Noll is certainly right to be suspicious of the way certain ministers deployed the Bible in support of Britain during the colonial wars and into the American Revolution. But many of the wartime sermons Noll criticizes were not sermons in the traditional sense, but legal or political polemics aimed at British policy. They were not intended to be, as Noll would prefer, straightforward “biblical instruction.” In one example, Noll praises the “exegetical precision” of a reading of Romans 13 by a loyalist minister (David Griffith) while calling the argument of a patriot minister (John Allen) “flights of fancy.” In truth, there were many flights of fancy launched by ministers on both sides of the American Revolution. But more pertinent to Noll’s charge against Allen, Biblical exegesis in favor of resistance and republicanism existed in America and Britain long beforesupposedly corrupting influences of “Whiggism” or “the Enlightenment” came on the scene. British Protestant arguments for resistance and revolution were advanced first by Marian exiles (who took some cues from the Lutheran Torgau and Magdeburg Declarations) and then by Noll’s ideal biblicists—the Puritans! (It must also be noted that all Protestant political arguments owed a debt to medieval precedent, too.)
When Massachusetts Bay colonists faced invasion from England in 1634, an invasion they feared was intent on taking their charter and imposing an Anglican establishment, their justification for armed resistance included both scriptural and legal arguments. There was not yet an “Enlightenment” to corrupt the supposedly “proper” reading of Romans 13 as unconditional obedience—just as there had been no Enlightenment to inspire the Roman Catholic conciliarists, the Marian exiles, or Cromwell’s New Model Army. Why, therefore, does Noll so readily charge these “Whigs” or “patriots” with using “Scripture to clothe what opposition politics created”? Noll’s insistence on the American Revolution as a departure from Protestant biblicism also implies a preference for pacifism. Noll writes, “Among the authors who did seek direct biblical guidance, Christian pacifists stood out by invoking the sacred page to defend positions that had been derived originally from Scripture.” However, wasn’t classical just war theory largely owed to Christendom?
We want Professor Noll to keep his historical studies coming, but one wonders how he can insist on dividing wheat from chaff in the Bible’s proper use. Will Noll cast abolitionists as biblicists, given that many of their polemics resemble the politicized ravings of the Revolution’s patriot ministers, whom Noll scorns? Will every war be condemned if its proponents used the Bible to justify it? What will Noll make of the civil rights era? Shouldn’t its wedding of political ideology (the Declaration of Independence or nonviolent direct-action) to the Bible—particularly in the work of Martin Luther King, for example—be due the same criticism he levels at the Whigs of the mid-eighteenth century who defended British rights and liberties?
Ideally, Noll will settle into simply telling this long and difficult story of America’s relationship with the Bible, and not seek to impose ahistorical categories on its use in public life.
Glenn Moots is professor of political science at Northwood University.