Bible in America: RAH interview with Robert Alter

Fundamentalists don’t always make the best historians.  American fundamentalists tend to insist on an American past that is far too rosy.  When she was still an up-and-coming Presidential nomination contender, for example, Michele Bachmann insisted that the Founding Fathers had “worked tirelessly” to end slavery.   Though she later tacked away from her statement, noting that she meant John Quincy Adams, it doesn’t take a slanted leftist historical perspective to notice that her claim is just not true.  The Founding Fathers may have accomplished a good deal.  Some of them may even have tried to improve the conditions of slaves, or to hurry the day when human chattel slavery would be abolished.  But overall, the issue of slavery was one that the Founders explicitly pushed off on a later generation.

However, as we’ve noted here in the past, one of the historical claims of fundamentalists in America lines up more neatly with the findings of non-fundamentalist academics.  On the Religion in American History blog, Randall Stephens recently interviewed scholar Robert Alter about his newish book, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible.

Alter’s book is focused on the ways Biblical themes and language infuse American literature and culture.  In the RAH interview, he makes the point that American culture in the past was thoroughly Biblicized:

“In nineteenth-century Protestant America, the Bible, almost always in the King James Version, was a constant companion for most people. They not only heard it in church, but very often it was regularly read out loud in the family circle at home.”

Fundamentalists often make the case that America is and should remain a Christian, Biblical society.  They insist on a vision of American history in which early European settlers and Founding Fathers planned to create a Christian Nation.  (For the leading example of these kinds of arguments, check out David Barton’s Wallbuilders articles.)

Academic historians have noted that these historical claims must be treated carefully.  John Fea, for instance, has argued that there was indeed a good deal of Christian intent among the founding generation, but this is often used by activists in unfair and ahistoric ways.

However, it is only fair to notice that in some cases, the vision of the past promoted by fundamentalist activists lines up neatly with that of non-fundamentalist scholars.  According to Robert Alter, at least, American culture in the past really was thoroughly infused with the KJV Bible.

 

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The Bible in Early America

Was early America Fundamentalist?  Fundamentalists like to say that it was.  Fundamentalists argue that America was always meant to be a Christian nation.  To pick just one recent example, Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum took some heat a couple of days ago for his presence at a fiery fundamentalist sermon in Baton Rouge.  According to the Huffington Post, Pastor Dennis Terry hit this theme pretty hard.  He told his audience,

“I don’t care what the liberals say, I don’t care what the naysayers say, this nation was founded as a Christian nation…There is only one God and his name is Jesus. I’m tired of people telling me that I can’t say those words.. Listen to me, If you don’t love America, If you don’t like the way we do things I have one thing to say – GET OUT. We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammad, we don’t worship Allah, we worship God, we worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”

This understanding of the Christian roots of American society is an article of faith among most fundamentalist Americans.  Among fundamentalists, no one has more credibility in this argument than David Barton.  Barton has built a career out of his historic vision.  For example, in a 2008 article Barton listed voluminous examples of religious quotations from leading founders.  Barton’s point here, as in most of his work, is that the roots of American society are profoundly Biblical.  Barton argues tirelessly that twentieth-century US Supreme Court rulings have erroneously erected an unconstitutional “wall of separation” between Christianity and public life.  Barton has attracted a large an influential audience in Fundamentalist America.  Journalists have oohed and aahed at the extent to which Barton’s work has drawn adoring praise among conservatives.  For example, one New York Times article noted that leading Republican presidential candidates such as Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and Michele Bachmann all extolled Barton’s work.  Huckabee called Barton “maybe the greatest living historian on the spiritual nature of America’s early days.”

Predictably, liberal criticsatheist activists,  and academic historians have vehemently disputed Barton’s work.

