Bibles and Tracts in Print Culture in America
Summary and Keywords
Since the first printing presses were established in Britain’s North American colonies, print was a ubiquitous feature of American religion. Print was a powerful means of communicating religious ideas, both to the faithful and to people whom religious groups wished to persuade. One common form of religious communication was the pamphlet or, by the 19th century, the tract. These tracts were a way of catechizing people who were already a member of different denominational groups, and tracts provided them with inexpensive collections of religious reading material, such as hymns or psalms. Tracts become a primary feature of evangelism in the United States, as did Bible distribution. In the 19th century the American Tract Society and the American Bible Society managed to exert a long reach into the interior of the United States, with distribution channels that were more far flung than those of any other institution except perhaps the postal service.
Print also functioned as a means of creating institutional loyalties. The American Tract Society created a network of tract distribution and funding which linked together large numbers of affiliate societies. While the American Bible Society preferred a different organizational structure, it brought together a wide array of denominations to make common cause for Bible distribution. In the 20th century, trans-denominational periodical publishers managed to unite various wings of Protestantism, as periodicals staked out positions in debates between fundamentalists and modernists, or later between evangelicals and liberal or mainline denominations. Yet smaller publications also functioned to establish denominational loyalties.
The Bible was by far the most important printed text in American Christianity. One of the earliest imprints in North America was a translation of the Bible into the Algonquian language, and later missionary groups sometimes made it a priority to translate the Bible into Indian languages. Printing of the English Bible proliferated for a number of reasons. One was the repeated efforts of the American Bible Society to supply the United States with a Bible for every household. Another was the development of various editions of the Bible, containing different qualities of paper and typography, or distinguishing themselves by the purpose of the text, such as study Bibles rich in notes, maps, and other explanatory features. A third reason was the proliferation of Bible translations, beginning with the late-19th-century Revised Version. These Bible versions were aimed at improving the scholarly reliability of the text, but they were matters of intense interest and debate among Christians more generally. Bible translations came to be a key marker of group identity and a contested source of religious authority, even as they were sponsored by trans-denominational groups like the National Association of Evangelicals or the National Council of Churches.
In short, print culture was a primary means of establishing group loyalty, for various Protestant groups as well as for Jews and Catholics, yet it also represented a key attempt at Christian unity and ecumenism. Print culture was both a proxy for many other ways of being religious and a powerful religious force in its own right.
The history of print culture and religion in the United States can be told through several of the most important of kinds of print publication that religious groups and individuals used. Polemical and catechetical religious works, but also the Bible translated for missions work, were commonly issued from colonial presses. The early 19th century saw the rise of two major religious institutions, each with its own characteristic form of religious literature. The American Tract Society and similar publishers raised the brief religious pamphlet, or tract, to prominence for communicating and distributing religious ideas, both as a means of catechesis and evangelism. The religious tract, originally borrowed from England, became a defining feature of American evangelical Protestantism, and a form widely imitated even by secularists. The American Bible Society developed an institutional form and used technologies of print, binding, and distribution to publish inexpensive Bibles that could be given away or sold at cost. At the same time, the publication of the Bible in varied editions created a market for the Bible not just as a religious text but as a material object and an object of devotion. This devotion to Bible reading was encouraged by other forms of print, such as tracts which enjoined families to read the Bible together and religious periodicals which offered reading schedules and newspaper Bible clubs. Religious periodicals proliferated, and subscriptions to and support of certain periodicals were a key marker of theological and ecclesiastical identity. Above all, the possibility of creating new translations of the Bible into English, prompted by the translation of the British Revised Version, followed by the American Standard Version, led to a proliferation of English Bible versions. American religious history can thus in large part be told through print, in part because historians often rely on printed sources, but primarily because print was the medium through which much religious activity was expressed.
