In the Beginning Was the Word (Part 2)

Jonathan Den Hartog

With posts falling on June 6, I have tried to keep a World War II-theme--see here and here.

This month, though, I wanted to continue thinking about Mark Noll's In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783. Even after finishing my piece last month, I found there were still more points I wanted to make. So, with that in the background, let me jump right into additional observations about Noll's book:

First, I'd like to commend Noll's attention to and careful delineation of the intersection of the Bible and slavery in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Noll traces how the impact of the Scriptures actually "Deepened" through its Great-Awakening-inspired transmission to slaves throughout the Atlantic World. Noll contends this movement was particularly marked by its taking up and personalizing of the biblical text. Recognizing and building on other scholars such as Vincent Carretta and Jon Sensbach, Noll calls this development the formation of "The Biblical Black Atlantic" (211). Noll traces biblical themes both in well-known figures such as Phillis Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano and lesser known figures Jupiter Hammon, John Marrant, David George, and Quobna Cugoano. In these figures, Noll connects biblically-rooted language among Africans and African-Americans in the American colonies, Canada, the Caribbean, and Africa. Noll's recognizing this public usage of the Bible is important and expands our vision of the place of the Bible for all levels of society, in many different places, in the eighteenth century.

Next, it's worth noting several of the other interesting by-ways that Noll illuminates.

For example, Noll helpfully points out the significance of versification of the Bible. Although chapters had been marked previously, verse numbers were inserted for the first time in the Geneva Bible (1557) and then, with further significance, in the King James Bible. Noll sees versification as significantly democratic: individuals could now point to single points in the Scripture as reference, rather than draw broad allusions to extended passages. Any literate person could read or find a passage. At the same time, versification allowed for proof-texting and the assembling of, in an empirical fashion, texts scattered throughout the Bible. Thus the Scriptures could be enlisted into "engineering projects" (123) of systematization and programmatic endeavors. Even the verse markings themselves, then, created a certain flavor of biblicism in British North America.

Noll also reminded me that no English-language Bibles had been printed in the colonies. Royal monopolies had guaranteed that all Bibles had to be printed in England and then shipped to the colonies. Native American language Bibles could be printed, such as the Algonquian translation done by John Eliot, but English Bibles had to come from England. This observation helped make more sense of the Bible produced by Philadelphia printer Robert Aitken. It actually was a revolutionary act when Aitken published an "Authorized Version" in America in 1782. The significance of the Aitken Bible lay, then, not in that Congress endorsed it (though it did), but in the fact that it represented the new nation's ability to produce Bibles for a spiritually-hungry population.

Speaking of a hunger for the Word, I should point out the Noll intentionally makes extensive use of quotations. He highlights this strategy to show how deeply and widely writers used the Scriptures, both in direct quotations and successive allusions to the text (18-19). An extensive index of the Scriptural passages also allows for easy identification of passages--and demonstrates that almost every biblical book got cited at least once (I'm sure Noll could easily find additional references to Numbers, Esther, several Minor Prophets, and II Peter). The work thus demonstrates its biblical topic with overflowing examples.

After producing such extensive scholarship, Noll earns the right as a historian to make some moral judgments--judgments which he arrives at as conclusions, rather than as the jeremiad driving the book. On one hand, he commends those who took and applied Scripture to their own lives and conduct. Noll refuses to reduce their belief to something else.

At the same time, he remains wary of all the social applications he has been tracing. In a strong conclusion, Noll asserts:
I also believe that powerful traditions of Protestant biblical interpretation misled many colonists into thinking that Britain, or the colonies, enjoyed a special divine calling much more than casually analogous to the calling of biblical Israel. Further, dangerously mistaken interpretation of Scripture undercut the charity that the Bible enjoins toward foes, sanctioned murderous assaults on the sort of marginal people for which Scripture requires special consideration, justified a system of racial slavery with no biblical warrant, and short-circuited the capacity for self-criticism that Scripture everywhere demands of God's elect people. (330-331)
These judgments, delivered gracefully and after extensive historical exploration, should prompt readers to self-reflection and humility about their own conduct. They also deserve special attention by all Americans who would handle Scripture in the present.

Before leaving In the Beginning, I should point out that Noll  has circumscribed his coverage to "public life." The book, excellent as it is, does not cover everything about the Bible in early America. There's much more that could be said about the Bible in private life, the Bible in Church life, and the practices of Bible reading. So, scholars should keep on working on these subjects to build on what Noll has offered. Such investigations can take their course, not only from Harry Stout's classic New England Soul, but also from newer studies such as The Erosion of Biblical Certainty by Michael J. Lee, A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith by Lauren Winner, and the Brandeis dissertation "'Mighty in the Scriptures': The Bible in Colonial Massachusetts, 1630-1776" by Alexis Antracoli.

Finally, in both the explanatory notes and his conclusion, Noll points to a sequel in the works. How does a new republic, shaped by a certain type of biblicism and unmoored from christendom yet grow into a nation shaped by the Scriptures? This is a story which has been coming into focus, but I have no doubt Noll will bring much insight with this next book. We can eagerly look forward to it.


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