Dr. Benjamin Rush: Our Forgotten Founding Father


America critically needs politicians, statesmen, physicians, humanitarians, educators, and social reformers who are committed to the transforming power of the cross of Jesus Christ. That’s the way our nation began. Take Dr. Benjamin Rush, for example.

Dr. Benjamin Rush is America’s Forgotten Founding Father, and perhaps it’s because modern secular historians are allergic to his outspoken evangelical faith. His signature on the Declaration of Independence comes immediately before that of the other famous Benjamin—Franklin. Former generations venerated him as peers with both Franklin and George Washington (though he and GW had their differences).

Quick List of Accomplishments

Rush was the one who encouraged Thomas Paine to write “Common Sense,” which fueled the American Revolution. Paine wanted to call his work, “Plain Truth,” but Rush suggested the title “Common Sense” and served as editor to the work.

Rush was the personal physician to many of the Founding Fathers and is known as the “Father of American Medicine” and as the “American Hippocrates.” He is also called the “Father of Public Schools Under the Constitution.” His studies into the nature of mental illness made him one of the founders of American psychiatry.

His voice was among the very first to strongly champion the cause of the abolition of slavery. He hated the slave trade and devoted his life to opposing it. He crusaded for the reform of prisons and championed the cause of the mentally ill. He established Bible societies and actively promoted the case of higher Christian education. He also became a peacemaker in the long-running feud between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. (Rush had a vivid dream that the two old warriors would reconcile before their deaths. Awakening from his dream, he felt compelled to make peace between his two old friends, and he succeeded).

Thumbnail Biography

Rush, the son of a Philadelphia blacksmith, was born on Christmas Eve, 1745. When his father died, his mother devoted herself to educating her children. Rush graduated from Princeton at age 14, and decided to pursue a career in medicine. He committed his life to Jesus Christ as a young man, declaring, “My only hope of salvation is in the infinite transcendent love of God manifested to the world by the death of His Son upon the cross. Nothing but His blood will wash away my sins. I rely exclusively upon it.”

Rush traveled to Europe to study medicine in Edinburgh, and soon caught the drift of American independence that was blowing in the air. Returning to Philadelphia, he opened a medical practice and began teaching chemistry at the College of Philadelphia and wrote America’s first chemistry textbook.

He also began advocating the cause of liberty. He was among the youngest signers of the Declaration of Independence and was appointed the surgeon-general of the Continental Army. After the War, he was appointed Treasurer of the U.S. Mint.

In 1790, he also helped organize “The First Day Society,” which started the Sunday School movement in the United States. He was also one of the founders of the Bible Society movement in America, which sought to make sure every citizen and every home had access to God’s Word.

Dr. Rush helped start five colleges and universities, including the first college for women. He was an early supporter of women’s rights.

He became a sought-after speaker and college lecturer who personally trained 3,000 of the first American physicians. He also engaged in establishing great humanitarian organizations and causes. He was instrumental in founding America’s first anti-slavery society. He spearheaded the first efforts in America to reform the treatment of the insane. He championed the cause of prison reform and the end of cruel punishments. He advocated education for women and free public schools for all children, and he believed education should include a thorough knowledge of Scripture. He wrote:

“Let the children who are sent to those schools be taught to read and write. Above all, let both sexes be carefully instructed on the principles and obligations of the Christian religion. This is the most essential part of education—this will make them dutiful children, teachable scholars, and afterwards, good apprentices, good husbands, good wives, honest mechanics, industrious farmers, peaceable sailors, and, in everything that relates to this country, good citizens.”

In 1791, Dr. Rush published one of his most popular works, A Defense of the Use of the Bible as a Schoolbook. He wrote, “The Bible contains more truth than any other book in the world.” He was a great advocate of Scripture memory, saying,

“There is a wonderful property in the memory which enables it in old age to recover the knowledge it had acquired in early life after it had been apparently forgotten for forty or fifty years. Of how much consequence, then, must it be to fill the mind with that species of knowledge in childhood and youth, which, when recalled in the decline of life, will support the soul under the infirmities of age and smooth the avenues of approaching death! The Bible is the only book which is capable of affording this support.”

He also had this advice for physicians, and although his opinion goes against the secular trend of medical ethics today, I happen to believe he is right:

“To no secular profession does the Christian religion afford more aid than to medicine. Our business leads us daily into the abodes of pain and misery. It obliges us likewise frequently to witness the fears with which our friends leave the world, and the anguish which follows in their surviving relatives. Here the common resources of our art fail us, but the comfortable views of the divine government and of a future state which are laid open by Christianity more than supply their place. A pious word dropped from the lips of a physician in such circumstances of his patients can often do more good.”

Dr. Rush and the Yellow Fever Plague

During the Yellow Fever pandemic in Philadelphia in 1793, Rush insisted on staying in the city while others were fleeing. At that time, Philadelphia was the nation’s capital, and President and Mrs. Washington left town along with many others fleeing the disease. But many could not flee, and nearly one-tenth of the city’s population died. The plague lasted for 100 days. At that time, Philadelphia was the largest city in the country with a population of 50,000. At least 20,000 people fled as panic spread through the streets. Of the 30,000 that remained, at least 5,000 perished.

Dr. Rush wrote:

“Fear and terror now sat upon every countenance. The disease appeared in many parts of the town, remote form the spot where it originated…. This set the city in motion. The streets and road leading from the city were crowded with families flying in every direction. Business began to languish…. [The city streets] became a desert…. In walking, few persons were met…. The hearse alone kept up the remembrance of the noise of carriages or carts in the streets.”

Calling together his medical students, he told them:

“As for myself, I am determined to remain. I may fall a victim to the epidemic, and so may you, gentlemen. But I prefer since I am placed here by Divine Providence, to fall in performing my duty, if such must be the consequence of staying upon the ground, then to secure my life by fleeing from the post of duty allotted in the Providence of God. I will remain, if I remain alone.”

Dr. Rush survived the Yellow Fever crisis, but years later he succumbed to typhus fever and died at the age of 67.

Lessons For Today

It seems to me America has never so needed outspoken evangelical leaders in medicine, politics, civil rights, education, and humanitarian reform. The Gospel of Jesus Christ equips men and women to advance the cause of liberty better than any other philosophy on earth. May the Lord give us many boys and girls who will grow up to advance His cause in the spirit of Dr. Benjamin Rush.