America’s Prophet

“For four hundred years, one figure stands out as the surprising symbol of America. One person has inspired more Americans than any other. One man is America’s true founding father. His name is Moses.” (4)

In Bruce Feiler’s America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story, he traces “how seventeenth-century Protestant separatists, eighteenth-century deist revolutionaries, nineteenth-century enslaved Africans, and twentieth-century Jews could all possibly have the same hero.” (201) Feiler shows how each of these groups used Moses and the Exodus story to find hope and encouragement along with justification for their actions.  While the book is an exhaustive overview of Moses’ influence on America – here’s a few illustrations of where Moses and the Exodus story have played a roll in America’s history and cultural formation.

Moses during the Revolution:

Donald Lutz and Charles Hyneman set out to read everything published in America between 1760 and 1805. They wanted to settle disputes over the sources of the Revolution and evaluate the influence of “Enlightenment writers such as Montesquieu, Locke, Hume and Hobbes, as well as ancient writers such as Plutarch and Cicero.” Their conclusion was: “If we ask what book was more frequently cited by Americans during the founding era, the answer somewhat surprisingly is: the Book of Deuteronomy.” A book of Moses. “Thirty-four percent of all references were to the bible, compared with 22 percent for the Enlightenment and 9 percent for the classics.” (93)

Moses and African-American Slavery:

When Africans were brought over to America as slaves they brought with them their religions. Some were Christian, some Islamic, and others different African religions. Once in America they were often forced to convert to and learn about Christianity. The slaves learned about Moses and the Exodus and quickly began to identify with the Israelites. They took the Exodus story and made it there own. They saw in the story the hope and encouragement they needed to know that God wanted them to be free. This can readily be seen in their spirituals, such as “Go Down, Moses,”:

When Israel was in Egypt Land,
Let my people go;
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Let my people go.

“Thus saith the Lord,” bold Moses said,
“Let my people go;
If not, I’ll smite your first-born dead,
Let my people go!”

God down, Moses
Way down in Egypt Land
Tell ol’ Pharoah,
Let my people go.

I could go on and on citing more examples and discussing numerous figures throughout America’s history that have been compared to  or drawn inspiration from Moses but I think the above gives you a good idea what the book is all about.


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