Did the Founding Fathers Really Turn to Moses for Inspiration?

George Washington in prayerGeorge Washington kneeling in prayer. Federal Hall, New York City

The Texas State Board of Education has just designated Moses in its new history curriculum as a key influence on eighteenth-century republican thought and the American founding. Others insist that the United States was founded as a Christian nation based on Biblical principles, denying that such prominent Founding Fathers as Thomas Jefferson fought for separation of church and state and that that concept has anything to do with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

In reality, most historians would agree that it is hazardous to generalize about what the Founding Fathers knew or believed, let alone what they intended the Constitution to mean. The Founding Fathers were deeply divided as we are today, often about some of the issues and problems still dividing us.

Some in the Revolutionary era, for example, believed, as Jefferson, James Madison, and George Mason did, in strict separation of church and state. They argued that an alliance between religion and government would corrupt the purity of the individual mind, the purity of the secular realm of government and politics, and the purity of the church and the world of faith. They argued that it was imperative to keep church and state separate, and they rejected the need for an established church or array of churches receiving public funds.

Others believed, as John Jay and Samuel Adams did, that religion and government had to be allied. Such an alliance would promote religion among the people, they thought, which in turn would promote the people’s adherence to virtue. A virtuous population would promote the spirit of liberty needed to preserve liberty. These people argued that government should use tax funds to support churches and “teachers of the Christian religion,” by which they meant Protestant ministers.

Between 1776 and 1833, every state that had established tax-supported churches did away with them, adopting instead the principle of voluntary support of a church by its parishioners. Thus, by the time of Andrew Jackson, the prevailing American view of the proper relationship between church and state changed from the competing models of the era of the Revolution to the Jeffersonian insistence on the separation of church and state.

This shift occurred in part because Americans increasingly recognized the danger of allying religion and government. Such an alliance would induce differing religious groups to war with one another to wrest into their own hands control of government and the church-state alliance. This was the state of affairs that convulsed European countries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – a sad and bloody history that Americans knew all too well. In France, for example, the war between Catholics and Huguenots (Protestants) resulted in such horrors as the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, in which Catholics slew between 5,000 and 30,000 Huguenots. Germany was not yet united, but German states and principalities were tormented for thirty years, between 1618 and 1648, by the Thirty Years’ War, in which Catholics and Protestants slaughtered each other with grim determination, committing crimes not equaled until World War II. And the civil war that beset England between 1638 and 1649 and in 1688-1689 pitted Catholic and Protestant supporters of the Stuart kings against Protestant supporters of Parliament, in a conflict as much about religion as about differing theories of kingly power, Parliamentary authority, and constitutional government.

The Founding Fathers knew of these historical examples, and they commonly invoked them, in great measure because of the intellectual context in which they lived. Whatever divided them, they were intellectual children of the Age of Enlightenment, that thorny, messy, quarrelsome period from the era of Isaac Newton (1646-1727) to that of Thomas Paine (1737-1809). They subscribed to that era’s synthesizing and categorizing habits of thought. They believed that in their time, all human knowledge and experience was coming together in a grand confluence, like the tributary rivers forming the Nile, the Amazon, or the Mississippi, from which would emerge general principles of human nature, society, politics, and government.

Each of the leading founders had his own synthesis in his own head; each synthesis assembled different intellectual ingredients in differing combinations. The ingredients included the thought, experience, and history of ancient Greece and Rome; medieval and early modern English constitutionalism; ideas and history of republicanism, ancient, medieval, and modern; and American colonial experience. All of them partook of all these influences, and others, though in different proportions and to different degrees. To be sure, they also read and studied their Bible, but they read it in different ways and for different purposes. In no way does it make sense to say that the Constitution is grounded on Biblical precedents, precepts, or principles. Most governments that we find in the Bible are monarchies, for example, but if the Founding Fathers agreed on anything during the Revolution and the early Republic, it was in rejecting monarchy.

The world of the nation’s founding is fascinating, but if we wrench it out of context and make it serve modern agendas, it loses its integrity and its meaning.

About the Author

R. B. Bernstein

R. B. Bernstein teaches at City College of New York's Colin Powell School and New York Law School; his books include Thomas Jefferson (2003), The Founding Fathers Reconsidered (2009), the forthcoming The Education of John Adams, and the forthcoming The Founding Fathers: A Very Short Introduction, all from Oxford University Press.

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11 Comments

  1. An excellent synopsis of 18th century Enlightenment thought, and the religious wars that led to the eventual separation of church and state in America.

  2. The Founders were certain that to create a new democracy, religion and government had to be kept separate or each could attempt to seriously influence the other, to the detriment of a free society, without coercing different groups to toe their line; unfortunately, we are seeing an attempt to join the two in order to exclude ‘unwanted’ groups from having a voice – all out of fear of losing their power. Thanks for posting this Richard and including me.

  3. I like the reminder that their concerns weren’t just academic: they had seen what had happened when religion tore nations apart, and blood literally ran in the streets. Sometimes I worry that people calling for more religion in government have forgotten that the bloodshed that creates is exactly why the Founding Fathers insisted on a nation based in law, rather than religion or individuals.

  4. Too many forget our rich and complex history, or so simplify it in their own minds that they think that it approximates what they want it to be. I’ve found out the hard way what happens when you challenge such people’s historical preconceptions. I was once called “an arrogant, elitist, liberal liar” just because I recalled and made again the case for the Seventeenth Amendment (direct election of Senators), in the face of a Tea Party-inspired effort to repeal the amendment. (Why? To “restore” the original Senate and also to “restore” a federalism/state’s rights-based check on the federal government — never mind that it never worked, and that the Amendment was framed and adopted to deal with two persistent problems with state legislatures choosing Senators — chaos and corruption.)

    1. This is one of the reasons I wanted us to have a magazine of accurate history. Way too often, citing facts brings vicious attacks that the writer is pushing a biased agenda. No. Actually, you can’t really understand the way society works unless you operate with facts– especially the ones you don’t like.

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