Webster's Dictionary

Mankind has been created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), and one of the traits of God’s image that we possess is the ability to communicate with words.  Words are vehicles of thought whereby we may express the contents of our minds to one another.  In order for our communication to be effective, we have to understand words alike.  Every word spoken means something to the speaker, but if his hearers do not know the meanings of his words, then he cannot communicate with them.  Therefore, it is necessary for us to share a common language and to define our words so that we may understand one another.

In order to improve Americans’ abilities to communicate with one another, Noah Webster published An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828.  Noah Webster (1758-1843) was an author, editor, and teacher, and his dictionary contained more than 60,000 word definitions and took twenty-seven years to complete.  The first edition of Webster’s dictionary was not an immediate commercial success, and Webster did not live long enough to realize the full effect of his work, but eventually his dictionary became wildly popular so that Webster’s Dictionary is now a household name.

If modern Americans were to read Webster’s original definitions, then they may be quite surprised to learn the degree to which Americans in the nineteenth century defined their words by the teachings of the Bible.  Webster’s dictionary contained the greatest number of Biblical definitions given in any reference volume, and many of its definitions contained direct quotations from the Scriptures.  Webster’s dictionary reflected his belief that education was “useless without the Bible,” and its popularity with Americans showed that they shared his belief.  In the preface to his dictionary, Webster stated:

 “In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government ought to be instructed...No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.”

Such a Christ-centered worldview may seem foreign to our nation today, but Webster’s dictionary and his views were widely accepted by nineteenth century Americans.

Today, Webster’s 1828 dictionary stands as a potent demonstration of what the nation once was and a striking contrast to what it has become.  To get a good measure of this contrast, let us consider parts of a few definitions given in the original edition of Webster’s dictionary.

Truth - Conformity to fact or reality; exact accordance with that which is, or has been, or shall be. The truth of history constitutes its whole value. We rely on the truth of the scriptural prophecies…Prov. 8…John 17

Education - The bringing up, as of a child, instruction; formation of manners…To give children a good education in manners, arts and science, is important; to give them a religious education is indispensable; and an immense responsibility rests on parents and guardians who neglect these duties.

Marriage - The act of uniting a man and woman for life; wedlock; the legal union of a man and woman for life.  Marriage is a contract both civil and religious, by which the parties engage to live together in mutual affection and fidelity, till death shall separate them.  Marriage was instituted by God himself for the purpose of preventing the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, for promoting domestic felicity, and for securing the maintenance and education of children…Heb. 13…Matt. 22…Rev. 19

Sin - The voluntary departure of a moral agent from a known rule of rectitude or duty, prescribed by God; any voluntary transgression of the divine law, or violation of a divine command; a wicked act; iniquity…1 John 3. Matt. 15. James 4

These few examples demonstrate how America once possessed a Bible-oriented mindset, which has now been abandoned in favor of the nation’s modern, secular ways.  Our nation and its government have mostly departed from the ways of our “founding fathers” (patriotism literally means “ways of the fathers”) so that even the definitions of words have been changed to eliminate the precepts of God.  This is a fearful sign for our nation because we are accountable to God for our words (Matt. 12:36-37), and God’s words will judge us all (John 12:48; Heb. 4:12-13).  We all would be wise to heed the commandment, “Whoever speaks, let him speak, as it were, the utterances of God” (1Pet. 4:11).  With this in mind, it is time for our nation to go back to a pattern of words and deeds that honor God.  Remember, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people” (Prov. 14:34).

Stacey E. Durham


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