David Barton’s Founders’ Bible: John Adams and the General Principles of Christianity

The purpose of David Barton’s Founders’ Bible is to make a case that the founders intended America to be a distinctly Christian nation. This is a multi-layered claim that has been taken up by many historians with many opinions. On this question, I recommend John Fea’s book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: An Historical Introduction. I do not recommend the Founders’ Bible for reasons I have outlined here, here and here today.

In the Founders’ Bible, historical information is selectively cited to craft a political message. In the Founders’ Bible article, “America: A Christian Nation,” Barton provides a dramatically abbreviated quote from John Adams to bolster his position:

This quote is cobbled together from a letter Adams sent to Jefferson as a part of their retirement correspondence.  When Jefferson was Adams’ vice-president, there were great disputes about the direction of government and the men became leaders of opposing sides. After the bitter presidential race of 1800, the two men drifted apart. It was only later after Benjamin Rush played the intermediary that the two men began to explain their positions to each other. The quote in the Founders’ Bible is lifted without context from an exchange of letters which addressed some of those differences in philosophy. On June 15, 1813, Jefferson wrote to Adams about one of those divisions:

One of the questions, you know, on which our parties took different sides, was on the improvability of the human mind in science, in ethics, in government, &c. Those who advocated reformation of institutions, pari passu with the progress of science, maintained that no definite limits could be assigned to that progress [Jefferson’s party]. The enemies of reform [Adams’ party], on the other hand, denied improvement, and advocated steady adherence to the principles, practices and institutions of our fathers, which they represented as the consummation of wisdom, and acme of excellence, beyond which the human mind could never advance. Although in the passage of your answer alluded to, you expressly disclaim the wish to influence the freedom of inquiry, you predict that that will produce nothing more worthy of transmission to posterity than the principles, institutions and systems of education received from their ancestors. I do not consider this as your deliberate opinion. You possess, yourself, too much science, not to see how much is still ahead of you, unexplained and unexplored.

The passage Jefferson referred to is a letter that Adams wrote in reply to certain young men of Philadelphia in 1798. At that time, Adams had urged the men to hold to principles derived from their ancestors. Here is a particularly relevant portion:

Without wishing to damp the ardor of curiosity or influence the freedom of inquiry, I will hazard a prediction that, after the most industrious and impartial researches, the longest liver of you all will find no principles, institutions, or systems of education more fit in general to be transmitted to your posterity than those you have received from your ancestors.

The new nation was still looking for solid ground and faced with many challenges at home and abroad, citizens were staking out political territory. According to Jefferson, the parties disagreed about the nature of science and progress with Adams viewed as more of a traditionalist and Jefferson as the progressive. In the June 28, 1813 reply to Jefferson’s letter, Adams explained his position in more detail. Note the words in bold, these are the ones Barton selectively quoted in the Founders’ Bible. Speaking about the patriots who made up the revolution, Adams wrote:

Who composed that army of fine young fellows that was then before my eyes? There were among them Roman Catholics, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants, and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists, and Protestants “qui ne croyent rien.” Very few, however, of several of these species; nevertheless, all educated in the general principles of Christianity, and the general principles of English and American liberty.

Could my answer be understood by any candid reader or hearer, to recommend to all the others the general principles, institutions, or systems of education of the Roman Catholics, or those of the Quakers, or those of the Presbyterians, or those of the Methodists, or those of the Moravians, or those of the Universalists, or those of the Philosophers? No. The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young men could unite, and these principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united, and the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united, and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence. Now I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system. I could, therefore, safely say, consistently with all my then and present information, that I believed they would never make discoveries in contradiction to these general principles. In favor of these general principles, in philosophy, religion, and government, I could fill sheets of quotations from Frederic of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Rousseau, and Voltaire, as well as Newton and Locke; not to mention thousands of divines and philosophers of inferior fame.

Barton obscures Adams’ meaning by failing to provide the context of the quote and by failing to provide the entire quote. Adams does not give sole credit for achieving independence to the “general principles of Christianity.” He also includes the “general principles of English and American liberty.” The general principles where all could agree would have to be a pretty small subset of principles given the long list of sects and denominations listed by Adams. Also note the religious skeptics (e.g., Bolingbroke, Hume, Voltaire and Rousseau)* in his list of philosophers.  The inclusion of these skeptics makes clear that Adams was looking beyond explicitly Christian influences and lauding some general set of principles which could be derived from both Christian and non-Christian sources.

Look again at the fuller quote from Adams. It would be easy to lift several portions of it to say that the nation was founded based on the American and English principles of liberty or on the list of people from Frederic of Prussia forward. Adams clearly saw many influences converging to provide support for independence, a fact obscured by the Founders’ Bible.


*For a tongue-in-cheek review of religion by Voltaire, click this link.

The Founders’ Bible to be released September 14

According to the project Facebook page, the Founders’ Bible  is slated to be released this Friday.  The Founders’ Bible is David Barton’s newest project and is being published by Shiloh Road Publishing, a subsidiary of Windblown Media, publisher of The Shack. Here is the product description:

David Barton, Signature Historian, sets the record straight, unveiling the true and forgotten history of America’s founding, the source of what made this nation so great, inviting us to return to those foundations, and fan back to full flame the torch of liberty that is meant to shine as a light unto the nations.

