In the Beginning Was the Word (Part 1)

Jonathan Den Hartog

I've appreciated the conversations around John Fea's The Bible Cause over the last month. Today, I wanted to turn our attention to another Bible-focused history that is also a 2016 product: Mark Noll's In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783. Although there has been some discussion of the book--as a Ben Franklin's World podcast, at the Cushwa Center at Notre Dame--I've been surprised there hasn't been more. (I'll let Commenters point me to other resources.) Noll's work is an impressive piece of scholarship that deserves to be digested into our thinking about religion in colonial and revolutionary America.

Rather than offer a full academic review of the book, I want to offer a more-impressionistic response to it. Much more can--and should!--be said about it. In fact, let me share some of my thoughts in this post, and I'll save the second half for next month.

Before jumping into the book itself, it's worthwhile contextualizing this work in Noll's larger body of scholarship and in the intellectual milieu in which he's working. As for the Noll "corpus," this is a big, scholarly book to be set next to his America's God. At the same time, I also saw important echoes about the place and uses of the Bible from his Civil War as a Theological Crisis book. As to theme, it hearkens back to much earlier work, such as his Bible in America project and bears echoes of his celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.

Further, the book helpfully takes advantage of the types of intellectual exchanges provided by his position at the University of Notre Dame. One way of the book could be read would be as a (very) extended response to Brad Gregory's Unintended Reformation. Whereas Gregory interpreted subsequent developments in modernity from a Catholic perspective, Noll demonstrates the internal, Protestant logic that shaped the debates over the place of the Bible in society. In so doing, he demonstrates that choices were made, and that these choices differed for various groups.

On a related point, Noll develops the significance of transatlantic connections in the colonial period. Here, too, Noll has benefited from exchanges with British and Atlantic historians at Notre Dame and elsewhere. The first 100 pages begin with the European Reformation and then zero in on the English Reformation. Noll takes this time to explain the significant English background which shaped how colonial Americans read the Bible. At the same time, the deep description of English religious culture allows for Noll to provide on-going comparative work of two English-speaking Protestant groups whose use and understanding of the Bible came to diverge in significant ways.

In developing these comparisons, two significant concepts structure Noll's story: biblicism and christendom. By biblicism, Noll means not simply Protestant appeal to Scripture as the final or ultimate authority (a shared idea for Protestant sola scriptura), but as the sole authority. Here, Noll is canny enough to note that appeals to biblicism in this way often import extrabiblical authorities surreptitiously. The other concept is christendom, a formal linking of Christianity with the structures of society and the assumption that almost all members of that society are related back to the church. The place of the Bible in public life in America was tied up with the question of whether that would be through a vision of christendom.

Simply put, Noll sees through the colonial period in America a dramatic rise in biblicism, and that biblicism in the American context turned against the ideal of christendom. By contrast, the shock of the English Civil War shattered biblicism in England, although the country managed to sustain a vision of christendom.

To expand on that idea--although still to simplify Noll's deft and nuanced narrative argument--the book walks through significant moments in American colonial history that related to the place of the Bible in public life.
Thus, Noll reads the New England Puritans as bringing a version of biblicism to the continent, while maintaining a vision of christendom in their "Bible commonwealth." However, they soon ran into challengers who saw the Bible cutting against christendom. This category would include not only Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, but William Penn's "holy experiment" of religious liberty in Pennsylvania. Next, Noll demonstrates how, as the eighteenth century progressed, the colonies were tied into a specific vision of christendom--the Protestant British empire--especially through the imperial wars that rocked the colonies. The Great Awakening expanded the place of the Bible in society while energizing the biblicist orientation, pushing it in a democratic direction, and further challenging the ideals of christendom in the colonies. The eighteenth century witnessed additional cross-currents, as it deepened in its outreach and reception by slaves in the American colonies and throughout the Atlantic World. Simultaneously, in the colonies, it broadened its appeal while becoming thinner in the areas it treated or absorbed into other discourses.

With this background, I was particularly interested in what Noll had to say about the Bible in the American Revolution. I wondered if he would push beyond what he had claimed in America's God or add to our understanding as laid out by James Byrd in Sacred Scripture, Sacred War.  I have to say I was very impressed with the way Noll laid out his treatment across two chapters in a way that I think significantly moves our understanding forward.

Noll's significant contribution is to be able to step back from all of the documentation of the Bible in Revolutionary debates--and it was massive--to be able to systematize the scholarship and make sense of the welter of biblical uses. Some uses are simply rhetorical flourishes, biblical language as artistic embroidery for a political point. On a much stronger level, many Revolutionaries drew parallels between the cause of the colonies and ancient Israel. Noll thus demonstrates how "Hebraic" political thought could make in-roads into a biblicist America. Still others made sustained arguments through biblical exposition for one side or another.

Noll demonstrates extremely wide-ranging knowledge of the sources from the Revolution, but he also offers incisive close readings of important sermons and Biblical exchanges. I especially appreciated Noll's attention to a sermon by David Griffith, a patriot Anglican in Virginia, a sermon which comes as close as possible to earning Noll's approval of its biblical usage. Noll is also extremely perceptive on the debate between Tom Paine in Common Sense and the biblical rejoinders offered by loyalists. By tracking their arguments minutely, Noll demonstrates multiple interpretive strategies that were being used in the colonies.

Because of the revolutionary separation, Noll sees the American colonies as stripped out of the British version of christendom. Left to their own devices, Americans possessed only a biblicism which could be deployed in an extremely democratic manner. This arrangement set up the 19th century developments of a biblicist America.

So, I am very grateful for these chapters and hope they earn wide consideration.

The book also sparked a number of other ideas for me, but perhaps it will be best to hold them in abeyance until next month.


I had an engaging podcast conversation with Mark Noll for New Books in American Studies. The hour long podcast can be found here

I periodically host podcasts on American religion. A complete list can found on my website
Jonathan said…
Thanks for the link, Lilian!

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