The Bible and the Nation

On Scripture’s Preeminence in American History

Throughout the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and the first half of the Twentieth Centuries the American education regime gave the Christian Scriptures an influential–if not preeminent–place in the national education regime. In the Twenty-First Century, even in the Bible Belt, the notion that religion and particularly the Bible have a place in public education elicits howls of theocracy and fretting over “separation of church and state.” Just last year The Nashville Tennessean published a letter from the CEO of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State which worried that ever since the 1962 Supreme Court decision prohibiting prayer in public schools “we have seen efforts to force religion back into classrooms and extracurricular activities.” Evangelical Protestants today might shy away from arguing that the Bible has a place in public education or that there is even an imperative for Christians to educate their children according to Biblical precepts. But even Russell Moore has noted that, “parents, not the state, have the responsibility to educate children…Jesus isn’t holding a Department of Education bureaucrat responsible for the formation of Johnny’s mind and heart.” Support for the Bible and Christianity’s place in a liberal republican educational regime was not and is not a theocratic innovation. It was seen as essential by intellectual luminaries like Charles Hodge, a professor and later head of Princeton Seminary, who argued that the Bible underpinned all knowledge and needed to have a reverential place in republican education.

In the spring of 1832, Hodge, then professor of Oriental and Biblical Literature at Princeton Seminary, told a gathering of the American Sunday School Union’s leadership that Christians necessarily understood that the Bible was “the source of everything” and what distinguished Christians “from the heathen.” The Christian Scriptures served as a “fountain of knowledge, happiness, and holiness.” Given what Hodge believed to be the obvious benefits of the Bible’s teaching on all aspects of human existence, Hodge asked “why has such a book, though known and read for centuries, hitherto accomplished comparatively so little? The general answer to this question is, no doubt, to be found in the depravity of men.”  There were, Hodge noted, nonetheless other “specific causes of this lamentable fact which should be pointed out, and, if possible, counteracted or removed. A major reason for the Bible not being studied more regularly was that “only a comparatively small portion of the inhabitants of Christendom” had “hitherto been brought under the direct and well applied influence of the word of God.” The Bible’s limited reach had societal consequences. In societal biblical illiteracy Hodge found one “of the principal causes of the little effect which the Scriptures have hitherto produced on the character and condition of men.”[1]

Hodge, like most Presbyterians of the era, believed firmly in the political order constituted by the American Revolution which included the disestablishment of Christianity as a state religion. Paul Gutjahr, the renowned Presbyterian’s most recent biographer, noted that because Hodge believed the United States was founded on democratic principles, “Hodge…believed it absolutely essential to educate Americans as thoroughly as possible to ensure that the country was guided by thoughtful, cultured, and well-considered decisions.” For Hodge, “this meant from the earliest age, the young needed to be taught sound religious principles.” Like most Presbyterians, Hodge denounced state churches as Erastian relics that weakened the power of true religion. Nonetheless, Hodge assumed that Christianity necessarily upheld the American order. In his Systematic Theology, Hodge denounced the “demands of those who require that religion, and especially Christianity, should be ignored in our national, state, and municipal laws” as “not only unreasonable, but…in the highest degree unjust and tyrannical.” A society ignorant of the Bible could not, therefore, maintain religious disestablishment or any other liberal democratic freedoms. 

Christianity served as the major bulwark against injustice and tyranny, but instead of trying to foist state churches as the chief protector of religious freedom in the American republic, Hodge argued that biblically-oriented education and biblical literacy among the populace was the most appropriate way of catechizing Americans in Christian citizenship. Hodge never believed that state power à la historic establishmentarian principles was an appropriate medium to actively Christianize the United States so as to fulfill its divinely appointed destiny. Instead, Hodge used biblical literacy as his most formidable weapon  to promote Christian influence in American society.[2]

Biblical literacy, said Hodge, allowed a small group of people to exert influence in broader society. “In Christian countries, accordingly, the number of those who in faith and love embrace the religion of the Bible is very small; while the number of those who are only indirectly brought under its influence is very large.” Hodge thought that,  regardless of how much actual religious instruction the citizenry acquired, it was “difficult for any man to live in a Christian community…without having more correct views of the Supreme Being, of moral obligations, of the nature and destiny of the soul, than were ever enjoyed in heathen lands.” The Christian scriptures brought individuals “under a higher moral influence” and elevated them as rational beings, “freed from the degrading tendencies of the thousand absurdities which enter into every false system of religion.”

The Princetonian offered a vision of Biblical literacy that directly impacted the nation. “The career which we are destined to run as a nation is lofty.” The United States’ “relative position’” territorial extent, “character of the people,” “nature of our institutions,” “identity of our language,” and “state of civilization” all indicated that American influence “among the nations, and on the world, must be unprecedentedly great. Would the United States’ influence, Hodge asked, “be for weal or wo! Shall it be to disseminate error and vice, or truth and virtue ? Shall it be to lead on the van in the moral conquest of the world, or shall it be to oppose the progress of its Redeemer, until we ourselves are cast off, and trodden under foot?” The answer depended, he declared, “on the character of the young; and this, on the mode of their education, unless God means to convert the world by miracles.” The chief way to educate Americans for liberty, so that the United States could carry out its divinely ordained mission to bring Christianity and freedom to the nations, was to make the Bible the unmistakable foundation of education across the American republic.[3]


[1] Paul Gutjahr, Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 121; Charles Hodge, A Sermon, Preached in Philadelphia, at the Request of the American Sunday-School Union. May 21, 1832 (Philadelphia: American Sunday-School Union, 1833), 3-5.

[2] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology III (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1884), 346.

[3] Hodge, A Sermon, Preached in Philadelphia, 22.


*Image Credit: Wunderstock

Miles Smith

Miles Smith

Miles Smith is a lecturer in history at Hillsdale College. He specializes in intellectual and religious life in the Nineteenth Century United States and the Atlantic World.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.