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“Written in the Style of Antiquity”: Pseudo-Biblicism and the Early American Republic, 1770–1830

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 November 2010


Students of early America have overlooked the fact that Americans published numerous pseudo-biblical texts, a practice that peaked from approximately 1770 to 1830. This unique and forgotten tradition of writing “in the style of antiquity” was the product of an age still suffused with the Bible yet at the same time Enlightened as to the liberal use of that book's language, notably for political issues across the ideological spectrum. Employing the full range of the stylistic measures of the King James Bible's English, from biblical-like titles and short numbered verses to a distinct Jacobean vocabulary, this pseudo-biblical tradition in America sheds light on a host of historical issues and problems: from the ways in which Americans attempted to reclaim authority as they experienced the diminishing influence of traditional sources of social power, to new modes of religiosity and attitudes toward time and history. This remarkable practice thus presents an ideal vantage point from which to gain a better understanding of the intellectual processes and historical consciousness that accompanied the momentous transformations that the American republic endured during the decades following its creation.

Research Article
Copyright © American Society of Church History 2010

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1 “The 1st Book of the Chronicles of John,” Investigator, Oct. 30, 1812.

2 Cohen, Lester H. makes a similar argument about the role of Providence in the early histories of the American Revolution. Choen, The Revolutionary Histories: Contemporary Narratives of the American Revolution (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980)Google Scholar, 15 and passim.

3 The history of religious and political discourse in revolutionary America and the early republic has produced a rich and innovative scholarship. In examining the correlations and points of contact between the political and the religious, the secular and sacred, it is amply documented how early political discourse in America consisted of a “resilient intermixture of religious and republican vocabularies” that culminated in a novel American “Christian republicanism.” Noll, Mark A., America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 54CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Nevertheless, historians have ignored contemporary texts written in biblical idiom. For some of the important studies discussing the convergence of political and religious discourses in early America, see Bonomi, Patricia U., Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society and Politics in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003)Google Scholar; Kloppenberg, James T., “The Virtues of Liberalism: Christianity, Republicanism, and Ethics in Early American Political Discourse,” chapter 2 in The Virtues of Liberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 2137Google Scholar; Butler, Jon, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992)Google Scholar; Bloch, Ruth, Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought, 1756–1800 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988)Google Scholar; Hatch, Nathan O., The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989)Google Scholar.

4 Other post-Reformation translations included the Coverdale Bible (1535), the Matthews Bible (1537), the Great Bible (1539), and the Bishops’ Bible (1568). For a longer discussion of the emergence of English translations of the Bible, see Greenslade, S. L., “English Versions of the Bible,” in The Cambridge History of the Bible, ed. Greenslade, S. L. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 3:141–74; and Bruce, F. F., The English Bible: A History of Translations (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), 1113Google Scholar.

5 Historian Jonathan Sheehan points out that this inactivity was not because the new translations were satisfying (they were), but mainly because existing translations were successful in stopping the radical process of religious renovation they had begun. Sheehan, , The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005), 1625Google Scholar, 53.

6 Lawton, David, Faith, Text and History: The Bible in English (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990), 64Google Scholar. For the movement of Puritans from the Geneva to the King James translation, see also Stout, Harry S., “Word and Order in Colonial New England,” in The Bible in America, ed. Hatch, Nathan O. and Noll, Mark A. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 1938Google Scholar.

7 Hill, Christopher, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (London: Penguin, 1993), 17Google Scholar.

8 Lewalski, Barbara K., Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth Century Religious Lyric (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979), ixGoogle Scholar.

9 Sheehan, Enlightenment Bible, 51, 148–49. Murray Roston sees the rising interest in Old Testament poetry during the eighteenth century as a move from rational neo-classical poetry to biblical romanticism. Roston, , Prophet and Poet: The Bible and the Growth of Romanticism (London: Faber and Faber, 1965)Google Scholar, passim.

10 Sheehan, Enlightenment Bible, 51, 52.

11 McGrath, Alister, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language and a Culture (New York: Anchor, 2001), 254Google Scholar, 265, 269; Nicolson, Adam, God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), 223Google Scholar; Lawton, Faith, Text and History, 62, 80–81.

12 McGrath, In the Beginning, 267, 273.

13 According to Paul C. Gutjahr, the King James Bible would rein supreme in the United States for nearly two centuries; only in the early decades of the nineteenth century would this hegemony begin to erode. Gutjahr, , An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777–1880 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999), 92Google Scholar.

14 Mid-nineteenth-century arguments against revising the KJB revealed how many Americans saw Elizabethan English as the only appropriate language in which to enfold the holy words of scripture. Gutjahr, American Bible, 153.