Colonial Religious Printing
Even before there was a printing press in Britain’s North American colonies, religious dissenters in the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies made widespread use of print. These Puritan ministers participated in a longstanding transatlantic debate within Puritanism and against its theological and ecclesiastical opponents. There was also the work of governance to do, including apologias for New England’s Congregational system and its form of civil government.1 At the same time, ministers were eager in their work of training up a new generation that would be faithful to the Bible, Reformed principles, and the Congregational Way. Accordingly ministers published works on a variety of religious topics, which were printed in England for a dual audience both in the metropole and in the colonies. The publication history of the highly influential minister John Cotton, pastor in Boston, is illustrative. He published a catechism for children, titled Milk for Babes, Drawn out of the Breasts of Both Testaments in its 1646 London edition and Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes in Either England in its 1656 Boston edition. This work, which had a long publication history into the 19th century, including as part of the New England Primer, was perhaps his most widely printed. As a pastor, he also published numerous sermons and commentaries on the Scripture for the sake of his flock in Boston and his readership in England.2 Cotton was also the leading apologist for the New England Congregational way against both the established episcopal Church of England and reformers who preferred a Presbyterian form of church government. His work The Way of Congregational Churches Cleared, published in London in 1648, defended the New England Congregationalists on both fronts. When Roger Williams’s views on liberty of conscience and the treatment of Native Americans ran afoul of the views of Massachusetts Bay Colony, he wrote The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience, published in 1644. John Cotton drafted the colony’s response in the form of his 1647 book The Bloudy Tenent, Washed and Made White in the Bloud of the Lambe, to which Williams offered a 1652 response in The Bloody Tenent Yet More Bloody: By Mr Cottons Endevour to Wash It White in the Blood of the Lambe. All of the works in this memorably titled exchange were published in London, demonstrating the importance of transatlantic print networks as the battleground for theological and political debates in the colonies. Cotton’s range of publications, from sermons and catechesis to theological and political polemics, shows the possibilities and importance of printing to the establishment of New England Puritanism.
Important and large works continued to be printed in London or elsewhere in England for much of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Cotton Mather’s lengthy Magnalia Christi Americana was published in London in 1702, and would not be published in North America until 1820. His even more massive Biblia Americana (written 1693 to 1728) never found a British publisher and could not be printed in the colonies, and so went unpublished.3 But the first printing press in the British colonies was set up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1638, and there was a competing press in the same city by 1659. One of the very first works off the first press was The Whole Booke of Psalmes, Faithfully Translated into English Metre, better known as the Bay Psalm Book (1640). This was the first portion of the Scriptures published in North America. The metrical translations of the Psalms into rhyme were a part of the worship of the Bay Colony, keying off of the injunction to use “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” in the epistles of Paul.
A much larger and more ambitious Bible was printed in Cambridge in 1663. Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God was a complete translation of the Bible into the Massachusett language (in the Algonquian family of languages) spoken by the Native Americans of much of the region of the Massachusetts Bay colony. The translation was the work of John Eliot, the teaching elder of the church in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and the missionary to the Indians. Eliot eventually gathered his converts into fourteen “praying towns” and supported his missionary efforts with a steady stream of print. In addition to his translated Bible, the first complete Bible in any language published in North America, Eliot published grammars, teaching documents, and several collections of Indian conversion relations. Eliot was thus the first person to publish a Bible, but also among the first to use print, especially Bible translations and the creation of grammars and dictionaries in the target language, as a means of conversion.
Eighteenth century printing in the colonies included a high proportion of religious items, such as tracts, catechisms, and religious instruction, even as the colonies remained a part of transatlantic, imperial print networks. The term “Great Awakening” does not have the favor it once did for describing the series of awakenings on both sides of the Anglophone Atlantic, since the coherence of those awakenings into a single event has been challenged. But whatever coherence the events did have was in large part because of the power of print. Revivalists like Gilbert Tennent created a stir with published sermons such as The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry (Philadelphia, 1740) even as pastors like Jonathan Edwards sought to defend the revivals and curb their excesses in Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New-England (Boston, 1742). Edwards also produced one of the “steady sellers” of the 18th and 19th centuries in his Account of the Life of the Late Rev. David Brainerd (Boston, 1749). The minister Thomas Prince created a periodical titled Christian History that sought to demonstrate that the revivals were the work of God’s Spirit. Just as did itinerant evangelists, print did much of the work in tying together revivals and revivalists in far-flung places, in Britain as well as in the colonies. The texts produced by the awakenings would have a long afterlife as the source material for the printing of 19th-century evangelical tracts.4
The American Tract Society and American Bible Society
The first society that distributed religious publications in the newly formed United States to any significant degree was the Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Indians and Others in North America. Organized in Boston immediately after the American Revolution, it patterned itself on an English model, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG). The American society sold religious books that it bought from other publishers and distributed for the encouragement of religion.5 British Christians, especially evangelical Anglicans, had worked through the SPG and the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge since the 18th century, and in the early 19th century they founded the Religious Tract Society of London (1799) and the British and Foreign Bible Society (1804) to distribute Bibles and tracts (small religious pamphlets). These British institutions were directed both at home missions on the British Isles and toward missions in Britain’s far-flung colonies.
