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 (n.d.) 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 burn 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 [book peddlar]. Shortly after 1800, Weems wrote from Virginia to his publisher in Philadelphia: “I tell you this is the very season and age of the Bible. Bible Dictionaries, Bible tales, Bible 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
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