America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Inspired the Founding Fathers
by Bruce Feiler
A few years ago, I set out looking at the role of Moses in inspiring generation after generation of Americans. I had just returned home from a decade retracing the bible through the Middle East for a series of books called Walking the Bible, Abraham, and Where God Was Born, and was interested in how the Bible helped shape America.
I sailed on Plymouth Harbor, where the Pilgrims compared their journey to Moses; I retraced the Underground Railroad where “Go Down, Moses” was the national anthem of slaves; I climbed the Statue of Liberty, whose spikes of light and tablet were taken from the moment Moses comes down Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments; and I donned the robe Charlton Heston wore in The Ten Commandments.
But nothing surprised me more than how central Moses and the story of the Exodus were to the Founding Fathers.
As the Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia in 1776, comparisons with the Exodus filled the air. From politicians to preachers, many of the rhetorical high points of the year likened the colonists to the Israelites fleeing Egypt. The Liberty Bell has a quote from Moses on its side, “Proclaim Liberty thro’ all the Land to all the Inhabitants Thereof – Levit. XXV 10.” Thomas Paine invoked the analogy in Common Sense, the best-selling book of the year. Samuel Sherwood made it the centerpiece of the year’s second best-selling publication, The Church’s Flight into the Wilderness.
And on the afternoon of July 4th, after passing the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress asked John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin to come up with a public face of the new United States. They chose Moses.
Three of the five drafters of the Declaration of Independence and three of the defining faces of the Revolution proposed that Moses be the face of the United States of America. In their eyes, Moses was our true founding father.
But how did this happen exactly? How did the reluctant leader of Israelite slaves end up as the favorite son of the founding fathers? In short, how did Moses become the hero of the Revolution?
The themes the Founders drew from the Exodus were similar to the ones the Pilgrims and Great Awakening preachers had emphasized: freedom is a God-given right; God promises liberation to the oppressed; God freed the Israelites from Egypt, he can do so for the colonists. But the new generation of Exodus-lovers went further, insisting that the Bible expressly rejects the British form of government, the divine right of kings, and endorses the kinds of freedom the patriots were proposing. In 1775, Samuel Langdon, the president of Harvard, said Americans should adopt the form of government that God handed down to Moses on Sinai. “The Jewish government,” he wrote, “was a perfect republic.”
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense invoked the Moses story to make similar attacks on the English political system. Paine was the anti-religious zealot who continually cited religious examples. He hated Scripture but quoted it relentlessly, showing the enduring power of the Bible even for Deists. In Common Sense he cites Gideon, Samuel, and David, to show how the Bible argues against kingship. And he calls King George III the “hardened, sullen tempered Pharaoh of England.” By contrasty, Paine never quotes Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Bacon, the pantheon of Enlightenment thinkers.
The pace of Mosaic references seemed to escalate as Independence drew closer. The seeds of biblical promise first hinted at by Columbus in 1492 and planted by the Pilgrims in 1620 finally appeared to be reaching full flower in 1776. Like Moses, the country was prepared to stand up to the most powerful force in the world and declare, “Let my people go.”
“I think what’s important about all this language,” said Tim Safford, the preacher of Philadelphia’s Christ Church and a student of the Revolution, “is that these leaders were using the Bible to convince themselves they were free. They’re not that biblically pure; often they’re not that religious. But they’re using these stories to build the case that they’re justified in standing up to the Crown. You’re individuals, they’re saying to the Colonists. You’re children of God. You’re no longer subject to the king.”
“So you don’t think this reliance on the Exodus is unusual, or over-the-top?” I asked.
“The founders were otherworldly to a great degree,” he said, “but generally they were hugely influenced by rationalism and pragmatism. For them, this whole notion of deliverance was a practical matter. They weren’t looking for the freedom of Christ in the next world, they were looking for the freedom of Moses in this world.”
“So they wanted the story to be true.”
“It certainly seems that way. John Adams sailed multiple time to Europe. Benjamin Franklin did the same. They were willing to risk everything because they believed in something. And what they believed is that you should sacrifice your own fat-and-happiness for something far greater than yourselves. That is an Old Testament narrative. You risk. You don’t look back, or you’ll end up a pillar of salt like Lot’s wife.”
“Do you believe,” I said, “that pilgrims could have gotten on that ship, or the Founders could have signed the Declaration –“
He cut me off. “The only reason they could have done that is because they had a narrative larger than their own lives. A narrative of God delivers me through the Red Sea. A narrative that if you’re lost in exile, you can remain holy. A narrative of life is stronger than death, love is more powerful than hate. If you do not have a narrative larger than the world gives you, you’re just going to get sucked up by the world.
“The question to ask about the Founder is not whether they believed in the Bible,” he continued, “it’s Are you going to live by the narrative you find there? The Pilgrims, George Whitefield, even Benjamin Franklin I would say, trusted the narrative. They believed God would deliver them. They never sunk into the pure limitations of rationalism, that the world was only what they could perceive. They always seem to be fueled by a reality they couldn’t see. And because of them, that narrative became America’s narrative.”
Bruce Feiler is the New York Times-bestselling author of nine books, including Walking the Bible, Abraham, and the recently published, The Council of Dads. This article is adapted from his book America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story, which Glenn Beck called “the best book of narrative history I have ever read.... A fantastic book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.” For more information, please visit www.brucefeiler.com or www.facebook.com/brucefeilerpage.