Christians in the United States, politically separated by the Revolution but still tied closely to British Christians by language, trade, and the shared experiences of the 18th-century awakenings, quickly followed suit in establishing religious societies for benevolent purposes. These religious societies were often beneficiaries of the developing legal form of the corporation, whose use greatly expanded after the Revolutionary period.6 They were also part of a much broader benevolence movement that sought such varied goals as religious conversion and instruction, the reform of prisons, the abolition of slavery, and the prohibition of drink and lotteries.7
Another of these early American societies was the New-England Tract Society, founded in 1814 in Andover, Massachusetts, on the model of the British Religious Tract Society. This society created repositories where it stored tracts for distribution, and it also relied on local auxiliaries in order to purchase the tracts from those repositories and distribute them for free to likely subjects for religious conversion or education. Both of these techniques were important developments in the model of how a society invested in religious print should operate.8 The real significance of the New-England Tract Society, however, was that it was rolled together along with the New York Religious Tract Society (founded 1812) into the American Tract Society.9
In 1825 the American Tract Society (ATS) was incorporated and headquartered in New York. The society was bankrolled by wealthy Christians such as Arthur Tappan, and boasted a board of political and religious luminaries. The society was non-denominational, gathering support from Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, and the Dutch Reformed denomination. Recognizing that broad base of support, the ATS endeavored to publish only tracts that had a broad appeal to Christians of every denomination—or at any rate, of evangelical-leaning Protestant denominations. (Occasionally it even inserted irenic notes into tracts that touched on disputed issues such as the meaning of the Lord’s Supper.) The ATS also published its Annual Report and the American Tract Magazine, both distributed to the members of its auxiliaries.10
What animated the ATS was a conviction that tracts—brief religious pamphlets containing a pointed gospel message, usually with a striking engraving on the cover—could bring about religious conversion and education. The ATS had several audiences that it sought to serve. The most readily available audience was people who were already Christian, especially those who joined the ATS’s affiliate societies. For them the ATS produced tracts that were instructions in Christian living, that printed collections of the Psalms or of hymns in an inexpensive format, and that encouraged Bible reading (especially Bible reading by the father of a family to his wife and children in pursuit of a Christian home). There were many tracts on the education and eventual conversion of children, aimed either at the parents or at the children themselves. ATS tracts dealt with moral questions such as men’s alcoholism and the resulting abuse of wives and children. And there were also lengthy tracts expounding aspects of Christian doctrine. One of the chief aims of the ATS was the education of children and the edification of believers.11
But the ATS conceived of itself as fulfilling a far more difficult mission. Its aim was to evangelize the United States and win conversions from the vast numbers of unchurched citizens of the nation, whether they were city dwellers or lived far from urban centers on the frontier. And so many of its tracts emphasized the need for conversion and heart religion. These tracts often told stories and increasingly sought to bring the reader to the point of conversion while reading the tract. The theological opponents that stood in the way of the ATS’s mission to convert people were Universalists (who denied the final judgment, or at least thought that everyone would be saved from it) and atheists or infidels (who had a real presence in the early 19th-century United States, but whose influence wasblown out of proportion by the fervid imagination of the ATS writers). Many of the tracts told breathless stories of Universalists or infidels who died and faced judgement. As one of the tracts put it in its title, the question of salvation was Now or Never. Just as self-reflexive as any other medium, the more evangelistic tracts often featured tracts themselves doing the work of conversion. Some editions of The Swearer’s Prayer (one of the ATS’s most popular tracts) featured an engraving of a man handing another person a copy of that same tract. The ATS annual reports were full of stories of people who converted after receiving a tract.
These tracts were hardly original to the ATS. The ATS did commission new tracts, and over time it got better at publishing short, punchy tracts with a call to action. But developing a list of publications was difficult, and the ATS from the beginning depended on reprinting existing works. One of the primary sources for the ATS was the tracts already published by the London Tract Society. If a tract was a sure seller on the other side of the Atlantic, then the ATS was certain to import it. Some of the ATS’s most popular tracts, such as The Swearer’s Prayer and The Dairyman’s Daughter, had their origins in England. The other dependable source of tracts was longer theological works, which the ATS excerpted. In the first several decades of the ATS’s work, the author it published most was Philip Doddridge, an 18th-century English nonconformist minister, whose book The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul was the source of many tracts and which was a steady seller in its own right. Likewise Hannah Moore (an English evangelical writer on moral subjects), Isaac Watts (an English hymnodist), Archibald Alexander (a Presbyterian theologian and professor at the Princeton Theological Seminary), Richard Baxter (17th-century English author of The Saints’ Everlasting Rest), and Jonathan Edwards (a 17th-century New England pastor) were frequently excerpted writers. The result was that the ATS offered its readers the classics of the tradition of Anglophone “heart religion” in a much abbreviated form which subtly modified the message of those works towards instantaneous, urgent conversions.
