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The Bible as Supreme Literary Influence[1]

The Bible, more than any other written word, informed the world of the founding fathers. It was so influential because the culture was overwhelmingly Protestant raised on the doctrines of the Renaissance and Reformation. It was the most accessible book in 17th and 18th century America. The breadth and depth of its influence on the culture are difficult to overstate. The English Bible had a profound impact on language also. It left its mark on how Americans of the age approached education, law, and politics. And it informed the founding generation’s views on civil government, including the structure, institutions, and processes of government. Biblical language was woven into official proclamations, political discourse, judicial opinions, private correspondence, and last wills and testaments. The language, themes, and rhythms of the English Bible were integral to the culture.

The English Bible that shaped the world of the Great Awakening and the Founding Fathers was the King James Version.  The Geneva Bible had been the preferred version of the Pilgrims and Puritans, but England was no longer printing Geneva Bibles.  King James produced his translation to rid himself of the Geneva Bible and its liner notes which spoke against tyranny. By 1711, the King James version was now one hundred years old and firmly established as the English version of all Anglo-English people of the world.  Countless generations of men and women, boys and girls, through this period learned to read with the King James Bible in front of them. For centuries no other printed text was more available to Americans. This fact alone recommended it as a primary textbook for a literary education.

Probate inventories from the colonial period revealed that the Bible was found in many homes, and often it was the only book a family owned. A cherished household possession, Bibles were often passed down from one generation to the next.

Noah Webster recognized the King James version of the Bible’s impact on culture and language when he said, “the language of the Bible has no inconsiderable influence in forming and preserving our national language.”

When the war for American Independence disrupted the importation of English Bibles from England, shortages of the sacred text grew acute. In early 1781, the Philadelphia printer Robert Aitken petitioned the continental Congress to endorse the publication of “A neat edition of the holy Scriptures for the use of schools,” and to permit him to print and sell his edition of the Bible “under the authority of Congress.”

The publishing venture was completed in September 1782. Following inspection of the printed text by the congressional chaplains, Congress passed a resolution “recommending this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States.”

Believe it or not, some of the Founders objected to the Bible being used in schools. Thomas Jefferson stirred up controversy when he wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia, that he objected to “putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the school children at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious inquiries.”[2]

John Locke, years before, had echoed similar sentiments. For a time, Noah Webster also objected to the Bibles use in school because he was afraid that if it were used as a school book, it may “lessen the reverence which mankind ought to have for the Supreme Being,” and that children may grow to resent it after being taught to recite it over and over again. He later changed his opinion.

Other founders vehemently objected to the objections of Jefferson and others. Benjamin Rush was one who said, “the sooner we begin to read the Scriptures the more we shall probably be attached to them.” He added, “If the Bible is not read in schools … then it is seldom read in any subsequent period of life.”

Fisher Ames, an influential member of the First Federal Congress, similarly recommended the Scriptures as a textbook. “Should not in the Bible regain the place at once held as a school book? Its morals are pure, its examples captivating and noble. In no book is there such good English, so pure and so elegant; and by teaching all from the same book they will speak alike, and the Bible will justly remain the standard of language as well as of faith.”

John Adams wrote to Benjamin Rush on February 2, 1807, that “the Bible contains the most profound philosophy, the most perfect morality, and the most refined policy, that ever was conceived upon earth. It is the most Republican book in the world, and therefore I will still revere it….Without national morality a Republican government cannot be maintained.”

Patrick Henry reportedly said, “[The Bible] is a book worth more than all the other books that were ever printed.”

John Jay, President of the Continental Congress, co-author of The Federalist papers, and first Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, opined, “the Bible is the best of all books, for it is the Word of God, and teaches us the way to be happy in this world and in the next. Continue therefore to read it and to regulate your life by its precepts.”[3]

When George Washington resigned as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army he offered his disinterested political advice and “final blessing” to the country.  In his speech he remarked that this was the perfect moment in human history for a revolution and creation of a new government. He said, “The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period, the researches of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent, the Treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labours of Philosophers, Sages and Legislatures, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our forms of Government; the free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension of Commerce, the progressive refinement of Manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have had a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of Society. At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a Nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own.”

