The Bible and American Culture
Bible’s Importance and Influence in American History and Culture
Among the exhibits in the Dunham Bible Museum is a collection of “original leaves from rare and historic Bibles printed in the Colonies and the United States during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.” Collected, carefully framed, and described by noted book collector Michael Zinman, the exhibit provides an excellent survey of the printing history of the American Bible. Besides Zinman’s descriptions, the collection includes a preface on “The Bible and American Culture,” by Mark Noll, which follows.
THE BIBLE AND AMERICAN CULTURE
By MARK A. NOLL, McManis Professor of Christian Thought, Wheaton College
THE Bible has been a permanent fixture in American culture since the beginning of the European settlement of North America. A few random facts are enough to suggest the dimensions of the Bible’s presence in our early history. The first English book published in North America was The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Meter in 1640. Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, thought the miracle stories of the Bible were “a ground work of vulgar ignorance, . . . of superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications,” and yet he spent nights during his first term as president preparing his own edition of Jesus’ sayings (in Greek, Latin, and French) and he read the gospels daily for the last forty years of his life. [i] Throughout the nineteenth century American settlers regularly named their communities after biblical places: Zoar, Ohio (Genesis 13:10); Ruma, Illinois (II Kings 23:36); Mount Tirzah, North Carolina (Joshua 12:24); and Zela, West Virginia (Joshua 18:28), as well as 47 variations on Bethel, 61 on Eden and 95 on Salem. When in 1842 the Roman Catholic Bishop of Philadelphia, Francis Patrick Kenrick, petitioned the city officials to allow school children of his faith to hear readings from the Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible instead of the King James Version, the city’s Protestants rioted and tried to bum down Philadelphia’s Catholic churches.
Reflecting on such a heritage, Perry Miller, a noted twentieth-century historian, once commented on the place of Scripture in this early period. By so doing he neatly summed up both the power of Scripture as a norm for American consciousness and the difficulty in specifying the cultural place of the Bible in America when he wrote, “The Old Testament is truly so omnipresent in the American culture of 1800 or 1820 that historians have as much difficulty taking cognizance of it as of the air people breathed.” [ii] However difficult it may be to define the impact of the Bible on ordinary people precisely, Scripture has always been extraordinarily potent in American life. The printing history of the Bible, its application to politics, and its presence in popular culture all testify to that power.
Throughout their entire history Americans have sustained a substantial rate of Bible publication, and an even greater appetite for literature about the Bible. Publication of the Bible has been a lucrative business in America, but not without peril. Before the Revolutionary War the publication of English-language Bibles was prohibited in America, since the king’s printers in England enjoyed an exclusive copyright for printing the Authorized or King James Version. This meant that the first Bibles printed on this side of the Atlantic were in languages other than English. In 1743, Christoph Saur of Pennsylvania brought out an edition of Martin Luther’s Bible on type carried from Frankfurt, Germany, and so established his family as America’s leading publisher for readers of German. Even earlier the Bible had made its appearance in native tongues. Spanish Franciscans were translating biblical liturgies and Catholic devotional literature for the Rimucuan Indians of Florida in the sixteenth and very early seventeenth centuries before permanent English settlements ever existed in New England. Decades later the Massachusetts Puritan minister John Eliot translated and printed the Bible into an Algonquian dialect. A New Testament was published in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1661, and the entire Bible in 1663. Other laborers since Eliot, many of them active in the nineteenth century, have translated at least parts of the Bible into Apache, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Choctaw, Dakota, Hopi, Inupiat, Iroquoian, Kuskokwim, Mohawk, Muskogee, Navajo, Ojibwa, and other Native American languages.
Once American printers began publishing their own editions of the King James Version after the War for Independence, the demand for locally printed Bibles expanded greatly. Robert Aitken, however, who printed the first English Bible in America, suffered very substantial losses in this endeavor and it was not until Isaac Collins in New Jersey and Isaiah Thomas in Massachusetts produced their editions of the Bible that significant profits were realized. All in all, there were almost one hundred editions of the Bible and New Testament printed during the last two decades of the eighteenth century. Mason Weems, who fabricated the story of Washington and the cherry tree, sometimes earned his living as a traveling Bible colporteur. Shortly after 1800, Weems wrote from Virginia to his publisher in Philadelphia: “I tell you this it the very season and age of the Bible. Bible Dictionaries, Bible tales, Bibles stories – Bibles plain or paraphrased, Carey’s Bibles, Collins’ Bibles, Clarke’s Bibles, Kimptor’s Bibles, no matter what or whose all, all will go down – so wide is the crater of public appetite at this time.” [iii]
As successful as Bible publishing was in general, however, that success did not extend to the marketing of new translations. Not until the twentieth century and the publication of the American Standard Version in 1901, did the King James Version for Protestants and the Douay-Rheims version for Catholics even begin to give way as the overwhelmingly dominant Bibles of choice for Americans. Nineteenth-century publishers who promoted Bible translations tailored for their countrymen met great resistance. Noah Webster, father of the American dictionary, finished a translation of the Bible in 1833 that was shorn of British spellings and archaic usages. His contemporary, Andrew Comstock, devised a phonetic “purfekt alfabet” for this “Filadelfia” New Testament in 1848. But neither these or other new translations won a following.