The ATS thus created the model for the conversionary tract, which would become enormously influential in American evangelicalism. For American evangelicals, the simplified form of conversion demanded by religious tracts both expressed and shaped their notion of what religious faith and salvation meant. The genre of the tract received its best-known expression in Bill Bright’s 1965 Four Spiritual Laws. The tract’s simple form, accessible style, and direct invitation to pray and receive Jesus as savior clearly have their origins in the tracts published by the ATS.12
The ATS had an unrivaled means of distributing its tracts via colporteurs, or traveling salesman. These colporteurs were usually seminary students hired for the summer. They traveled long distances to scattered settlements in the West and South, visiting families door by door. Colporteurs generally offered to sell families books and tracts, and when they found buyers would sell them tracts aimed for Christian education. But of course potential converts were not usually convinced of their need to be converted, at least not when money was on the line. So colporteurs also gave away tracts and sometimes books in the hope of winning converts.13 Colportage was important as a means of distribution not just for the ATS. Later institutions borrowed the model. Most notably, Dwight Lyman Moody, the Chicago-based evangelist, founded the Bible Institute Colportage Association in 1894, which later became the influential evangelical publisher Moody Press.
The other major institution that paralleled the American Tract Society was the American Bible Society (ABS). Like the ATS, the ABS had its origin in smaller, more localized Bible societies. The most significant of those smaller societies was the Bible Society of Philadelphia (founded 1808). In 1812, that society was first in the United States to use stereotype printing to publish a Bible. In stereotype printing, a metal plate is cast from a mold made of moveable type that has been set. The advantage is that future editions or print runs can reuse those plates without the printer having to laboriously reset the type. The economies of scale that this promised were especially important for texts like tracts and Bibles that were frequently reprinted in large quantities. The first stereotyped Bible was printed from plates imported from Britain, but by 1815 stereotype plates were being created in the United States.14
The American Bible Society was founded in 1816 on the model of the British and Foreign Bible Society. It aim was to spread the Bible “without note or comment” throughout the United States. The ABS believed in the power of God’s Word, read only with the interpreting aid of the Holy Spirit, to renew lives. Like the ATS, it was a trans-denominational institution supported by Christians who had faith in the Bible as a means of uniting them. The ABS quickly gained efficiencies of scale in the production and distribution of its Bibles. It bought stereotype plates from England and learned to manufacture them itself. Its Bible House headquarters at Astor Place on Broadway in New York, built in 1852–1853, was home to a massive stereotype foundry, printing presses (steam-powered, eventually), and binding operation which produced tens of millions of Bibles.15
Those economies of scale were essential to the ABS, because it had an impossible aim: to distribute a copy of the Bible to every household in the United States. The ABS attempted such a “general supply” of Bibles not once, but four times before the end of the 19th century. The First General Supply formally began in May 1829, and aimed to supply 800,000 Bibles over the next two years. Those Bibles, printed on state-of-the-art Treadwell presses, were funneled through ABS agents and auxiliaries. The ABS did not succeed in reaching every household in every state, though it did succeed or come reasonably close in at least twelve states. Still, the ABS (like the ATS) managed to reach more people directly than virtually any other institution of its time. The ABS did not, however, include slaves in its General Supply, because it tried to preserve its trans-denominational unity by leaving such controversial decisions to local auxiliaries. The Second General Supply was mostly unsuccessful because it began immediately before the Civil War, and the Third General Supply (1867–1869) aimed to heal the wounds of the Civil War by including the freed people at least partially in its aims. The Fourth General Supply (1882–1890) aimed to integrate immigrants into the United States by providing them with a Bible. The ABS’s aims were not simply Christian in purpose, but also intended to strengthen the civil society of the United States.16 But the ABS, founded on a British model and closely connected to American nationalism, eventually became a worldwide distributor of the Bible. By the middle of the 19th century, the ABS had begun sending Bibles to missionaries and other Bible societies throughout the world, an effort that it continued through the 20th century.17