Even those founders who rejected the Bible as God’s Word, or rejected the supernatural elements of it, were still very biblically literate people, and many of them thought it a perfect guide for morality. Among them, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Ethan Allen, and Thomas Paine all expressed some level of skepticism or even contempt for the Bible, yet they knew it cover-to-cover, and used it in their arguments. For example, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) asserted that monarchy was “First introduced into the world by the heathens,” and it cannot “be defended on the authority of scripture; for the will of the Almighty, as declared by Gideon and the prophet Samuel expressly disapproves of government by kings.”[4] No generation of American statesman was more theologically informed than the founding generation.

On the other hand, multiple founders were trained in theology and even served in ministry. John Witherspoon is usually cited as the primary example because he signed the Declaration of Independence while wearing his clerical robes, but there were many others. Among them, Abraham Baldwin of Georgia studied theology at Yale College, and later served as a minister and tutor at his alma mater before leaving to become a chaplain in the Continental Army and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Lyman Hall and Robert Treat Paine served as clergymen, and William Hooper was trained for ministry but pursued a vocation in law much to the disappointment of his father, an Episcopal clergyman. John Jay and Roger Sherman studied the Scriptures, and wrote on religious themes. Noah Webster produced his own edition of the Bible, published in 1833.  There are many other examples.

The reverence for the Bible among the founders is also apparent by the fact that one of the first acts of the Continental Congress that convened in Philadelphia in September 1774 was to call for a minister to read scripture and lead the assembled delegates in prayer. At the first, precedent setting presidential inauguration under the new constitution, George Washington took the prescribed oath of office — a decidedly religious act — with his hand on a Bible and then, in the custom of the common law, he kissed the sacred book. Washington also, in his Farewell Address of 1796, famously said, “Religion and morality are indispensable supports” for “political prosperity.”

From John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” (Matt. 5:14) to Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 “House Divided” speech (Matt. 12:25, Mark 3:25), the Bible is frequently baked in to the rhetoric of the founding era. Everyone was so familiar with the most minute details of scripture, that it could even be used in a toast. In 1798, after the French revolution turned bloody and anti-Christian, an anonymous Federalist toasted incumbent president John Adams by saying “may he, like Sampson, slay thousands of Frenchmen with the jawbone of a Jefferson.”

Using George Washington as a test case (he was a pious man, but not an evangelical or religious enthusiast) his papers are filled with biblical language: “Forbidden fruit,” “sweat of the brow,” “fat of the land,” “stumbling blocks,” “seven times seven years,” “thorn in our side,” “first fruit,” “sleep with my fathers,” “like sheep to the slaughter,” “engraved on every man’s heart,” “separating the wheat from the tares,” “a millstone hung around your neck,” “wars and rumors of wars,” “good and faithful servant,” “take up my bed and walk,” “widows mite,” “the scales are ready to drop from the eyes,” and many others.

The Bible Teaches How God Operates in the Affairs of Nations

Many Americans of the founding era believed in “Providential history,” and they believed the Bible opened the window on the ways God operates in human history. Accordingly they looked to the Bible to illuminate God’s historic and unfolding involvement in the affairs of men and nations and in particular, America’s place in Providential history.

“[I]t is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his well, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor,” said George Washington early in his first administration. Moreover he said we owe God “our sincere and humble thanks … for the favorable interpositions of his providence.”

During the War for Independence, when the tide began to turn in America’s favor, and we formed an alliance with France, George Washington wrote that Americans must acknowledge the role of Providence in the birth of the new nation, “the hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this that he must be worse than an infidel [who] lacks faith, and more than wicked [who] has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.”

In Federalist Paper 37, James Madison remarked, “it is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of the Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.”