America stands at the crossroads of human history, once revered and respected through out the world for its exception­alism, a gleaming “city set on a hill” as a beacon of enduring freedom, now reviled, its influence reduced, teetering on the brink of disaster. . . . If ever there was a desperate need for us to look back and rediscover the vision, the passion, and the wisdom of those who laid the glorious foundations, it is now!

I wrote about the Founders’ Bible in July when articles included in it were printed on a publisher’s web forum.  I added a post today at Crosswalk which summarizes the unbelievable inclusion of pro-slavery James Hammond as a Christian leader and proponent of American as a Christian nation. If those pre-publication articles are any indication, the many problems we and others have pointed out with Barton‘s other historical writings are likely multiplied in the Founders’ Bible.
What are we supposed to learn from the Founders’ Bible?
A quick review of the Facebook page for the Founders’ Bible provides a clue about what it might mean to the publishers of the project for the nation to “rediscover the vision.” One entry links to an organization called, Biblical Christian Solutions In Government. The recommended article is a reprinted 1791 letter from Benjamin Rush to Rev. Jeremy Belknap which promotes the use of the Bible in schools.  Rush, in contrast to Jefferson, believed that the promotion of Christianity in schools would provide a critical basis for republican self-government. To Belknap, Rush asserted
Such a mode of instructing children in the [C]hristian religion, would convey knowledge into their understandings, and would therefore be preferable to teaching them creeds, and catechisms, which too often convey, not knowledge, but words only, into their memories. I think I am not too sanguine in believing, that education, conducted in this manner, would, in the course of two generations, eradicate infidelity from among us, and render civil government scarcely necessary in our country.

In contemplating the political institutions of the United States, I lament, that we waste so much time and money in punishing crimes, and take so little pains to prevent them. We profess to be republicans, and yet we neglect the only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican forms of government, that is, the universal education of our youth in the principles of [C]hristianity, by means of the [B]ible; for this divine book, above all others, favours that equality among mankind, that respect for just laws, and all those sober and frugal virtues, which constitute the soul of republicanism.

Make everybody a Christian and then all will be well. Does this link and endorsement tell us anything about the intentions of the Founders’ Bible? One cannot be sure since there is no commentary, but I think it is fair to assume that the promoters believe teaching Christianity in schools would be desirable.

The organization which posted Rush’s letter takes inspiration from Alexander Hamilton’s short lived idea to rally the Federalist party after the defeat of John Adams in the 1800 election. Jefferson and the Republicans had won the election and Hamilton wanted to regroup and plot a new course. To do so, he suggested the formation of the “Christian Constitutional Society” (you can read a summary of the idea in Thomas Jefferson’s biography by Randall here, see pages 10-12).

Hamilton’s proposal to friend James Bayard is fascinating and reminds me of how advocacy groups operate today.  Consider this section:

Yet unless we can contrive to take hold of and carry along with us strong feelings of the mind, we shall in vain calculate upon any substantial or durable results. Whatever plan we may adopt to be successful must be founded the truth of this proposition. And perhaps it is not very easy for us to give it effect especially not without some deviations from what on other occasions we have maintained to be right. But in determining upon the propriety of the deviations, we must consider whether it be possible for us to succeed without in some degree employing the weapons which have been employed against us and whether the actual state and future prospect of things be not such as to justify the reciprocal use of them.

Hamilton advised playing on the feelings of the people and compromising principles because the other side had done so. Hamilton advocated fighting fire with fire. Christianity is mentioned only twice in Hamilton’s plan. It is obvious from the letter that Hamilton wants to use religion for the purpose of organizing his political party. Delaware federalist  Bayard had no interest in the idea and told Hamilton that his plan would arouse jealousies within the party.

In the present case, the authors of the Founders’ Bible do not seem to be interested in nuance.  Is requiring the teaching of the Christian religion in schools their way to “rediscover the vision” and return to the “glorious foundations?” If so, then this Christian wants no part of it, and I suspect most others won’t either.

Founders’ Bible Cites Pro-Slavery Leader as Proponent of America as a Christian Nation

At the end of the month at Glenn Beck’s Restoring Love rally in Dallas, David Barton will sign his new book. While he may sign some copies of his other new book — The Jefferson Lies — the new book I am referring to is called The Founder’s Bible.  From 2:30-4:00pm on July 26, Barton will sign the Bible and then the next day at 9:00-10:00am Barton will give a speech about it.

There is very little information about The Founder’s Bible on the web. The website, Facebook, Twitter and You Tube pages are incomplete.  On the website, the pre-order shopping cart leads to Bronze Bow Publishing which publishes motivational tapes, self-help and fitness books.  Bronze Bow Publishing describes itself as ” a leader in helping men and women achieve their ultimate potential in functional athletic strength, fitness, natural muscular development, and all-around superb health and youthfulness.” They also say they sell Christian products to help Christians reach their “ultimate potential.”

Continue reading “Founders’ Bible Cites Pro-Slavery Leader as Proponent of America as a Christian Nation”