The ABS and ATS depended on several different kinds of revenue, such as donations and dues from members or auxiliary members, to do their work of distributing religious print. The auxiliary societies of the ATS were key to its work, and they were the primary means besides colporteurs of distributing tracts, especially in cities. The ABS also had auxiliaries, though it found it easier to work through agents directly responsible to the main organization. But these auxiliaries played an important role in both institutions by bringing together Protestants across denominational lines. Where the ABS or ATS were wholesalers, they were retailers, and took some of the risk of distribution on themselves. At times they distributed more Bibles or tracts than they could pay for, and were a drain on central finances.18
Besides relying on its auxiliaries, the ABS and ATS also gradually came to sell Bibles and tracts. The ABS sold Bibles, as well as other Christian books, in addition to giving them away. The ATS followed a similar pattern of selling tracts to Christians. The idea was simple: profit from Christians who bought Bibles or tracts was used to subsidize the costs of printing and distributing Bibles and tracts to non-Christians. Both organizations were thus not completely dependent on donations or their auxiliaries. These organizations also sold tracts and Bibles directly to the consumer, though more commonly they had to give away their goods to potential customers who were unaware of the power of Protestant print to save their souls.19
The ABS and ATS were important institutions because they were large publishers with a long reach, because they were at the forefront of corporate organization and raising capital for religious causes, and because they were sophisticated users of printing technology. They defined Protestant print culture, and with it much of the expression of Protestant piety centered on the Bible and conversion. Yet the ABS and ATS were only the largest of a host of similar institutions. One related institution was the American Sunday School Union (founded 1824), which became a large-scale publisher of material for children, including Sunday school lessons and tracts targeted specifically at children.20 And for every trans-denominational publisher, there were dozens of denominational publishers, sometimes because denominations refused to cooperate with the more ecumenical organizations, or sometimes because the denominations needed denominationally-specific tracts for catechesis or evangelism. The Protestant Episcopal Tract Society, the Baptist General Tract Society, the Universalist Tract Society, and the Methodist Book Concern were just some of the institutions that worked alongside or against the ABS and ATS to make Bibles and tracts common expressions of religious faith and practice.
Protestants had good claim to the Bible as a unifying text so long as there was a generally recognized standard for the English Bible. There were, of course, vastly different interpretations of the Bible. American Protestantism had a strong primitivist strain, manifested in its more extreme forms in the Disciples of Christ and other restorationist movements which sought the Bible alone free of any creed, but present in a potent if less extreme form a many American Protestant groups. The primitivist idea was that denominational differences would fall away if human accretions to the text such as creeds and commentaries were removed and the Bible was allowed to speak for itself. (Compare the practice of the American Bible Society of publishing Bibles “without note or comment.”) In practice, of course, reading the Bible without any interpretative guidelines led to more confusion, not less, and to increased proliferation of religious sects rather than Christian unity. But the Bible as a unifying symbol was a powerful motivating ideal for Protestants.21
The Bible could seem like such a solid, unchanging symbol because American Protestants generally agreed on the King James Version as the only viable English translation. That had not always been the case. The King James Version was only the last in a long line of English translations prepared during the Reformation, some authorized by governmental or ecclesiastical authority in England, such as the Great Bible (1539) and Bishop’s Bible (1568), and some decidedly unauthorized, such as the Geneva Bible (1560). The Geneva Bible was generally the favored text among Puritans who migrated to North America (and for that matter, among many Anglicans who remained in England), who liked its marginal notations. King James I was suspicious of the republican and anti-monarchical leanings of some of those same marginal notations. His Authorized Version of 1611, more commonly known as the King James Version (KJV), was an attempt at shoring up his monarchical power and reconciling the religious differences among his subjects. The King James Version gradually became the standard Bible of Anglophone Protestantism, especially in the 1769 edition edited by Benjamin Blayney, which standardized the orthography and some minor variation in word choices among earlier editions of the KJV.
