I just received the May 23rd edition of the Weekly Standard in the mail yesterday and stayed up late last night reading David Gelernter’s article about Bible illiteracy in America. It is a powerful read and has me thinking.
Gelernter writes:

“Here is a basic question about America that ought to be on page 1 of every history book: What made the nation’s Founders so sure they were onto something big? America today is the most powerful nation on earth, most powerful in all history–and a model the whole world imitates. What made them so sure?–the settlers and colonists, the Founding Fathers and all the generations that intervened before America emerged as a world power in the 20th century? What made them so certain that America would become a light of the world, the shining city on a hill? What made John Adams say, in 1765, “I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence”? What made Abraham Lincoln call America (in 1862, in the middle of a ruinous civil war) “the last, best hope of earth”?

We know of people who are certain of their destinies from childhood on. But nations?

Many things made all these Americans and proto-Americans sure; and to some extent they were merely guessing and hoping. But one thing above all made them true prophets. They read the Bible. Winthrop, Adams, Lincoln, and thousands of others found a good destiny in the Bible and made it their own. They read about Israel’s covenant with God and took it to heart: They were Israel. (”Wee are entered into Covenant with him for this worke,” said Winthrop. “Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us.”) They read about God’s chosen people and took it to heart: They were God’s chosen people, or–as Lincoln put it–God’s “almost chosen people.” The Bible as they interpreted it told them what they could be and would be. Unless we read the Bible, American history is a closed book.


Gelernter hits on the reality that very few teenagers are learning about the Bible today. If the Bible is studied at all it is as literature but no spirituality is allowed. He writes:

Evidently young Americans don’t know much about the Bible (or anything else, come to think of it; that’s another story). But let’s not kid ourselves–this problem will be hard to attack. It’s clear that any public school that teaches about America must teach about the Bible, from outside. But teaching the Bible from inside (reading Scripture, not just about Scripture) is trickier. You don’t have to believe in the mythical “wall of separation” between church and state–which the Bill of Rights never mentions and had no intention of erecting–to understand that Americans don’t want their public schools teaching Christianity or Judaism.

But can you teach the Bible as mere “literature” without flattening and misrepresenting it? How will you address the differences (which go right down to the ground) between Jews and Christians respecting the Bible? (The question is not so much how to spare Jewish sensibilities–minorities have rights, but so do majorities; the question is how to tell the truth.) What kind of parents leave their children’s Bible education to the public schools, anyway? How do we go beyond public schools in attacking a nationwide problem of Bible illiteracy?

Tricky questions.

Gelernter makes note of the decades of ridicule of the Puritans:

AMERICAN HISTORY STARTS with the emergence of Puritanism in 16th-century Britain. The Bible was central to the founding and development of Puritanism. It was central to the emergence of modern Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries–and modern Britain was important in turn to America and to the whole world.

“Puritan” has been an insult for hundreds of years. (Where are the revisionists when you need one?) It suggests rigid, austere, censorious–exactly the kind of religion that secularists love to hate. The Puritans were rigid and censorious to a point; most caricatures are partly true. But mainly they were Christians who hoped to worship God with their whole lives, body and soul; with a dazzling fervor that still lights up their journals, letters, and poetry 300 years later. In the early 18th century the young Jonathan Edwards (eventually one of America’s greatest theologians) writes of being “wrapped and swallowed up in God.” “The Puritans wanted that fullness of life that made David dance before the ark” (thus J.D. Dow in 1897). America was born in a passionate spiritual explosion. The explosion was created and fueled by the Bible.

Gelernter details the rich history and influence of the Bible in the history of Western Civilization and concludes that to even understand the writings of many historic figures in American history one must understand the Bible.

MEANWHILE, ANGLICAN SETTLERS founded Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607; Pilgrims arriving on the Mayflower founded Plymouth in 1620. Boston and Salem, 1630. The goal of the early Puritan settlers, writes the historian Sidney Ahlstrom, was “a Holy Commonwealth standing in a national covenant with its Lord.” Ahlstrom mentions also that “an ‘Anglicanism’ deeply colored by Puritan convictions would shape the early religious life of Virginia”; so it seems fair to describe the first stages of the invention of America as a basically Puritan affair. The early settlers founded a series of colleges to provide them with pastors and theologians, starting with Harvard in 1636. By 1700, a quarter of a million ex-Europeans and their descendants lived in the future United States.

America’s earliest settlers came in search of religious freedom, to escape religious persecution–vitally important facts that Americans tend increasingly to forget. A new arrival who joined the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1623 “blessed God for the opportunity of freedom and liberty to enjoy the ordinances of God in purity among His people.” America was a haven for devoutly religious dissidents. It is a perfect reflection of the nation’s origins that the very first freedom in the Bill of Rights–Article one, part one–should be religious freedom. “Separation of church and state” was a means to an end, not an end in itself. The idea that the Bill of Rights would one day be traduced into a broom to sweep religion out of the public square like so much dried mud off the boots of careless children would have left the Founders of this nation (my guess is) trembling in rage. We owe it to them in simple gratitude to see that the Bill of Rights is not–is never–used as a weapon against religion.

