The American Zion Exchange, Part 2: The Old Testament as a Common Denominator in Early America

August 15, 2013

Eran Shalev is a Professor of History at Haifa University. A former Fulbright scholar who received his PhD from Johns Hopkins University, Shalev has written and published extensively on American History and is an International Contributing editor of The Journal of American History. The Following exchange will focus on his new book 'American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War' (Yale University Press, 2013).

Part 1 of the exchange can be found right here.


Dear Professor Shalev,

Thank you for your interesting first reply. After beginning with a question about the change in American attitudes to the old testament over time, I'd like to take a step back and ask about how uniform American attitudes toward the old testament were in the earliest days of the republic-

Interestingly, the deep influence of the old testament did not pass over the three most famous deists of the time: Thomas Paine (whose references to Gideon in his celebrated 'Common Sense' may very well have made a profound impression on early American political culture), Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.

My second question concerns the difference between these (and other) deists' more cultural/ethical attitude toward the stories of the Old Testament and that of their more traditionally religious Christian contemporaries who saw things quite differently. Were the more pious early Americans ever suspicious of the deists' use of biblical references for the promotion of (essentially secular) humanistic values or was the bible more of a common ground between the two groups?  Were there ever conscious exploitations of religious sensitivities at the time for humanistic causes? How open and honest was public discourse in that sense?

I'm looking forward to reading your answer,

Best Regards,



Dear Shmuel,

The late eighteenth century was not a particularly religious era in American history, certainly in comparison with other periods. The creation of the United States occurred between two Great Awakenings and was strongly influenced by the anti-clerical European Enlightenment. The American Enlightenment may have not been as secular minded as its continental counterpart, but that movement was still inclined toward critical approaches to revelatory religion. Accordingly, the Founders were not an especially religious bunch, as were many of their contemporary Americans.

Hence it is particularly significant that they and their compatriots chose to represent the young American nation as a New Israel. And as you point out in your question, even the least pious, indeed deist, of Founders leaned heavily on the Old Testament: while a significant portion (about a quarter!) of Thomas Pain’s Common Sense is devoted to the Hebrew Bible, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin proposed (separately) in 1776 – the same year that Common Sense was published – scenes from the Exodus for the young nation’s Great Seal. Countless Americans who were more pious than that deist founding triumvirate gladly embraced depictions of their country as the Second Israel.

So the Old Testament’s relevance to the American political life might have been one issue towards which attitudes were virtually uniform: it is hard to find even a single public speaker who denied the bearing of the biblical Israelites and their history to the United States. Nevertheless, on the meaning of that relevance we find significant variance: while some optimistic commentators chose to emphasize the advantages of being a Chosen People, others feared that God would abandon America if it would not stand up to the highest of moral and political standards just as he abandoned the sinning Israelites. Such variances seem not have stemmed from people’s deism as opposed to being traditional Christians, but was rather rooted in one’s Calvinism (and thus sin oriented) or evangelicalism (and the implied focus on narratives of redemption).

The uniformity in the representation of the United States as the New Israel is impressive. As I have already indicated, we are hard pressed to find even one dissenting voice that questioned such understandings. Things did not change as time passed. In fact, the zenith of the political use of the Hebrew Bible occurred after the founding era and corresponded with the Second Great Awakening (1800-1840). During the first decades of the nineteenth century the most extensive and colorful use of the history of biblical Israel took place, and with it the impression of the biblical Israelites on the American imagination. Such was the power of the paradigm that even harsh critics of the surging evangelical enthusiasm (evangelists being the most prolific and colorful employers of Old Testament narratives) did not raise doubts regarding the notion of the new or second Israel. The public discourse seems to never have challenged that consensus, as discussions were confined to addressing its different meanings in changing political and historical contexts. When the use of the Old Testament waned, and with it the notion of the Second Israel, it was not in a firestorm of debate but rather through a prolonged process which was unnoticed at the time. 



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