The Old Testament and the New America
Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order, p.45-51

In colonial America, everyone with the rudiments of schooling knew one book thoroughly: the Bible. And the Old Testament mattered as much as the New, for the American [p.46] colonies were founded in a time of renewed Hebrew scholarship, and the Calvinistic character of Christian faith in early America emphasized the legacy of Israel.

Marcionism, the heresy that Christians ought to cast aside Jewish doctrines,had no adherents in early America.[*] a Only a handful of Jews settled in the colonies before the Revolution, and not a great many until the later decades of the nineteenth century; yet the patrimony of Israel was more powerful in America than in Europe.

The New England Puritans not only ordered their commonwealth by the Ten Commandments and the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but constantly drew parallels between themselves and the people of Israel and Judah. The Puritans thought of themselves as experiencing afresh, under God, the tribulations and the successes of the Hebrew people. "For answers to their problems," says Daniel Boorstin, "they drew as readily on Exodus, Kings, or Romans, as on the less narrative portions of the Bible. Their peculiar circumstances and their flair for the dramatic led them to see special significance in these narrative passages. The basic reality in their life was the analogy with the Children of Israel. They conceived that by going out into the Wilderness, they were reliving the story of Exodus and not merely obeying an explicit command to go into the wilderness. For them the Bible was less a body of legislation than a set of binding precedents."[12]

New England's intellectual leadership, which would give that region an influence over the United States disproportionate to New England's population, transmitted this understanding of the Hebrew patrimony far beyond the New England colonies. But also the teachings of John Calvin of Geneva, so strongly imprinted upon the Congregational churches of New England, worked as well (if less intensely) upon the other American colonies. The Presbyterians,Scottish, Scotch-Irish, and English,who came to the middle and  [p.47] southern colonies also were disciples of Calvin; even the Anglican settlers, until the middle of the seventeenth century, often emphasized the Calvinistic element in the doctrines of the Church of England.[13] The Baptists, too, were moved by Calvin.

John Calvin's Hebrew scholarship, and his expounding of the doctrine of sin and human depravity, impressed the Old Testament aspect of Christianity more strongly upon America than upon European states or other lands where Christians were in the majority. And of course the Lutherans, the Methodists, the Quakers, and other Christian bodies in the American colonies did not neglect the Old Testament, though they might tend to give it less weight than did the Calvinists.

"Because freedom from slavery and oppression were dominant themes in the Old Testament," Neal Riemer writes, the legacy of Israel and Judah nourished American liberty. "It warned,as in the story of the Tower of Babel,against Man's attempt to be God. It forced Man,as in the story of Adam and Eve,to recognize his mortality and fallibility and to appreciate that there can be no Utopia on earth. Again and again, it inveighed against the belief that Utopia can be captured and made concrete in idolatry. On the other hand, however, it left ample room for effort to make life better. This is the central meaning, as I read it, of God's Covenant with Noah and its reaffirmation with Abraham, with Moses, and with the later prophets."[14]

So the Old Testament helped to make social realists of the early Americans. As Edmund Burke would declare at the end of the colonial period, the religion of most of the Americans was "the dissidence of dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion ",suffused with the spirit of liberty. But it was not from the Law and the Prophets that the Americans dissented; the Calvinists' quarrel was not with the Children of Israel, but with the prerogatives of the Church of England. Generally the Calvinists believed more fervently in the authority of the Old Testament than Martin Luther had; the idea of the Covenant colored all their political convictions.

Clinton Rossiter expresses succinctly the cardinal point [p.48] that American democratic society rests upon Puritan and other Calvinistic beliefs,and through those, in no small part upon the experience of Israel under God. "For all its faults and falterings, for all the distance it has yet to travel," Rossiter states, "American democracy has been and remains a highly moral adventure. Whatever doubts may exist about the sources of this democracy, there can be none about the chief source of the morality that gives it life and substance..."From this Puritan inheritance, this transplanted Hebrew tradition, there come "the contract and all its corollaries; the higher law as something more than a 'brooding omnipresence in the sky'; the concept of the competent and responsible individual; certain key ingredients of economic individualism; the insistence on a citizenry educated to understand its rights and duties; and the middle-class virtues, that high plateau of moral stability on which, so Americans believe, successful democracy must always build."[15]

Of course Puritanism, and the other forms of Calvinism in America, were Christian in essence, not renewed Judaism merely. And the stern Calvinism of the early colonial years would be modified, presently, by the growth of a less Calvinistic Anglicanism, by the influence of Lutheranism, by the coming of millions of Catholic immigrants in the nineteenth century, and by the arrival of masses of immigrants of other confessions or persuasions. As generation succeeded generation, moreover, the New Englanders themselves would relax the strictness of the founders of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

That said, nevertheless American political theory and institutions, and the American moral order, cannot be well understood, or maintained, or renewed, without repairing to the Law and the Prophets. "In God we trust," the motto of the United States, is a reaffirmation of the Covenants made with Noah and Abraham and Moses and the Children of Israel, down to the last days of prophecy. The earthly Jerusalem never was an immense city: far more Jews live in New York City today than there were inhabitants of all Palestine at the height of Solomon's glory. But the eternal Jerusalem, the city of  spirit, still has more to do with American order than has [p.49] even Boston which the Puritans founded, or New York which the Dutch founded, or Washington which arose out of a political compromise between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians. Faith and hope may endure when earthly cities are reduced to rubble: that, indeed, is a principal lesson from the experience of Israel under God. [p.51]

Christ the Lawgiver


[*] Marcion, about the middle of the second century of the Christian era, taught that Christians ought to subscribe only to the "pure gospel" of Saint Paul, and that the Yahweh of the Jews really was not God, but the Demiurge, under whom mankind suffered until the coming of Christ.

[12] Daniel Boorstin, The Americans: the Colonial Experience (New York: Random House, 1958), p. 19.

[13] On the power of Calvinism in early America, see C. Gregg Singer, A Theological Interpretation of American History (Nutley, N.J.: Craig Press, 1964), particularly the Introduction.

[14] Neal Riemer, The Democratic Experiment: American Political Theory (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, 1967), p. 35.

[15] Clinton Rossiter, Seedtime of the Republic: the Origin of the American Tradition of Political Liberty (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953), p. 55.