But careful historians agree that the influence of the Bible in early American public life was overwhelming, even if they qualify the meaning of “overwhelming” somewhat.  One of the most prominent twentieth-century historians of early America, Perry Miller, claimed in 1939 that “New England was founded as a Puritan commonwealth and was intended to be a holy and unique corner of the world.”  Later in his long career, Miller argued that this intense public religiosity lasted well into the nineteenth century.  In a 1955 article, Miller noted the rationalism of Jefferson and Franklin, but he said those beliefs were swamped in the late 1700s by intense Biblicism “among the masses.”  Even in the first years of the nineteenth century, Miller believed, the overwhelming majority of Americans understood their world through Biblical lenses.  “The Old Testament,” Miller noted, “is truly so omnipresent in the American culture of 1800 or 1820 that historians have as much difficulty taking cognizance of it as of the air people breathed.”

Since the time Miller wrote, new generations of academic historians have explored the religiosity of early New England and found room for a less strictly Biblical culture.  David Hall, for instance, wrote about the common phenomenon of “horse-shed” Christians.  Such folk, in the words of one early minister, were nominally Christian, but they preferred to spend their time on Sundays “between the [religious] Exercises . . . [to] Discourse of their Corn and Hay, and the prices of Commodities, of almost any thing that they discourse of on Working dayes.”  In other words, these horse-shedders were intensely religious in everything except theology.  They went to church, made the socially acceptable mumblings, but they didn’t take their religion very seriously.  I doubt any fundamentalist, whether in 1620 or 2020, would want to claim such folk as a basis for a truly Christian society.

According to Hall, even in these early decades of British settlement in New England—the period and locale in which the best case can be made for a thoroughly Biblical American culture—we need to understand the extent to which early Americans discounted the importance of the Bible in their daily lives.  Simply counting the percentage of people who went to church, then reading the sermons they listened to, can’t tell us if and how they really embraced that faith.  Just as important, Hall argued, was the great number of early New Englanders who focused their lives on commerce, and thought more of horse-sheds than of altars.

Even more compelling, as Hall notes, are the ways that early New Englanders used the Bible as one of the many religious influences in their lives.  For evidence, Hall analyzes the fascinating diary of Samuel Sewall.  Sewall had come to Boston as a child in 1661.  As an adult, he kept a careful record of his daily activities as well as his deeply religious mental world.  By today’s standards, Sewall would certainly qualify as a fundamentalist.  He and his family held daily Bible readings; Sewall sang psalms and prayed in his bedroom closet; and Sewall met with a small group of like-minded Christians for prayer sessions.  He attended church regularly and took careful notes of the sermons he heard.  According to Hall, the adult Sewall knew the Bible almost by heart, and he arranged his life by its precepts.  Nevertheless, Sewall’s religiosity was also formed by a vast array of less Christian portents.  He carefully noted lightning, rainbows, the birth of deformed children, eclipses, conjoined twins, and other omens from the natural world.  For Sewall, these were not rival religious events.  Rather, they formed part of his Puritan sacramental nature.  The Bible played a central role in his faith, but so did wonders and portents with roots in the nature religions of earlier European history.

To return to our question: Was Samuel Sewall part of a deeply Christian America?  Can we take his example as proof that early New Englanders understood their world Biblically?  And, if so, can we insist on more Bible in our current public life?  Among academic historians, the most careful recent exploration of these issues is John Fea’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?  In this book, Fea tries to overcome the simple yes-or-no answers that dominate public debate about the issue.  Fea, himself an evangelical Protestant who teaches at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, argues that in some senses, early America truly was a Christian nation.  For example, in its self-understanding compared to the Barbary States, the people of the United States tended to think of themselves as part of a Christian nation.  It was “Christian” as opposed to “Islamic” or “Buddhist.”  However, Fea notes that in some sections of the colonies and early united States, especially Virginia, Christian doctrine did not play a dominant role.  Furthermore, many of the most prominent Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson, could hardly be called Christian.

In the end, Fea offers a careful answer to his question.  “Many inhabitants of the early American Republic,” he writes, “but not all of them, lived in political communities where Christianity, and in most cases Protestantism, was such an important part of the culture that the framers of government thought it was necessary to sustain that culture by privileging Christianity.”  Like most academic historians, Fea insists that the most important part of any answer might be: It Depends.

So let’s return to our main question.  Are fundamentalists right?  Was America always meant to be an explicitly Christian society?  Did early European settlers and the Founding Fathers all agree on the importance of Biblical precepts in public life?  Finally, do secular folks today who object to public Christianity simply misunderstand American history?

