The small seeds of social compact, local control, and community self-government introduced into America by the religious immigrants pictured in the Rotunda took root and grew. A century-and-a-half later, those seeds were brought to maturity when our Founding Fathers announced those same principles in the Declaration of Independence – including the principle that all of America would now govern itself under God’s laws: “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.”
So strong was their reliance on God’s Word and precepts during the American Revolution that even the currency and flags reflected this reliance. For example, the emblem on North Carolina’s currency contained the words “The law is our king” emblazoned upon an open Bible, and several revolutionary flags and banners openly appealed to God. Unquestionably, during the American Revolution, the Bible and God’s law were officially recognized as the basis of American self-government – the concept introduced a century-and-a-half earlier by the Pilgrims.
However, the Pilgrims were responsible for introducing more into America than just the concept of self-government based on God’s standards. They also introduced from the Bible many ideas that have become established parts of our culture today, including free-enterprise, the hard-work ethic, workfare rather than welfare, and private property ownership.
It is understandable that the Geneva Bible – particularly with its anti-autocratic commentaries – would be seen as a problem by the rulers of that day. In reaction, supporters of autocracy published the Bishops’ Bible and the Rheims Bible, both of which specifically attacked the content of the Geneva commentaries. This type of conflict was a factor leading to the establishment of official versions of the Bible.
In probably the best-known example, King James I of England authorized the funding of a new translation of the Bible about 1600, and it was finally published in 1611. Even though it was translated from essentially the same manuscripts as the Geneva Bible, this version removed all the commentaries and thus silenced the dissenting voice.
Not surprisingly, then, the “authorized” or King James Bible became the official Bible of many British monarchs and was therefore often the official Bible of the English colonies. In fact, Great Britain even made it illegal for the British colonies to print a Bible in the English language. 6 By this stipulation, all English-language Bibles were to be printed under the supervision of the Crown, thus helping regulate which versions were in circulation. (This law will be significant in a later discussion of the paintings in the Rotunda from the Revolutionary era.)
There is one other painting in the Rotunda in which the Geneva Bible had a direct influence: the Baptism of Pocahontas. Pocahontas was one of the first converts to Christianity in the New World (led to Christ by John Rolfe, who later became her husband), and the Geneva Bible was apparently influential in her conversion. The picture depicts Pocahontas being baptized in 1613 by the Rev. Alexander Whitaker. Interestingly, on her baptism, Pocahontas changed her name to Rebecka, wanting a Biblical name to accompany her through her new life.
Turning to the west side of the Rotunda, the four paintings there focus on the American Revolution, moving forward some 150 years beyond the Age of Discovery and Colonization. These four were painted by one of our Founding Fathers: John Trumbull, “The Painter of the Revolution.”
John Trumbull served as an officer during the American Revolution, and what makes his paintings so meaningful is that he personally witnessed much of what he painted and personally knew many of those whom he painted in the pictures. Because of his commitment to artistic accuracy, the faces in his paintings in the Rotunda are probably about as close as is possible to having photographs of our Founding Fathers.
John Trumbull came from a family of outspoken Christians, and other members of his family are also honored in the Capitol. For example, his brother Jonathan, who was a colonel during the Revolution as well as an officer on George Washington’s staff, is included in the painting of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown.
After the Revolution, Jonathan became Governor of Connecticut; and while Governor, he issued several proclamations – with strong evangelical language – calling his entire State to extended times of prayer. It is not surprising, however, that he issued such evangelical proclamations, for they reflect his very nature. In fact, Jonathan Trumbull was one among the overwhelming majority of our Founding Fathers and early leaders who were strongly and openly religious.