“Portrait of Benjamin Franklin,” by Joseph Duplessis, ca. 1785 (public domain), National Portrait Gallery, Washington
One engaging way to get a taste of eighteenth-century America is to read the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. (You can buy countless editions on Amazon, or you can read it online for free at the Project Gutenberg website.) The Bostonian-turned-Philadelphia-printer is a classic story of a young working-class man who makes something of himself through hard work and industry.
In the Autobiography, one can discover much about British colonial America, from the dynamics of the economy and the dependence of the colonies on Great Britain to the politics of colonial life and the ongoing threat and reality of war in America. Franklin’s life touched on all kinds of issues in his day, making this primary source a valuable read. As one would expect, it also wades into questions of religion.
As the common story goes, the Bible lost its place of authority in the American mind when Darwinism and German theological liberalism cracked its foundations in the last half of the nineteenth century. In The Erosion of Biblical Certainty: Battles over Authority and Interpretation in America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), Michael J. Lee pushes back that timetable, arguing that the Bible began to lose authority in the early eighteenth century when, ironically, orthodox Christian interpreters unwittingly contributed to its demise.
In this well-documented account of Americans’ engagement with the rise of biblical criticism, Lee, assistant professor of history at Eastern University, explores interpreters from the early eighteenth to the early nineteenth century and shows how they relied increasingly on historical evidence in their defense of the Bible’s authority. Influenced by European interpreters from Benedict de Spinoza, Jean Le Clerc, and John Locke to Johann Jakob Griesbach and J. G. Eichhorn, Americans increasingly employed historically based arguments in their biblical interpretation.