Debunking David Barton’s Favorite Falsehood About the Bible and Circuit Courts

It has been well-documented that Christian nationalist pseudo-historian David Barton routinely misuses and misrepresents both American history and the Bible in order to promote his right-wing political agenda.

For decades, Barton has worked diligently to convince conservative Christian activists that the Founding Fathers intended for the United States to be an explicitly Christian nation that operates according to biblical precepts. He has doggedly worked to “prove” these claims by incessantly (and falsely) insisting that multiple passages of the Constitution were taken directly out of the Bible and that our laws and branches of government were crafted based on biblical principles.

These false claims have a political purpose. In 2022, Barton traveled around the country on behalf of an organization called Faith Wins, working to mobilize Christian voters heading into the midterm elections by telling them that, according to the Bible, they were responsible for choosing our elected leaders.

An example of the sort of disinformation Barton peddled was on display when he spoke at Radiant Church in Colorado last September. During his presentation, Barton falsely asserted that jurist James Kent set up federal circuit courts and that the concept of circuit courts was rooted in 1 Samuel 7:15-16. That passages reads, “Samuel continued as Israel’s leader all the days of his life. From year to year he went on a circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah, judging Israel.”

“James Kent, he’s known as the father of American jurisprudence,” Barton said. “He’s one of the two guys who helped set up the American judicial system. And when he set it up, he set it up with circuit courts. … Back at the beginning, when we had the original Supreme Court justices, they got on their horse, and they rode from town to town and from state to state to have court meetings.”

“And so we have this concept of circuit judges set up, and the guy who set it up said, ‘Well, we got it out of 1 Samuel 7:15-16,'” Barton continued. “It says that Samuel judged Israel, and Samuel rode the circuit. [Kent] said that if that’s the way the Bible does judges, then that’s a good way for us to do judges too.”

We had heard Barton make this claim multiple times before, but didn’t realize how wrong Barton was until we recently read the book, “John Jay: Founding Father,” by Walter Stahr. Jay served as the very first chief justice of the Supreme Court, a position to which he was nominated by President George Washington in 1789 on the same day that Washington signed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which created the federal court system.

As explicitly laid out in the Judiciary Act of 1789, Jay and his colleagues were required to travel among the 13 circuit courts established throughout the nation and hear cases in conjunction with local district judges.

While Kent was an acclaimed jurist in the Founding Era, he played no role in crafting this legislation, establishing circuit courts, or in helping to “set up the American judicial system.” In fact, Kent never even served in Congress, and the Judiciary Act of 1789, which laid out the concept of circuit courts, was drafted by Sen. Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut.

Barton, of course, provided no evidence to support his claim regarding Kent’s supposed biblical inspiration for creating circuit courts during his presentation. But when Barton made this same false claim in his 2012 book, “The Founder’s Bible,” he cited “The Memoirs and Letters of James Kent.” Predictably, if one actually checks Kent’s memoirs, all that is found is an undated passage in Kent’s diary noting that “the Jewish judges rode the circuits” along with the quote from 1 Samuel.

This is, once again, an example of Barton exploiting the biblical and historical ignorance of his own audiences to feed them a false narrative regarding the founding of this nation that serves primarily to promote his own modern-day right-wing political agenda.

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