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When the Canaanite Conquest Met the Enlightenment: How Christian Apologists of the English Enlightenment Harmonized the Biblical Canaanite Conquest with the Moral Values of the Eighteenth Century

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 December 2021

Daniel K. Williams*
History Department, University of West Georgia, Carrollton, Georgia, USA


This article examines British and American Christian apologists’ reinterpretation of the biblical account of the Canaanite conquest in response to concerns about natural rights and ethical behavior that emerged from the English Enlightenment. Because of Enlightenment-era assumptions about universal rights, a new debate emerged in Britain and America in the eighteenth century about whether the divine order for the biblical Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites was morally right. The article argues that intellectually minded Christians’ appropriation of Enlightenment values to reframe their interpretation of the biblical narrative (often in response to skeptical attacks from writers classified as deists) demonstrates that in the English-speaking world, Enlightenment rationalism and Christian orthodoxy frequently reinforced each other and were not opposing forces. Though many orthodox Christians repudiated traditional Calvinist interpretations of the biblical Canaanite conquest, they defended the authority of the biblical narrative by drawing on Enlightenment-era assumptions about natural rights to provide justifications for what some skeptics considered morally objectionable divine orders in the Bible. By doing so, they set the framework for the continued synthesis of natural rights and rationality with a biblically centered Protestantism in the early nineteenth-century English-speaking world and especially in the United States.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of American Society of Church History

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1 Paine, Thomas, The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology (London, 1796), 89Google Scholar. Throughout this article, I use the term “Old Testament” instead of “Hebrew Bible” because this is the term that eighteenth-century English and American writers used.

2 Gregory, Olinthus, Letters on the Evidences, Doctrines, and Duties of the Christian Religion (London: Baldwin and Craddock, 1836), 221Google Scholar.

3 Histories of the Enlightenment that portray the rationalism of the eighteenth century as ultimately opposing or undermining traditional Christian assumptions include: Steven Nadler, A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of a Secular Age (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011); Matthew Stewart, The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006); Margaret C. Jacob, The Secular Enlightenment (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2019); and Jonathan Israel's scholarship, especially A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009); and Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650–1750 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). Studies that take a contrasting view by emphasizing the religious roots of the scientific revolution and the compatibility between rationalist approaches and Christian orthodoxy for many European (especially British) intellectuals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries include: John Henry, “Religion and the Scientific Revolution,” in The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion, ed. Peter Harrison (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 39–58; Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998); and James E. Force and Richard H. Popkin, Essays on the Context, Nature, and Influence of Isaac Newton's Theology (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1990). Studies that attempt to find a via media between these views by highlighting the religious origins of Enlightenment thought while also noting the ways that the new eighteenth-century view of reason as a primary authority undermined traditional Christian orthodoxies or transformed them include: Frederick C. Beiser, The Sovereignty of Reason: The Defense of Rationality in the Early English Enlightenment (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996); and Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

4 For natural theology and rationalism among English Calvinists (and English Christians more generally) at the end of the seventeenth century, see Dewey D. Wallace Jr., Shapers of English Calvinism, 1660–1714: Variety, Persistence, and Transformation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 27–34. Commenting on the relationship between science and religious faith in late seventeenth-century England, Wallace states: “There is relatively little evidence that the new science was experienced generally as a challenge to religion in Restoration England. For the scientific divines, Dissenter or Church of England, natural philosophy, by showing the order and regularity of the universe, provided evidence for the belief that God had designed an orderly and purposeful world”: Wallace, Shapers of English Calvinism, 34.

