The Impact of the Bible: #4 - "Proclaim Liberty throughout the Land..."
Jewish thought heavily influenced the Founding Fathers and the fledgling United States.
The influence of the Bible was not just limited to the Puritan colonies of New England. During this early period of American history numerous colleges and universities were established under the auspices of various Protestant sects: Harvard, Yale, William and Mary, Rutgers, Princeton, Brown, Kings College (Columbia), Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, etc.
A major function of many of these institutions was to graduate ministers and pastors to teach the Bible to the Native Americans and convert them to Christianity. Thus the Bible played a central role in the curriculum of all of these institutions of higher learning with both Hebrew and Bible studies required courses.
Many of these colleges adopted some Hebrew word or phrase as part of their official emblem or seal, and so popular was the Hebrew Language in the 18th century that several students at Yale delivered their commencement orations in Hebrew.
At the time of the American Revolution, the interest in the knowledge of Hebrew was so widespread as to allow the circulation of the story that "certain members of Congress proposed that the use of English be formally prohibited in the United States, and Hebrew substituted for it." (1)
Without a doubt the political development of America was also strongly influenced by Jewish ideas communicated through the Bible. Many of the population, including a significant number of the Founding Fathers of America, were products of American universities. The majority of these political leaders were not only well acquainted with the contents of both the New and Old Testaments, but also had a working knowledge of Hebrew. This exposure to the Bible colored not only their religion and ethics, but also their politics.
The Founding Fathers adopted Biblical motifs for political reasons.
Just as the Puritans of England and America saw themselves as modern-day Israelites, bound by covenant to God and in search of religious freedom so too did the these Founding Fathers adopt the same Biblical motifs for political reasons -- the struggle of the ancient Israelites against the wicked Pharaoh or the evil king of Babylon came to embody the struggle of the colonist against English tyranny.
Numerous examples can be found which clearly illustrate to what a significant extent the political struggles of the colonies was identified with the ancient Hebrews:
The first design for the official seal of the United States recommended by Franklin, Adams and Jefferson in 1776 depicts the Jews crossing the Red Sea. The motto around the seal read: "REBELLION TO TYRANTS IS OBEDIENCE TO GOD."
The inscription on the Liberty Bell at Independence Hall in Philadelphia is a direct quote from Leviticus 25:10: "Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."
Patriotic pamphlets and speeches during the period of the struggle for independence were often infused with Biblical motifs and references to the Bible. Thus Benjamin Rush, in denouncing the Tea Act, wrote: "What shining examples of patriotism do we behold in Joshua, Samuel, Maccabees and all the illustrious princes, captains and prophets among the Jews."
While many of the ideas incorporated by the framers of the Declaration of Independence reflect the influence of Enlightenment philosophy, there is no doubt that the concept of an absolute standard of morality based on the authority God is a central pillar of American democracy. Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening sentences of the Declaration of Independence:
"We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
The language of the Bill of Rights (1789) also echoes themes and ethical concepts from the Bible. And the notion of a "solemn agreement of the people" is a clear reference to the Biblical idea of covenant.
And so it is that with the birth of American democracy that we have the next milestone in the process of the spread of Jewish ideas in civilization. For the first time in history Jewish ethical ideas were legally enshrined into the laws of a non-Jewish nation.
Aside from its early formative influence on American democracy, the Bible continued to play a significant cultural and ethical role in American society throughout the 18th century. Even in the darkest hours of American history the Bible has shone forth as the major inspiration to the American people.
In 1863, after the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil war (1861-65), President Lincoln gave one of the most stirring speeches in American history, the Gettysburg address. Lincoln concluded his speech with an almost word-for-word repetition of John Wycliffe's 14th century dedication to his English translation of the Bible:
"... this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall nor perish from the earth."
Possibly the best testament to the centrality of the Bible in American life was delivered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a 1935 radio address:
"We cannot read the history of our rise and development as a nation, without reckoning with the place the Bible has occupied in shaping the advances of the Republic ... where we have been truest and most consistent in obeying its precepts, we have attained the greatest measure of contentment and prosperity." (2)
Katsh, Abraham I., The Biblical Heritage of American Democracy, New York: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1977, p. 70.
- Sivan, Gabriel, The Bible and Civilization, Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1973, p. 178
Cremin, Lawrence A., American Education: The Colonial Experience 1607-1783, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1970.
Innes, Stephen, Creating the Commonwealth: The Economic Culture of Puritan New England, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995
Katsh, Abraham I., The Biblical Heritage of American Democracy, New York: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1977
Sivan, Gabriel, The Bible and Civilization, Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1973