Examining the Roots of American 'Chosenness'

June 30, 2016
Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), by Emanuel Leutze. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), by Emanuel Leutze. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

As we celebrate our nation's birth this July Fourth with parades, fireworks, and BBQs, we revisit the year 1776 to ask about the reasons for the American Revolution. What inspired thousands of ordinary Americans to risk their lives and fight against the British, the most powerful empire in the world?

At least part of the answer is because the colonists believed that they were fighting for a religious cause.

During the 1770s and 1780s, most Americans did not draw sharp boundaries between politics and religion, and under the pressures of war they increasingly imagined the Bible as a defense of political as well as spiritual liberty.

More than any other book in the eighteenth century, the Bible framed the way that ordinary people thought about their lives. The Revolution was first and foremost about political principles, but as patriots decried British tyranny, they sought legitimation for their beliefs in the Bible.

What they discovered is that the Bible could be reinterpreted as a defense of a republican form of government. As John Adams insisted, the Bible "is the most Republican Book in the world." This was a dramatic transformation: for centuries Christians had assumed that monarchy was God's will.

Perhaps no biblical story was more inspirational for American patriots than Exodus, the story of the enslavement of the Israelites and their journey to freedom. Drawing on a long Puritan tradition of identifying New England as "God's New Israel," many New England ministers argued that there were striking similarities between the plight of eighteenth-century Americans and the plight of the Israelites in Egypt.

When the Puritans had settled in Massachusetts Bay, they had described themselves as a "city on a hill" with a special divine destiny, and during the Revolution, this belief in American "chosenness" only grew stronger.

Patriotic ministers often recounted the story of Pharaoh, the evil king of Egypt, who had enslaved and oppressed the Israelites until Moses led them to freedom, parting the Red Sea with his staff. Placing Americans within this sacred history, ministers would often describe King George III as Pharaoh and the colonists as the oppressed Israelites.

Rather than highlighting the biblical passages calling for peace, patriots insisted that a violent God did not hesitate to wreak vengeance on his foes. Revolutionary patriots argued that even Jesus should be understood as a warrior.

On one hand, they acknowledged that Jesus had urged his disciples to love their enemies, to bless those who cursed them, and to turn the other cheek. On the other hand, they were particularly struck by the description of the avenging Jesus found in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 19:15): "And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God."

Hoping to make sense of the extraordinary events of the war, both patriots and Loyalists searched scripture for evidence of God's will for America. They asked what kind of government God preferred, whether disobedience to a king was ever justified, and most of all, whether God sanctioned war and violence.

By insisting that the central message of the Bible is freedom, ministers transformed the way that ordinary people understood the Bible, and their intense identification of the Bible with American nationalism and political liberty led to a new understanding of the Bible as a deeply patriotic text.

This democratic, nationalistic understanding of the Bible proved to be long lasting, and we can still hear its echoes today. Consider, for example, the American Patriot’s Bible, a bible published in 2009 that prints the full text of the Bible with glossy inserts celebrating the history of American freedom.

Like the Christian patriots during the Revolution who tried to write themselves into the Bible by identifying themselves as the New Israel, the American Patriot's Bible highlights the parallels between the Book of Exodus and American history, and its central message is that God has called Americans to fight for liberty.

The book has reportedly sold more than 125,000 copies. Despite widespread criticism by Christian leaders that the American Patriot’s Bible is misguided and even idolatrous in its nationalism, it is clear that many American Christians today are the heirs of the Revolutionary patriots who argued on behalf of American chosenness.

One testimony to the enduring power of the American Revolution in the modern-day United States is the conviction that the Bible sanctions violence in defense of American nationalism and American democracy. Like the many patriots before them, countless numbers of American men and women have been convinced that the Bible calls them to rise up against God's enemies in defense of the sacred cause of liberty.  

—Catherine Brekus is the Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at Harvard Divinity School. Her latest book, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelicalism in Early America, is available through Yale University Press. This post was originally published July 2, 2015.