Most agree that knowledge about the Bible in the United States is very low today (our own Ken Berding’s helpful Bible Fluency Program seeks to rectify this). What little Bible knowledge is present usually is focused on the New Testament, leaving the Old Testament as a scary foreign land that few visit. However, this was not always the case. A recent book by Eran Shalev, American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War, gives us a glimpse of a somewhat different world as he shows how important the Old Testament was in political discussions in the United States before the Civil War.
First, Shalev shows how some early Americans attempted to root their republic non-monarchial government in history by claiming that they were following Israelite examples. For example, the early Israelites did not have a king, Tories were to be cursed like Meroz (Judges 5:23), and the balance of power was to be divided between various tribes (states) and people in power. Second, Americans delighted to write their history in “pseudobiblicism,” a style that used King James English and Old Testament motifs (while he cannot find any direct links, Shalev puts the Book of Mormon in this category). Third, moving on from seeing themselves as the typological new Israel, many attempted to find the literal Israelites in North America by describing the Native Americans as the ten lost tribes of Israel (he also includes the Book of Mormon here, though the differences are considerable).
However, this emphasis on the Old Testament waned by the 1830’s and declined sharply after the Civil War. Shalev highlights two reasons for this change. First, anti-slavery found the Old Testament awkward for their arguments and focused more on the New Testament and Jesus in their attacks on slavery. Second, the Second Great Awakening and the rise of evangelicalism led many to focus more on the New Testament and individual faith. If Shalev is right, evangelicals are partly to blame for the decline in popularity of the Old Testament in the United States!
Whether Shalev is completely right or not (the reviews were largely appreciative of his argument, but wonder if the OT influence was quite strong or extensive as he argued), it is good to remember how cultures change. Even though biblical literacy is very low now, it has not always been that way and it could conceivably change again in the future.