How Noah Webster’s Dictionary Helped Reinforce America As A Christian Nation

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NewBostonPost is publishing a regular weekly column by local religious leaders on Friday. This week’s article is below.


On April 14, 1828, Noah Webster, age 70, had his long-awaited American Dictionary of the English Language copyrighted and ready for publication.  The year before, when finishing the work, he wrote from Cambridge, England:  “When I had come to the last word, I was seized with a trembling which made it somewhat difficult to hold my pen steady for writing.  The cause seems to have been the thought that I might not then live to finish the work, or the thought that I was so near the end of my labors.”

 In 1806 Webster first published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language.  It was a much-shorter start of what would eventually become the 70,000-entry dictionary that made his name.

Webster’s original premise, as he wrote in 1789, was:  “As an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government.  Great Britain, whose children we are, and whose language we speak, should no longer be our standard; for the taste of her writers is already corrupted, and her language on the decline.”  The journey to accomplish this goal of a distinctly American dictionary would involve learning or at least delving into 26 languages, traveling twice to Europe, and studying more than 22 years.

The philosophy behind his dictionary was that there are two forces that must be balanced at all times – universal undisputed practice and the principle of analogy.  When new words or concepts are invented or developed, a nation’s vocabulary changes.  However, the universal unity or national integrity must not change.  Thus, change and changelessness are what helps to keep national unity through a national language.  To declare no national language, as is the trend today, is to put a nation on a literary spin toward change that is out of control – it is anarchy.

Noah Webster was born in West Hartford, Connecticut in 1758.  He learned a solid work ethic from his parents — rising early, milking cows, plowing fields, and mending stone walls.  He attended classes in a local log schoolhouse.  In 1774, when sending his son to Yale College, he remarked, “Serve your generation and do good in the world.” No wonder his philosophy of education was that “all government originates in families, and if neglected there, it will hardly exist in society.”  His marriage to Rebecca Greenleaf in 1790, of French Huguenot descent, helped fulfill his own family’s calling.

Though Webster was interested in Christianity, as a young man he had doubts about it, and into middle age he had not surrended to Christ.  In 1807, when has about 49, a revival in New Haven that affected his wife and two oldest daughters caught his attention.  Soon he could not resist the conviction of his conscience, and his full surrender was “soon followed by that peace of mind which the world can neither give nor take away.”

 Webster considered fostering Christianity essential to American freedom. In 1832, Webster wrote in his book History of the United StatesAlmost all the civil liberty now enjoyed in the world owes its origin to the principles of the Christian religion.”

Two definitions in the 1828 dictionary illustrate Webster’s understanding of virtue and his reliance on Scripture:

WisdomThe right use or exercise of knowledgeIn Scripture theology, wisdom is true religion; godliness; piety; the knowledge and fear of God, and sincere and uniform obedience to his commands. This is the wisdom which is from above.  Psalms 90:12.  Job 28:12.

Liberty – … the liberty of men in a state of society, or natural liberty, so far only abridged and restrained, as is necessary and expedient for the safety and interest of the society, state or nation. A restraint of natural liberty, not necessary or expedient for the public, is tyranny or oppression… the restraints of law are essential to civil liberty …

In other words:  True wisdom leads to God. True liberty is under law.

Among other concepts articulated in his dictionary include the distinction between a republic (“sovereign power is lodged in representatives elected by the people”) and a democracy (“supreme power is lodged in the hands of the people collectively”).  Education for children “in manners, arts, and science,” Webster says, is “important” – but “to give them a religious education is indispensable.”

It is important to understand that those who can change the meaning of words (we call it equivocation) can subtly rule a nation, and some dictionaries of today continue to change the meaning of words, unhinged by any Biblical, solid, or objective foundation.

Webster considered the Bible a sure foundation for understanding words. The Introduction to his 1828 Dictionary includes his take on the origin of language from Scripture and history, as well as an analysis of language in general and English in particular.

The Preface concludes with this thought: “To that great and benevolent Being, who, during the preparation of this work, has sustained a feeble constitution, amidst obstacles and toils, disappointments, infirmities and depression; who has twice borne me and my manuscripts in safety across the Atlantic, and given me strength and resolution to bring the work to a close, I would present the tribute of my most grateful acknowledgments. And if the talent which he entrusted to my care, has not been up to the most profitable use in his service, I hope it has not been ‘kept laid up in a napkin,’ and that any misapplication of it may be graciously forgiven.”


Dr. Paul Jehle is the Senior Pastor of The New Testament Church and the founding Principal of The New Testament Christian School, both in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Sermons and articles by him can be found at his church’s web site ( ) and at his ministry web site (  This column is adapted from a previously published article on Noah Webster.


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