The Bible, the American Revolution and the Constitution

The Christian Post has an article about a new book by Vanderbilt University divinity professor James Byrd called Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution. In it, he correctly argues that Biblical arguments were commonly used to persuade the colonists to support the revolutionary war:

In an interview with The Christian Post, Byrd explained that while doing his research he was “struck by how prominent the Bible was in Revolutionary America.”

“I was struck by how prominent the Bible was in Revolutionary America, not only in sermons but also in political pamphlets, such as Thomas Paine’s extraordinarily influential Common Sense,” said Byrd.

“Colonists were often biblically literate – likely more so than the average American is today. Obviously colonists then did not own as many books as many Americans do today, and the book that was most accessible to them was the Bible.”

Byrd also told CP that certain passages of the Bible were used by different sides in making their arguments for or against Revolution in 18th century America.

This is true. Even Thomas Paine, who would later write The Age of Reason to debunk the validity of the Bible, used an extended argument from the Bible to argue for the revolution in his pamphlet Common Sense. Byrd does not appear to be a David Barton type, however:

Regarding the debate over the spiritual nature of America during its beginnings, Byrd told CP that “it’s more complicated” than a simple question of secular or religious.

“For the most part, patriots were thinking about political liberty, but many saw it connected very closely to religious liberty. The Revolutionary War, for most patriots, was a just war fought for political freedom, not an outright holy war,” said Byrd.

“Even so, it was not that simple…the fact that Thomas Paine, who was certainly not a Christian, used the Bible so extensively in arguing for the Revolution shows us how important biblical arguments were in colonial American societies.”

But this makes it all the more curious, then, that such arguments virtually disappeared a decade later when the Constitution was being written and ratified. The infamous study by Donald Lutz that the Christian Nation apologists love to cite (and lie about) found that, while Biblical arguments were often made in the 1770s and early 1780s, they all but disappeared in 1787 and 1788, when the Constitution was written and ratified. In fact, virtually the only people making Biblical arguments at the time were those who opposed the passage of the Constitution:

The Bible’s prominence disappears, which is not surprising since the debate centered upon specific institutions about which the Bible has little to say. The Anti-Federalists do drag it in with respect to basic principles of government, but the Federalist’s inclination to Enlightenment rationalism is most evident here in their failure to consider the Bible relevant….The debate surrounding the adoption of the Constitution was fought out mainly in the context of Montesquieu, Blackstone, the English Whigs, and major writers of the Enlightenment.

As I’ve pointed out many times, the Federalist Papers, written by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to explain and defend the provisions of the new constitution and persuade Americans to support its ratification, contained not a single reference to the Bible or to Christian theology. As Byrd points out, Americans at the time were Biblically literate and overwhelmingly Christian, so an argument justifying the Constitution on the grounds that it was in line with the Bible would have been a very powerful one. Yet none was even attempted, and in fact the only Biblical arguments being used at the time were in opposition to the new constitution, which the religious right of that day condemned as a Godless document.

Comments

  1. Drew says

    It always seemed pretty obvious to me that the reason public arguments of the Common Sense sort, took on a religious bent because it was the only propaganda the masses could grasp. Most people, then, were illiterate but got weekly readings during church from the bible.

    If you want to persuade the uneducated yet religious masses to do something, couching it in religious terms is the simplest way.

  2. eric says

    @1 – Common Sense was written in 1776 while the Federalist papers were published starting in 1787. I’ don’t think ‘the masses’ underwent a radical change in 10 years.

    Personally I think it has more to do with the nature of the request. In 1776 the revolutionaries are asking people to go to war. To abandon their jobs for some unspecified amount of time, risk their lives, and shoot other people. Things normal everyday humans might be loathe to do even for a good cause. Powerful emotional appeals are the way to go for that. I think even today, that’s the case – to get people to go to war you appeal to their feelings moreso than their reason. You want them worked up, not coldly calculating the risk/benefit of fighting other people to the death. In contrast, if the point is to get people to change state laws, go to conventions, ratify constitutions, etc., i can see how you might want to do the exact opposite – reduce the emotionalism and give them maximum mental space to think, to use the rational centers of the brain. So for that, you actively avoid pushing the emotional buttons.

