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The Bible and the American Revolution

The Bible was central to the way the Founders conceived the dramatic events surrounding the American Revolution.

Benjamin Franklin’s design for the Great Seal of the United States. Originally printed in Benson J. Lossing, “Great Seal of the United States,” The New Harper’s Magazine 13 (1856): 178–86.

On July 2, 1776, members of a special committee gathered in Philadelphia to design a great seal for the new United States. The renowned Benjamin Franklin proposed an image of Moses and the Israelites watching Pharaoh and his host drown in the Red Sea. The young Thomas Jefferson suggested an image of the Israelites following a cloud of smoke in the desert. Although neither suggestion was adopted, the conversation hints at the Bible’s centrality to the way the Founders conceived the dramatic events surrounding the American Revolution.

Which biblical stories did revolutionary Americans use to justify the revolution?

In the years leading up to the War for Independence, the Bible proved crucial for making the patriotic case for war. British loyalists claimed that Peter and Paul condemned rebellion against civil authority (see Rom 13:1–4; 1 Pet 2:13–17). American revolutionaries, however, read the apostles, like the rest of the Bible, through a republican prism. They turned to the Bible to instill ideals such as sacrifice, virtue, and military leadership. A popular example, for instance, was that of the judge Gideon, who selflessly led the Israelites in battle and refused to become a king (Judg 6–8). Patriots even used obscure stories such as the curse of Meroz to chastise neutrality as sinful cowardice (Judg 5:23).

These patriotic appeals stemmed out of New England—mainly but not exclusively through sermons—and quickly spread throughout the colonies. The Revolution may not have been a religious revolt, but it was to a large extent stimulated through repeated uses of and appeals to the Bible. Scripture functioned as a central channel for arousing political sentiments.

Which biblical stories were used during the American Revolution?

The Bible provided numerous war stories, which helped instill courage and martial virtue during this time of crisis. Patriots turned to the story of Gideon, for instance, to instill the value of republican self-effacement, as an example of curbing one’s personal ambition for the common good. They looked to the character of King David, the warrior psalmist, to endure the atrocities of war. Many also used the apocalyptic book of Revelation to inject a dose of militant millenarian Christianity, the idea that an earthly kingdom of God was at hand and should be brought about, into their revolution.

However, the patriots’ wartime worldview was dominated by one specific narrative, that of the exodus. The biblical book of Exodus details how the Israelites, led by a charismatic and divinely inspired Moses, escaped from bondage in the land of Egypt. As detailed in later biblical books, after roaming the wilderness for forty years, the Israelites eventually conquer Canaan and settle in a promised land full of milk and honey. The story emphasizes the Israelites’ election by God as a chosen people on their way to a promised land.

By the time of the American Revolution, the exodus narrative already had a long history in the British North American colonies, especially in New England. The Puritan immigrants, for instance, interpreted the Great Migration of the 1630s as a crossing of the Red Sea and an escape from the “British Egypt.” Subsequent generations continued this narrative, and it became a standard political trope.

During the Revolutionary War, the exodus narrative was readily reshaped to explore the meaning of nationhood. Patriots argued that God had selected the Americans as a new people to lead through the Red Sea of the Revolution and thereby escape the crushing tyranny of Britain. With the creation of the United States, Americans came to see themselves as an emergent New Israel, complete with a new covenant, the Federal Constitution. After the war, the exodus narrative continued to be popular, as seen in remarkable texts such as Timothy Dwight’s epic metaphoric poem, The Conquest of Canaan (1785). Dwight dedicated his poem to George Washington, who has commonly come to be seen as an American Moses leading his people to freedom.

Exodus, in short, exemplifies the powerful biblical understanding of the United States as a New Israel during the Revolution. That image would continue to exert its influence across centuries of American history, from the Puritans to enslaved African Americans to the Mormons to the Civil Rights Movement.

  • Eran Shalev is a historian of the early United States at the University of Haifa, Israel. He is the author of three books: Rome Reborn on Western Shores: Historical Imagination and the Creation of the American Republic (University of Virginia Press, 2009); American Zion: The Bible as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War (Yale University Press, 2012); and The Star-Spangled Republic: Political Astronomy in the Age of the New American Constellation (2024).