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In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783
In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783
Mark A. Noll
Oxford University Press, 2015
448 pp., 29.95

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Peter J. Thuesen


"America's Book"

Mark Noll on the Bible in public life.

The first thing I do every morning, even before brewing the coffee, is to retrieve the New York Times and the Indianapolis Star from our front sidewalk. Whereas the front page of the Times comes emblazoned with a secular slogan, "All the News That's Fit to Print," the Star's front page carries a motto from 2 Corinthians 3:17: "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." Does the Star's biblical quotation signal a more conservative editorial stance? Perhaps, though as Mark Noll shows in his monumental new book, In the Beginning Was the Word, Americans have long appealed to the Bible as a kind of repository of republicanism (small "r"), a commonsense charter of liberties against the threat of aristocratic tyranny. The colonial minister Elisha Williams, for example, in his famous pamphlet The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants (1744), appealed to 2 Corinthians 3:17 as one of a number of "freedom" texts from the New Testament he regarded as support for his Lockean argument of unalienable rights and limited government.

In Noll's view, Williams exemplified Americans' persistent tendency to assume the Bible was on their side, despite the Scriptures' vastly different cultural origins. Williams' starting point was his own politics: he reasoned from Lockean principles to the Bible, not the other way around. His pamphlet foreshadowed what Noll calls the "Whig-biblical confluence" during the American Revolution, when clergy of many stripes, along with secular pamphleteer Tom Paine, appealed to Scripture to justify the Patriot cause. Ironically, the same Bible had been used earlier in the colonial era not to attack the British monarchy but to defend it as a bulwark against Catholic (especially French) tyranny.

All too often, histories of the Bible in America have uncritically glorified the American project.

The story told by Noll brims with such ironies and complexities. The first installment of a projected two-volume history of the Bible in American public life, In the Beginning Was the Word is the fruit of Noll's many years of deep reflection combined with his proven talent for synthesis. Anyone who knows Noll personally can attest to his uncanny bibliographical recall, and his command of the literature (both primary and secondary) is on dazzling display here. The result is a book that will remain definitive for a long time to come.

Though Noll writes as a believing historian who regards the Bible as divine revelation, he resists the urge to write a purely celebratory account of "America's Book." Instead, he writes a "cautionary tale" (his words) recognizing both the life-transforming power of Scripture for countless individuals and the "host of destructive or delusionary results manifest among those who believed in that power." Scripture, in other words, frequently served as an instrument of both personal redemption and imperial ambition.

We see this tension in Christopher Columbus, who, with what Noll calls an almost "Puritan ardor," kept a notebook of biblical prophecies he felt predicted his own manifest destiny in opening the New World for Christendom. As Noll rightly reminds us, it was Catholics such as Columbus who first brought the Bible to American shores, though soon enough, Protestant vernacular Bibles, and Protestant imperial ambitions, would eclipse the Catholic Vulgate in American public life.

Protestant biblicism, which necessarily dominates Noll's narrative, begins with Martin Luther's sola scriptura, an axiom Noll regards as inherently unstable because of the constant intrusion of other authorities, whether civil or ecclesiastical, on the authority of Scripture alone. Luther and the other magisterial reformers, in fact, still accepted a great deal of church tradition as a complement to biblical authority and were profoundly uncomfortable with the populist radicals who interpreted Scripture apart from established expertise.

Yet it was populist biblicism that ultimately became a hallmark of American culture, thanks to developments in Tudor and Stuart England that Noll narrates with subtle insight. The first, of course, was the translation of a vernacular English Bible by William Tyndale, though as Noll persuasively argues (building on the work of David Norton), the introduction of versified Bibles, beginning with the Geneva Bible (1560), was almost as momentous for the culture. "With enduring effect," Noll writes, "versification tilted instincts about Scripture away from the human and toward the divine. It made it much easier to assemble proof-texts from throughout the sacred volume that the assembler could present as authentic divine teaching." The Geneva Bible even began each verse on a separate line of print, a practice continued in the version that would become preeminent in American culture, the King James Bible (1611). Versification abetted, among others, the Westminster divines, whom Parliament directed in 1646 to append an apparatus of proof texts to their Confession of Faith. Noll regards this parliamentary directive as "proto-democratic" because it suggested that the empirical evidence of Scripture was open to examination and interpretation by anyone. But the treatment of the Bible as a "reservoir of fact," he contends, also came at the expense of older modes of reading, including the medieval vision of the Scriptures as a web of types.

Noll sees the Westminster Confession, with its extensive chapter on Holy Scripture (the first and longest of the document's sections) as the "lodestar" for many American biblicists, most notably the New England Puritans, who sought to build a "total society on the basis of biblical exegesis." This worked well as long as everyone reached similar exegetical conclusions. But when the biblicism of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson led them to challenge the establishment, the first cracks appeared in what Noll calls "formal" Christendom—the state-church paradigm that the Puritans inherited from Europe. Elsewhere in the colonies, William Penn drew similarly radical conclusions from Scripture, pushing him "beyond Christendom to something very close to a modern understanding of religious freedom."