    That’s my hypothesis, and I’m sticking to it…until a better idea comes along. :)

  3. Kevin S says

    Actually, I think it had more to do with who the request was being made to. To go to war, you needed troops, so you had to talk the masses into going to the front lines to fight. Most average people of the 18th Century didn’t have copies of the classics or the enlightenment writers lying around, but everybody had a family Bible and understood references to the Bible. To get the Constitution ratified, you had to talk elite members of state assemblies into voting for it. Those people did have access to the Enlightenment writers, so you could talk to them strictly with those references.

  4. dxdt says

    Byrd has obviously missed the entire point of “Common Sense.” Paine’s goal was to debunk every (at least semi-worthy) argument against breaking away from England that he had heard of. His argument for the Bible supporting the revolution is only in there because there were scriptural arguments being made against revolution. To take that example and say, “shows us how important biblical arguments were in colonial [overly broad for a scholar; should be revolutionary:dxdt] American societies;” would also be to argue, “it shows how important the idea of the ease to build an effective coastal navy was in colonial American societies.”

    I’m not stating that religion didn’t play a part in Revolutionary American intellectual outlook (however, religion in general, was at relative nadir at the time), but to use CS as indication of it’s importance? Way off the mark.

  5. Scott Hanley says

    I recently picked up Thomas S. Kidd’s God of Liberty, on the role of religion in the creation of the Revolution (not the Constitution). I’m struck by how the politicized colonial preachers didn’t quite seem to grasp that the English Civil War was over and that their side had won the Glorious Revolution. To hear them, you’d think that the Stuarts were still on the throne and plotting to make the country Catholic again.

    Of course, there was no such plan. But every action that the government took to tighten up their economic regulation was seen as part of a master plan for total domination – and the loss of local religious hegemony seemed, if anything, the worst part of it. Perversely, the fact that the government did not suppress Catholicism in newly-acquired Canada wasn’t taken as evidence that local religion would remain unmolested. Instead, it was taken as proof that the government was secretly pro-Catholic (keeping in mind that, to a Congregationalist in Massachusetts, an Anglican and a Catholic were just twin children of the Devil).

    I’ve come to think that, in one respect, David Barton is right — historians have tended to downplay the role that religion played in the Revolution. Perhaps that’s because leaders like John Hancock really were more concerned about economic issues. But the mob weren’t going to make a revolution for John Hancock’s bank account; they might make a revolution to maintain their religion. More and more, I see the Minutemen in the same terms as today’s Tea Partiers, and the comparison isn’t flattering.

  6. rapiddominance says

    Some people are using religion to condemn the actions of George Zimmerman.

  7. rapiddominance says

    On the other hand, others are using secular irrationality to go after Zimmerman.
    People will be people, I suppose.

  8. dxdt says

    Scott (#6),

    “historians have tended to downplay the role that religion played in the Revolution.” I would tend to disagree (Gordon Wood comes immediately to mind as an historian who has addressed the issue); the problem is that cause and effect in historical context is complex. For example I read one book where the author specifically argues that it was evangelical Christianity’s outlook of “everyman his own priest” that lead to the revolutionary acceptance of overthrowing the king. An interesting thesis if looked at in evangelical communities (where I tend to think that the author is largely correct), but he applies it across all of revolutionary America. That is just plain overstating the influence of religion. Virginia had an established Anglican religion (e.g. there was an established, permanent hierarchy), and they didn’t all of sudden become evangelicals prior to being one the most ardent colonies in support of independence. Instead, in the primary sources, you read about VA Anglican preachers that were not sufficiently pro-independence being forced from the pulpit and replaced. In that case the question should be, “How did revolutionary political sentiments affect religious outlooks?” And that is a role that is downplayed.

  9. arresi says

    @ Scott (#6)

    So, then, the argument would be that prior to the American Revolution, there was still lingering doubt in the colonies about the British Crown and Parliament’s commitment to religious freedom, which lead colonial patriots to use religious arguments for independence. The success of the American Revolution gave citizens more confidence in their religious freedom (either because of the religious freedom clauses of the state constitutions or because they could now elect their officials), so that religious arguments were only made by those least confident in the continued power of the states or in the power of elections over officials (both known concerns of the anti-Federalists). That seems plausible.

  10. says

    Thomas Paine would have had a really hard sell with:

    “These are times that try men’s intellectual acumen and moral underpinnings.”

    @7&8:

    Whether it’s religious or secular motives that compel people to condemn that piece-of-shit, Zimmerman, is really immaterial.

    There’s a nice discussion going on about that on an earlier thread, you might want to go there to weigh in.

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