A staple of “Christian America” history is the claim that “half,” or “twenty-nine” of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had “seminary” or “Bible college” degrees. This claim unfortunately shows up in Fourth of July sermons and even the occasional megachurch pastor’s tweet.
The claim is, on a literal basis, easy to refute. In fact, there were no seminaries in America, in a modern sense of a graduate school of theology, until 1807, when Andover-Newton Theological School was founded. (ANTS was originally a traditionalist Calvinist school founded in opposition to Harvard’s theological liberalism. In 2016, having long since become theologically liberal, the ANTS campus was closed, and the school was folded into Yale Divinity School.) Princeton Theological Seminary, arguably the most influential American seminary of the 19th century, was founded as a separate institution from Princeton’s undergraduate college in 1812.
If you wanted “graduate” theological education in the 1700s in America, you could stay on for extra study with someone like Princeton’s John Witherspoon, which is what James Madison did (he may have been considering the pastorate at the time). But Witherspoon is really the only signer who had a recognizable seminary education, since he did graduate study in theology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland prior to coming to America.
The idea of Founders going to a “Bible college” is a more slippery concept, but it is also easy to refute on a simple factual basis. “Bible colleges” began to appear in the late 19th century, as part of the early fundamentalist-modernist controversy. Nyack College (originally called the Missionary Training Institute) was arguably the first such college, founded by A. B. Simpson in 1882 in New York City, before relocating to the New York village of Nyack in 1897. The most recognizable Bible college in America was probably Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, founded in 1887.
So in the modern sense of the term, no Founding Father went to a Bible college, either. It is hard to know whether Christian America polemicists are intentionally misleading their readers about these claims, or whether they simply don’t understand or care that they’re being anachronistic. These types of overinflated assertions obscure the profound, if quieter, role that Christianity and Christian education did actually play among the Founders.
Some of the leading Founders, such as Franklin and Washington, did not go to college, but virtually all of them had a level of Bible literacy that far surpasses that of the average American today. As I show in my recent Yale Press biography of Ben Franklin, the self-described “Deist” Franklin grew up in a Boston Puritan family, and from a young age knew the whole text of Scripture quite intimately and could quote it at will. Even a skeptic like Thomas Jefferson was virtually obsessed with the Bible, which accounts for his two compilations of the Gospels, which we call the “Jefferson Bible.” Jefferson avidly read the Bible and even the Septuagint in Greek, but his multiple-language editions of the Gospels removed most of the miracles, including the resurrection.
New York founder John Jay not only became chief justice of the Supreme Court, but also a president of the American Bible Society. Those founders who did go to college received a classical and Christian education, as most of the original colonial colleges (Harvard, Yale, William and Mary, Princeton, and so on) were designed in part to train pastors (which accounts for some of the confusion about colonial-era “seminaries”). To cite just one example of the purposes of the colonial colleges, early students at Yale were to “consider the main end” of their schooling “to know God in Jesus Christ and answerably to lead a godly sober life.”
Advocates of a Christian influence in America’s founding have plenty of evidence to work with, but too often that evidence has been stretched beyond reasonable historical limits. Claims like those about the founders going to seminary (except for Witherspoon) unfortunately hand the advantage to secularist ideologues, who routinely mock the Christian America writers as “Liars for Jesus.”
UPDATE: Here’s Christian America writer David Barton repeating the claims about Founders attending seminary or Bible college on Ben Shapiro’s program.
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