15 For colonial cultural dependency and imitation, see Greene, Jack P., Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988)Google Scholar.

16 Horace Walpole cited in Carla Mulford, introduction to Leacock, John, The First Book of American Chronicles of the Times, 1774–1775, ed. Mulford, Carla (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987), 28Google Scholar.

17 “The Lessons of the Day,” New York Weekly Journal, July 4, 1743; the piece was reprinted from the Pennsylvanian American Weekly Mercury.

18 “The French Gasconade,” Boston Evening Post, Oct. 31, 1743.

19 Colbourn, Trevor, The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution (1965; repr., Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998), 23Google Scholar.

20 Later editions updated the original 1744 edition. There would be seven American editions of the Chronicle by 1800. Another pseudo-biblical account under the name of Ben-Saddi that narrated the arrest of William Smith for allowing a translation of an article from Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette to be published in a German newspaper appeared in 1758: A Fragment of the Chronicles of Nathan Ben Saddi . . . now published in English (Philadelphia: 1758).

21 See, for example, “Israel Ben Ader (of the Tribe of Levi),” The Chronicle of B—g, the Son of the Great B—g, that lived in the Reign of Queen Felicia; Containing an account of his might transactions against Gallisoniere . . . Written in the Eastern Style (London: 1756; repr., Boston: 1757).

22 “Chronicles,” Maryland Journal, May 5, 1766.

23 “The Book of America,” Boston Gazette, May 12, 1766; reprinted also in New Hampshire Gazette, May 22, 1766, and Newport Mercury, May 12, 1766. Additional chapters were published in the Boston Gazette, May 26, 1766, and New Hampshire Gazette, June 6, 1766.

24 Chronicles of the Kings of England [1773], 83.

25 From its beginning, this discourse was in no sense an exclusively New England affair. For an early southern example, published in reaction to the Stamp Act's repeal, see “A Prophecy from the East,” Virginia Gazette (Rind), Supplement, Aug. 15, 1766.

26 Sheehan, Enlightenment Bible, 116.

27 For a Republican example, see “The First Book of the Kings,” Alexandria Expositor, Feb. 21, 1803; for a Federalist example, see “Book of the Democrats,” American, March 14, 1809; for the quote, see: “The Political Koran,” Federal Galaxy, Sep. 15, 1798.

28 Mulford, introduction to First Book of American Chronicles, 11.

29 Leacock, First Book, 54.

30 Leacock, First Book, 58, 61, 54.

31 Mulford, introduction to First Book of American Chronicles, 28–30.

32 The story of Elijah mocking the prophets of the Baal (1 Kings 18), for example, is reminiscent of the mocking style of American pseudo-biblical texts.

33 For the spiteful political culture of the early republic, see Freeman, Joanne, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001)Google Scholar.

34 The traditional views of secularization are best illustrated in the renowned work of Hazard, Paul, The European Mind, 1680–1715: The Critical Years, trans. Lewis, J. May (1935; repr., New York: Fordham University Press, 1990)Google Scholar; and Gay, Peter, The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism (1969; repr., New York: W. W. Norton, 1995)Google Scholar.

35 Sheehan, Enlightenment Bible, 220, 260; See also Wahrman, Dror, “God and the Enlightenment,” American Historical Review 108, no. 4 (October 2003): 1057–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Sheehan, Jonathan, “Enlightenment, Religion and the Enigma of Secularization: A Review Essay,” American Historical Review 108, no. 4 (October 2003): 1061–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 “Chronicles of the people of America, Chapter XCVII,” Visitor, Nov. 13, 1802.

37 Hunt, Gilbert J., The Late War, Between the United States and Great Britain . . . Written in the Ancient-Historical Style (New York, 1819), ixGoogle Scholar.

38 “Chapter 37th,” Boston Evening Post, Apr. 20, 1782.

39 Robertson, Andrew W., “‘Look on This Picture . . . and on This!’ Nationalism, Localism, and Partisan Images of Otherness in the United States, 1787–1820,” American Historical Review 106, no. 4(October 2001): 1236–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar, quote at 1267.

40 Freeman, Affairs of Honor, 10.

41 Chapters of Richard Snowden's history were also published in newspapers deep in the nineteenth century; see The Middlesex Gazette, December 9, 1819.

42 Mulford, introduction to First Book of American Chronicles, 11.

43 For similar and earlier employments of the biblical style, see “First Chapter of the Book of Remembrance,” Daily Advertiser, March 5, 1787, and “The xxxvii Chapter of the Second Book of the Chronicles,” Berkshire Chronicle, Oct. 9, 1788.

44 For an examination of providence's role in the revolutionary historian's work, see Cohen, Revolutionary Histories, 23–127.