You cannot understand the literature and experience of 17th-century American Puritans unless you know the Bible. The Pilgrim father William Bradford reports in his famous journal, for example, that his people had no choice but to camp near their landing-place on the Massachusetts mainland. There was no reason to think they could do better elsewhere; after all they could not, “as it were, go up to the top of Pisgah to view from this wilderness a more goodly country.”
Bradford saw no need to explain that he was referring to Moses gazing at the Promised Land from atop Mount Pisgah before his death (Deuteronomy 34:1). To 17th-century readers, the reference would have been obvious–and so too the implied message: These Pilgrims are like biblical Israelites. They are a chosen people who made a dangerous crossing from the house of (British) bondage to a Promised Land of freedom. Other Puritan settlers expressed themselves in similar terms. There is a fascinating resemblance between these Puritan writings and the Hebrew literary form called “melitzah,” in which the author makes his point by stringing together Biblical and rabbinic passages. The Puritans’ world, like traditional Jewish society, was permeated and obsessed with the Bible.

Bradford’s comparison between Puritans and ancient Israel is central to the American revolution and the emergence of the new nation. Americans saw themselves as Israelites throwing off a tyrant’s yoke. Most historians look to the British and Continental philosophers of the Enlightenment, Locke especially, as the major intellectual influence on America’s Founding Fathers and revolutionary generation. To rely on Locke is to rely (indirectly) on the Bible. Yet the Bible itself, straight up, was the most important revolutionary text of all. Consider the seal of the United States designed by a committee of the Continental Congress consisting of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. (They don’t make congressional committees like they used to!) Their proposed seal shows Israel crossing the Red Sea, with the motto “Rebellion to kings is obedience to God.” The pastor Abiel Abbot proclaimed in 1799, “It has been often remarked that the people of the United States come nearer to a parallel with Ancient Israel, than any other nation upon the globe. Hence Our American Israel is a term frequently used; and our common consent allows it apt and proper.”

That Britain and America should both have been inclined to see themselves as chosen peoples made a subterranean connection between them that has sometimes–one suspects–been plainer to their enemies than their friends. Down to the war in Iraq, enemies of America and Britain have suspected an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy to rule the world. In part this is paranoia; but it might also have something to do with Britain’s and America’s Bible-centered cultural histories. The two nations speak of a “special relationship” with each other–besides which, each has a history of believing in its own “special relationship” with the Lord Himself.

THE BIBLE CONTINUED TO SHAPE AMERICAN HISTORY. Some Americans saw the great push westward as fulfilling the Lord’s plan for the United States, modeled on Israel’s settlement of the holy land. Meanwhile, many have noticed that the history of modern Israel resembles earlier American experience. Harassed Europeans arrive in a sparsely settled land in search of freedom. They build the place up and make it bloom. They struggle with the indigenous inhabitants, some of whom are friendly and some not. At first they collaborate with the British colonial authorities; each group winds up in a push for independence and a deadly fight with Britain.

But long before Israel resembled America, America resembled Israel. It’s true that Manifest Destiny–the idea that America was predestined to push westwards towards the Pacific–was less a Bible-based than a “natural rights” approach to America’s place in God’s plans. You didn’t have to consult the Bible to learn about America’s Manifest Destiny; it was just obvious. But America was called back to her biblical faith by no less a man than Abraham Lincoln himself.

As the Civil War approached, both North and South saw their positions in biblical terms. Southern preachers sometimes accused abolitionists of being atheists in disguise. Lincoln rose above this kind of dispute. “In the present civil war it is quite possible,” he wrote in 1862, “that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.”

Lincoln was America’s most “biblical” president–”no president has ever had the detailed knowledge of the Bible that Lincoln had,” writes the historian William Wolf. Lincoln turned to the Bible more and more frequently and fervently as the war progressed. His heterodox but profound Christianity showed him how to understand the war as a fight to redeem America’s promise to mankind. Lincoln never joined a church, but said often that he would join one if “the Saviour’s summary of the Gospel” were its only creed. He meant the passage in Mark and Luke where Jesus restates God’s requirements in terms of two edicts from the Hebrew Bible: to love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Lincoln’s religion was deeply biblical–and characteristically American.
In modern times the Bible was no less important as a shaper and molder of American destiny.

Woodrow Wilson, another intensely biblical president, spoke in biblical terms when he took America into the First World War–on behalf of freedom and democracy for all mankind. Harry Truman’s Bible-centered Christianity was important to his decisions to lead America into the Cold War, and make America the first nation to recognize the newborn state of Israel–to the vast disgust of the perpetually benighted State Department. Reagan’s presidency revolved around Winthrop’s Gospel-inspired image of the sacred city on a hill. George W. Bush’s worldwide war on tyranny is the quintessence of a biblical project–one that sees America as an almost chosen people, with the heavy responsibilities that go with the job.

There is no agreement whether God created the world, but the Bible’s awe-striking creative powers are undeniable. There is no agreement whether God “is not a man that He should lie” (Numbers 23:19), but the Hebrew Bible’s uncanny honesty respecting Israel and its many sins is plain. The faithful ask, in the words of the 139th psalm, “Whither shall I go from Thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from Thy presence?” And answer, “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand shall hold me.” Secularists don’t see it that way; but the Bible’s penetration into the farthest corners of the known world is simple fact. Most contemporary philosophers and culture critics are barely aware of these things, don’t see the pattern behind them, can’t tell us what the pattern means, and (for the most part) don’t care.

There is so much more in this richly researched work. I have noticed in my study of family history that even documents such as wills and deeds mention God or verses from the Bible. My own Puritan ancestors named their children biblical names such as Mehitable, Hannah, Ebenezer, Ezra, Onesephorus, John (also called Increase) etc. I have several ancient family Bibles in my possession which have been well read and are full of old family history and names as well as favorite verses.

The study of family history has been rewarding for me not only to learn about my ancestors but also to learn what mattered to them. God mattered to them.