The King James Version became firmly entrenched in American religious life, whether in Bibles imported from England or, by the beginning of the 19th century, in Bibles printed in the country. Yet the KJV’s authority was not unchallenged. Most obviously, Catholics refused to have anything to do with the Protestant translation. When they used an English Bible instead of the official Latin Vulgate, they preferred their own Douay-Rheims Bible (New Testament 1582, Old Testament 1609–1610). This version was highly Latinate, with Roman Catholic terms embedded in the text. For example, where the KJV reported Jesus as saying, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance,” the Douay-Rheims version reported him as saying, “I came not to call the just, but sinners to penance” (Luke 5:32). The Douay-Rheims version of course included the deuterocanonical or apocryphal books, but then so too did most Protestant versions of the KJV through the 18th century. There were scattered attempts at new Catholic translations, such as the version published by Francis Patrick Kenrick, Archbishop of Philadelphia and then Baltimore. But Catholics would not receive a new, ecclesiastically authorized translation of the Bible into English until the 1960s, when the Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version (1965), the Jerusalem Bible (1966), and the New American Bible (1970) were all published. This flurry of new Catholic translations was made possible by Pope Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Divino Afflanta Spiritu, which encouraged translation of the Bible from the Greek and Hebrew originals rather than the Latin Vulgate, and the document Dei Verbum (“Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation”), promulgated by the Second Vatican Council in 1965.
Various Protestant denominations offered their own versions of the Bible in English. One noteworthy example was the Bible published by Alexander Campbell. Campbell was a restorationist who believed in the Bible alone, and further believed that the King James Version had been corrupted by churchmen. He took a pastiche of translations by various Scottish biblical scholars, made his own idiosyncratic renderings from the Greek text of the New Testament, and published the result as The Sacred Writings of the Apostles and Evangelists of Jesus Christ, Commonly Styled the New Testament, Translated from the Original Greek, by George Campbell, James Macknight, and Philip Doddridge, Doctors of the Church of Scotland (Buffaloe, Virginia, 1826).
A related restorationist movement was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, led by the prophet Joseph Smith. Smith’s claim to authority, besides his direct prophetic revelations, was his discovery of golden plates recording the history of an ancient biblical civilization. Smith translated the golden plates with the aid of the “Urim and Thummim,” or seer stone, and published the result as The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi (Palmyra, New York, 1830). Smith claimed that the golden plates were written in a language called Reformed Egyptian. When he discovered some Egyptian papyri in the United States that were part of a mummy exhibition, he purchased them and published the translation as The Book of Abraham (1842, canonized 1880).
In addition to his role as prophet and translator, Smith also undertook to revise the King James Version, claiming like Campbell that the text had been corrupted. Smith added numerous interpretative glosses, changed texts that did not suit his notion of God (such as texts where God repents), and made various other changes and updates. Smith never finished his task of updating the English Bible before he was murdered. His text is used but not entirely canonized by the main branch of the LDS church today, while other Mormon groups have canonized the complete text.22
Those alternatives to the King James Version did not seriously challenge its preeminence among most Protestants. That challenge did not come until the Church of England began the process of revising the KJV in 1870. Several factors convinced scholars and churchmen that the English Bible was in need of revision. One was that the language of the King James Version, while formative for English style, was considered increasingly archaic. More important, biblical scholarship had changed the basis of any English translation. “Lower criticism,” especially as practiced in Germany but also in England and at other European universities, had created new critical texts of the Greek New Testament which substantially revised the Majority Text that had been the basis of English Bibles. The British scholars F. J. A. Hort and Brooke Foss Westcott, for example, compiled a Greek New Testament on the basis of newly discovered manuscripts and new techniques of textual criticism. It was felt that a new translation of the Bible on the basis of this scholarship would get closer to the original meaning of the text while simultaneously being more accessible for being cast in more modern language. The Revised Version was translated by a committee that included sixty-seven British Protestant scholars and churchmen as well as an American contingent of thirty-four academics led by Philip Schaff. The committee’s work was intended as a model of Christian unity centered on its most sacred text.23
The Revised Version of the New Testament was published in 1881, and the Old Testament in 1885. A version that followed the slightly different preferences of the American committee was published in 1901 as the American Standard Version. The Revised Version sold in large quantities, and was even reprinted in full or in large part in special editions of newspapers. But critics charged that the translators had substituted woodenly literal translations for the beautiful language of the KJV. At stake was a central issue in translation: should translations be “formally equivalent,” meaning that they used similar wording and perhaps even similar idioms in order to capture the exact meaning and structure of the original, or should they be “dynamically equivalent,” meaning that the use of language in the translation could be rather free in order to capture more accurately the meaning in the text? Perhaps more important than that debate was the fact that the Revised Version changed longstanding language, including the wording of key texts of worship such as the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms, which some American Christians felt as an attack on the practice of their faith.24