45 Snowden, American Revolution, 93.

46 Snowden, American Revolution, 74, 225, 34, 13, 17.

47 Ibid., 64, 226.

48 Snowden, American Revolution, iii.

49 Kaestle, Carl, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780–1860 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), 17Google Scholar; Johnson, Clifton, Old Time Schools and School-Books (New York: Dover, 1963), 19Google Scholar; Gutjahr, American Bible, 113–42.

50 The Holy Bible Abridged (Boston, 1782), 5. See also Moore, Hannah, Sacred Dramas, chiefly intended for young persons: the subjects taken from the Bible (1788)Google Scholar.

51 Classical pseudonyms were a comparable genre because they too originated in Britain, migrated to America, and gained their own cultural and generic independence during the Revolution. See Shalev, Eran, Rome Reborn on Western Shores: Classical Imagination and the Creation of the American Republic (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009), 151–87Google Scholar.

52 Greene, Jack P., “The American Revolution,” American Historical Review 105, no. 1 (February 2000): 93102CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

53 “Paraphrase on the First Book of Samuel, Chap. VIII,” New York Journal, Jan. 13, 1791.

54 See, for example, “Moses,” “The last Chapter of the first Book of Samuel,” Independent Gazetteer, Sep. 17, 1791; and Western Star, May 24, 1796; for a text dealing with local, as opposed to national politics, see “The First Chapter of the First Book of Chronicles,” Ostego Herald, Apr. 20, 1797.

55 “First Chapter of Chronicles,” Oriental Trumpet, Oct 18, 1798; see also “Ancient Chronicles, Chap. XX,” Windham Herald, Oct. 9, 1800.

56 Hunt, Late War, 294–300. For the concept of the “Whig interpretation of history,” see Butterfield, Herbert, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931; repr., New York: Norton, 1965)Google Scholar.

57 For the effect of KJB English on American readers, see Gutjahr, American Bible, 153.

58 For historical discourses in the Revolution, see Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience.

59 Messer, Peter C., Stories of Independence: Identity, Ideology and History in Eighteenth-Century America (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005)Google Scholar.

60 By referring to settlements in biblical Israel's far north and south the biblical author described the whole of the land. Americans gladly adopted that idiom.

61 “Paraphrase of the First Book of Samuel, Chap. VIII,” New York Journal, Jan. 13, 1791.

62 Western Star, May 24, 1796. For “space of experience” and “horizon of expectation,” see Koselleck, Reinhart, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990), 267–88Google Scholar.

63 In doing so they went beyond the common Christian-typological understanding of time in which early biblical events signified and foresaw later modern-day occurrences. For typology in the Revolution, see Shalev, Rome Reborn on Western Shores, 87–89.

64 “The First Book of the Kings,” Alexandria Expositor, Feb. 21, 1803.

65 Miller, Perry, “The Garden of Eden and the Deacon's Meadow,” American Heritage 7, no. 1 (December 1955): 5461, 102Google Scholar.

66 Adams, Henry, The Education of Henry Adams (New York: BN Publishing, 2008), 13Google Scholar.

67 Melville, Herman, White-Jacket (1850)Google Scholar, chap. 36, “Flogging not Necessary.”

68 Schochet, Gordon, “Hebraic Roots, Calvinist Plantings, American Branches,” Hebraic Political Studies 4, no. 2 (Spring 2009): 99103Google Scholar, quote at 101.

69 See in this context Moot, Glenn A., “Response: The Complications and Contributions of Early American Hebraism,” Hebraic Political Studies 4, no. 2 (Spring 2009), 157–68Google Scholar.

70 See, for example, Zakai, Avihu, Exile and Kingdom: History and Apocalypse in the Puritan Migration to America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002)Google Scholar.

71 Noll, Mark A., “The Image of the United States as a Biblical Nation, 1776–1865,” in The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History, ed. Hatch, Nathan O. and Noll, Mark A. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 3958Google Scholar, quote at 45. For the enormous influence of New England on the cultural and intellectual development of the United States, see Hall, Peter Dobkin, The Organization of American Culture, 1700–1900: Private Institutions, Elites, and the Origins of American Nationality (New York: New York University Press, 1984)Google Scholar.

72 Bercovitch, Sacvan, The Puritan Origins of the American Self (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1975)Google Scholar.

73 Noll, “United States as a Biblical Nation,” 45.

74 For recent scholarship on the Bible's influence on the American Revolution, see Perl-Rosenthal, Nathan, “‘The Divine Right of Republics’: Hebraic Republicanism and the Debate over Kingless Government in Revolutionary America,” The William and Mary Quarterly 66, no. 3 (July 2009), 535–64Google Scholar; and Shalev, Eran, “‘A Perfect Republic’: The Mosaic Constitution in Revolutionary New England, 1775–1788,” The New England Quarterly 82, no. 2 (June 2009): 235–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The classic study of the Bible as a revolutionary text, including in America, is Walzer, Michael, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1986)Google Scholar.

