Is America New England Writ Large?

Is America New England Writ Large? September 12, 2012

I spent the last couple of days at Duke University where I gave a lecture at a really interesting conference on the Bible in the Public Square.  The conference was sponsored by the Duke Department of Religion, the Duke Center for Jewish Studies, and Southern Methodist University.

What I found particularly interesting about the conference was that many of the speakers assigned with the task of talking about the role of the Bible in public life were scholars of Judaism.  As a result, most of the talks emphasized the influence of the Old Testament on American culture.  (Very little was said about the New Testament). There were sessions on DeMille’s The Ten Commandments,” Psalm 137 and American culture, the Hebrew Bible and the American imagination, and Christian support for Zionism and Israel.

Having been to a few conference where evangelicals and other Protestants have addressed the Bible’s role in American history and culture, I found this Jewish Studies emphasis refreshing.  There was, however, one theme that kept coming up during the conference that raised some red flags.  Almost everyone who talked about the Old Testament influence on American life simply assumed that America was New England writ large.  Indeed, the 17th century Puritans believed that they were a “New Israel,” trained their ministers in Hebrew, and thought that they were God’s new chosen people.  One scholar even argued that if Israel did not exist, Americans would have to invent it.  Sacvan Bercovitch’s book, The American Jeremiad, was cited by several speakers.

While I have no qualms with the argument that the settling of New England was influenced heavily by the Old Testament.  I will admit that American politicians  (most notably Ronald Reagan) have applied John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” metaphor to America.  I will even agree that American exceptionalism might have Puritan roots.  But I wonder if the United States can really be understood as New England writ-large.  I must confess that I need to do more research, but I wonder if southern Anglicans or mid-Atlantic Presbyterians and Dutch Reformed, or Quakers, Moravians, and Lutherans, employed “American Israel” language to explain why they came to the British-American colonies.  And what about the Spanish in the southwest or the French in the Midwest? Why hasn’t the legacy of these groups had the same traction in American life as the Puritans?  I know that America has a long pro-Israel history, but is it really true that if Israel did not exist, Americans would have to invent it?

What do you think?  Is the United States New England writ large?

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  • Thought-provoking question. Based on my experience in South Florida, my answer is a definite no. Here, the influences used to come from the mid-Atlantic states, not so much from New England. And the last generation has seen a huge influx of Catholics from South and Central America, plus Muslims and Hindus from the Caribbean islands.

  • Philip Jenkins

    Could we make a case that American Catholicism for many years was Boston writ large, in terms of its ethnic emphases and attitudes to hierarchy?

  • Tim Beirne

    The “America as New Israel” idea is a theme endorsed by Mason Weems, a southern Anglican/Episcopalian. His national histories repeatedly cast Americans as the new chosen people, particularly in relation to God’s providence. Of course, Weems was writing well after the founding of the new nation and only tangentially related to the Episcopal church by the end of his life.