American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War. By Eran Shalev. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. 256 pages. $28.00 paper.
Review by Jordan T. Watkins
Eran Shalev has distinguished himself as a historian of early America’s intellectual and political culture. His most recent publication is a kind of companion piece to his work on the classical world in the early republic, Rome Reborn on Western Shores (2009). In American Zion, Shalev highlights the place of the biblical past in the American republic. His examination of sermons, religious tracts, and political pamphlets demonstrates that the Old Testament played a prominent role in American political culture between the Revolution and the Civil War. While Shalev’s first work highlighted the political usefulness of the classical past in the early republic, American Zion shows the political appeal of the Old Testament in and after the same period.
Even more than in his previous work, Shalev traces the link between religious and political valences of American political culture. He begins by showing how the Revolutionaries reformulated the Puritans’ self-identification as the New Israel. That connection biblicized America and Americanized Israel. It also classicized the Old Testament. Shalev highlights the overlap between classical and biblical appeals, showing that the Old Testament was used to teach civic virtue. Biblical republicanism, as he describes it, also emerged as commentators located corruption in Rome and Israel. Some Revolutionaries describe Haman of the Book of Esther as a corrupt prime minister and Barak and Deborah of the Book of Judges as virtuous republicans. In these connections, Americans collapsed “the worlds of the Old Testament, Rome, and America into an amalgam fused through civic humanism” (45). Universalist minister John Murray and Congregationalist minister Ezra Stiles made this conflation clear in describing Gideon, who refused to become king after saving the Israelites, as a Jewish Cincinnatus and in pointing to Washington as their modern counterpart. Americans viewed Israel through the lens of their own their political experiment.
Shalev shows the persistence of biblical republicanism in writings on American government and constitutionalism. While some colonists had looked to English commentators such as Thomas Hobbes in using biblical Israel to support authoritarian government, the Revolutionaries, including Boston’s Congregationalist pastor Gad Hitchcock, described Israel as an independent commonwealth with antimonarchical features. In 1780, Samuel Cooper, another Boston minister, characterized Israel as a free republic with a judge, a council, and assemblies of the people, described as the most permanent feature of the Israelite government. These writers compared the Sanhedrin with the Continental Congress and the Israelite tribes with the American “states.” Pointing out the division of ancient Joseph’s tribe, they suggested that the thirteen—rather than twelve—tribes of Israel matched up with thirteen states of the American republic. These connections persisted in the nineteenth century. For example, prominent Second Great Awakening preacher Lyman Beecher, who found the Constitution’s origins in biblical rather than classical texts, located “republican elements” in the Old Testament. He and others ascribed a Jeffersonian interest in land ownership to the Hebrew “commonwealth.” Americans, as Shalev makes clear, used the biblical, as well as the classical, world to sanction the American republic.
To further demonstrate the importance of Old Testamentism, Shalev highlights what he describes as pseudobiblicism. In writings such as John Leacock’s The First Book of American Chronicles of the Times, Americans wrote about their past in a biblical style. According to Shalev, this created a “constructive estrangement,” which simultaneously placed America in a biblical time frame and harnessed the authority of the past for present use (100). Shalev offers this culture of pseudobiblicism as a new context for understanding Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon, which contained some distinct similarities in style, arrangement, content, and effect to other writings of the period. He argues that the book “makes use of the archaic language to historicize and sanctify American annals” (108).
In particular, Shalev suggests that the Book of Mormon provided Native peoples, often depicted as somehow atemporal, with a history. The new scripture fit within a tradition that tied together Israelites and Native Americans. Writers such as James Adair, Elias Boudinot, and Ethan Smith connected Native peoples to the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel and placed the United States in the role of restorers. Shalev notes differences between their narratives and the Book of Mormon but, as other historians have made clear, shows that Latter-day Saints connected the Lamanites, a major civilization in the book, with Native Americans. Shalev might have pressed this question further to explore how Book of Mormon prophecies linked to Native peoples undermined Euro-American nationalism. Furthermore, his insights provide important context for the attack on polygamy, which Latter-day Saints defended by appeals to the Old Testament. Their defense came after the decline of Old Testamentism, making their arguments outdated.
The fate of Old Testamentism, Shalev explains, rested on its political appeal. Like the shift in usefulness from Rome to Athens in the first decades of the nineteenth century, the turn from the Old Testament followed the rise of democratic populism. In The Culture of Classicism (2002), Caroline Winterer points to democratization to explain the shift from a focus on Rome in the constitutional era to a focus on Greece in the early nineteenth century. Similarly, Shalev draws attention to the role of religious revivalism to describe the move from a reliance on the Old to the New Testament in the 1820s and 1830s. The evangelicalism of the Second Great Awakening centered American religious experience on Christ and the New Testament.
Shalev also examines the biblical debate over slavery to explain the prioritization of the New over the Old Testament. He notes that most readers agreed with Virginia Baptist Thornton Stringfellow’s distinction between patriarchal, Mosaic, and Gospel eras. Such periodization set the stage for a shift toward a focus on the New Testament in the slavery debates. Congregationalist Moses Stuart, the era’s most prominent biblical interpreter, appealed to both Testaments, but focused on the Greek scriptures in condemning the abolitionists. Meanwhile, the Presbyterian Albert Barnes and the Baptist Francis Wayland used periodization to highlight the historical specificity of Hebrew slavery. They argued that in the new light of the Gospel era, Christ and his apostles had sowed the seeds of slavery’s destruction. Some, including African-Americans, continued to find the Exodus narrative useful, but the arguments over slavery further displaced the Old Testament and undermined the link between ancient and new Israel. The clear association between Old Testament past and American present had been lost.
As a work of intellectual history, Shalev’s study provides an alternative account in the conversation about the influence of Lockean liberalism or classical republicanism in the early republic. His work shows that ministers and political commentators in the new republic used the Old Testament to teach civic virtue. His reading demonstrates the persistence of republicanism, bridging the findings of Drew McCoy’s classic The Elusive Republic (1980) and Michael Thomas Smith’s more recent work on narratives of corruption in the Civil War, The Enemy Within (2011). Shalev’s study also demonstrates the religious nature of political discussion in the early republic. Perhaps most interesting, he follows his previous work in directing readers’ attention to alternative means of measuring American historical consciousness. His argument that biblical debates over slavery created awareness of the historical differences between ancient and American Israel suggests that scholars might find historical awareness not in the histories of Bancroft or Prescott but in the period’s most pressing religious and political debates.
Jordan T. Watkins received his PhD in American history from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in May of 2014. His current book manuscript, Slavery and Sacred Texts: America’s Confrontation with the Past, examines the overlap between antebellum biblical and constitutional interpretive debates over slavery. He shows that these debates, more than any other development, indicated the unbridgeable historical distance that separated Americans from the hallowed biblical and Revolutionary pasts. He demonstrates that interpretive debates over slavery fueled a growing emphasis on contextual readings of America’s sacred religious and legal texts, the Bible and the Constitution, and explains how such readings historicized these texts, their authors, and the eras in which they were written. In short, Slavery and Sacred Texts argues that the overlapping religious and legal debates over slavery were responsible for spurring the kind of modern historical thinking that Americans now take for granted.