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American Zion

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

Eran Shalev
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    American Zion
    Book Description:

    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 Zionexplores 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18841-7
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Between two American wars, one to replace British imperial rule and found a republic, the other, fourscore years later, to secure the Union created by the first, a biblical world of Hebraic political imagination burgeoned and then withered. The idea of America as a new Israel, founded on a Calvinist ethos that was not narrowly denominational but inclined toward the Old Testament, originated in an insular seventeenth-century outlook that singled out New England as a “chosen nation.” It reverberated and expanded with the onset of the Revolution throughout the colonies-turned-states as Americans repeatedly heard that they were “at present the...

  5. 1 “The Jewish Cincinnatus”: Biblical Republicanism in the Age of the American Revolution
    (pp. 15-49)

    An early-nineteenth-century essay inJenk’s Portland Gazettedescribed the Israelite judge Gideon in a fashion reserved for virtuous yeomen-generals, from the Roman Cincinnatus to the revolutionary American “Washington, Greene, Lincoln, Putnam and others.” The biblical Israelites under Gideon’s lead were threatened by their Canaanite adversaries, and like Cincinnatus’s Rome and Washington’s America, their condition “was extremely distressing.” Similar to the way in which the revered Roman and American republicans were mythologized, Gideon too, according to the anonymous American author, left his farm at once when he “was called to lead the army of Israel, while he was threshing wheat.” Like...

  6. 2 “The United Tribes, or States of Israel”: The Hebrew Republic as a Political Model before the Civil War
    (pp. 50-83)

    Enoch Wines (1806–1879), a Congregationalist minister from New Jersey, mused in 1853 that he had “sometime imagined all the legislators of America gathered into one vast assemblage, and the Jewish lawgiver [Moses] appearing suddenly in their midst. ‘Gentlemen,’ he might say to them, ‘at length my word is fulfilled. What you boast of doing now, I accomplished, as far as in me lay, in a distant age.’” Moses went on, in Wines’s imagination, to recount to the American legislators how he had led Israel out of the house of Egyptian bondage through the wilderness. But the ancient Hebrew also...

  7. 3 “A Truly American Spirit of Writing”: Pseudobiblicism, the Early Republic, and the Cultural Origins of the Book of Mormon
    (pp. 84-117)

    The text from which the epigraph above is taken is a partisan Democratic tract published originally in theRichmond Enquirerand reprinted in the South CarolinaInvestigator, encouraging Americans during the early stages of the War of 1812 to support France (“Gallia”) in the hopes of bolstering President Madison’s war against Britain (“Albion”). Its language is recognizably biblical, while its content is clearly American, describing an early episode of the late Revolution.The Book of Chronicleswent on to illustrate in two chapters containing twenty-nine verses that “John,” an American patriot elected through the ancient method of casting lots, represented...

  8. 4 Tribes Lost and Found: Israelites in Nineteenth-Century America
    (pp. 118-150)

    In “about the year 1800” a few “respectable citizens” of Middletown, Vermont, began advertising their belief that they were “descendants of the ancient Jews.” These self-proclaimed “modern Israelites,” according to a historian of radical religion in New England, constituted a sectarian jumble of “divination, prophecy, and alienation.” They adhered to a strict dietary regime—their own interpretation of the Mosaic law—and followed the guidance of divining rods (hence were called “rodsmen” or “rod-men”). Among their fantastic abilities, such as locating hidden treasures, the rods were believed to identify the “many people in America [who] were, unknown to themselves, Jews.”¹...

  9. 5 Evangelicalism, Slavery, and the Decline of an Old Testament Nation
    (pp. 151-184)

    The idea that the young United States was a latter-day Israel was so pervasive in the revolutionary era that even the least orthodox Christians of the American founding generation, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, could communicate that notion through their allegorical suggestions for the nation’s Great Seal.¹ Fourscore years later a much more pious—if by no means conventional—Christian such as Abraham Lincoln would add a most significant qualifier, “almost,” before designating Americans as “God’s chosen people.” Lincoln’s limitation on America’s chosenness was telling. While Americans would never stop expressing and modifying the notion that Providence had...

  10. Conclusion. Beyond Old Testamentism: The New Israel after the Civil War
    (pp. 185-192)

    The Georgian newspaper theMacon Daily Telegraph and Confederatepublished a “New Revelation” in the bleak fall of 1864, when the doom of the Confederate States of America seemed to draw closer by the day. The revelation, a pamphlet of twelve pages, was an extraordinary piece of American Old Testamentism that recast the central narratives of the Hebrew Bible as chronicles about America: North America, “the birthplace of mankind,” was sanctified, or rather Canaanized, and became the geographical center of the biblical drama: “the river that went out to water the garden of Eden … was the Mississippi-Pison, the river...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 193-230)
  12. Index
    (pp. 231-239)