The next major Protestant revision of the Bible was the Revised Standard Version, published in 1946 for the New Testament and 1952 for the Old Testament. The RSV took up the challenge of translating the Bible on the basis of the most recent knowledge of the Greek and Hebrew texts and updating the language into even more modern English than the Revised Version had done, while retaining the feel of the KJV whenever possible.25 The RSV raised controversy over its translation of Isaiah 7:14. Where the KJV had “a virgin shall conceive,” the RSV translated “a young woman shall conceive.” The underlying Hebrew word clearly meant “young woman,” but the quotations of the Isaiah passage in the Gospels used the Septuagint, an Ancient Greek translation, which used a Greek word that did mean virgin. Centuries of English Bible translations—not to mention the ancient Christian doctrine of the Virgin Birth defined in the Nicene Creed—had linked the two texts together with the same translation. The RSV privileged the historical-critical translation of individual texts over the broader interpretative community and connections between passages. Scholarship won out over worship and faith, critics charged, and they roundly condemned the translation as a work of “modernism.”26
Thereafter, the translation of the Bible would become a matter of division between conservative and liberal Christians. The National Council of Churches, a mainline group, had sponsored the RSV. More conservative Protestants aligned with the National Association of Evangelicals came to favor their own translations. The New International Version (New Testament 1973, Old Testament 1978) tended more toward the dynamic equivalence end of the spectrum and had much more vernacular language than the KJV or RSV, yet it was approved by evangelicals because of its theological conservatism. By that point, any effort to standardize on a single English text of the Bible was bound to fail, and in fact a flood of new translations catered to every possible preference in translation. Yet the central dynamic of “conservative” translations, such as the English Standard Version, versus “mainline” translations, such as the New Revised Standard Version, remains.27
This surface disagreement masks a broader similarity in how both liberal and conservative Protestants came to read the Scriptures. Liberals may accept the findings of the “higher criticism” begun in the 19th century, which discount, for example, the Pauline authorship of the pastoral epistles, or which set a late date for the prophetic book of Daniel. Conservatives may attempt to refute those claims on the basis of evidence and argumentation. But both sides are in effect conceding the legitimacy of the “grammatical-historical” approach to the Bible, treating the Bible as a book of proof and evidence, and discarding older Christian practices of reading the text.28
Bible translation was not solely the domain of Protestants and Catholics, of course. American Jews had begun translating the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) into English by the middle of the 19th century, spurred on by the need to educate Jews who knew little Hebrew and to inoculate them against persistent Christian proselytizing. Protestant Bibles generally contained notes or headings that pointed out Christian fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and translated the Hebrew text Christologically. The first Jewish translation of the Tanakh into English in America was published in 1853 by Isaac Leeser, a noted Jewish leader in Philadelphia and editor of the Jewish newspaper the Occident. He had earlier published a Hebrew-English Pentateuch in 1845. He translated directly and rather literally from the Hebrew, relying only on Jewish authorities rather than Christian commentators. His text became the standard Jewish version of the Bible until the beginning of the 20th century.29 After some negotiations between the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Oxford University Press (holders of the copyright to the Revised Version) to produce a Jewish edition of the Revised Version, leading Jewish biblical scholars elected to make their own new translation to be published by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS). The translation, led by Max L. Margolis, was in part dependent on the Revised Version but made many emendations to avoid Christological translations. The JPS published the Bible in 1917, and it was a source of great pride to American Jews to have a scholarly and readable translation in English. The JPS brought out a new translation of the Hebrew Bible in 1982, which, like its Protestant and Catholic counterparts after the 1960s, sought to modernize the Bible both in terms of language and in the underlying textual scholarship of the Hebrew original.30
The Bible as a Material Object
The Bible was not just as a text, but also a devotional object. Protestants of course argued that they did not sacralize objects such as icons, holy cards (another artifact of print culture), candles, and the like as Catholics did. But Protestants did place the Bible—not just the text, but the physical object—at the center of devotion in the home. Tracts repeatedly urged fathers to read the Bible to their families, and some tracts featured fathers who converted and repented specifically of the sin of failing to lead family devotions. The trope of the Bible as the center of household devotions even spread to Native American conversion relations. David Brown, brother of the well-known Cherokee convert Catherine Brown, was said to have converted his family by leading morning and evening devotions.31 There was a patriarchal element to this ideal of family devotion, but tracts also recognized that women were often (perhaps even usually) the spiritual leaders of households. Among depictions and photographs of Bible reading, intimate Bible reading by mothers to children was a close companion to images of patriarchal husbands and fathers reading the Bibles to their families.32
