The Bible

The Bible's Influence on America's Beginnings<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

 
It is impossible to enslave mentally or socially a Bible-reading people.
The principles of the Bible are the groundwork of human freedom.
HORACE GREELEY
 
 
          I was born in the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />United States of America.  To some, that makes me evil; to others, it makes me lucky.  To me, it makes me an American. 
 
I'm proud of my country.  It's not perfect, as is evident by America's unexplainable penchant for hanging out its dirty laundry for the world to see.  But as an American, I still get shivers up my spine when someone sings America the Beautiful.
 
When Katherine Lee Bates wrote the words to America the Beautiful , she probably never realized the effect they would continue to have on people like me.  I must admit I never fully appreciated that phrase "amber waves of grain" until I moved to the Midwest and saw the golden wheat fields of Kansas waving in the breeze. 
 
          Perhaps the most meaningful phrase in the song, however, is, "America!  America!  God shed his grace on thee."[1]  No nation on earth has been blessed by God's grace as has America.  

The Bible's Impact on the British Empire

 
          America had the good fortune to be founded by people who strongly believed the Bible.  Ever since the days of John Wycliffe (1330-1384) when the Bible became available in the English language, The Word of God has had historic impact on the English-speaking world.  It shaped English society like no other book, and consequently American society. 

 
England has two books; the Bible and Shakespeare.                           England made Shakespeare, but the Bible made England.                    VICTOR HUGO
 
Religion in England during the latter half of the sixteenth century (1550-1600) was divided into The Conformists, the Puritans, and the Separatists.  The Conformists claimed for the head of their church supreme power in the State as well as in the Church.  The Puritans were non-conformists within the established church, but objected to many of the practices and policies of the Church of England.  The Separatists did not recognize the established church.  Persecuted under Mary (1553-1558) and Elizabeth (1533-1603), they sought a place of religious freedom.  America would be that place.
After twelve years in Holland, these "Pilgrims," 102 in number, sailed on September 16, 1620 from Plymouth, England for the New World in the 160-ton ship Mayflower. They brought with them three things: English courage, Christian faith and the English Bible.

Bringing Faith to the New World

 
          When these English settlers arrived in America, the influence of the Bible on their literature, their music, and their lives came with them.  Their Christian faith was as much a part of who they were as their audacious spirit.
The first book printed in the Colonies was also the first book entirely written in the Colonies.  It wasn't a scientific textbook, a history book or anthology of literature.  It was The Bay Psalm Book.  When you consider the hazards of just staying alive during those harsh early years, it's remarkable that a mere 20 years after the first arrivals in Plymouth, a book of Psalms to be sung was printed.  In fact, the first printing press in New England was purchased and imported specifically to print the Bay Psalm Book.

 
A great hope and inward zeal they had of laying some good         foundation . . . for the propagating and advancing the gospel
of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world.
WILLIAM BRADFORD on why they undertook the perilous journey
 
 
          There was no need immediately to publish Bibles in the New World; these deeply religious people brought their Bibles with them.  Neil Postman says, "We know that on the Mayflower itself several books were included as cargo, most importantly, the Bible and Captain John Smith's Description of New England."[2] 
 
Those early Pilgrims who made that 66-day grueling journey across the Atlantic used the Bible as their life-guide.  It gave them insight into how to relate to God and to one another on their hazardous journey.  It was about the only encouragement they had.
 
 
The Mayflower Compact
 
          You don't have to guess what was on the minds of the Pilgrims as they landed in the New World.  They bequeathed us a written document, the Mayflower Compact, signed just prior to disembarking their ships on November 11, 1620.  The compact reads:
In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are under-written, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc.
Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine our selves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the eleventh of November [New Style, November 21], in the year of the reign of our sovereign lord, King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Dom. 1620.[3]
Much to the dismay of the historical revisionists who would like to deny the role of the Bible and religion in the founding of America, the record is there in black and white.  Every evidence indicates the profound effect God's Word had on early Americans.
 
 
Plymouth Bay Colony
 
Unlike the earlier Virginia Colony that established Jamestown in 1607 as a commercial venture, the Plymouth Bay Colony had undeniable religious overtones.  A new arrival who joined the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1623 "blessed God for the opportunity of freedom and liberty to enjoy the ordinances of God in purity among His people." 
 
