Is the United States founded on Christianity?

It’s fascinating to review the Pilgrim’s history and their roots in America. Attempting to reform the Church of England, the Puritans wanted to base their religion purely on biblical teaching—both […]
December 4, 2015

It’s fascinating to review the Pilgrim’s history and their roots in America.

Attempting to reform the Church of England, the Puritans wanted to base their religion purely on biblical teaching—both from the Old and New Testaments. In England, they pressured the government so much to establish its laws on biblical principles that they provoked the ire of King James I of England. “King James vowed to make these deviants conform or he would ‘harry [harass] them out of the land or else do worse’ ” (Martin Marty, Pilgrims in Their Own Land, 1984 , p. 59).

So a group of Puritans fled from England and sailed to Holland. There they enjoyed more religious tolerance, but eventually became disillusioned with the Dutch way of life, believing it was ungodly and that it had a corrupting effect on their children.

A number of these Puritans, seeking a better place to practice their religion, began to set their sights on America. They finally negotiated with a London stock company to finance a journey to the New World.

They sailed from Holland to Plymouth, England, and from there to the new Plymouth they would reach after more than two months at sea. They dropped anchor at Cape Cod in November of 1620. Only about half of the original colonists were true Pilgrims. The rest, whom the Pilgrims called “strangers,” were hired to protect the company’s interests.

The Pilgrims finally disembarked at Plymouth Rock on Dec. 11, 1620. Their first winter was devastating. At the beginning of the following autumn, they had lost 46 of the original 102 who sailed on the Mayflower. But the harvest of 1621 was bountiful and the Pilgrims decided to celebrate with a feast—inviting Native American Indians who had helped them survive their first year. Historians believe that the Pilgrims would not have made it through the year without the help of the natives. The feast lasted three days.

The fledgling Plymouth colony of Puritans would not be the exception to the rule. Over the next 20 years, 16,000 Puritans would migrate from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and many more settled in Connecticut and Rhode Island—thus establishing a lasting influence on American culture and character.
The Pilgrims’ view of themselves

How did the Pilgrims view themselves?

“The Puritans in England,” writes Jewish historian Max Dimont, “regarded themselves as Hebraists. They took the Old Testament as their model of government and tried to reshape the Magna Carta in its image…The British rulers rightly regarded them as Jewish fellow-travelers, and when they departed for the Colonies, the British ruling class wrote them off as good riddance.

“In America, the Puritans modeled their new homeland upon Old Testament principles. When Harvard University was founded in 1636, Hebrew along with Latin was taught as one of the two main languages. Governor Cotton wanted to make the Mosaic Code the law of Massachusetts, and Hebrew at one point almost became the official language of the state” ( The Indestructible Jews, 1971, p. 346).

In the preface to his History of Plymouth Plantation, Governor Bradford wrote of his strong desire to learn Hebrew: “Though I am grown aged, yet I have had a longing desire to see with my own eyes something of that most ancient language and holy tongue, in which the Law and the oracles of God were written and in which God and angels spoke to the holy patriarchs of old time … My aim and desire is to see holy text, and to discern somewhat of the same, for my own content” (p. xxviii, edited by Samuel Eliot Morison, 1989).

These remarks were followed by some 25 biblical passages in the original Hebrew and their English translation.

It is no accident that the early settlers called their Plymouth Colony “Little Israel,” and they even compared Governor Bradford to Moses. They felt that they had fled lands of oppression and had found a new home, just as the Israelites had once fled Egyptian slavery and settled in the Holy Land.

It is, then, understandable from the association the Pilgrims had with the Bible and the traditions of Israel, that their Thanksgiving festival would be patterned after the biblical festivals of thanksgiving for abundance and harvest as found in the Bible—in particular, during the fall, the Feast of Tabernacles.

Again, this is not saying there is an explicit link here, just a biblical framework for the Thanksgiving celebration to arise.
Similarities of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

Just north of the Pilgrims’ colony of Plymouth, where the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in 1629 mostly by Puritans, we see a similar pattern.

“No Christian community in history,” says Gabriel Sivan, “identified more with the People of the Book than did the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed their own lives to be a literal reenactment of the biblical drama of the Hebrew nation.

