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American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War

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The Bible has always been an integral part of American political culture. Yet in the years before the Civil War, it was the Old Testament, not the New Testament, that pervaded political rhetoric. From Revolutionary times through about 1830, numerous American politicians, commentators, ministers, and laymen depicted their young nation as a new, God-chosen Israel and relied The Bible has always been an integral part of American political culture. Yet in the years before the Civil War, it was the Old Testament, not the New Testament, that pervaded political rhetoric. From Revolutionary times through about 1830, numerous American politicians, commentators, ministers, and laymen depicted their young nation as a new, God-chosen Israel and relied on the Old Testament for political guidance. In this original book, historian Eran Shalev closely examines how this powerful predilection for Old Testament narratives and rhetoric in early America shaped a wide range of debates and cultural discussions—from republican ideology, constitutional interpretation, southern slavery, and more generally the meaning of American nationalism to speculations on the origins of American Indians and to the emergence of Mormonism. Shalev argues that the effort to shape the United States as a biblical nation reflected conflicting attitudes within the culture—proudly boastful on the one hand but uncertain about its abilities and ultimate destiny on the other. With great nuance, American Zion explores for the first time the meaning and lasting effects of the idea of the United States as a new Israel and sheds new light on our understanding of the nation’s origins and culture during the founding and antebellum decades.


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The Bible has always been an integral part of American political culture. Yet in the years before the Civil War, it was the Old Testament, not the New Testament, that pervaded political rhetoric. From Revolutionary times through about 1830, numerous American politicians, commentators, ministers, and laymen depicted their young nation as a new, God-chosen Israel and relied The Bible has always been an integral part of American political culture. Yet in the years before the Civil War, it was the Old Testament, not the New Testament, that pervaded political rhetoric. From Revolutionary times through about 1830, numerous American politicians, commentators, ministers, and laymen depicted their young nation as a new, God-chosen Israel and relied on the Old Testament for political guidance. In this original book, historian Eran Shalev closely examines how this powerful predilection for Old Testament narratives and rhetoric in early America shaped a wide range of debates and cultural discussions—from republican ideology, constitutional interpretation, southern slavery, and more generally the meaning of American nationalism to speculations on the origins of American Indians and to the emergence of Mormonism. Shalev argues that the effort to shape the United States as a biblical nation reflected conflicting attitudes within the culture—proudly boastful on the one hand but uncertain about its abilities and ultimate destiny on the other. With great nuance, American Zion explores for the first time the meaning and lasting effects of the idea of the United States as a new Israel and sheds new light on our understanding of the nation’s origins and culture during the founding and antebellum decades.

