The Impact of the Bible #3: In God We Trust
The heavily Bible-influenced Puritans bring the Word to the New World.
Now that we have seen the powerful religious, moral and political influence that the Bible had on Europe, it's time to travel across the Atlantic to America for the fascinating conclusion to our story.
Just as the United States occupies a singular position in history as the only country founded as a democracy, it also has a status as the country most-influenced by the Bible in history.
Many of the earliest colonists who settled on the north-east coast of America in early 17th century were Protestant refugees escaping religious persecutions in Europe. The first were the so-called "Pilgrims" -- Protestant-British settlers who founded the colony on Plymouth Rock in New England. They were followed by many thousands who arrived in the New World in subsequent years.
Well into the 18th century, America continued to be not only the land of opportunity for many people seeking a better life, but also the land of religious tolerance.
The majority of the earliest settlers were Puritans from England. Like their cousins back home, these American Puritans strongly identified with both the historical traditions and customs of the ancient Hebrews of the Old Testament. They viewed their emigration from England as a virtual re-enactment of the Jewish exodus from Egypt: England was Egypt, the king was Pharaoh, the Atlantic Ocean their Red Sea, America was the Land of Israel, and the Indians were the ancient Canaanites. They were the new Israelites, entering into a new covenant with God in a new Promised Land. (1)
Most of the early legislation of the colonies of New England was determined by Scripture.
These settlers found themselves in a New World which had no existing laws or government. Their first task, therefore, was to create a legal framework for their communities and the first place they looked for guidance was the Hebrew Bible. Thus most of the early legislation of the colonies of New England was determined by Scripture. The most extreme example was the Connecticut Code of 1650 which created a form of fundamentalist government based almost entirely on Mosaic law using numerous citations from the Bible. The same held true for the code of New Haven and many other colonies. (2)
At the first assembly of New Haven in 1639, John Davenport clearly declared the primacy of the Bible as the legal and moral foundation of the colony:
"Scriptures do hold forth a perfect rule for the direction and government of all men in all duties which they are to perform to God and men as well as in the government of families and commonwealth as in matters of the church ... the Word of God shall be the only rule to be attended unto in organizing the affairs of government in this plantation." (3)
Puritan obsession with the Bible led them to try and incorporate many aspects of the Jewish commandments into their lifestyle based on their literal interpretation of Hebraic laws (which did not always agree with the Jewish interpretation nor with Jewish practice). One of the most significant was the concept of the Sabbath as a day of rest and meditation. Puritan Sabbath observance began at sundown and no work of any kind, even household chores, was allowed for the next 24-hours. Sabbath observance was strictly monitored by local officials.
Thanksgiving which has evolved into a national day of feasting and celebration was initially conceived by the Pilgrims, in 1621, as day similar to the Jewish Day of Atonement -- Yom Kippur, a day of fasting, introspection and prayer.
This Puritan focus on the Bible and individual responsibility had an even more significant impact on literacy in the American colonies than in England. All towns in New England with a minimum of 50 households were required by law to establish schools and appoint teachers. Universities were established and many printing presses were imported. This subject we shall examine in the next installment.
- Sivan, Gabriel, The Bible and Civilization, Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1973, p. 236.
- Katsh, Abraham I., The Biblical Heritage of American Democracy, New York: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1977, Chapter 3 & 5.
- Katsh, p. 97.