5 In this article, I generally treat England and North America (especially New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies) as a single—though not undifferentiated—religious world, as David N. Hempton and Hugh McLeod do in their co-edited volume Secularization and Religious Innovation in the North Atlantic World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). Hempton and McLeod's work focuses mainly on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but for the eighteenth century, this transatlantic approach is even more applicable, because the Christian apologetic books published in England circulated widely in America; indeed, I cannot find much evidence of a substantive difference in approach to Christian apologetics between American and British writers for most of the eighteenth century. Differences between British and American approaches to Christian apologetics became somewhat more evident after the American Revolution and, especially in the 1790s, when American Christian apologists linked their attacks on Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason to a defense of the American republic—a move that British Christian opponents of Paine did not do, for obvious reasons. In the early nineteenth century, American colleges had a closer relationship with both evangelicalism and Christian apologetics than British universities did, and at that point, the differences between British and American Christian apologetic enterprises became more pronounced. For that reason, the section of this article that covers the early nineteenth century focuses mainly on the United States, rather than Britain, since during that period it was in American colleges that the connection between the ideas of the English Enlightenment and a defense of the authority of the Bible was especially evident. But for much of the eighteenth century, the same works of English Enlightenment philosophy, deism, and Christian apologetics circulated equally in both Britain and America and were subject to extensive intellectual debate in both regions of the English-speaking world. It therefore makes sense to study these intellectual developments as a transatlantic phenomenon.

6 “The Conquest of Canaan Vindicated,” Panoplist, 1 May 1808, 543.

7 Jacob Bryant, A Treatise upon the Authenticity of the Scriptures, and the Truth of the Christian Religion (London: T. Cadell and P. Elmsly, 1792), 241.

8 John Martin, The Conquest of Canaan: In Which the Natural and Moral State of its Inhabitants, the Character of their Conquerors, with the Manner of Design of their Conquest, are Considered [. . .] (London, 1777), 42.

9 See, for instance, Henry Smith, God's Arrow against Atheists (London, 1617) for an example of Christian apologists’ responses to atheists’ arguments at the beginning of the seventeenth century. For a historical survey of these arguments, see Kenneth Sheppard, Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England 1580–1720: The Atheist Answered and His Error Confuted (Boston: Brill, 2015). The most well-developed critique of the Bible published in England in the seventeenth century was probably Charles Blount's Oracles of Reason (London, 1693). Despite its extensive critique of the first few books of the Old Testament, it did not mention any potential moral objections to the Canaanite conquest.

10 See, for instance, Henry Wilkinson, “The Dark Vision,” in Three Decades of Sermons Lately Preached to the University in Oxford (Oxford: T. Robinson, 1660), 129–130. For discussions of the definition of Puritanism and its relationship to the theology of John Calvin, see John Coffey and Paul C. H. Lim, introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Puritanism, ed. John Coffey and Paul C. H. Lim (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 1–7.

11 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of Joshua, trans. Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1854), 97.

12 Increase Mather, The Doctrine of Divine Providence Opened and applied: Also Sundry Sermons on Several Other Subjects (Boston: Richard Pierce, 1684), 62.

13 Cotton Mather, The Short History of New England: A Recapitulation of Wonderful Passages Which have Occurr'd [. . .] (Boston: B. Green, 1694), 31.

14 Bay Psalm Book, 8th ed. (Boston: John Allen, 1695), 309.

15 Matthew Henry, “Separation without Rebellion: A Sermon Preached at the Opening of the New Meeting-House at Chester, August 8, 1700,” in The Miscellaneous Works of the Rev. Matthew Henry [. . .], ed. J. B. Williams (London: Joseph Ogle Robinson, 1833), 2:1141.

16 John Tillotson, “The Efficacy of Prayer, for Obtaining the Holy Spirit,” sermon 198, in The Works of the Most Reverend Dr. John Tillotson, Late Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, ed. Ralph Barker (London: Ralph Barker, 1728), 3:620.

17 William Williams, Martial Wisdom Recommended: A Sermon Preach'd at the Desire of the Honourable Artillery Company in Boston, June 6, 1737 [. . .] (Boston: T. Fleet, 1737), 23–24. Much has been written on New England Puritans’ view of themselves as a new Israel, but for a very succinct discussion of this idea, see David D. Hall, “New England, 1660–1730,” in Cambridge Companion to Puritanism, ed. Coffey and Lim, 154.

