The Bible and America's Founding

Modern historians discount the role of religion in the events of the past. Because of their secular bias, they prefer to focus on things like trade imbalances, poverty, and technological innovations. These are the things that motivate people to make history, not belief in God and the Bible.


But not every historian is secular. Daniel Dreisbach is a credentialed historian who has spent his life researching America’s founding and the role of religion in that founding. Dreisbach has written a book that you should consider purchasing: Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers.1 His thesis is that the Bible greatly influenced the Founding Fathers’ political views and their vision for the republic they sought to establish.2 Familiarity with the Bible Dreisbach begins by emphasizing that the Founders lived in a world very different from our own. In America in the 1700s, the Bible was a key text used to educate the young. Throughout the colonies, ministers (and their sermons) were held in high esteem, and the Bible was the one book that just about every literate person owned and knew well. In fact, in some colonies, it was illegal not to own a Bible.3


Along this line, Dreisbach includes an anecdote from the correspondence of Benjamin Franklin. The year was 1781, and Franklin was a minister to France. The Reverend Samuel Cooper had sent him a sermon he had preached the previous October. Franklin wrote back to say that he wanted to print the sermon for a European audience. But, Franklin explained, he would need to make some adjustments: “It was not necessary in New England where everybody reads the Bible, and is acquainted with Scripture Phrases, that you should note the Texts from which you took them; but I have observed in England as well as in France, that Verses and Expressions taken from the sacred Writings, and not known to be such, appear very strange and awkward to some Readers; and I shall therefore in my Edition take the Liberty of marking the quoted Texts in the Margin.” 4


Dreisbach observes that this same ignorance is common among modern historians. And since the Founders often cited the Bible as Cooper did (without quotation marks), modern scholars underestimate the role of the Bible in America’s founding because they fail to recognize the biblical language the Founders employed.5 The Founders’ View of the Good Life America’s Founders were attempting to establish a just society. Essential to this endeavor was a vision of what the good life would look like. For many of them, that view was derived largely from the Bible, particularly from Micah 4:4: “They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid.”


The Founders saw in this statement the kind of society they hoped to establish. It would have a government strong enough to protect personal property rights. But the government would also be limited. A government that heavily taxed its citizens was contrary to the vision of Micah 4:4 and was also contrary to the vision of the Founders.6


After demonstrating that George Washington referenced this verse nearly fifty times,7 Dreisbach turns his attention to the Declaration of Independence. The origin and meaning of Jefferson’s famous phrase “the pursuit of happiness” has long been debated. Dreisbach quotes a recent scholar who sees in it the shadow of Micah 4:4.


For Jefferson and his contemporaries, happiness no doubt demanded safety or security, which would have been in keeping with the biblical phrase one colonist after another used to describe the good life—to be at peace under their vine and fig tree with none to make them afraid (Micah 4:4).8 The Need for a Virtuous Public The Founders understood that they were taking a great risk in establishing a republic. Tyrants use the whip to keep the people in line, but in a republic, the people bear rule (through the representatives they choose). For a republic to work, the people must be virtuous. They must fear to do evil even in the absence of a threatening government.


In expressing this point, many Founders appealed to Proverbs 14:34: “Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.” Their purpose in citing this verse was to emphasize that true patriotism was not possible apart from religion and piety. Such a view is at odds with modern scholarship, but it was deeply embedded in the worldview of the founding generation. In a letter to a friend in April 1776, Samuel Adams even claimed that the spreading of irreligion was a ploy used by Britain to defeat independence: “I have long been convinced that our Enemies have made it an Object, to eradicate from the Minds of the People in general a Sense of true Religion & Virtue, in hopes thereby the more easily to carry their Point of enslaving them ... Revelation assures us that “Righteousness exalteth a Nation”—Communities are dealt with in this World by the wise and just Ruler of the Universe ... The diminution of publick Virtue is usually attended with that of publick Happiness, and the publick Liberty will not long survive the total Extinction of Morals.” 9 The Need for Divine Favor One of the most frequently referenced verses by the Founders was Micah 6:8: “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” Why was this verse so important? Dreisbach observes that one reason has to do with the need for divine favor. For a nation to enjoy peace and prosperity, it must have God’s blessing. In Micah 6:8, the Founders saw a recipe for divine favor. If America would obey these admonitions, the Lord would pour out the national blessings needed for survival.10


The most famous use of this verse among the Founders came from the pen of George Washington. In his Circular Letter to the States in June 1783, Washington sought to shape the character of the new nation. These are the closing lines of the letter: “I now make it my earnest pray[er], that God would ... be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.” 11


For Washington, the American experiment could not be successful without the religion of Jesus Christ. Conclusion The study of history is vitally important to the education of the young. We cannot understand who we are as a nation unless we understand where we have come from. We cannot understand where we came from without understanding the Founding Fathers. And we cannot understand the Founding Fathers unless we understand the Book most responsible for shaping them and their world. Here is where secular education fails us. In pushing religion to the margins of our history, it hides from students the most important parts of our history. Or, as Dreisbach puts it, “The increasing biblical illiteracy of the modern age almost inevitably distorts the conception Americans have of themselves as a people, the nation, and their political experiment in self-government.” 12



Dr. Bryan Smith has worked in Christian education for over twenty years. He has been a classroom teacher as well as a textbook author. Currently, he serves at BJU Press as the Bible Integration Senior Manager. In this position, he assists authors and teachers in the work of integrating faith and learning in the classroom. Bryan holds a Ph.D. in Old Testament Interpretation. He and his wife, Becky, have six children.



FOOTNOTES 1. Daniel L. Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). 2. Ibid., p. 6. 3. Ibid., p. 34. 4. Ibid., pp. 5-6. 5. Ibid., p. 4. 6. Ibid., p. 222. 7. Ibid., p. 225. 8. Ibid., p. 226. Dreisbach quotes from Pauline Maier’s American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 134. 9. Ibid., p. 146. 10. Ibid., p. 101. 11. Ibid., p. 100. 12. Ibid., p. 9.