While these dissident voices were heralds of the disestablishment eventually enacted by the Constitution, an "informal" Christendom survived in American culture long after the collapse of Puritanism and formal church establishment. Indeed, Noll shows that from as early as 1689 (when the Toleration Act in England granted legal protection to dissenting Protestants) and throughout the 18th century, the Bible was woven into British imperialist, and later American nationalist, ideologies. Whereas earlier Puritan jeremiads had invoked the biblical prophets to decry the laxity of citizens in the Bible commonwealth, 18th-century colonists enlisted biblical tropes such as Exodus to extoll the British monarch's triumph over "popery and slavery." Even the Great Awakening, which reinvigorated a populist biblicism that might have challenged imperialist violence, did not fundamentally question the political status quo. The "Grant Itinerant" George Whitefield spoke for many when he declared that the "British Arms were never more formidable than when our Soldiers went forth in the Strength of the Lord, and with a Bible in Hand, and a Sword in the other."

This alliance between biblicism and imperialism is part of what Noll perceptively dubs a "thinning" of the Bible's public presence in the 18th century. This did not necessarily entail fewer biblical citations, for as British imperialism morphed into Yankee patriotism, preachers drew more heavily on Scripture to justify war with the mother country. By "thinning," Noll means the tendency to use Scripture as rhetorical window dressing rather than as a genuine teaching authority that might actually upset prevailing assumptions. As Noll shows, it was rare for 18th-century Americans to discover in Scripture any fundamental challenges to the conventional acceptance of racial slavery, an untrammeled market economy, or Whig political ideology.

Of course, even as the Bible thinned in public life, it deepened in the lives of many individuals, especially those touched by the revivalism of the Awakening and its aftermath. Scripture was particularly empowering for persons on the margins, including women and African Americans. A striking instance is the freed slave Olaudah Equiano, whose autobiography is, in Noll's apt description, a "fusillade" of biblical quotations and allusions—more than a hundred different passages, by Noll's count. Yet although Equiano became an antislavery activist who helped push for the end of the slave trade in Britain, his Interesting Narrative (1789) does not mount a systematically biblical argument in favor of abolition. Near the end of the text, he briefly invokes Luke 2:14 ("on earth peace, good will toward men") in expressing the hope that Parliament would abolish the slave trade. But his Narrative, as Noll concludes, is overwhelmingly a story of personal redemption. As such, it typified the mostly apolitical uses of the Bible by other 18th-century evangelicals.

Thus Noll arrives at a paradox about the role of the Scriptures in colonial America: "The Bible functioned in this period as a powerful source of guidance for individuals and communities. It also functioned as a rich treasury of tropes, models, types, examples, and precepts in service to principles that did not arise from its pages." I would venture to elaborate on Noll's argument by saying that the paradox is embodied in 2 Corinthians 3:17 ("Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty"), which I quoted at the beginning of this review. Taken in isolation (which, as Noll shows, is the classically American way of deploying biblical verses), the passage admits of multiple uses, some of them far removed from the original context (the Apostle Paul's complex discussion of the "new covenant" foretold in Jeremiah 31:31-33). The verse allows for one kind of popular application if employed devotionally by individual Christians, who might well take it as a comforting promise of the liberty to be found in Christ. But if applied corporately, to a whole people or nation, then the question becomes: Whose liberty, and for what purpose? Once the passage takes on a political meaning, as it did long ago for Elisha Williams, the potential ethical problems begin to multiply. To quote Noll again on Americans' tendency to read their own agenda into Holy Writ:

[D]angerously mistaken interpretations 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.

In the end, it is precisely this capacity for self-criticism that distinguishes Noll's In the Beginning Was the Word as the most profound treatment ever written of the Bible in American public life. All too often, histories of the Bible in America have uncritically glorified the American project, stopping just short of assuming that Moses and Jesus were Americans whose teachings were everywhere in harmony with the nation's imperial ambitions. Noll exposes this delusion while also admitting the illusory nature of the sola scriptura that forms part of his own heritage as a Protestant.

Yet Noll's book is not all criticism. In its own nuanced way, it is a celebration of the richly fertile biblical world that colonial Americans inhabited. I have been unable to do justice in this review to the sheer volume of biblical allusions and citations that Noll uncovers in the legions of sources he examined. As he explains in the book's introduction, his referencing of so many passages of Scripture was a conscious decision—an answer to his colleagues in the historical profession who have treated the Bible as mere "wallpaper, simply a backdrop for more important objects of attention." To be sure, as Noll's own account makes clear, the Bible has sometimes functioned as little more than rhetorical wallpaper, a fancy covering designed to sanctify the nation's aims. But the Bible has also proven personally ennobling for countless citizens, even—and perhaps especially—after the republic threw off the system of inherited nobility and monarchy in the wake of the Revolution. Noll promises a second volume that will examine the "rise and gradual decline of a 'Bible civilization' in the United States in the long 19th century." After the intellectual feast Noll has already given us over the course of his career, including in his earlier magnum opus, America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (2002), we can only rejoice that the world does not yet "contain [all] the books that should be written" (John 21:25) by this uncommonly wise interpreter of the American religious experience.

Peter J. Thuesen is Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and author of Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine (Oxford Univ. Press, 2009). Currently, he is co-editing (with Philip Goff and Arthur E. Farnsley II) The Bible in American Life (forthcoming from Oxford).

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