These comments are not consistent with deism, which rejects Biblical revelation in favor of reason and observation from nature.  A deist typically believes that God exists, created the universe and gave human beings reason in order to discern truth.  Robert Smith, Pennsylvania clergyman, in December 1781 preached a sermon commemorating the defeat of Lord Cornwallis‘s army, “the rankest deist can scarcely deny the hand of Providence in our successes and the wide door of hope they open to America.”

The Founders saw America’s situation as similar to the nation of Israel‘s quest for the Promised Land. In a poem from October 1781 given near Yorktown Virginia by the Reverend Israel Evans, one of George Washington’s favorite military chaplains was this familiar poetic challenge:

To Him who lead in ancient days

The Hebrew tribes, your anthems raise;

The God who spoke from Sinai’s hill

Protects his chosen people still.

Some preachers of the time referred to the United States as God’s American Israel and said, “instead of the 12 tribes of Israel, we may substitute the 13 states of the American Union.”

On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress appointed John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson to a committee to design “a seal for the United States of America.” Adams remembered that Jefferson recommended for the seal of the “children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.” The committee then apparently adopted Franklin‘s proposal for an image, in the words of the committee report, of “Pharaoh sitting in an open chariot passing through the divided waters of the Red Sea in pursuit of the Israelites; rays from a pillar of fire in the cloud, expressive of the Divine Presence and Command beaming on Moses who stands on the shore and extending his hand over the sea causes it to overwhelm Pharaoh.”  The initiative for a seal was tabled and languished for years.

A popular episode during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 illustrates the use of the Bible to better understand the character and designs of God. Deliberations had reached an impasse and tempers were frayed so Benjamin Franklin made a poignant appeal for harmony and divine intervention. He said:

“In this situation of this assembly, groping, as it were, in the dark to find a political truth and scarcely able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our understandings? Have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we imagine we no longer need His assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time; and the longer I live the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an Empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this, and I also believe that, without His concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel; we shall be divided by our little, partial, local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a Reproach and a Byword down to future ages.”

How many direct references to the biblical text do you see in this brief speech?

“ groping in the dark“ (Job 12:25), “Father of Lights” (James 1:17), “ God governs in the affairs of men“ (Daniel 4:17), “ A sparrow falls to the ground“ (Matt. 10:29), “ they labor in vain that build it“ (Psalm 127:1), “Babel” (Genesis 11), “reproach and byword” (Deut. 28:37, Psalm 44:14).

If we take the speech at face value than the solemnly indicates that Franklin believed in God, an omniscient God who orders the affairs of men and nations, and who is cognizant of the minute details of the material world. Moreover, Franklin views God as one whose wisdom far surpasses that of humankind, and this God responds to prayer also.

Remember as well, this was not religious pandering for votes because Franklin delivered this speech in a closed, secret proceeding. The fact that the motion for prayer was seconded by Roger Sherman, a man known for his piety, further suggests that the delegates took the proposal seriously.

Micah 6:8

Let’s examine the role of one familiar Bible verse in the founding of our nation.  Micah 6:8 appears over and over again in the writings, speeches, and sermons of the Founding Era.

Governor John Winthrop in his 1630 sermon which included the “city on a hill” reference, delivered aboard the ship Arabella on route to the New World outlined a vision, or a mission statement, for the new Commonwealth:

“Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck and to provide for our posterity is to follow the counsel of Micah: to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.  For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man; we must entertain each other in brotherly affection; we must be willing to a bridge ourselves of our superfluities (unnecessary things) for the supply of other necessities; we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality,…so that we shall see much more of [God’s] wisdom, power, goodness, and truth than formally we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations (attempts to plant new civilizations), “[may] the Lord make it like that of New England.”

Winthrop’s point was that this endeavor will only be “a city upon a hill” if we follow the advice of Micah.

In 1820, John Adams wrote to his granddaughter, Caroline, “do justly, love mercy, walk humbly. This is enough for you to know and to do. The world is a better one than you deserve; strive to make yourself more worthy of it.”

