Shouldn't a Documentary About History Be Historically Accurate?

Dr. Warren Throckmorton | Grove City College | Updated: Apr 24, 2012

Shouldn't a Documentary About History Be Historically Accurate?

Actor Kirk Cameron’s documentary, Monumental, comes out this week. In the promotional material, he claims to retrace history “in search of America’s National Treasure.” A WORLD magazine article explains the treasure Cameron seeks: “Monumental tells the story of men and women who risked all for liberty, including the travails of the Pilgrims, and shares stories of faith that helped shape education, government and civic life in the United States.”

I feel sure the movie will tell lots of stories, but based on what I have seen and heard so far, there is good reason to question their accuracy. Judging from the brief segments available at the website WingClips and Cameron’s press statements about the film, Monumental does not get off to a very accurate start, raising this question: Shouldn’t a documentary about history be historically accurate? 

In one of the clips, Cameron interviews David Barton while looking at some of Barton’s truly impressive collection of old Bibles. Cameron asked Barton about a two-volume, folio-sized Bible, which Barton says was printed in 1798. Barton tells Cameron that “This Bible was funded by about a dozen signers of the Constitution and signers of the Declaration as well as by President John Adams and Vice-President Thomas Jefferson. They’re the guys that put up the financial backing to do this Bible.” Barton also refers to this Bible in his new book, The Jefferson Lies, where he says, “[Thomas] Jefferson personally helped finance the printing of one of America’s groundbreaking editions of the Bible.” There he repeats the same claim about the signers financing the 1798 Thompson Hot Press Bible.

It is not true that a dozen Founders went together to put up the “financial backing” for the Thompson Bible. John Thompson and Abraham Small announced in the Gazette of the United States on April 25, 1796, the completion of the first section of their Bible which they described as “the most beautiful production of its nature hitherto seen.” They offered their Bible to the public with a plan to print the Bible in 40 sections to be delivered “every two weeks.” Subscribers paid 50 cents a section, totaling $20 for the completed Bible. After the subscribers received their printed pages, they still needed to get them bound at additional cost.

Barton told Cameron that the Bible was the product of the Founders who “wanted the Word of God out to every family.” In truth, over 1270 people subscribed, including about a dozen Founders (but not including Adams on any of the three subscribers’ lists that I have seen) to purchase a Bible for their own use. Jefferson did buy one but he didn’t finish paying for it until 1799, months after the Bible was completed; hardly a great way to help finance a printing effort.

Barton then shows Cameron a copy of the very rare Aitken Bible, the first Bible printed in English in the United States. Barton says that Congress printed the Bible, which is simply not true. Robert Aitken printed the Bible at his own expense and when he was nearly finished, wanted Congress to sanction it. The extent of Congressional committee action was to ask the Chaplains to verify the accuracy of Aitken’s work which they did. Barton told Cameron that Congress said the Bible was “a neat edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use in schools.” However, Congress did not say that. In Aitken’s petition to Congress, he used that phrase to pitch his Bible, but the resolution of Congress said the following:

Resolved: That the United States in Congress assembled, highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion as well as an instance of the progress of the arts in this country, and being satisfied from the above report, of his care and accuracy in the execution of the work they recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States and hereby authorize him to publish this recommendation in the manner he shall think proper (p. 574, Journals of Congress, September 12, 1782).

There is nothing in that resolution about Congress recommending the Bible for use in schools in this resolution. However, that does not stop Cameron from showing a visual of the Education side of the Monument of the Forefathers, just after Barton repeats Aitken’s but not Congress’ words about schools.

The story of the Aitken Bible is interesting enough without these embellishments. Why distort the story? Does Cameron want the Bible to be given to public school children? Since I haven’t seen the movie, I don’t know where he ends up, but it certainly raises questions about the point of the story.

Finally, in an interview with Christianity Today, Cameron claims that Thomas Jefferson’s book of extracted verses from the Gospels, often called the “Jefferson Bible,” was not done to remove the miracles and keep the morals. Instead, Cameron claims that Jefferson just wanted to make up a little devotional book for himself. A little digging into Jefferson’s writings will disabuse the objective person of these notions. About his work, Jefferson said, “I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his [Jesus], and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.” Jefferson kept the Golden Rule (diamond, evidently from Jesus) but removed John 3:16, the virgin birth, and the resurrection (dunghill, evidently not from Jesus). 

I suspect that those who take in Monumental will be entertained, but will they be educated? If what is available thus far is any indication, the prognosis is not good. As far as I can tell, those responsible for the content of the movie are not historians, Christian or otherwise. It is not that there are no qualified historians, there are. However, actual historians would report the history accurately and with appropriate nuance. I can’t help but think that is why they were not consulted.

Warren Throckmorton, PhD, is Associate Professor of Psychology and Fellow for Psychology and Public Policy at Grove City College (PA). He is the producer of the critically acclaimed documentary, I Do Exist, regarding sexual identity. He co-founded the Golden Rule Pledge, which advocates bullying prevention in evangelical churches. His academic articles have been published by journals of the American Psychological Association and he is past president of the American Mental Health Counselors Association. Over 150 newspapers have published his columns. He can be reached at [email protected].

Publication date: March 28, 2012

Shouldn't a Documentary About History Be Historically Accurate?