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New Horizons

Too Much of a Good Book?

D. G. Hart

The Bible has been ubiquitous in American life. Practically every home and hotel room has one. It used to be used in every public school classroom. The Economist reported in 2007 that over 100 million copies of the Bible are sold or given away every year. It is available (at least in part) in 2,426 languages, which makes it accessible to 95 percent of the world’s population.

Scripture was also responsible for some of the fiercest riots in the United States before the Civil War. In 1843, when the Roman Catholic bishop of Philadelphia objected to the reading of the King James Bible in the city’s public schools—he wanted Rome’s Douay version—his opposition added to existing tensions between native Philadelphians and Irish immigrants. In the run-up to municipal elections that would have a bearing on the administration of public schools, Protestants organized rallies in predominantly Roman Catholic neighborhoods. Parades turned into violence. For nativist Protestants, opposition to Bible reading in school was an indication that Roman Catholics were not in sync with American ideals of republicanism and independent thought. In the spring of 1844, riots resulted in twenty deaths, seventy wounded, and the destruction of homes and Roman Catholic buildings. Although these “Bible Riots” had much to do with political and economic tensions, they also demonstrated how closely Americans linked the Bible with national identity.

Despite the Bible’s ubiquitous and powerful presence in the American consciousness, knowledge of Scripture has not kept pace with its distribution. The same story in The Economist on the sale of Bibles reported that less than half of all Americans can name Scripture’s first book, only one in three knows that Jesus spoke the Sermon on the Mount, 60 percent cannot name half of the Ten Commandments, and a little over 10 percent think Noah was married to Joan of Arc. These results prompted George Gallup to conclude that America was “a nation of biblical illiterates.”

If the Reformation deserves most of the credit for the translation of the Bible into modern languages and the promotion of literacy, should Protestantism also take the blame for turning Scripture into a tool for political advantage or failing to insure that study of the Bible would accompany access to it? Recent books by Mark A. Noll and John Fea do not settle the historical score, but do show how crucial the Bible was to the development of the United States and offer insights into the consequences of Scripture’s ubiquity. Indeed, readers of these books will be hard-pressed to deny that American civilization was synonymous with biblical civilization. Whether such a close identification of the two was a blessing or a curse is another question.

Noll’s book, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783, is more about how Protestant assumptions about the Bible informed American public life than it is about the actual practices of reading, printing, or distributing Scripture. He begins with the fascinating politics of translation in England and the triumph of the King James Version over competitors like the Geneva Bible. Noll argues that the Bible provided a way for Protestant nations like England and Scotland to define themselves over against Roman Catholicism. The availability of Scripture in the vernacular showed that Protestants followed not the church hierarchy but the Bible. Protestants still affirmed the ideal of Christendom—a Christian society—but the Bible rather than the papacy was the guarantor of religious fidelity. As Noll puts it, “The Bible for salvation and the Bible for church reform was also Scripture for the body politic” (p. 69).

That outlook accompanied the Puritans who left England to establish a godly commonwealth in the British colonies of North America. Indeed, the possibilities for following Scripture in all walks of life were greater in the New World than the Old, because competing political factions were nonexistent (at least at the start) in New England. At the same time, the absence of long-standing political institutions, combined with an implicitly democratic conviction that all people should read and understand the Bible for themselves, created a different set of political challenges for the Puritans. They needed to balance social order (based on the Bible) with freedom for both elites and commoners to study Scripture for themselves.

After the Glorious Revolution (1688), in which the North American colonies became an asset in the British Empire, Puritan assumptions about the Bible faded, even as the Protestant identity of Britishness deepened. In Great Britain and the colonies, being British still involved pitting the Bible against Roman Catholicism and regarding Britain as uniquely blessed by God. The revivals led by George Whitefield and defended by Jonathan Edwards reinforced the Bible’s importance, but introduced a distinction between personal and public appropriations of Scripture that implicitly weakened the formal ties between Scripture and English civilization.

By the time of the American Revolution, at the end of Noll’s narrative, the Bible remained a public authority to which everyone, from patriots to loyalists, appealed. Yet the way that dissenting Protestants used Scripture against the ecclesiastical establishment emerged as the dominant position since Congregationalist and Presbyterian ministers led the way in justifying independence. The upshot of the War for Independence and the creation of a new nation was not the abandonment of biblical civilization. Instead, reliance on the Bible remained as firm as ever. Many Americans, Noll writes, “looked to Scripture to sustain a comprehensively Christian society, but without state-church establishments” (p. 331).

John Fea’s book, The Bible Cause: The History of the American Bible Society—written to commemorate the organization’s bicentennial—picks up almost exactly where Noll’s book ends, with American Protestants attempting to create a biblical civilization in the new nation. To do so, they formed too many parachurch agencies to mention, and the jewel in the crown of these Protestant associations arguably was the American Bible Society (ABS).

This organization, with designs to provide copies of the King James Bible to every home, library, and schoolroom in the United States, grew out of local endeavors that started during the first decade of the nineteenth century. In cities like Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Washington, Protestants raised funds and surveyed local needs to distribute as many as five hundred copies a year to those who lacked a Bible. Demands for distributing the Bible to a population that was moving westward to the frontier led some to consider a national organization that would coordinate local initiatives and expand the Bible’s availability. The result was ABS.

Led by Elias Boudinot, a Presbyterian from Princeton, New Jersey, who had a distinguished career in colonial politics (the culmination of which was a one-year term as president of the Continental Congress), ABS officers, donors, and staff were committed to the premise that the Bible was, in Boudinot’s words, “the most valuable book in the world,” “the most instructive to the wise and ignorant” (p. 10). That assumption also required that ABS be nondenominational and supply Bibles free from notes or commentary.

The belief that an unadorned Bible would bring the Christian religion and biblical civilization to residents of the United States have informed ABS operations since its inception. (ABS recently sold its New York City offices to build a new facility in Philadelphia.) Fea’s history follows ABS’s responses to the nation’s needs, whether sending soldiers to war, sending missionaries overseas, or eventually making available new translations, like the 1966 Good News for Modern Man. Fea’s study includes attention to the way ABS officers negotiated the delicate politics of denominations and relations between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Always fearful of sectarianism, ABS sought and generally found avenues that allowed the organization to achieve its goals without being beholden to any group of Christians. At the same time, ABS remained committed to the outlook that the United States was implicitly a nation whose ideals reflected biblical truths and that America’s presence around the world should include the leaven of Scripture.

Both of these books are especially helpful for discerning why the Bible remains so popular in the United States. Much of that appeal owes to the way that Protestants used the Bible as a tool to support and sustain Christian civilization. Equally important was the absence of church membership or the Christian ministry from the Bible’s influence. To make the Bible an ecclesiastical book was Roman Catholic; to make the Bible a national book was Protestant.

Aside from the questionable doctrines of such civil religion, the assumption of the Bible’s accessibility to anyone who could read English made preaching and catechesis expendable. If more Americans would read the Bible under the oversight of undershepherds who preached and taught God’s Word, perhaps biblical knowledge would be greater and expectations for national greatness would be lower. But that is not the world that American Protestants inhabit. Understanding the Bible’s place in that world is the virtue of both these books.

The author, an OP elder, teaches at Hillsdale College. In the Beginning, by Mark A. Noll (Oxford, 2015, 448 pages), lists for $29.95 (hardback). The Bible Cause, by John Fea (Oxford, 2016, 384 pages), also lists for $29.95 (hardback). New Horizons, February 2017.

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