Read­ing the Bi­ble with the Found­ing Fa­thers

Foreword Reviews - - Reviews Adult Nonfiction -

Daniel L. Dreis­bach Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity Press Hard­cover $34.95 (344pp) 978-0-19-998793-1

This en­light­en­ing his­tory vol­ume shows how the Bi­ble shaped the founders’ con­scious­ness.

Daniel L. Dreis­bach’s Read­ing the Bi­ble with

the Found­ing Fa­thers fo­cuses on the Bi­ble’s sig­nif­i­cant in­flu­ence on colo­nial Amer­ica and its po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy. This is an en­gag­ing and schol­arly sur­vey of Amer­ica’s fore­fa­thers and their re­li­gious be­liefs.

As Dreis­bach, a pro­fes­sor at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity’s School of Public Af­fairs, notes, the Bi­ble—pri­mar­ily the King James ver­sion—was the pre­em­i­nent book of the founders’ era. It was used as a moral com­pass and a com­mon source of wis­dom, metaphor and gen­eral lan­guage. It be­came a guid­ing force in the re­jec­tion of Bri­tish tyranny, and even the Lib­erty Bell bears an in­scrip­tion from Leviti­cus.

Still, the founders were not blind fol­low­ers of bib­li­cal teach­ings. Ben­jamin Franklin and Thomas Jef­fer­son cul­ti­vated di­verse in­ter­ests and philoso­phies, with in­cli­na­tions to­ward Deism rather than ortho­dox Chris­tian­ity. As men of rea­son, they also did not care for fire-and-brim­stone su­per­sti­tions or the con­cept of a venge­ful God.

Dreis­bach’s chap­ter on Jef­fer­son’s per­cep­tion of Je­sus Christ is par­tic­u­larly fas­ci­nat­ing. While Jef­fer­son be­lieved that Christ’s teach­ings were ex­em­plary and even “per­fect,” he re­jected mys­ti­cal as­pects of Christ, in­clud­ing the vir­gin birth, the res­ur­rec­tion, and some of the mir­a­cles at­trib­uted to him. To cre­ate his own abridged Bi­ble, Jef­fer­son lit­er­ally ex­cised sec­tions with “scis­sors and paste pots.” How­ever, Dreis­bach stresses how Jef­fer­son re­al­ized his the­o­ries were not for ev­ery­one, and that he freely ad­mit­ted to be­ing “of a sect by my­self.”

Con­trasts are drawn. The na­tion’s orig­i­nal bib­li­cal ide­ol­ogy looked for up­stand­ing lead­ers, with­out “de­ceit and hypocrisy, guile and false­hood”—qual­i­ties now not of­ten as­so­ci­ated with Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. And as slave­hold­ers, both Wash­ing­ton and Jef­fer­son clearly did not ap­ply bib­li­cal con­cepts of lib­erty to all peo­ples. Still, Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s ideal of Amer­i­can lib­erty, taken from the book of Micah, that they shall sit ev­ery man un­der his vine and un­der his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid, en­dures, in Amer­ica’s his­tory and its hopes. Dreis­bach’s Read­ing the Bi­ble with the Found­ing Fa­thers in an en­light­en­ing his­tor­i­cal vol­ume. MEG NOLA

While Jef­fer­son be­lieved that Christ’s teach­ings were ex­em­plary and even “per­fect,” he re­jected mys­ti­cal as­pects of Christ, in­clud­ing the vir­gin birth, the res­ur­rec­tion, and some of the mir­a­cles at­trib­uted to him. How­ever, Jef­fer­son re­al­ized his the­o­ries were not for ev­ery­one, and he freely ad­mit­ted to be­ing “of a sect by my­self.”

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