Years earlier, as a young man, John Adams wrote in his diary in 1756,

“suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precept their exhibited! Every member would be obliged, in conscience, to temperance and frugality and industry; to justice and kindness and charity towards his fellow men; and to piety, love, and reference, towards Almighty God…What a Utopia; what a Paradise would this region be!”

Back to George Washington’s Circular Letter to the States written in June 1783, when he resigned as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army:

“I know I’ll make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the state over which you preside, in His holy protection, that He would incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another and for their fellow citizens of the United States. And finally that He would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, Humility and Pacific (peaceful) temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our Blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of His example of these things we could never hope to be a happy nation.”

Washington “Christianized” the passage by swapping Micah’s reference to God, to a reference to Jesus Christ as the One we must humbly imitate in order to be a happy nation. Notice also he said that imitating Jesus was necessary for our political and national happiness, not necessarily believing in Jesus for salvation.  While Washington would have encouraged personal faith in Jesus, he saw political and national prosperity as possible if Americans imitate Jesus in their personal morality, whatever their personal faith.

The prophet Micah’s message was delivered to the wayward children of Israel in an effort to help them restore their covenant relationship with God. What is it about this passage that, time and again, drew the American Founders to it?

First, the Founders believed that a self-governing people must be a virtuous, self-controlled people. Tyrants use the whip to compel their subjects to comply with their desires, but the use of this type of coercion to maintain social order is repugnant to a free, self-governing people. What then replaces the tyrant’s whip in a regime of self-government? Religion (and morality informed by religious values) would provide a “faithful internal monitor” — to borrow Thomas Jefferson’s phrase — that would encourage citizens to comport themselves in a disciplined, responsible fashion, and thereby promote the social order and political stability required to facilitate political self-government.

Second, an opinion shared by many in the Founding Generation was that a nation must be virtuous and righteous if it is to be stable, prosperous, and tranquil, in other words, a nation blessed by Almighty God.  They believed in the themes of national blessing and national punishment is outlined in Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 28 and elsewhere in Scripture.

Micah 6:8 in Context

The book of Micah is a courtroom drama where the Lord is the Plaintiff, the Accuser, in a lawsuit and the prophet Micah is the Lord’s attorney. The nation Israel is the defendant. She stands accused of a breach of a covenant between the Lord and his people.  In chapter 1 verse 3, the Lord’s general accusations against Israel are presented. “What have I done to you, O Israel? How have I burdened you so that you do not reciprocate my love and faithfulness? Israel has grown tired of the Lord and has chosen to follow her own ways. Why? Has the Lord failed you?”

He makes the case that He delivered the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage, and brought the children of Israel safely across the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Given His history, why has Israel not reciprocated the Lord’s love and faithfulness?

The defendant, Israel, responds in verses six and seven and does not dispute the allegations. She is without a defense. Rather she responds with a simple question — what must the nation do to set things right with the Lord? Resume burnt offerings?

It is in this context that the prophet Micah stipulates what is required:

“Act justly”: vindicate and administer that which is just, right, and righteous according to God‘s standards. Intervene on behalf of weaker or wronged parties and punish oppressors or wrongdoers.

“Love mercy”: Love kindness, goodness, and compassion. Engage in personal acts of love and kindness both to the poor and needy, and to all humanity.

“Walk humbly with God”: to walk modestly or circumspectly with God means to conform to His precepts. The instruction to “walk” implies a continuing pursuit of righteousness.

George Duffield, a respected Presbyterian clergyman and chaplain to the Continental Congress said in a Thanksgiving Day sermon in Philadelphia on December 11, 1783:

“Let every heart glow with gratitude, and let every life, by a devout regard to His holy law, proclaim His praise. It is this, our God requires, as that wherein our personal, and national good, and the glory of his great name consist . . . It is, that we love the Lord our God, to walk in His ways, and keep His commandments, to observe His statutes and His judgments. That a sacred regard be maintained to righteousness and truth. That we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Then shall God delight to dwell amongst us. And these United States shall long remain a great, a glorious, and a happy people.”