35 review for American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War

  1. 5 out of 5

    Scriptor Ignotus

    I’ve been reading a number of books lately with the aim of developing my understanding of a major theopolitical current in American history that sociologist Philip Gorski identifies as our unique tradition of “Prophetic Republicanism”. From The Hebrew Republic and The Royalist Revolution, both by Eric Nelson, I’ve learned that American Patriots of the revolutionary era, their entreaties to George III over the heads of the British Parliament having been spurned, turned to a Hebraic model of repub I’ve been reading a number of books lately with the aim of developing my understanding of a major theopolitical current in American history that sociologist Philip Gorski identifies as our unique tradition of “Prophetic Republicanism”. From The Hebrew Republic and The Royalist Revolution, both by Eric Nelson, I’ve learned that American Patriots of the revolutionary era, their entreaties to George III over the heads of the British Parliament having been spurned, turned to a Hebraic model of republicanism conjured by such temporally-and-temperamentally disparate figures as Flavius Josephus, John Milton, Algernon Sidney, and Thomas Paine, in order to formulate a republican political ideology that both justified the antiroyalist sentiment that swelled after 1776 and provided for the potent executive power that would be necessary to hold the new Union together. This political Hebraism—which emerged in Europe as Protestant intellectuals engaged directly with the Hebrew scriptures and rabbinic political exegesis, but which had virtually disappeared from the Old World by the end of the seventeenth century—maintained that after the Biblical Exodus, from the time of Moses to that of the prophet Samuel, the Israelites had been organized as a perfect, archetypal republic, having no king but God Himself. When the Chosen People demanded that Samuel anoint a human king to rule over them, “that we also may be like all the nations,” they were effectively committing idolatry; replacing the rulership of divine law with that of arbitrary human power and degrading themselves from a position of national exceptionality to a low subordination to the wheelings of mundane necessity that would later see them carried off to Babylon. This Godly Republic was understood to be a model for all of humanity, and so the prospect that it could be, in some sense, providentially reestablished on the shores of the New World by the progeny of a New Israel that had undertaken its own water-crossing exodus to a new promised land fired the American imagination. In the present volume, American Zion, Eran Shalev explores further the typological framing of America as a New Israel, the analogies employed by the Hebraic political discourse between the Hebrew and American republics, and the profound impact this discourse had on shaping the American self-understanding from the Revolution to the Civil War. American Patriots wove the threads of Hebraic and classical republicanism into a single tapestry by equating the classical republican fear of corruption with the Hebraic fear of idolatry, and they drew inventive literary parallels between the old Israel and the new one. In the early phases of the imperial crisis, when the colonists believed themselves to be engaged in a jurisdictional controversy with the British Parliament while remaining fervent supporters of the Crown, the book of Esther became an operative political text. George III was interpreted as a latter-day Ahasuerus (Xerxes), while Haman, the evil minister bent on destroying the Jews, became a stand-in for a Parliament that was likewise perceived to be subverting the benevolent will of the monarch for nefarious purposes. After the outbreak of hostilities and the colonial republican shift, Patriots took inspiration from the political structure of pre-monarchic Israel, which they understood to be organized as a confederation of self-governing tribes that appointed Judges (equivalent to the Dictators of the Roman Republic) to lead them in times of crisis. George Washington was equated with Gideon (who in turn was conceived of as a “Jewish Cincinnatus”), a prophet and judge who liberated Israel from the Midianites and refused to become a king. The original thirteen American states were analogized with the tribes of Israel, albeit with some convenient number-fudging: Patriot divines claimed that the tribe of Joseph was divided between Ephraim and Manasseh, bringing the total number to thirteen. The belief that the Native Americans were descended from ancient Israelites, typically associated with Mormonism, was widely prevalent in America from the seventeenth century until well into the nineteenth; and the curious faux-Biblical language employed in the Book of Mormon had a wide array of antecedents in American literature, as writers of all persuasions mantled their ideal visions for American politics and culture in Biblical garb. For the first half of the nineteenth century, American political culture was steeped in Old Testament motifs and paid comparatively little attention to either the New Testament itself or the Christocentric Biblical exegesis traditionally favored by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians. This began to change in the middle of the nineteenth century. The explosion of Evangelicalism within the American religious landscape worked in tandem with the emerging individualist and egalitarian ethics of a democratizing society to overshadow the masculine, nationalist, and eminently-political Old Testament with a new emphasis on a personal ethic of meekness, repentance, and a transformational encounter between the believer and the person of Jesus. The New Testament had little to say about national independence and political constitutions, which were of obvious interest in the early national period; but it had much to say about the elemental evils that corrupted the human soul: and this earned it a political relevance of its own as the national debate over the institution of slavery intensified in the 1840s and 50s. Apologists for slavery pointed out that the practice was taken for granted by the patriarchs and was even codified—albeit in morally-neutral language—in the Mosaic law itself: the very “charter of liberty” that the Hebraist tradition had been so eager to identify with the American Constitution. Abolitionists countered these arguments by highlighting the differences between slavery as it was practiced in ancient Israel and the chattel slavery of the American south; but by so doing they were compelled to emphasize the distinction between the Biblical Israel and the United States, and thus contributed to the decline of the Hebraist political tradition as a whole. Their most morally-forceful arguments, however, were both experiential—rather than “legal”—and explicitly Christian. The fullness of moral truth was incorporated in the person of Jesus Himself. If Jesus would not have owned slaves, the practice could not be considered licit. It is here that I bring in another book, Paul’s Three Paths to Salvation by Gabriele Boccaccini, which provides an illuminating account of the emergence of Christianity within Second Temple Judaism that may be readily analogized with the shift in emphasis from the Old to New Testament in Civil War-era American political culture. According to Boccaccini, from the third to the first century BCE there emerged a more pessimistic counterpart to the Torah in the form of the Enochic tradition. The Enochic texts enveloped the cosmology of the Pentateuch, which emphasizes the primacy of human agency in moral conduct, with an account that ascribed the primary origin of evil not to human malfeasance, but to the activity of more powerful superhuman forces. Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit, but not before a party of rebel angels had been driven from heaven and consolidated control over the earth as their own domain. Human beings were thus captives of sin, due to the influence of these malevolent archons, before they were perpetrators of sin. The Mosaic law was the essential vehicle for the collective righteousness of the people of Israel, but the law was not powerful enough, by itself, to defeat the superhuman forces that prevented people from being morally capable of the law in the first place. The American Constitution, celebrated by Hebraists as a reformulation of the Mosaic law, seemed to promise liberty and equality to the American people; and yet it was established under, and failed to overcome, the archon of slavery. The Framers of the Constitution, for all of their merit and foresight, lacked the power to abolish either slavery itself or the racism that justified it because these predated them, overpowered them, and infused their moral sensibility, just as the Enochic archons had done to the God-fearing sinners of Second Temple Judaism. Just as sinners could not be judged according to their merits until they had been freed from demonic influences and justified by a gratuitous movement on the part of God Himself—either in the form of Phanuel, an angel of mercy introduced by the Enochic tradition, or by Christ—so Americans could not be “justified”—could not truly claim to have created a society where people are judged according to their merits—until the “archon” of racism was overthrown. Historian Richard Brookhiser has pointed out that in the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln referred to the American founding (“Fourscore and seven years ago”) when addressing the political crisis of the Civil War. But when he addressed the deeper moral issues at play behind the political crisis in his Second Inaugural Address, he referred not to the Founding Fathers but to “two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil”; not to 1776, as he had done during his debates with Stephen Douglas, but to 1619. It is surely not mere coincidence, then, that the Second Inaugural Address is the only major speech of Lincoln’s career in which he did not refer to the Founders as his authority, but instead to the justice of God: the Second Inaugural Address also has the distinction of being Lincoln’s most overtly spiritual public statement after a lifetime of religious skepticism. Might this be read as the inauguration of a Christian turn in American political discourse, particularly with regards to issues of race, that is being quarreled over today with renewed vigor in light of the new divide between a secular, totalitarian, and neo-gnostic Antiracism and a populist nationalism? And what Angel of Mercy stands ready to mend our splintered republic and restore its vital center?

