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Books Reviewed:

The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989). With an introduction by Forrest Church and Afterword by Jaroslav Pelikan.

America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford, 2002) by Mark Noll



Ever since the founders of the new American nation announced constitutional principles governing the relationship between religion and the state, political leaders in the United States have struggled to balance the influences of their own personal religious commitments with the demands of public office. Over the past thirty years, presidents have publicly invoked passages from the Bible to comfort in times of tragedy, or to support—perhaps even justify—their national projects and international vision.

In the early nineteenth century, our third president, Thomas Jefferson, read the Bible in a very different way than many of our most recent presidents. In an intentional fashion, Jefferson created his own bible by cutting and pasting passages from the Gospels that offered a portrait of Jesus as a teacher of morality not an apocalyptic prophet, exorcist, or miracle worker.

A modern-day Marcion, Jefferson composed his account of "the life and morals of Jesus of Nazareth" out of the cloth of the Synoptics and John. He eschewed Paul's writings, accusing Paul of corrupting Jesus' simple message. In one of his letters, Jefferson describes his purpose: "It is the innocence of his character, the purity and sublimity of His moral precepts, the eloquence of his inculcations, the beauty of the apologues in which He conveys them, that I so much admire."

In the same letter, he explains his method. "Among the sayings and discourses imputed to Him by His biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others…of so much ignorance, so much charlatanism and imposture as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same Being. I separate, therefore, the gold form the dross; restore to Him the former, and leave the latter to the stupidity of some, and roguery of others of His disciples."

When he is finished with his cutting and pasting, Jefferson proclaims to John Adams that he has reduced his bible to the very words of Jesus, "arranging from out of the evangelists the matter which is evidently his, and which is as distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill....There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent cod of morals which as ever been offered to man."

We are fortunate to have Jefferson's bible in an easily accessible version, The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989). Forrest Church, the senior minister of All Souls Church in New York City, who provides insights into the evolution of Jefferson's bible, ably introduces Jefferson's effort. Yale church historian Jaroslav Pelikan's afterword sets Jefferson among his contemporaries. The text of the Bible allows us to see Jefferson at work in his selection and composition of his gospel story. For example, in the scenes of Jesus' arrest, Jefferson begins with John 18:1-3, follows it with Mathew 26:48-50, jumps back to John 18:4-8, picks up Matthew 26:50-56, and concludes with the story of the young man from Mark 14:51-52. The Sermon on the Mount forms the centerpiece of his bible, but missing of course from his bible are the stories of the virgin birth, the resurrection, and even the genealogies.

Jefferson's reading of the Bible grew out of the emphasis on rationalism and individualism that characterized the new nation in the eighteenth century. Mark Noll offers a brilliant analysis of the tangled roles of religion, individualism, and rationalism in his magisterial new book America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford, 2002)

While many people think of the austere Puritanism depicted by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter as the primary religious expression of early America, Noll carefully demonstrates that by the early eighteenth century most theology and religion had moved well beyond the Puritanism of the seventeenth century. While much of the religious tradition of the early colonial period modeled itself on its European origins, by 1730—just a few years before the first series of revival that came to be known as the first Great Awakening—the theological landscape was changing so dramatically that for the first time there was a distinctly American religion.

According to Noll, "Western Protestantism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was moving away from establishment forms of religion, embedded in traditional, organic, premodern political economies, to individualized and affectional forms, adapted to modernizing, rational, and market-oriented societies."

Theologically, American religion engaged in rethinking several beliefs inherited from European theology. "God was perceived less often as transcendent and self-contained, more as immanent and relational. Divine revelation was equated more simply with the Bible alone than with Scripture embedded in a self-conscious ecclesiastical tradition...Theological method came to rely less on instinctive deference to inherited confessions and more on self-evident propositions organized by scientific method."

The distinctive shape of American theology certainly contained these elements, but it derived more from a synthesis of evangelical Protestant religion, commonsense moral reasoning, and republican political ideology. All the elements of this synthesis shared an emphasis on individualism that steered American theology away from its European roots and that also "gave a distinctively American shape to Christian theology by the time of the Civil War."

Noll explores the development of this American theology as he examines not only the evolution of various religious traditions in the young nation (e.g., Unitarianism, Presbyterianism), as well as the key figures in his synthesis including Edwards, William Ellery Channing, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Lincoln.

Noll's sometimes thick academic prose will present an obstacle for many readers. Those willing to plunge into Noll's provocative history of American religion and society will be rewarded with brilliant gems of insight from a first-rate American historian.

Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. is Editorial Director, Trinity Press International in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Citation: Henry Carrigan, " Give Me that Old Time (American) Religion," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=157

 
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