The most important institution in the widespread distribution of the Bible in America was the American Bible Society.
Since the early history of the United States, Bible societies have figured prominently in the distribution of Scripture. Although Britain had the first important Bible society, American groups soon caught up to their British colleagues. After its founding in 1816, the American Bible Society boldly exploited new printing technologies to aid its effort. Soon it was publishing more than 70,000 volumes per year on eight presses running continuously all year. By 1830, its annual production reached over 300,000 Bibles per year, and that at a time when the national population was not quite 13,000,000 and when several individual denominations were so eagerly engaged in distributing the Bible In 1991, the ABS printed 2,283,000 Bibles in the United States with a population of 252,800,000.
From the beginning the Bible also provided themes for Americans to define themselves as a people, and then as a nation. Puritans in New England though they were in covenant with God just like the Jews of the Old Testament. During the American Revolution countless preachers exploited the Scriptures to drive home their vision of a liberated America. In 1773, a South Carolina Presbyterian based a discourse on the virtues of home rule and the folly of government by a foreign power on Exodus 1:8 – “Touch not; taste not; handle not.” [iv] These creative forms of exegesis were repeated at other great moments of national crisis, especially as tensions rose between North and South. Early in the Civil War, for example, a southerner Presbyterian teased II Chronicles 6:34-65 (King Solomon’s prayer for success in battle for Israel) into a biblically worded analysis of the current crisis: “Eleven tribes sought to go forth in peace from the house of political bondage, but the heart of our modem Pharaoh is hardened, that he will not let Israel go.” [v] In the North one of the more than 400 sermons published after the assassination of Lincoln was an exposition of II Samuel 18:32, where David laments the treacherous slaying of his son, Absalom. After examining the text, the preacher concluded that no one “will be able to separate in thought the murder of the president from (Jefferson) Davis’ persistent effort to murder the Union.” [vi]
The first public political campaigns of the 1830’s were modeled directly on the organized enthusiasm and passionate rhetoric of the religious revival. In the intense sectional strife leading to the Civil War the Bible’s message championed the argument of both contenders. In the South, passages like Leviticus 25:45 (“the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you. . . they shall be your possession”) defined the righteousness of their cause. In the North favored passages, usually from the New Testament, like Galatians 5: 1 (“Stand fast. . . in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free”), did the same. Abraham Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural Address, put the Civil War into perspective by quoting Matthew 18:7 and Psalm 19:9 and by noting that “Both [sides] read the same Bible.”
If anything, the Bible was even more obviously at work in the popular culture of African-Americans than among whites. Slaves made a sharp distinction between the Bible their owners preached to them and the Bible they discovered for themselves. Under slavery stringent regulations often existed against unsupervised preaching and sometimes even against owning Bibles. One bondsman left this disgruntled summary of the preaching his owners provided: “‘Serve your masters. Don’t steal your master’s turkey. Don’t steal your master’s chickens. Don’ steal your master’s hogs. Don’t steal your master’s meat. Do whatsoever your master tells you to do.’ Same old thing all de time.” [vii] But, with permission or not, slaves made special effort to hear black preachers. One slave left this striking testimony: “a yellow [light-complexioned] man preached to us. She [the slave owner] had him preach how we ought to obey our master and missy if we want to go to heaven, but when she wasn’t there, he came out with straight preachin’ from the Bible.” [viii]
Blacks sang and preached about Adam and Eve and the Fall, about “wrestlin’ Jacob” who “would not let [God] go,” about Moses and the exodus from Egypt, about Daniel in the lions’ den, about Jonah in the belly of the fish, about the birth of Jesus and his death and future return. The figure of Moses assumed a special importance among slaves as the one whom God had raised up to free his people. To the hope of liberation in this world, the slaves added a concentration on the figure of Jesus, who suffered innocently and who ministered particularly to the oppressed, as the source of hope for the future. Grateful blacks from Baltimore in September 1864 presented President Lincoln with a pulpit Bible bound in violet-tinted velvet, finished in gold, with a raised design depicting the emancipation of the slaves, which cost far more than the average per capita income of white Americans. In response, Lincoln called the Bible, “the best gift God has given to man.” [ix] The slaves’ profound embrace of Scripture created a climate of Bible reading and biblical preaching that has continued among African-Americans since the Civil War.