“They themselves were the children of Israel; America was their Promised Land; the Atlantic Ocean their Red Sea; the Kings of England were the Egyptian pharaohs; the American Indians the Canaanites (or the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel); the pact of the Plymouth Rock was God’s holy Covenant; and the ordinances by which they lived were the Divine Law…

“[They] saw themselves as instruments of Divine Providence, a people chosen to build their new commonwealth on the Covenant entered into at Mount Sinai” ( The Bible and Civilization, 1973, p. 236).

In England, the Puritan identification with the Bible was so strong that some Puritan extremists sought to replace English common law with biblical laws of the Old Testament, but were prevented from doing so. In America, however, there was far more freedom to experiment with the use of biblical law in the legal codes of the colonies, and this was exactly what these early colonist set out to do.

The earliest legislation of the colonies of New England was all determined by Scripture. At the first assembly of New Haven in 1639, John Davenport clearly stated the primacy of the Bible as the legal and moral foundation of the colony.

Scriptures do hold forth a perfect rule for the direction and government of all men…The Word of God shall be the only rule to be attended unto in organizing the affairs of government in this plantation.

Notice how influential were the Old Testament principles in their civil government.

Subsequently,the New Haven legislators adopted a legal code—the Code of 1655, which contained some 79 statutes, half of which contained biblical references, virtually all from the Hebrew Bible. The Plymouth Colony had a similar law code as did the Massachusetts assembly, which, in 1641—after an exhortation by Reverend John Cotton who presented the legislators with a copy of Moses, His Judicials —adopted the so-called ‘Capitall Lawes of New England’ based almost entirely on Mosaic law.

At the time of the American Revolution, the interest in the knowledge of Hebrew was so widespread as to allow the circulation of the story that “certain members of Congress proposed that the use of English be formally prohibited in the United States, and Hebrew substituted for it.

Their Biblical education colored the American founders’ attitude toward not only religion and ethics, but most significantly, politics. We see them adopting the biblical motifs of the Puritans for political reasons. For example, the struggle of the ancient Hebrews against the wicked Pharaoh came to embody the struggle of the colonists against English tyranny.

Numerous examples can be found which clearly illustrate to what a significant extent the political struggles of the colonies were identified with the ancient Hebrews. The first design for the official seal of the United States recommended by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas in 1776 depicts the Jews crossing the Red Sea. The motto around the seal read: “Resistance to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” The inscription on the Liberty Bell at Independence Hall in Philadelphia is a direct quote from Leviticus (25:10): “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Patriotic speeches and publications during the period of the struggle for independence were often infused with Biblical motifs and quotations. For example, Benjamin Rush, in his editorials denouncing the Tea Act, drew on inspiration from the Hebrew Bible:

‘What did not Moses forsake and suffer for his countrymen! What shining examples of patriotism do we behold in Joshua, Samuel, Maccabees and all the illustrious princes, captains and prophets among the Jews.’

Likewise, Thomas Paine’s anti-monarchial pamphlet Common Sense cited the Hebrew Bible and words of the Prophet Samuel concluding:

‘These portions of the Scriptures … admit no equivocal construction. That the Almighty hath here entered his protest against monarchial government is true, or the Scriptures are false.’

Even the basic framework of America clearly reflects the influence of the Bible and power of Jewish ideas in shaping the political development of America. Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening sentences of the Declaration of Independence:

‘We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’

While I stress the importance of the Hebrew Bible to the early American settlers, it is important to note that, of course, the “New Testament” was revered as well. However, the Hebrew Bible was seen as the original and pure source of Christian values, and also as a legalistic and ritualistic guide, something which the New Testament was not.

In addition, there was a political agenda involved in this special focus in the Old over the New Testament. Many New Englanders viewed the New Testament as an instrument of justification, used by powers-that-be in Europe, to preserve the existing order. Had not Paul written in his letter to the Romans (13:1-2):

‘Every person must submit to the authorities in power, for all authority comes from God, and the existing authorities are instituted by him. It follows that anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution, and those who resist have themselves to thank for the punishment they receive.’

Yes, we are a Christian nation.

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