Romans 13

Remember when we discussed the committee charged with designing a new seal for the United States?  The committee members included John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.  Their proposal for the new seal was a depiction of Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea and Pharaoh being consumed by the waters.

Just as the children of Israel were directed by God to depart from the land of their oppression with its tyrannical monarch, cross a great sea, and establish a new nation, so to the children of Great Britain were led by God to leave the land of their religious oppression, cross a great ocean, inhabit the promised land, and eventually resist a tyrannical George III and create a new nation in “God’s American Israel.”

The motto they recommended along with the seal was, “Rebellion to tyrants is Obedience to God.”

That motto is “Resistance Theology” in a nutshell.  Is it biblical?  No question on the minds of pious Americans in the midst of growing conflict with Great Britain was more pressing or difficult than this: do citizens ever have a right or even a duty to resist an unjust, tyrannical ruler?

The two most cited biblical texts in support of the doctrine of unlimited submission and non-resistance even to tyrants are Romans 13:1-7 and First Peter 2:13-17. [Text on slides on screen] According to the author of “Sacred Scripture Sacred War,” Romans 13 what is the single most cited biblical passage in the literature of the revolutionary era.

On the other hand, the Bible has stories of godly men and women such as the prophet Daniel who with apparent divine approval, defied or disobeyed civil authorities. Acts 5:12-42 tells the story of Peter and John being thrown in prison for preaching the gospel until an angel of the Lord opened the prison gates, released them, and instructed them to resume preaching the gospel  — a clear act of civil disobedience.

This moral quandary pre-dated the founding of America.  There were plenty of occasions for European Christians to debate this very topic.  John Calvin wrote in 1561 that when kings disobey God, they “automatically abdicate their worldly power.” The Huguenots, French Protestants, took a philosophical stand against the French Catholic monarchy and monarchy in general, and were murdered by the thousands for it in August, 1572.  The preachers of the Great Awakening and Black Robed Regiment picked up where their forefathers in the faith left off.

Reverend Samuel West in his 1776 Massachusetts Election Sermon laid out the argument eloquently. One of his primary points was that those who “recommend an unlimited submission to a tyrannical ruler such as Nero, should note that such an injunction would be directly contrary to Paul’s own practice, and the practice of the primitive Christians, who refused to comply with the simple commands of men in power, their answer in such cases being this, ‘we are to obey God rather than men.’”

By the time of the Stamp Act Crisis in the mid-1760’s, many colonist had come to view British rule as oppressive and even tyrannical.  Some began to consider whether they had a right or duty to resist this tyranny. A galvanizing moment for these colonist occurred on the evening of March 5, 1771 when British soldiers opened fire on a Boston mob killing five colonists.  Paul Revere immediately published a sketch of the incident titled “The Massacre in Boston.” It was designed to portray the British as equal to the Catholic mobs who executed Huguenots in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre two hundred years earlier in which over five thousand French Protestants were killed in mob violence.

As a result of this event and the propaganda surrounding it, the colonists had the motivation to rebel, but did they have the justification?  Would God bless their rebellion?

A generation before the Boston massacre, Jonathan Mayhew had answered this question in an incendiary articulation of resistance theology preached in Boston’s Old West Church, in 1750, on the 100th anniversary of the execution of Charles the I.

John Adams later remarked in 1818, that anyone who wants to know the motivation behind American independence should read Dr. Jonathan Mayhew’s sermon. He says it was “read by everybody, celebrated by friends, and abused by enemies.”

The sermon explored the issue of whether the Christian citizen was obliged to suffer under an oppressive, tyrannical ruler. On the contrary, said Mayhew.  Resistance to a tyrant was a “glorious” Christian duty. And laying out his argument, Mayhew went to Romans 13.