  2. 5 out of 5

    Stephen

    This book provides a fascinating account of the Old Testament as a political text in the early American republic and Antebellum period. In particular, the section on the Book of Mormon is illuminating. But I found the discussion on the rise of evangelicalism in the late 19th to be quite lacking in theological precision. The rise of evangelicalism is characterized by the gradual shift of focus from the Old Testament to the New Testament. I do not doubt that this occurred. My concern pertains to h This book provides a fascinating account of the Old Testament as a political text in the early American republic and Antebellum period. In particular, the section on the Book of Mormon is illuminating. But I found the discussion on the rise of evangelicalism in the late 19th to be quite lacking in theological precision. The rise of evangelicalism is characterized by the gradual shift of focus from the Old Testament to the New Testament. I do not doubt that this occurred. My concern pertains to his assertion, following Perry Miller, that Puritanism is not a "Jesus faith" (153). In other words, the Puritans, according to Shalev, minimized the role of the Son as mediator. He quotes Miller who said, "[the Puritans went] as far as mortals could go in removing intermediaries between God and man." Shalev (and Miller) fail to notice that the shift from Old to New was in actuality a shift away the type of theological systematization that brought Jesus into the Old and throughout the Bible. Everything in the Bible was about Christ for the Puritan. The "Jesus-center" evangelicalism was a move to reduce Christ to Jesus-as-recorded, away from the typology of the early Reformed Christianity. What also explains much of the "New Testamentism" is the rise of dispensationalism and the decline of covenantalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Shalev does not mention either. Despite these criticisms, overall the book is excellent.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Erik Champenois