75 Franklin proposed the image of the Egyptian army drowning in the Red Sea while Jefferson proposed the Pillar of Fire leading the Children of Israel in the desert. Berens, John F., Providence and Patriotism in Early America, 1640–1815 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1978), 107Google Scholar.

76 Noll, “United States as a Biblical Nation,” 39.

77 American Christians were unique not only in the extent to which they employed the Old Testament for political ends, but also by doing so more than a century after such use has run its course in Europe. American biblicism was thus “exceptional” both in its intensity and its lasting effects, as well as in blooming so late. Shalev, “A Perfect Republic,” 235–45. For European political Hebraism, see and Nelson, Eric, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Oz-Salzberger, Fania, “The Political Thought of John Locke and the Significance of Political Hebraism,” Hebraic Political Studies 1, no. 5 (Fall 2006): 568–92Google Scholar.

78 Noll, “United States as a Biblical Nation,” 45.

79 Barlow, Philip L., Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-Day Saints in American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991)Google Scholar, 6n9. See also Gutjahr, American Bible, 2; Smith, Timothy L., “The Book of Mormon in a Biblical Culture,” Journal of Mormon History 7 (1980): 321Google Scholar; and Scott, Donald M., From Office to Profession: The New England Ministry, 1750–1850 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1978)Google Scholar.

80 For example, “The First Book of Chronicles,” Rhode Island Republican, March 18, 1835; “Chronicles of the Times,” New-Bedford Mercury, March 11, 1836.

81 “Chapter from the Whig Chronicles,” New Hampshire Patriot, Apr. 20, 1840.

82 The latest texts I was able to locate were “First Chronicles,” The Pittsfield Sun, February 2, 1854; and Frankland, A. E., “Kronikals of the Times,” American Jewish Archives 9, no. 2 (October 1957): 102Google Scholar (originally published in Memphis in 1862).

83 Richard, Carl J., The Golden Age of the Classics in America: Greece, Rome, and the Antebellum United States (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009), 4182CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

84 Cmiel, Kenneth, Democratic Eloquence: The Fight over Popular Speech in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Morrow, 1990), 97Google Scholar.

85 For language in late eighteenth-century America, see Howe, John, Language and Political Meaning in Revolutionary America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004)Google Scholar. Cmiel, Democratic Eloquence, 20–54.

86 These socio-economic forces, commonly incorporated under the heading of “the market revolution,” are explored in Sellers, Charles, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815–1846 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994)Google Scholar, and Watson, Harry L., Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America, 2nd ed. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006)Google Scholar.

87 Cmiel, Democratic Eloquence, 13.

88 Other factors contributed to the decline in the use of the pseudo-biblical style. Paul Gutjahr has noted that the undisputed dominance that the Bible enjoyed both in American print culture and as a pedagogical tool began to slip in the opening decades of the nineteenth century. Gutjahr, American Bible, 3, 119. Additionally, a modern historicist outlook, which understood the past as fundamentally different and alienated from the altered present, began to gain credence as the nineteenth century progressed. Henceforth the appeal of pseudo-biblical language to the new historicist sensibilities diminished. For the complex evolution of historical consciousness in the nineteenth century, see Ross, Dorothy, The Origins of American Social Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992)Google Scholar.

89 For major studies that trace different dimension of the erosion of traditional authority in the early republic, see Wilentz, Sean, The Rise of the American Democracy (New York: Norton, 2005)Google Scholar; Sellers, Charles, The Market Revolution (New York: Oxford, 1994)Google Scholar; and Wood, Gordon S., The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1993)Google Scholar.

90 Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, 14; see also Gutjahr, American Bible, 151–66. Indeed, if a sympathetic reader of the BOM, such as the practicing Mormon historian Richard Bushman, may believe that the Book “thinks like the Bible,” others pointed out it seemed to contemporaries “a clumsy parody of the King James Bible. Every verb ended in –eth, and every other sentence began, ‘And it came to pass.’” Bushman, Richard L., Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005)Google Scholar, 99n63, 107; McDougall, Walter A., Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829–1877 (New York: Harper, 2008), 182Google Scholar.

91 For the Book of Mormon as accommodating Jacksonian sensibilities, see Hatch, Democratization, 116, 120; Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, 42; and Wood, Gordon S., “Evangelical America and Early Mormonism,” in Religion in American History: A Reader, ed. Butler, Jon and Stout, Harry S. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 180–96Google Scholar.

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