“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.
Living in what some call a post-Christian society, one might expect the Bible to have receded from public life by this time. While it might still have some influence in small enclaves of believers, it would rarely be seen in the public discourse. And to some degree this is true. Yet even in recent presidential campaigns and inaugural addresses, the Bible still shows up. Its lingering influence points to a long, complex history of the Bible’s place in American public life.
Eminent religious historian Mark Noll traces the early part of this history in his book In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783 (Oxford University Press, 2016; source: publisher). So much could be said about the Bible in America, and Noll seeks to narrow his discussion by focusing on how the Bible influenced public life—that is, “to show how such influences shaped the history of Scripture for political, imperial, and national purposes” (5).
As one expects from Noll, he provides a very readable account of how Americans used the Bible in public discourse. Inevitably, he must be selective, and many aspects of the history of biblical interpretation stand beyond the scope of the volume (e.g., exploring debates over principles of exegesis, examining shifts in the commentarial tradition). But his selections form a coherent tale that illuminates the shifts within the increasingly sticky relationship between the Bible and politics. Noll gives us an overarching view of the story of the Bible in American public life and provides insightful historical analysis along the way.
Turkey, stuffing, family, freedom—all good things we associate with Thanksgiving. Yet as this national holiday approaches next week, many of us will remember a portrait of the Pilgrims that skews the actual people who sailed on the Mayflower in 1620.
In his book, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History (IVP Academic, 2013), Robert Tracy McKenzie of Wheaton College busts a number of myths about the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving. For example, the Pilgrims doubtfully wore silver buckles and stark black garb, instead avoiding anything resembling jewelry and gladly donning bright-colored clothes, especially at a celebration feast. Their Thanksgiving dinner would have lacked any sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, or pumpkin pie. Rather than turkeys, they likely ate ducks, geese, and possibly even eels. These austere figures were also wont to wash down the meal with beer.
Last week, a divided Supreme Court ruled to allow town boards to begin their sessions with prayer. Tellingly, both the majority and minority opinions, written by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Elena Kagen, respectively, appealed to the founding fathers to support their views for and against prayer in town board meetings.
Appeals to history to support contemporary political opinions are not going away anytime soon. So what does America’s founding have to say about religion in the U.S. today? This question continues to be debated from our local schools to the highest levels of our government.
In considering this question, I’d like to engage two noteworthy discussions that seek to provide historical perspective on our nation’s founding: Jon Meacham’s American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (Random House, 2006)—which I listened to in its audiobook version—and John Fea’s Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction (Westminster John Knox, 2011). Both Meacham and Fea address the Christian America thesis, yet they approach the question from different angles.