18 For Arminius's views, see Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

19 Hugo Grotius, A Defence of the Catholic Faith: Concerning the Satisfaction of Christ, against Faustus Socinus, trans. F. H. Foster (Andover, Mass.: W. F. Draper, 1889); and Ben Pugh, Atonement Theories: A Way through the Maze (Eugene, Oreg.: Cascade, 2014), 134.

20 See, for instance, Archibald MacLaine, A Series of Letters Addressed to Soame Jenyns, Esq.: On Occasion of His View of the Internal Evidence of Christianity, 2nd ed. (London: Charles Bathurst, 1778), 87–98.

21 Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, trans. A. C. Campbell (Washington, D.C.: M. Walter Dunne, 1901), bk. 3, chap. 11, sec. 17, p. 363.

22 Richard Fiddes, Theologia Speculativa: Or, the Second Part of a Body of Divinity [. . .] (London: W. Bowyer, 1720), 420–421.

23 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding (London, 1690), 4.10, p. 352.

24 John Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity: As Delivered in the Scriptures (1695; repr. London, 1824), 4–5. Whether Locke really believed that unaided reason was fully competent to judge the truth of revelation is a matter of some debate. Alan P. F. Sell argues that although some of Locke's contemporaries (among both deists and Christians) understood Locke to mean this, their interpretations were incorrect in that Locke actually viewed revelation as a higher authority than reason in at least some instances. See Alan P. F. Sell, John Locke and the Eighteenth-Century Divines (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1997), 62–85. But regardless of Locke's intended meaning, there can be no doubt that Locke's writings were used in the eighteenth century to justify the use of reason as a judge of the truth of scripture and scriptural morality.

25 Locke, Reasonableness of Christianity, 142–143.

26 One of the earliest of these skeptical books was Blount's Oracles of Reason (1693), which said nothing about the slaughter of the Canaanites. Similarly, the closest early eighteenth-century counterpart to Blount's work—Anthony Collins's A Discourse on the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion (London, 1724)—included no discussion of the Canaanites either. Both books presented a critique of the Bible's rationality, with Collins giving a refutation of the common Christian apologetic claim (which Locke, among others, had championed) that the fulfillment of Old Testament messianic prophecies in Jesus was sufficient proof of the divine origin of the scriptures and the Christian religion.

27 For a sample of historical studies of eighteenth-century deism, see James A. Herrick, The Radical Rhetoric of the English Deists: The Discourse of Skepticism, 1680–1750 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997); Wayne Hudson, The English Deists: Studies in Early Enlightenment (New York: Routledge, 2015); Kerry S. Walters, The American Deists: Voices of Reason and Dissent in the Early Republic (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992); and Eric R. Schlereth, An Age of Infidels: The Politics of Religious Controversy in the Early United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

28 Matthew Tindal, Christianity as Old as the Creation: Or, The Gospel, a Republication of the Religion of Nature (London, 1730), 265.

29 Tindal, Christianity as Old as the Creation, 264.

30 Tindal, Christianity as Old as the Creation, 264, 273–275.

31 Tindal, Christianity as Old as the Creation, 264.

32 Tindal, Christianity as Old as the Creation, 273.

33 For Bolingbroke's critique, see Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, “Letters on the Study and Use of History,” in The Works of Lord Bolingbroke: With a Life [. . .] (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1841), 2:209.

34 James Muir, An Examination of the Principles Contained in the Age of Reason (Baltimore: S. J. Adams, 1795), 51, 151.

35 Jonathan Edwards, A History of the Work of Redemption: Containing the Outlines of a Body of Divinity, In a Method Entirely New (Edinburgh, 1774), 3.10.10, p. 377. For Edwards's defense of God's justice and goodness against attacks by the deists, see Gerald R. McDermott, Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

36 Thomas Broughton, Christianity Distinct from the Religion of Nature: In Answer to a Late Book, Entitled, Christianity as Old as the Creation, &c. (London: Weaver Bickerton, 1732), 37–39.

