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Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims’ American Jewish Holiday

How the biblical narrative of Exodus helped shape the founders’ idea of a secular nation with liberty for all

Ed Simon
November 21, 2016
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Collage by Tablet. Interpretation of the first committee's seal proposal, made by Benson Lossing in 1856. The obverse drawing is slightly incorrect; the linked state initials should be on the shield itself. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Collage by Tablet. Interpretation of the first committee's seal proposal, made by Benson Lossing in 1856. The obverse drawing is slightly incorrect; the linked state initials should be on the shield itself. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

A month after the Continental Congress had drafted the Declaration of Independence, one of that document’s architects, Benjamin Franklin, sketched out a brief description of his design for the Great Seal of the new nation. Franklin wanted the Great Seal of the United States to feature, “Moses in the Dress of a High Priest standing on the Shore, and Extending his Hand Over the Sea, Thereby Causing the Same to Overwhelm Pharaoh.” He wrote that the seal should depict “Rays From a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds Reaching to Moses, to Express That He Acts by Command of the Deity.”

Of course, Franklin’s design was not the one that was chosen. Rather, the heraldry that was selected to adorn our currency and other official government documents was William Barton and Charles Thomson’s spooky all-seeing eye, with its incomplete pyramid, and its dignified eagle reassuringly holding olive branches in one talon but arrows in another. Barton and Thompson’s final version is a hodgepodge of seemingly occult and Masonic imagery that has acted as a boon to the fervency of creative-minded conspiracy theorists for the better part of two-and-a-half centuries. The official Great Seal of the United States of America may have made its first prominent appearance in 1784 at the negotiations that led to the ratification of the Treaty of Paris, but Franklin’s Exodus-inspired seal proposed eight years before is a telling artifact of a more revealing history.

Franklin’s suggestion wasn’t the only biblically inspired design for the Great Seal. Alongside an all-star assembly of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the three constituted the first committee charged with designing the official heraldry of the new U.S. government. Jefferson’s proposal also took inspiration from the Hebrew scriptures, with the champion of separation of church and state nonetheless proposing that the Great Seal depict the Israelites in the wilderness, following their flight from Egypt but before their arrival in Canaan.

There is something surprising, or there should be something surprising, in Franklin and Jefferson’s proposals. Of the two founders, they are among the least conventionally religious, comfortable in heterodoxies (or heresies, for their critics), and both instrumental in the necessary development of American secularism and disestablishmentarianism (arguably the most unique, and crucial aspect of the American democratic experiment). And yet Jefferson, who would later remark that some central tenets of religion would “be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter,” wanted one of the most dramatic scenes from the Bible to officially represent his new, secular nation. Franklin, an unrepentant (if charming) drinker and womanizer, embodied a perhaps more accommodating and latitudinarian blasphemy; in adulthood, he was a committed Enlightenment rationalist and advocate for deism (even as he had a warm relationship with the famed evangelist George Whitfield). Ironically, it was only Adams, the most conventionally pious of the three men, who proposed a seal depicting a classical Greco-Roman subject: the judgment of Hercules.

Jefferson was a descendant of the Cavalier planter class that dominated in the Southern colonies, and he took a certain High Church affectation as his birth-right; but Franklin, though he was to adopt that nonconformist Philadelphia as his own (to the point where their identities became almost synonymous), was very much a product of that most Puritan of cities, Boston, and when read through that light, the embrace of this central story of the Jews should not be surprising. The Puritans from whom Franklin descended had been comparing their own arrival in the New World to the story of Exodus for more than a century. They were inheritors of a profoundly Judaic vision, melding the stories of the Hebrew scripture to their own narratives and experiences. While it would certainly be a mistake to in any way think of the Puritans as “Jewish,” their rhetorical sensibility and affinity for the Exodus story does specifically ground them in a particularly “Jewish” vision.

For the Puritans, Exodus was arguably a model for understanding their own lives and history in a manner more all-encompassing and totalizing than for any other historical religious group, with the obvious exception of the Jews. The Puritan divine, Richard Mather asked, “Is not the way to Canaan through the Wilderness? … Doubtless, through the wilderness you must go, if ever you will come to Canaan.” American Puritans and pilgrims like Mather, John Winthrop, John Cotton, William Bradford, Roger Williams, Increase Mather, Cotton Mather, Samuel Danforth, and many others placed Exodus at the center of their vision, seeing their own fleeing from an oppressive England and a Europe wracked by the Thirty Years’ War to an American “Errand Into the Wilderness” as a modern version of the Israelites’ escape into Canaan. Exodus was one of the most potent elements in the construction of what historian Sacvan Bercovitch called “the Puritan origins of the American self.” The Puritans made Exodus an organizing principle of their experience, and, in turn, it has become indispensable in comprehending the wider American experience. Through the Puritans, the story of Exodus became a motivating script for all manner of American stories.

Winthrop may have thought of Moses crossing the Red Sea when in 1630 he delivered his sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” upon the Arbella as it crossed the Atlantic, but this was merely the first of innumerable American enactments of the Exodus. We hear its echoes in gospel choirs singing the refrain in the Negro spiritual “Go down, Moses, / Way down in Egypt’s land, / Tell old Pharaoh, / ‘Let my people go.’ ” We read its significance and prophetic power in accounts of slaves who escaped the cruelty of antebellum plantation servitude, and who crossed the Ohio River as if it were the Red Sea, and who escaped across the Mason-Dixon line as if it were the deserts of the Negev. We see it in photographs of the oppressed escaping pogrom and persecution in the Old World, and in the stories of later generations of refugees. Exodus is an indispensably Jewish story, but what more appropriate day than Thanksgiving, this most American and Puritan (and “Jewish”?) of holidays, to consider the role that that particular biblical narrative has had in defining America’s civil religion?