    "American Zion" covers the political uses of the Old Testament in the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War in five thematically oriented chapters. The first chapter covers the merging of classical republicanism with the Old Testament during the American Revolution, showing how classical Roman and republican themes of virtue and corruption were fused with and read into Old Testament stories. The second chapter covers ancient Israel as a political model to the early republic, with th "American Zion" covers the political uses of the Old Testament in the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War in five thematically oriented chapters. The first chapter covers the merging of classical republicanism with the Old Testament during the American Revolution, showing how classical Roman and republican themes of virtue and corruption were fused with and read into Old Testament stories. The second chapter covers ancient Israel as a political model to the early republic, with the Israelite tribes being frequently compared to the American states, and the political structures of ancient Israel said to be similar to those of the United States. Particularly fascinating is Shalev's treatment of Mordecai Manuel Noah, who in the 1820s declared himself "judge of Israel" and called for the gathering of Jews throughout the world to come to his island in New York, where a "Jewish Nation" was to be established under the U.S. Constitution. The third and fourth chapters are of particularly interest to Mormons. In the third, Shalev covers the tradition of pseudobiblicism in the early republic - when articles, short stories, and even a few longer books portraying events from American history were written in the grammar and style of the King James Bible. Shalev connects the Book of Mormon to this tradition as the Book of Mormon similarly uses the pseudobiblical style to advance its sacred narrative about ancient and modern America. Likewise, the fourth chapter covers the common American belief (originating centuries earlier but particularly common in the early nineteenth century) that the Native Americans were descendants of the lost tribes. Which of course serves as cultural background important to the Book of Mormon's narrative and to its reception history. Shalev is respectful to the Mormon faith as he places the "creation (translation)" of the Book of Mormon within its time. Finally, the fifth and last chapters covers the decline of the use of the Old Testament as a political text alongside the increased use of the New Testament. Shalev sees the Great Awakening as pivotal in making the United States a "Jesus" nation, focused more on the saving grace of the New Testament than on the political narratives of the Old. He further argues that debates about whether or not the Bible justified slavery hastened the transition towards the New Testament, as opponents of slavery sought to explain away slavery in the Old Testament as being irrelevant to slavery in the United States, and drew more on the example of Jesus in the New Testament than on Old Testament narratives. Meanwhile, African Americans continued to hold onto the Old Testament as their primary text, with the story of the Exodus being the foremost text in representing escape from the evils of slavery/Egypt/America. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in the history of the Bible in the United States, as well as in the cultural origins of Mormonism.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jonathon Awtrey

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sam Stabler

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    DH

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    Patrick Russo

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    Steven Garff

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    Samuel Zimmer

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    Robert Boylan

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    William Adler

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    Amy Newman

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    Matt

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    Niledaughter

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    Daniel

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    Louis

  21. 5 out of 5

    Paul Barth

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    David

  23. 5 out of 5

    Nelson

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    Robert Hart

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    P. Es

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    LP

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    Kim Berkey

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    Karen

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    Beth S.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Pointsandwheels

  31. 4 out of 5

    Andrea Hillson Jensen

  32. 4 out of 5

    James Hill Welborn III

  33. 4 out of 5

    Vince

  34. 4 out of 5

    Dany

  35. 5 out of 5

    Cody Justice

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