37 Broughton, Christianity Distinct from the Religion of Nature, 35–36.

38 John Leland, A View of the Principal Deistical Writers That Have Appeared in England in the Last and Present Century [. . .] (1754; repr., London: Charles Daly, 1837), 442.

39 Leland, A View of the Principal Deistical Writers, 442.

40 John Leland, A Defence of Christianity, 2nd ed. (London: D. Browne, 1752), 2:358.

41 Remarks on the Conduct of Joshua towards the Canaanites (London: R. Baldwin, 1753), 15.

42 Remarks on the Conduct of Joshua, 31–32.

43 Martin, Conquest of Canaan, 42–43, 51.

44 Richard Watson, An Apology for the Bible in a Series of Letters Addressed to Thomas Paine (London, 1796), 18–19, 35–36.

45 [Thomas Church], An Analysis of the Philosophical Works of the Late Lord Viscount Bolingbroke (London: J. Whiston and B. White, 1755), 129–130.

46 Bryant, Treatise upon the Authenticity of the Scriptures, 250–251.

47 Advertisement from Samuel F. Bradford, bookseller, Philadelphia Gazette, 8 July 1805; Advertisement from Increase Cooke & Co., booksellers, New Haven Connecticut Journal, 29 November 1810; Advertisement from E. F. Backus, bookseller, Albany (N.Y.) Balance, 18 December 1810; John Adams Diary 46, 21 July 1796, Adams Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society,; and John Adams Diary 46, 23 July 1796, Adams Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society,

48 Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature [. . .] (1736; repr., New York: Harper and Brothers, 1860), 230.

49 Butler, The Analogy of Religion, 230–231.

50 [Cornelius Davis], “Of the Character of the God of Moses,” Theological Magazine, 1 November 1795, 187–188. For Davis's biographical background, see Kyle B. Roberts, Evangelical Gotham: Religion and the Making of New York City, 1783–1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 118.

51 “Divinity and Controversy,” Monthly Review, March 1753, 236–237.

52 “The Conquest of Canaan Vindicated,” Panoplist, 1 May 1808, 543.

53 See, for instance, the anonymous British antislavery tract Scripture the Friend of Freedom (London: W. Smith, 1789), 39; and the African English abolitionist Ottobah Cugoano's Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (London, 1787), 35. For Evarts's opposition to the Cherokee removal, see John A. Andrew III, From Revivals to Removal: Jeremiah Evarts, the Cherokee Nation, and the Search for the Soul of America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992).

54 The Philosophical Works of the Late Right Honorable Henry St. John, Lord Viscount Bolingbroke (London, 1776), 4:151.

55 Paine, Age of Reason, 4, 13.

56 New England Congregationalist ministers’ anxieties about the French Revolution and their desire to use orthodox Protestant Christianity to save the new American republic from the dangers of deism and “infidelity” are central themes of Jonathan J. Den Hartog's Patriotism and Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014).

57 Muir, Examination of the Principles, 118–119, 146.

58 Uzal Ogden, Antidote to Deism: The Deist Unmasked; Or An Ample Refutation of All the Objections of Thomas Paine [. . .] (Newark, N.J.: John Woods, 1795), 1:16.

59 Ogden, Antidote to Deism, 1:36.

60 William Finch, The Objection of Infidel Historians and Other Writers against Christianity [. . .] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1797), 103–104.

61 Clark, Elizabeth A., Founding the Fathers: Early Church History and Protestant Professors in Nineteenth-Century America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 7CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Seventeenth Annual Report of the President of Harvard University to the Overseers, on the State of the Institution for the Academical Year 1841–42 (Cambridge, Mass.: Metcalf, Keith, and Nichols, 1843), 5; and Holifield, E. Brooks, Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003), 173175Google Scholar.

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