Is it true?

First of all, it is important in these discussions to recognize the vast sweep of time that sometimes gets bundled together as “early America.”  Perry Miller (at least in part) and David Hall were writing about New England settlers in the early 1600s.  Fea generally focuses on the generation of the Founding Fathers, over a hundred years later and much more geographically diverse.  It is tempting to mix up the many “early” regions and time periods into an argument that early Americans were uniformly Biblical, or that early American culture was Biblical.  It is more accurate, however, to note the vast differences in time and place between Boston in 1620 and Philadelphia in 1780.

If we really want to understand the power and influence of the Bible in “early” American culture, we must repeat John Fea’s line: It Depends.  In some senses, early America really was founded on Biblical belief.  The dominant ideology of the generation that settled British New England in the early 1600s really was a Biblical theology.  We cannot hope to understand much about that culture without grounding it in an aggressively Biblical worldview.  Perhaps more important for understanding today’s Fundamentalist America, the cultural influence of that early settler culture in New England has punched above its weight for centuries.  Americans since at least the mid-nineteenth century have given a privileged place in historical memory to the first generations of “Pilgrims.”  Fundamentalists did not force this understanding upon an unwilling secular America.  Rather, this understanding is shared widely among Americans of all cultural backgrounds.  No matter where we live in America, young children are usually taught stories about the First Thanksgiving.  Children are taught that the first settlers came to America to escape religious persecution.  This is true even in areas in which a local history might logically trump the Squanto-and-Turkey story.  For example, young Americans in Florida could be taught that the first European Americans built a fort in what is now Florida.  They didn’t wear buckles on their hats and shoes, but rather those big conquistador-style helmets.  In other words, the true diversity of early European settlement in what is now the United States does not get its due in the stories American children learn.  Pride of place still goes to the kind of New England Mind that Perry Miller focused on.  It seems unfair to single out the historical memory of fundamentalists when it is still so widely shared among Americans of all beliefs.

In the end, from one angle, when Fundamentalist America insists that the US of A was founded as a Biblical society, they can make a reasonable claim.  There really was a thoroughly Biblical culture among the leadership in early New England.  And that particular story of the founding of America, no matter how ardently academic historians may try to point out the many other founding stories, still resonates powerfully among most twenty-first century Americans, Fundamentalist or not.

But we must also temper our enthusiasm for this historic vision by some important caveats.  Even among that first generation of New Englanders, the Bible was used in ways that twenty-first century Fundamentalist America would find disturbing.  Christians like Samuel Sewall freely mixed omens, portents, and wonders from the natural world into their Biblical worldview.  Furthermore, even among that particular group of New England “Puritans,” many of the nominal Christians were Christians of the “horse-shed” type, more interested in farming than salvation.

Also important, Puritans in New England made up only one small faction of British settlement in the New World.  Early settlers in Virginia, for example, didn’t care as much about the Bible or God’s vision for a Covenant Society.  Settlers came to Virginia primarily to make money.  As historian Edmund Morgan has argued, most of the backers of Virginia’s Jamestown colony “looked toward legitimate profits.”  They were not interested in establishing a Biblical commonwealth.  Instead, they asked themselves whether they should first look for gold, a water passage to the Pacific, or valuable plants.  The main concern, Morgan argued, was not a lack of Bibles, but a lack of labor.

For those outsiders who hope to understand Fundamentalist America, then, the most important lesson about the roots of a Biblical society is this: a twenty-first century Fundamentalist can state with absolute confidence that one root of today’s United States was thoroughly Biblical.  It’s true.  Academic historians will tell you that this is only true for some of the leaders of one part of British North America.  They will tell you that even among early New Englanders, commitment to the official theology was often lukewarm at best.  That is also true.  For our purposes, however, the fact that there are other roots to the United States complicates the story, but it doesn’t change the fact that Early America—in the way Fundamentalist America wants to understand it—really was a Biblical society.

FURTHER READING: John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (2011); Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (1975); Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1939); Miller, “The Garden of Eden and the Deacon’s Meadow,” American Heritage, December 1955, p. 55-61, 102; David Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment (1989)