11:1].” Those “things not seen” were additional French livres. Although the French loaned America tens of millions, it never seemed like enough. Franklin, referencing the Book of Joshua chapter 9, later complained to Adams that he was “quite sick of my Gibeonite office, that of drawing Water for the whole Congregation of Israel.”
Franklin had the whole of Scripture right at his fingertips. He could use it to make a joke about the difficulty of getting more money out of the French. He could use a fairly obscure passage about the Gibeonites to speak about the difficulty of his diplomatic task – and he could assume that Adams would know exactly what he was talking about. Try out that Gibeonite reference in your average American church today, and you’d likely get a lot of blank looks.
The King James Bible not only undergirded many of the basic concepts of the Founders – like the danger of fallen human nature, and equality by God’s common creation of humankind – but it formed much of the rhetoric they used in public and private. This is why the (skeptic) Thomas Paine included a long section on Israel’s clamoring for a king in I Samuel 8 in Common Sense, the most influential political pamphlet in American history. Similarly, Patrick Henry repeatedly referenced the prophet Jeremiah in his short “Liberty or Death” oration, the most important speech of the American Revolution. That’s the language the Founders spoke, and that their audiences understood.
The Founders themselves stood at various places on a continuum between rationalist skeptics to fervent evangelicals. But most of them knew their Bibles, as did most Americans at the time. Theirs is a lost world of biblical literacy, the passing of which we might lament today. But make no mistake: speaking in the Bible’s phrases does not always mean believing its content.
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