Earlier this month, we published a piece exposing how religious-right pseudo-historian David Barton routinely misrepresents history and scripture to support his Christian nationalist political agenda.
In that case, we examined how Barton distorted a speech delivered by Benjamin Franklin during the Constitutional Convention to claim that it was filled with Bible verses.
As we have explained before, one of Barton’s favorite techniques for convincing his audience that America was founded as a Christian nation is to assert that Americans of the founding era were so deeply knowledgeable about the Bible that they referenced it continuously in their writings and speeches. If people today are incapable of recognizing all of those Bible verses, Barton asserts, that is just because they are “biblically illiterate.”
Even though we debunked Barton’s claim about Franklin’s speech, he continues to make this false claim in his presentations to churches around the country. On top of that, he recently started citing additional historical speeches and documents that he claims are overflowing with biblical citations.
Here are just a few of his misleading and grossly exaggerated claims.
When Barton spoke at the Truth & Liberty Coalition conference in Colorado earlier this month, he claimed that Patrick Henry’s famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech contained multiple Bible quotations, as did a letter written by President George Washington to a synagogue in Rhode Island.
We don’t know the Bible even as much as our least religious Founding Fathers used to know the Bible. And by the way, other examples, if I take you, for example Patrick Henry, you may be familiar with his famous speech, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.” That speech that he gave in the legislature of Virginia—which by the way, the legislature of Virginia met at St. John’s Church in Richmond. So the legislature is meeting in the church? What happened to the separation of church and state stuff we’re told the Founding Fathers wanted? Yeah, the legislature met at the church, and [Henry] gave a passionate speech that day, and in that speech that he gave if you want to read it, it’s 14 sentences long. But the same question [is] how many Bible verses? There were 11 Bible verses. He’s just rattling off the cuff. He is so frustrated with what the other legislators are doing that he just got up and said, ‘Guys, you’re wrong.’ And he just goes into a speech. This is just off the cuff.
By the way, these are the verses. And notice these verses; I’m not sure about you, but I’m going to bet that most people have not memorized Ecclesiastes 9:11 as a favorite Bible verse or Deuteronomy 32. See these verses here? These aren’t the ones that we typically memorize, but this is what they had in their heart, this is what they had memorized, and this is what came out when the time was right and they needed this.
You go to George Washington. In 1789, he becomes president, and in 1790, he decides, “I need to visit every state in the United States because we’ve been separate nations, we need to know that we’re a nation, so I’m going to everywhere, every state.” And in 1790, he had plans to go into Rhode Island, and as he was going into Rhode Island, plans were announced that President Washington is going to visit Rhode Island. There’s a Hebrew congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, that wrote Washington a letter, and it was just an effusive letter, it said, “We so thank God for what you’ve done, what you’ve done for religious liberty, what you’ve done for our freedoms, we think God has raised you up,” and they just gushed all over him. It was just a really nice letter. And so Washington replied back to them, and in reply back—it was a cordial letter, kind of a presidential letter—he said, “Thank you. That’s really nice.” And the letter that he replied back to them in had a total of two sentences. In two sentences, he quoted 10 Bible verses. His letter to the Hebrew congregation is just about Bible phrase after Bible phrase after Bible phrase. That’s what he used to craft that reply.
So when you look back at Founding Fathers, you find that they knew the Bible, they knew it very well, they studied it well.
The first thing worth noting regarding Barton’s claim about Henry’s speech is that the legislature of Virginia did not meet in a church. Henry delivered his famous speech during the Second Virginia Convention, which was only held in St. John’s Church because the colony’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, had dissolved the state’s House of Burgesses near the start of what eventually became the American Revolution. Secondly, Henry’s speech was not written down or transcribed at the time, and the version of the speech known today was reconstructed from the recollections of witnesses years after Henry had died. Thus, nobody really knows exactly what Henry said that day.
Regardless, here is the speech we know today:
No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the Majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.
Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.
I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the House. Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with those warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us: they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne! In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free—if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending—if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained—we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us!
They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. The millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.
It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace—but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!
And here are the Bible verses that Barton claims Henry quoted, as displayed in a slide in his presentation.
As with Barton’s claims about Franklin’s speech at the Constitutional Convention, there are some obvious biblical allusions in Henry’s speech, such as his assertion that “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace—but there is no peace,” which is a reference to both Jeremiah 6:14 and Jeremiah 8:11 where the phrase appears. However, it is hard to understand how Henry’s use of this phrase can count as two biblical citations.
While Henry’s language that “the battle, sir, is not to the strong alone” finds an echo in Ecclesiastes 9:11, it is hard to determine where the other Bible verses Barton cites supposedly appear in Henry’s speech:
- Jeremiah 50:22: The noise of battle is in the land, and great destruction!
- 2 Chronicles 32:8: With him is an arm of flesh, but with us is the Lord our God, to help us and to fight our battles. And the people took confidence from the words of Hezekiah king of Judah.
- Daniel 4:17: The sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men.
- Psalm 75:7: but it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another.
- Joshua 24:15: And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
- 2 Thessalonians 1:6: since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you.
- Deuteronomy 32:4: The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.
- Matthew 20:6: And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?
To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island
[Newport, R.I., 18 August 1790]
While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.
The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
Here are the Bible verses Barton claims are cited in Washington’s letter, as seen in his slide presentation:
Once again, there are a few Biblical allusions in Washington’s letter, such as his line about “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree,” which is a reference to language found in 1 Kings 4:25 and Micha 4:4, which Barton yet again inexplicably counts as two citations.
Washington’s language about “the father of mercies” does echo 2 Corinthians 1:3 and the line about “the Stock of Abraham” mirrors Acts 13:26, but the remainder of the Bible verses cited by Barton are difficult to place:
- Isaiah 35:10: And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
- Proverbs 4:18: But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.
- Psalm 119:105: Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
- Ecclesiastes 3:11: He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
- Ephesians 4:1: I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.
- Deuteronomy 12:10: But when you go over the Jordan and live in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to inherit, and when he gives you rest from all your enemies around, so that you live in safety.
As with his claims about Franklin’s speech, there are nowhere near as many Bible citations in Henry’s speech or Washington’s letter as Barton claims there are. In fact, most of what Barton claims are quotes from Bible verses amount to little more than vague similarities in language.
What’s more is that rather declare this to be an explicitly or exclusively Christian nation, Washington assured his Jewish recipients that “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship,” and that “happily the Government of the United States … gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
The irony of Barton’s complaint about modern Christians being so “biblically illiterate” that they can’t recognize all of the Bible verses allegedly contained in documents from the founding era is that it is precisely the biblical illiteracy that Barton decries that allows him to get away with routinely misleading his audiences, confident in his knowledge that they are largely incapable of detecting his lies and misrepresentations and will never bother to investigate the baseless assertions that he makes.