William Bradford was the first governor of the Plymouth Bay Colony.  In Chapter Nine of Bradford's personal history of the first several years of the colony, the governor imagined the children of the original Pilgrims making this confession (in Olde English): 
 
Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wildernes; but they cried unto the Lord, and he heard their voyce, and looked on their adversitie, etc.  Let them therfore praise the Lord, because he is good, and hismercies endure for ever.  Yea, let them which have been redeemed of the Lord, shew how he has delivered them from the hand of the oppressour.  When they wandered in the deserte wildernes out of the way, and found no citie to dwell in, both hungrie, and thirstie, their sowle was overwhelmed in them.  Let them confess before the Lord his loving kindness, and his wonderfull works before the sons of men.[4]
 
          The religious intent of these early settlers was understood by all.  When John Higginson wrote his preface to Cotton Mather's history of New England he said: "It hath been deservedly esteemed one of the great and wonderful works of God in this last age, that the Lord stirred up the spirits of so many thousands of his servants . . . to transport themselves . . . into a desert land in America . . . in the way of seeking first the kingdom of God . . ." for the purpose of "a fuller and better reformation of the church of God, than it hath yet appeared in the world."[5]  Higginson even saw the colonization of the new world as a way to bring revival and reformation to the church unlike any seen in Europe. 
 
No serious student of American history can deny the role the Bible played in the lives of the early settlers of this country.
 
The Massachusetts Bay Colony
In 1628, a group of distinguished Puritan businessmen formed a venture named the Governor and Company of Massachusetts Bay.  While still in England, the company members signed the Cambridge Agreement (1629), in which they agreed to undertake the rigors of the Atlantic voyage if full authority over the charter and colony would be vested in the members themselves. Those stockholders who did not wish to migrate sold their shares to emigrants. Through this action the Massachusetts Bay venture was transformed from a trading company into an organization of staunch Puritans with a religious agenda.  The goal of the early Puritan settlers, writes historian Sidney Ahlstrom, was "a Holy Common-wealth standing in a national covenant with its Lord."
Before the colonists disembarked from their ship, the Arbella, Governor John Winthrop stated: "Thus stands the cause between God and us; we are entered into covenant with Him for this work." 
 
 

 
So intent were the Puritans that this New World would be a
place to worship God as they pleased, they called their
Massachusetts Bay Colony their "Zion in wilderness."
 
 
The colonization of America was undeniably undertaken for the purpose of covenant work for God and was heavily influenced by the Bible. Political power in the new colony was limited to fellow Christ-followers, effectively creating a theocracy (a government run by religious officials who would enforce religious principles). In 1630, Governor John Winthrop and nearly 1000 colonists arrived, first at Salem, but soon established a permanent settlement on the Shawmut Peninsula of Massachusetts Bay (later named Boston).
 
 
And the Beat Goes On
 
          The influence of the Bible and the Christian religion so much in evidence in the New England colonies was also in evidence in other colonies.  The New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland colonies conceived of themselves as established to be "plantations of religion."  Most of the charters mention the desire of the stockholders to convert the natives and to extend Christ's dominion.[6]
 
         

 
America is great because she is good, and if America ever
 ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.
ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE
 
 
          The Bible has been shaping American life since AD 1492.  Even historians antagonistic to Christianity now admit there was a religious as well as a commercial agenda for Columbus' voyages.  In the letter that prefaces his journal of the first voyage, the admiral vividly evokes his own hopes-the conquest of the infidel and a victory for Christianity.  Columbus said that Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella commissioned him so that he "should be used to bring about the [world's] conversion to our holy faith."[7]
 
The influence of the Bible on the earliest days of the American experiment was enormous.  It was their guide, their rule of life, their comfort during hardship, and their hope for the future.
 
It was only twenty-five years after the "discovery" of America that a monk named Martin Luther tacked his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany and the Protestant Reformation began. To believe that the early colonists had solely a profit motive for coming to the new world is to misread the times and misapply the facts of history.
 
America!  America!  God shed his grace on thee.   The founding and early colonization of America were events of biblical proportion because they were almost biblical events.  Our nation has deep roots in the Word of God.
 
But, will God be free to bless America in the future?  Has America abandoned its roots and made itself "unblessable"?  Stay tuned.
Dr. Woodrow Kroll, President
Back to the Bible International
 
 
 

 
Be sure to watch for Woodrow Kroll's soon-to-be-released book:
TAKING BACK THE GOOD BOOK
How America Forgot the Bible and Why It Matters To You
(Crossway Books)
 
 
 


[1] Katharine Lee Bates, America the Beautiful.  Falmouth Historical Society, 55 Palmer Avenue, Falmouth, MA 02540.  Katharine Lee Bates wrote the original version in 1893. She wrote the 2nd version in 1904. Her final version was written in 1913.  Here is a note from Katharine Lee Bates:  "One day some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse."
 

[2] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), 31.
 

[3] The Mayflower Compact from the Pilgrim Hall Museum, http://www.pilgrimhall.org/compact.htm
 

[4] William Bradford, "Of Plimouth Plantation," in The Literature of the United States (Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1957), 32.

 
[5] Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana: or the Ecclesiastical History of New England, 1 (Hartford, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1942), 24.

 
[6] Peter G. Mode, Source Book and Bibliographical Guide for American Church History.  Menasha, WI: George Banta Publishing Co., 1921, 9-10, 26.

 
[7] Encyclopedia Britannica CD 98, Christopher Columbus LIFE.

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