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The Bible and Manifest Destiny

The legacy of a distinctively American interpretation of the biblical concept of election lingers and haunts today’s American imagination.

John Gast, American Progress (detail), 1872, oil on canvas, 29.2 x 40 cm. Courtesy The Autry Museum of the American West.

What is manifest destiny?

The term manifest destiny was coined by New York lawyer John L. O’Sullivan in an editorial published in 1845. Sullivan stated that it was America’s “manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” Sullivan encapsulated—in a relatively pithy phrase—the idea that the people of the United States were fated to occupy, settle, and possess the entire continent.

The idea that the people of the United States were destined to occupy the entire continent draws upon a central theme in the Bible: the idea that God authorizes a chosen people to occupy, colonize, and claim dominion over a piece of land. This story informs the Mosaic torah (Exod 19:5–6; Lev 20:26; Deut 14:2), the Abrahamic covenant, the conquest narratives, the Davidic messiah tradition, and the Jewish revolts against Rome.

This concept of divine election also came to inform early Christians, who understood themselves to be the new chosen people of God. The idea was that God had transferred his divine favor and election from Jews to Christians. This resulted in a long and disturbing history of supersessionism. Bolstered by the idea that Christians had replaced Jews as God’s chosen people, Christians often justified extreme aggression against foreign cultures (e.g., against the Muslims during the Crusades) and the enslavement of other peoples (e.g., of Africans during the colonial slave trade) by claiming that they were following the will of God.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many Christian settlers believed that the biblical warrant to occupy, colonize, and dominate had been transferred to them as well. North America was the new promised land, and they were to be God’s instrument in charge of seeing it conquered. When O’Sullivan first coined the term manifest destiny in 1845, therefore, he was informed by this complicated history, effectively combining the biblical myth of the promised land, the belief that Christians were now God’s chosen people, and the circumstances of a young nation experiencing massive population growth and unprecedented territorial expansion. This combination of factors produced a powerful ideology that ultimately gave birth to American exceptionalism.

Is there a dark side to manifest destiny?

Manifest destiny served as both cultural currency and political ideology. It was also a religious mandate and justification for American dominance. Opportunism and an infectious naivete imagined inexhaustible Eden-like resources as God’s gift to the American experiment. However, this myth had a darker side. It was also used to legitimate Indigenous displacement, racial oppression, and religious triumphalism. It obscured the crimes of slavery and colonialism that betrayed the very ideals of liberty, equality, and justice upon which the new nation was founded.

There is a bitter irony that a nation founded on the ideal of religious freedom came to actively deny that very same freedom to its Indigenous nations. Just as Christians had disinherited Jews from their covenantal rights in their quest to become God’s new chosen people, so too did the United States Government come to disinherit its Native peoples, often violating its own treaties. And just as disinheriting Jews was said to give birth to a new people, so too was the appropriation of Native lands thought necessary to give birth to a new nation. In both cases, the creation of something new required disinheriting and dispossessing something else.

The legacy of this distinctively American interpretation of the biblical tradition of election lingers and haunts the American imagination to this day. The dark side of divine election—or manifest destiny—is its shadow: for one people to be chosen, others must be rejected. In the Bible, this is justified as the will of God. In America, it is called manifest destiny.

  • Simon J. Joseph is Lecturer in Early Christianity at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of A Social History of Christian Origins (Routledge, 2022); Jesus, the Essenes, and Christian Origins (Baylor, 2018); Jesus and the Temple (Cambridge, 2016); The Nonviolent Messiah (Fortress, 2014); and Jesus, Q, and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Mohr Siebeck, 2012).