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In the popular media, Scripture has been just as omnipresent as in politics. Fiction, hymns, and poetry employing biblical themes have always made up a huge proportion of American publishing. Composers William Billings (1746-1800), John Knowles Paine (1839-1906), and many others who followed, wrote musical settings for the Psalms. Among the populace at large the flood of sheet music, hymnals, chorus books, and gospel songs has never ebbed. In the nineteenth century one of the most frequently reprinted sheet-music titles was “My Mother’s Bible”. Its first appearance (1843) evoked an emotional domestic ideal: “My mother’s hands this Bible clasped/She dying gave it me.”
American writers of popular fiction have always drawn on biblical materials. Biblical allusions feature prominently in their work of authors who have become the object of critical study; Melville’s Moby Dick begins with “Call me Ishmael”. Melville, in turn, used a biblical phraseology to describe the secret of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s literary power: “Certain it is . . . that this great power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeal to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitation, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free. . . . Perhaps no writer has ever wielded this terrific thought with greater terror than this harmless Hawthorne.” [x]
Academic critics generally have not responded favorable to stories drawn directly from biblical materials, but the American people have ever been a receptive audience. The first important novel of this kind was William Ware’s Julian: Or, Scenes in Judea (1856), which described gospel events through the letters of its fictional protagonist. General Lew Wallace’s Ben Bur (1880), which climaxed in the now-famous chariot race, is probably the supreme example of biblical fiction. James Garfield wrote his personal thanks to Wallace from the White House, and it soon became a great success with the public at large (in no small part because Sears and Roebuck printed up a million inexpensive copies). Ben Burwas also the inspiration for an immensely successful touring drama (complete with surging horses on a treadmill) and, later in the twentieth century, two motion pictures.
The Bible as a theme in popular communications is hardly exhausted by songs, poems, stories, and movies. In the visual arts, biblical materials have provided inspiration for German immigrants embellishing needlework with Fraktur letters, lithographers like Currier and Ives, countless painters at countless levels of ability, and a few masters acclaimed by both public and critics (among them Edward Hicks who in the mid- nineteenth century painted several versions of The Peaceable Kingdom). Since the beginning of mass-marketed religious objects about the time of the Civil War, both Catholics and Protestants have purchased quantities of pictures, statues, games, children’s toys, paperweights, jewelry, clothing greeting cards, calendars, and business cards decorated with biblical motifs.
Allene Stuart Phy once observed that there is often a “ludicrous discrepancy. . . between the ancient wisdom of the Scriptures and the vulgarities of American popular culture.” But Phy also saw clearly that even these “vulgarities” show the “profound ways in which the holy books of the Jewish and Christian religious relate to [the] lives of Americans”. [xi]
The impact of the Bible on American culture is hardly exhausted, however, by referring to its printing history, political impact, and exploitation in popular culture. The heart of Scripture’s presence has always been religious, and so its importance is not always defined by the visible events of public life. In the end the story of the Bible in American will not fully be told until some understanding exists of how the Bible has sustained the ordinary lives of ordinary people in ordinary situations.
By no means has the Bible been the only center of cultural value in the American past. Many other competitors-political, social, economic, artistic, and ethnic- have been present as well, often with great force. But at least until some time in the late nineteenth century or early in the twentieth, the Bible existed as the most coherent, the most widely respected, and the most powerful of those means by which American ordered their daily existence and made sense of the universe in which they lived.
[i] Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Second Series), ed. Dickinson W. Adams (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983, p. 326.
[ii] Perry Miller, “The Garden of Eden and the Deacon’s Meadow,” American Heritage, Dec. 1955, p.54.
[iii] Quoted by Garry Wills, “Mason Weems, Bibliopolist, “American Heritage, Feb-Mar. 1982, p. 81.
[iv] “David Ramsay” as quoted in Princetonians 1748-1768: A Biographical Dictionary, ed. James McLachlan (Princeton: University Press, 1962), p. 518.
[v] Benjamin M. Palmer, National Responsibility Before God (New Orleans. 1861).5: as quoted in James W. Silver, Confederate Morale and Church Propaganda (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1964 [orig. 1957]), p.27.
[vi] Henry A. Nelson, The Divinely Prepared Ruler, and the Fit End of Treason (Springfield. IL, 1865), p. 32.
[vii] Quoted in Charles V. Hamilton, The Black Preacher in America (New York: William Morrow, 1972), pp.38-39.
[viii] Quoted in ibid.
[ix] The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. VII: 1863-1864, ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University press, 1953) p. 542.
[x] Herman Melville, “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” first published in New York Literary World, Aug. 17 & 24, 1850; taken here from The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. I, ed. Ronald Gottesman etal. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979), p. 2060.
[xi] Allene Stuart Phy, ed. The Bible and Popular Culture in America (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), p. vii.
Used by permission of The Haydn Foundation of the Cultural Arts.