The Biblical Spirit of the American Founding

July 5, 2019 | Wilfred McClay
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In honor of the Fourth of July, Wilfred McClay reviews Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land, an anthology documenting how the language and spirit of the Hebrew Bible permeated the documents, orations, and essays that shaped American history:

As scholars have long understood, but many Americans have forgotten, Puritans identified themselves with ancient Israel. . . . Puritanism would have its day, but it had already begun to weaken by the end of the 17th century and had faded away considerably by the time of the American Revolution. But, amazingly, the Hebraic template upon which Puritanism rested became an enduring feature of American life. Indeed, the title that editors Stuart Halpern, Matthew Holbreich, Jonathan Silver, and Meir Soloveichik have chosen for their volume, Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land, is the phrase famously inscribed on the Liberty Bell, which invokes the biblical manumission of all slaves in the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25:10).

Does this Hebraic element in the texture of American life continue even unto the present, seemingly secular day? That is hard to say. The anthology closes with the end of the American Civil War, and the editors hint in their postscript that one might have to look very hard to find the same pattern persisting through the 19th century and on into the 20th. They do, however, offer a postscript on the relationship of the Hebrew Bible to the post-World War II civil-rights movement, and particularly to the rhetoric of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. King’s speeches were not only deeply imbued with the language of the biblical prophets; they were effective precisely because they spoke in the most ancient language of American moral legitimation.

Yet King lived in a time—and in a region, the American South—in which biblical knowledge was still strong. It is not so today, hence the great value of Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land. Will the moral sentiments and characteristic habits of the heart that have been sustained in America in the past continue to flourish without the biblical account of man to support and uphold them?

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