Israeli historian Avihu Zakai makes a similar argument about Exodus and the Puritans in his indispensable 1992 monograph Exile and Kingdom: History and Apocalypse in the Puritan Migration to America. Standing in a line of venerable historiographers of American Puritanism, Zakai claims that early American narratives of discovery and colonization were irrevocably marked by a certain scriptural understanding, and he develops a schema by which to classify these accounts. According to Zakai, European accounts of the New World can be broadly categorized as either narratives of the “Genesis type,” or the “Exodus type.” Both of these myths embody “important types of religious migration” which “emerged in sacred, providential history, which Europeans had greatly used in order to consecrate sacred meaning on the New World in providential history.”

In Zakai’s schema, the Genesis narrative is one which claims that God has made some portion of the world perfected for his chosen people where “he will appoint a place for them to dwell in upon earth”; the Exodus narrative, however, involves a “judgmental crisis and apocalyptic migration.” Both of these narratives have been central to American self-understanding; the Genesis type underlay much of the colonial discourses of the Spanish, French, Portuguese, and indeed Cavalier Royalist-sympathizers who populated what would become the Southern United States. Advocates for New World colonization like Thomas Harriot, Walter Raleigh, and John Smith described America as a bountiful Eden, a land where the misfortunes of the biblical fall seem to have not happened — a description lacking in Puritan accounts of the rocky shoals of New England. In the imaginations of many Puritans, inheritors of a type of Protestant Hebraism and in some cases a self-understanding that could be described as Anglo-Israelism, they saw parallels between their own subjugation and that of the spurned and dejected Jews. Zakai explains that “For Puritan emigrants to America, the flight from England to New England symbolized in vivid and concrete terms their exodus from bondage in Egypt, or England, to the promised land of Canaan.”

As the Bible is arguably a collection of stories about migration and exile—Abraham leaving Ur, Moses leading his people out of Egypt, the Jews brought to Babylon—so too did the Puritans understand migration as central to their own theology of salvation and nationhood. John Cotton, perhaps the preeminent minister in the early Massachusetts Bay Colony, thinking of persecuted coreligionists in Europe, hoped that “here is then an eye of God that opened a door there, and set him loose here … [for] when God makes room for us, no binding here, and an open way there.” Magisterial Protestants may have seen the Puritans as “Judaizers” (and, indeed, Puritans returned the slur) but in one sense, the preoccupation with being a diasporic remnant is something shared between the two groups. Zakai writes that for the Puritans, within “the confines of sacred ecclesiastical history, religious migration holds a unique and prominent place.”

No wonder, then, that the Exodus tale of migration and of movement to a safe-haven is so central to American civil religion. The question of whether America was founded as a “Christian nation” is a boring one (spoiler: It wasn’t). Yet the interplay between religion and secularity is a complicated one. Nobody would accuse the Puritans of being anything other than theocrats, even if there is a golden thread connecting the nascent progressive secularism of someone like Roger Williams and the disestablishment clause of the First Amendment. But, American civil religion still strongly borrows from a scriptural idiom, and it’s incontrovertible that the Exodus story, birthed by Judaism, modified by the Puritans, and inherited by Americans of all races and creeds is perhaps the central founding myth of American pluralistic identity—in a new place, among a population who, as Winthrop explained, had in their home country been “despised, pointed at, hated of the world, made a byword, reviled, slandered, rebuked, made a gazing stock, called Puritans, nice fools, hypocrites, hare-brained fellows, rash, indiscreet, [and] vain-glorious.”

Certainly, the elementary school Thanksgiving pageant with its reductionist tale of pilgrims fleeing religious persecution is a bit too simple. But there is truth that until their emigration, they had suffered as a marginalized religious community in England. For them, the Exodus narrative reigned supreme as a means of organizing and interpreting colonists’ own lives. As Peter Bulkley, a prominent Puritan minister (and ancestor of Ralph Waldo Emerson) described it, “God hath dealt with us as with the people of Israel; we are brought out of a fat land into the wilderness.” Founder of Connecticut Thomas Hooker exclaimed that, “God makes account that New England shall be a refuge for his Noahs … a rock and a shelter for his righteous ones to run unto.” Their contemporary Williams, a Baptist and nonconformist who founded Rhode Island, drew the archetypal logic of the Exodus story with its defense of the stranger in a strange land to its ultimate and triumphant conclusion—that there must be liberty, both religious and otherwise, for everyone—all Christians, Jews, Muslims, and even atheists.

As the Puritans took Exodus and made it a map for understanding the oppression and progress of their own lives and souls, so too can we take their story and similarly refashion it in a more expansive understanding of nationhood, in which the radicalism of the concept that there can be a place of refuge still remains. Robert Cushman, who had been a deacon when the English Puritans lived in Leyden, Holland, and had followed his congregation to Plymouth, Massachusetts, declared that:

We are all, in all places, strangers and pilgrims, travelers and sojourners; most properly, having no dwelling but this earthen tabernacle. Our dwelling is but a wandering; and our abiding, but as a fleeting [a hastening away]; and, in a word, our home is nowhere but in the heavens; in that house not made with hands, whose maker and builder is God.

As that was a truth for the Jews, it was a truth for Cushman, and we must dedicate ourselves to the preservation of that truth as Americans.

Ed Simon is a senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books and an adjunct assistant professor of English and Media Studies at Bentley University. He is the author of America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion. His Twitter feed is @WithEdSimon.