Biblical Illiteracy: An American Pandemic

Posted on Oct 21, 2015 in Wisconsin Family Connection Transcript


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2015 | Week of October 19 | #1120

I happened to catch part of a lecture series recently on John and Abigail Adams’s relationship, especially their letter writing during the Revolutionary War.[1] The lecture was for teachers of history and was presented by Pulitzer Prize winning author Joseph J. Ellis, who, according to his website,[2] is “one of the nation’s leading scholars of American history.” This man is highly educated and highly esteemed in his field.

The history geek in me enjoyed listening to the lecture—but I was thunderstruck by one of Ellis’s statements. He was talking about how in her prolific letter writing, Abigail Adams would frequently make references, literary and otherwise, that were noteworthy. And then this noted American history professor says one day he was reading a letter from Abigail to Thomas Jefferson.  Ellis came upon a phrase that struck him as a great line and that he was sure was original to Abigail. The phrase was “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” Ellis says rather nonchalantly to his class, “It was from Proverbs. I didn’t know that.”

Wow. Here’s a scholar, a noted author, a premier American history expert who says I don’t know the Bible well enough to recognize statements from even the well-known Book of Proverbs.  To myself I thought, I wonder what else he’s missed of Biblical quotations, not to mention biblical allusions?

So what’s my point? Am I just trying to point out the ignorance or weakness of an expert in the field of American history? Hardly. We’re all human, and we all make mistakes. But I believe what happened in that lecture goes beyond human error. I believe it goes to a major reason as to why American society is like it is today:  Biblical illiteracy.

In the 1700s when John and Abigail Adams were living, the Bible was considered standard reading material, good for everyone, and certainly generally accepted in society.  Some scholars estimate that 75-80% of the population attended church in that era. The vast majority of those churches would use the Bible.

Recall too that the Great Awakening—an incredible time of revival—swept through the colonies in the 1730s and 40s.[3] Christianity was the dominant religion; with the Bible the centerpiece of that religion.

Most of our colleges and universities were started by Christians for the advancement of Christianity, focused on the Bible. Schools used the Bible and even subject-matter books included many Biblical quotations and references. Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, penned in 1791 an impassioned defense of the use of the Bible in America’s schools. Of course, educated people or people with social rank, such as John and Abigail Adams would know the Bible and would use in their correspondence direct quotations as well as allusions to it. I’m very certain that when Thomas Jefferson received that letter from Abigail Adams he knew immediately the phrase “faithful are the wounds of a friend” came straight off the pages of the Holy Scriptures.

But 21st century America is not 17th century America. The 1960s saw the US Supreme Court take Bible reading and prayer out of our public schools. We can’t even post the Ten Commandments in our schools today. Yes, the Bible can still be taught in public schools as literature—but frankly I doubt there’s a whole lot of that taking place.

Church attendance is dramatically down from the 75-80% reported in the 1700s. Families are much more fractured today than 230 plus years ago. Christianity and teaching of the Bible has long been done primarily through the family unit. When the family unit is destroyed, it’s much less likely that children know anything about the Bible and then to top that off, they aren’t taken to church either where they might learn about the Bible.

Biblical illiteracy is pandemic in America. If the consequence of this illiteracy was restricted to professors, authors and classrooms, that would perhaps not be so bad. But the consequence of this illiteracy is debauchery, selfishness, lawlessness, corruption of every sort, murder, mayhem and much more throughout our society.

My call today is to Christian parents to begin a family campaign—make a family commitment—to ensuring that your children grow up very familiar with God’s Holy Word. Teach it, memorize it, meditate on it, live it. In so doing, not only will your children truly be wiser than many of their teachers, but they will have the Word of Life to guide them all the days of their life. Most importantly, through the Bible they will meet the Savior, Jesus Christ, Whom to know is life eternal.

This is Julaine Appling for Wisconsin Family Council reminding you the prophet Hosea said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”

[1] http://www.c-span.org/video/?327444-1/discussion-john-abigail-adams-american-revolution

[2] http://www.josephellishistorian.com/Bio.html

[3] http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel02.html

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