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The Godly Foundation of America

  • Rev. Dr. Paul G. Irwin President, American Bible Society
  • Published Jul 03, 2007
The Godly Foundation of America
The Fourth of July provides an excellent opportunity to think about the principles that were the foundation of this country. Even though a recent Gallup Poll shows that nine out of ten Americans believe in God, strangely enough there are those who are convinced that the bedrock of the creation of the United States is based solely on secular principles rather than religious ones.

There is a reason why the Ten Commandments, Scripture quotations and beautiful artwork depicting biblical scenes are in this country’s Capitol, the Supreme Court and other federal buildings. Our early U.S. Presidents were strong believers in God. For instance, President John Quincy Adams became one of the Presidents of the American Bible Society. He wrote, in an address to the Bible Society, “The Bible carries with it the history of the creation, the fall and redemption of man, and discloses to him, in the infant born at Bethlehem, the legislator and savior of the world.”

Our Declaration of Independence was, undoubtedly, a political document. But it also emerged in a time when the Bible was the principal literary record. The Bible had a powerful influence on the thoughts contained in the Declaration and this fact shouldn’t be ignored.  While the words in the Declaration did not come directly from the Bible, the sentiment that was underneath what was expressed came from the one book that was read throughout the colonies — the Bible. 

It has been said that human government needs God and faith to survive; I couldn’t agree more. The Declaration pointedly says what will provide success: “With a prayer of reliance on divine providence…” George Washington noted, “…religion and morality are indispensable supports… let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion…”

Early on, the Bible came with settlers to Jamestown and Plymouth. The colonists brought their Bibles as they immigrated to a new land. When the Revolution came, the influence of the Bible was deep and profound. The signers of the Declaration of Independence knew their Bible well. 

A shortage of Bibles was created when the War for Independence raged because there was no trade with England, from which most Bibles came. The newly-constituted Continental Congress had a committee that reported “the use of the Bible is so universal and its importance so great that… the committee recommends that Congress will order the Committee of Commerce to import 20,000 Bibles.” The Bibles were to come from Holland, Scotland and elsewhere “into the parts of the States of the Union.” And the Congress gave such an order on September 11, 1777. The President of the Continental Congress was Elias Boudinot, who also was the chief founder of the American Bible Society and its first President. 

None of this is to suggest that America was founded as a theocracy or that religion should direct national policy. However, people who believe in God can make a powerful witness to equality, fairness, decency and charity. The authors of the United States of America believed in God and in religious liberty. Faith and the Bible are not to be banished from the public square if we are to honor the power of faith to change lives for the better and to create a society where all are created equal and can be part of the “pursuit of happiness.”

It was James Madison who said, “We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government… according to the Ten Commandments of God.” Abraham Lincoln was clear about his beliefs, saying, “We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven… But we have forgotten God. We have vainly imagined that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.”

We should remember a tradition started by George Washington. Our first President was sworn into office with his hand on an open Bible. At the conclusion of his oath he closed his eyes and said, in a prayerful voice, “So help me God.” As he uttered those words he kissed the Bible.

Even the Liberty Bell has a biblical tie.  These words are inscribed on the bell: “Proclaim Liberty through all the land to all the inhabitants thereof — Levitt. xxv 10.”

The Bible has, indeed, played an essential role in the creation of the United States and it continues to provide the moral compass for our nation. As Andrew Jackson was dying, he looked at the family Bible and said to his doctor, “That book, sir, is the rock on which our Republic rests.”
Founded in 1816 and headquartered in New York City, the mission of the American Bible Society is to make the Bible available to every person in a language and format each can understand and afford, so that all people may experience its life-changing message.  The American Bible Society Web site is www.americanbible.org