Mayhew argued that scripture instructs obedience to “a reasonable and just authority,” those rulers who serve the public good and fulfill the divine design of civil government. If civil magistrates are unrighteous or “if they are partial in their administration of justice,“ then “the main end of civil government will be frustrated….common tyrants, and public oppressors, are not entitled to obedience from their subjects, by virtue of anything here laid down [in Romans 13] by the inspired apostle Paul. I now add, farther, that the apostle’s argument is so far from proving it to be the duty of people to obey, and submit to, such rulers as act in contradiction to the public good, and so to the design of their office, that it proves the direct contrary.”

Mayhew and others endorsed the practice of rebellion against tyrants with a few caveats.  There needed to be clear evidence of tyranny; the tyrannical leader should be publicly identified and accused; and rebellion should be a last resort after all lawful avenues of redress of grievances should be exhausted.

He added, “no civil rulers are to be obeyed when they are enjoying things that are inconsistent with the commands of God. All commands running counter to the declared will of the Supreme Legislator of heaven and earth, are null and void, and therefore disobedience to them is a duty, not a crime…. no government is to be submitted to, at the expense of that which is the sole end of all government, the common good and safety of society. Because, to submit in this case, if it should ever happen, would evidently be to set up the means as more valuable, and above, the end…”

He continued, stating, “unlimited submission and obedience is due to none but God alone.”

“When civil magistrates punish the virtuous, and encourage the vicious, we have a right to refuse yielding any submission or obedience to them. They forfeit their authority to govern the people, and the reason for submitting to them out of regard to the Divine Authority immediately ceases. …When rulers become oppressive to the subject, and injurious to the state, their authority, their respect, their maintenance, and the duty of submitting to them, must immediately cease….They are then to be considered as the ministers of Satan, and as such it becomes an indispensable duty to resist and oppose them.”

Did any of this resistance theology find its way into our founding document, the Declaration of Independence? In a May 1825 letter to Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, the Declarations principal draftsman, famously remarked that the Declaration, “was intended to be an expression of the American mind and all its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, and letters, printed essays, … etc.”

Let’s look at some of the basic tenets of resistance theology and see if we can find it represented in the Declaration of Independence:

Divine source of rights:  “All men are created equal and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…”

There is a Divine purpose to civil government: “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

The right or duty of resistance:  “that whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…”

Tyranny defined:  “The history of the present king of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having as indirect object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states.”

A tyrannical ruler who ceases to serve the public good deposes himself: “King George III has abdicated government here, by declaring us out of his protection and waging war against us.”

Petition for redress: “in every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.”

Tyrant identified:  “A prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

Last resort: “we must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.”

Other representative magistrates identified: “we, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in general Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states.”

Proverbs 14:34

This verse was a key verse in informing the nation’s opinion that her greatness or decline, prosperity or distress, are inseparable from her conformity with God‘s moral standards as set forth in the Bible.

Patrick Henry wrote this on a single sheet of paper, sealed in an envelope, and included with his last will and testament:  “Whether [America’s Independence] will prove a blessing or a curse, will depend upon the use our people make of the blessings which a gracious God has bestowed on us. If they are wise, they will be great and happy. If they are of a contrary character, they will be miserable. Righteousness alone can exalt them as a nation. Reader! Whoever you are, remember this, and in your sphere, practice virtue yourself, and encourage it and others.”

Samuel Adam’s, in April 1776: “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 and Virtue, in hopes thereby the more easily to carry their point of enslaving them. Indeed my friend, this is a subject so important in my mind, that I know not how to leave it. Revelation assures us that “Righteousness exalt a Nation” — Communities are dealt with in this world by the wise and just Ruler of the Universe. He rewards or punishes them according to their general character. The diminishing of public virtue is usually attended with that of public Happiness, and the public Liberty will not long survive the total Extinction of Morals.”

Abigail Adams in a letter to her friend Mercy Otis Warren: “A patriot without religion in my estimation is as great a paradox, as an honest man without the fear of God. Is it possible that he whom no moral obligations behind, can have any real goodwill towards man? Can he be a patriot who by an openly vicious conduct is undermining the very bonds of society, corrupting the morals of youth, and by his bad example injuring that very country he professes to patronize more than he can possibly compensate by his intrepidity, generosity and honor? The Scriptures tell us righteousness exalt a nation!”

