hoffheimer column


This is the first of five weekly installments on the religious basis of the founding of the United States of America. Daniel Hoffheimer is an attorney in Cincinnati and writes about Jewish history.


I. Introduction 

The United States of America, our beloved country, sweet land of liberty, was founded on Christian principles, correct? Let us consider the foundations of our country. Allow me to begin with several scene-setting quotations. 

“America was founded as a Christian country.” 

- Gary Lankford, president of FamilyVision, and affiliated with the Ohio Restoration Project, a nonprofit Christian evangelical organization that was dedicated to Ken Blackwell’s unsuccessful campaign for Ohio Governor. 

“ I just have to say in all candor that...this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles...” 

- Senator John S. McCain, III G.O.P. Presidential nominee, in his BeliefNet interview, September 2007. 

And, finally:

“Whether you like it or not, America is a Christian country.” 

- Andrew Carnegie to Mark Twain.

- Mark Twain’s response to Carnegie: “But so is Hell.” 

So what are we to make of the oft-heard claim, voiced by the late GOP Senator McCain, the religious right, and others that the United States of America is a Christian country, founded on Christian principles? 

When one considers the explosion of books on America’s Founders that have come out in recent years — such as those of Nathaniel Philbrick, David McCulloch, John Meacham, Joseph Ellis, Ron Chernow, Walter Isaacson, and Gordon Wood, among others — there seems to be abroad the sense that the European settlement of America, especially by the late eighteenth century, was a miraculous intellectual, and even religious, watershed the likes of which the world had not seen before and has not seen since. The pervasion of religious intolerance and dogmatism around the globe today, which in possession of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons may yet cause unprecedented human misery, highlights in sharp relief the diversity of religious experience in our early national history that resulted in the jurisprudence of the First Amendment to our Constitution and religious freedom that has no antecedent. Just consider our American religious spectrum today, from Opus Dei to Mormonism, Humanistic Judaism, Messianic Jews, American Theravada Buddhism, Tennessee snake handlers, more Protestant churches daily, Seveners and Twelvers among Shia Muslims, Sunnis of all stripes, Hindu groups with their respective patron gods, Chinese folk religion, atheists—and on and on. This happens only in America. Despite this rich religious rainbow, is America a Christian country? Did the Pilgrims and Founding Fathers (and Mothers) define America to be Christian? Or did they create America as a country open equally to all religions? 

I want to turn to the hothouse of religious thought in the world of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, and our other national holy scriptures, but first let us get a taste of one seminal aspect of the diverse religious background from which we derive our religious culture, and that is the Jewish premise on which American religious pluralism rests. 


II. The Hebrew Context of the Spirit of Seventy-Six 

Over a century before the "Spirit of Seventy-Six" intoxicated the Founders, earlier iconoclastic seeds were planted by the first European settlers in the New World. The Mayflower Pilgrims, under the spiritual leadership of Elder William Brewster, were Old-Testament-committed Christians. (Brewster, in what is a typical irony of the American melting pot, is the twelve-times great-grandfather of the author of this article.) Although social realities meant that Brewster knew no rabbis, and the Pilgrims knew few Jews, they saw Moses as their law-giver. The Exodus modeled their own flight from Christian persecution. The Pilgrim's Code of Laws of 1636 was derived from the Hebrew Bible. In their government branches of executive, legislative, and judicial, they followed the tripartite structure of the ancient Hebrew Commonwealth with its Shofet, Sanhedrin, and Knesset years before Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws provided such a structure for eighteenth century political philosophy. 

Of course, the Pilgrims and Puritans meant to establish their colonies as Christian societies, but endless dissenters, of whom Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson are only the most famous, assured very early that no colonial community would have a monopoly on religious rule or religious truth. There was room for everyone. And they would not create their religious culture without reference other religions. The Pilgrims were aware that they were establishing their Thanksgiving celebration, for example, after the Jewish fall holiday of Sukkot, although the changes in seasons between New England and Israel put the holidays six or eight weeks apart. 

After Massachusetts Bay Colony established its first seminary on this continent in 1636 for the education of the successors to Elder Brewster, as Isaac Mayer Wise would first do for rabbis 239 years later in founding the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Harvard required a thorough knowledge of Hebrew. Also in 1636, Puritans at Harvard began translating the Psalms from Hebrew into English. The first important book to be published in North America was the Bay Psalm Book. This book, printed in the house of John Dunster, the first president of Harvard, was used by nearly every congregation of New England for decades. (For bibliophiles, this book is far rarer than a Shakespeare First Folio and compares in price to a Gutenberg Bible.) 

In 1655, Harvard established the first chair on the continent in Hebrew. In succession, other early seminaries and colleges, which today go by the names of Yale, Columbia, Darthmouth, Brown, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Pennsylvania, followed suit mandating literacy in the Hebrew Bible in its original language. At Princeton only a century later, the Father of the Constitution of the United States, a young James Madison, would major in and become completely literate in Hebrew and well-versed in ancient Hebraic literature. 

The first American Hebrew grammar book was published by the first Jew known to receive a Harvard degree before the nineteenth century, Judah Monis. Born in 1683 in Italy to Portuguese conversos, he was drawn to Harvard, which early sought his skills and gladly welcomed him to the faculty — upon his Christian baptism, of course, in 1722, under the tutelage of Increase and Cotton Mather, Harvard's president. Monis was baptized in Harvard Hall (where, incidentally, British troops were later garrisoned until General Washington tricked them into abandoning their occupation of Boston and where the author of this article took a course, some years later, on the history of Israel taught by an Egyptian Jew). Monis nevertheless remained an observant Jew for the rest of his life. The Inquisition could not reach him at Cambridge. When Ezra Stiles became president of Yale in the year following the Declaration of Independence, he not only continued the mandatory study of Hebrew in New Haven but added required study of Talmud in Aramaic and of Kabbalistic mystical texts. Only in recent years has Hebrew Union College taken Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism seriously, so antithetical has it seemed to the Haskalah-inspired German-Jewish temperament of the Reform Movement. 


To be continued next week in The American Israelite.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.