George Washington wrote within days of assuming the presidency, “I flatter myself [that] opportunities will not be wanting for me to show my disposition to encourage the domestic and public virtues of industry, economy, patriotism, philanthropy, and that righteousness which exalts a nation.”

Proverbs 14:34 in its Biblical Context

While much advice in the Book of Proverbs is directed toward individuals to help them live righteously, this proverb broadens the frame of reference from the individual to the nation. It admonishes nations to conform to Divine standards and exhibit moral integrity if they desire to flourish. True greatness and honor lies in character. This proverb challenges power politics as conventionally understood. Whether or not a nation achieves true greatness depends on its piety and ethics, not on its political, military, or economic power. The Citizen who loves his or her country and desires for it to prosper will encourage national righteousness and oppose national wickedness. The pursuit of national righteousness, in other words, is a patriotic duty.

This theme is echoed throughout the book of Proverbs. For example in Proverbs 3:33, it says “the curse of the Lord is in the house of the wicked; but He blesses the habitation of the just.” In Proverbs 11:10-11, “When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices; and when the wicked perish, there is shouting. By the blessing of the upright the city is exalted; but it is overthrown by the mouth of the wicked.”

This particular proverb emphasizes the effects of behavior not only on a nation’s vitality but also on the morale of its citizens.

John Adams in a Fast Day Proclamation: “[All men are accountable to God] as the searcher of hearts and righteous distributor of rewards and punishments, [and our acknowledgment of this truth is] conducive equally to the happiness and rectitude of individuals and to the well-being of communities.”

Benjamin Rush remarked, speaking on the evil of slavery, “Remember that national crimes require national punishments and without declaring what punishment awaits this evil, you may venture to assure them, that it cannot pass with impunity, unless God shall cease to be just or merciful.”

Reverend Enos Hitchcock, chaplain during the American War for Independence, argued, “virtue is the only foundation of national happiness… all lawgivers, philosophers, and moralists have agreed, and which the experience of all ages has confirmed, we find that as long as temperance, righteousness, and a serious regard to religion, have been cultivated, things went well with them, but when they grew dissolute, luxurious, despisers of religion, and did not regard public justice, they fell into confusion and ruin.”

George Mason of Virginia observed that the principle of Divine rewards and punishments has more immediate implications for nations than for people. While God can choose to reward or punish individuals in this world or the next, God can only reward or punish nations in this world because nations will cease to exist in the hereafter. In a speech during the Constitutional Convention on the corrupting effects of slavery, Mason argued that slavery produces “the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves,” he declared “is born a petty tyrant.” He said the scourge of slavery will “bring the judgment of heaven on a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By inevitable chain of causes and effects Providence punishes national sins by national calamities.”

In addition to the typical expressions of righteousness, many Founders believed that righteousness of a nation is also expressed through its respect of the rule of law. Its laws, policies, and practices, ought to excite men to good works and suppress vice, oppression, and infidelity. A righteous nation does not favor one group of citizens over others. In the words of an early 19th century Vermont election sermon on Proverbs 14:34, “a good constitution, and a code of just laws in each state, form a conspicuous part of national righteousness… Men should not govern the laws, but the laws should govern men.”

Most famously, George Washington in his farewell address, wrote that religion and morality are indispensable supports for social order, civic virtue, and political prosperity. Washington considered public religion to be so vital to a country’s flourishing that he cast doubt on the patriotism of one who undermines a public role for religion and morality.

[1] Much of the content which follows was taken from Daniel Dreisbach’s excellent book, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[2] Jefferson, T. (1832). Notes on the State of Virginia. United States: Lilly and Wait. 154


[4] Paine, T. (1792). Common Sense: Addressed to the Inhabitants of America …. United Kingdom: H.D. Symonds.