The Bible was available in many different editions from commercial publishers, in addition to the inexpensive or free versions from the American Bible Society (ABS). One historian estimates that between 1830 and 1860, some one thousand different editions of the English Bible were sold, though this number eventually declined to more manageable numbers as Bible production was centralized in a few bigger publishers. These many editions were not distinguished on the basis of the translation until the publication of the Revised Version. Publishers distinguished their edition of the Bibles from each other’s by adding material. Bibles were often used to record births and deaths, especially in an era when birth registration by the state was uncommon. Family Bibles were marked by title and by pages to record such details as births, deaths, weddings, baptisms, and confirmations.33 Study notes were another way of distinguishing one edition from another by purporting to open up the difficult text to readers through explanatory notes, cross references, appendices, and introductions to the biblical books. Pictorial Bibles contained illustrations of biblical events and places along with maps of the Bible lands. As printing technology improved, the number of illustrations expanded. The first of these American study Bibles was created in 1791, but shortly after the Civil War publishers like the Harper Brothers or A. J. Holman were creating far more expansive study Bibles or family Bibles.34 As versions of the Bible proliferated, editions of the Bible became a sign of membership in particular religious groups. Perhaps the best-known example is the Scofield Study Bible, first published by Oxford University Press in 1909. Created by the lawyer turned minister C. I. Scofield, the Scofield Study Bible offered notes that supported a dispensational premillennialist view of the Scriptures. The Scofield version became the dominant version used by premillennialists, a sign of a study Bible’s ability to constitute a group by creating a shared reading of the Scriptures.
Review of the Literature
Studies of the Bible and other religious print literature, such as tracts, newspapers, and books, have tended to emphasize four different themes. Some studies examine how readers made use of texts, whether personally and devotionally, in a liturgical context, or as commodities. The opposite approach has been to focus on the institutions that produced religious texts, such as tract and Bible societies or religious newspapers and book publishers. Scholars have also written studies that focus on an individual text, most often the Bible but also specific bestsellers. More recently, scholars have become interested in texts as part of the material culture of religion. These approaches are not mutually exclusive, and historians have often combined them within the same work.
In particular, studies of how readers used texts and how institutions made use of them have often been productively combined. Candy Gunther Brown’s The Word in the World is a comprehensive study of many aspects of religious texts over the 19th century, including comparisons of texts as produced by institutions and used by readers.35 David Paul Nord’s Faith in Reading likewise has chapters on comparing “How Readers Should Read” and “How Readers Did Read.” Nord’s book is especially strong on the institutional and commercial development of the religious press, a theme also taken up in one of his essays.36 Another study of the commercial aspects of religious publishing is Peter Wosh’s Spreading the Word.37 A number of scholars have traced the histories of individual “steady sellers,” including Joseph Conforti’s history of Jonathan Edwards’s Life of David Brainerd and Kyle Roberts’s study of The Dairyman’s Daughter.38
Scholars have also studied specific religious publishers. John Fea’s history of the American Bible Society, The Bible Cause, is a comprehensive study of a global publishing and benevolence institution.39 A number of works focus on how institutions shape specific religious traditions, including Jonathan Sarna’s history of the Jewish Publication Society,40 Elesha Coffman’s study of the mainline Protestant religious periodical the Christian Century,41 and Matthew Hedstrom’s history of liberal Protestant book culture.42 These studies are also noteworthy for examining the history of print culture and religious traditions outside of evangelicalism, which has been the group most commonly studied in connection to print.
The most examined printed text in American religious history has been the Bible. Mark Noll and Nathan Hatch edited a collection of essays on that topic titled The Bible in America, which has been widely influential in encouraging later studies.43 Perhaps the most wide-ranging study of the Bible as a text (and commodity) is Paul Gutjahr’s An American Bible.44 Other scholars have focused on the Bible in particular communities, such as David Harrington Watt’s study of the Bible among conservative Protestants45 and Monica Mercado’s work on the Bible and Catholic women.46 The study of the Bible proceeds apace, including a particularly rich recently published collection of essays titled The Bible in American Life47 and an in-progress series of books on the Bible in public life by Mark Noll, the first of which was published as In the Beginning Was the Word.48
New versions of the Bible have frequently engendered debate and been used as a means of forming group identities. Peter Thuesen’s In Discordance with the Scriptures offers an account of the development of and debates over new translations of the Bible among American Christians. Jonathan Sarna and Nahum Sarna have offered their own history of Jewish translations of the Bible.49 An essay by Stephen Stein shows how Americans have created their own scriptures and scriptural traditions,50 while Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp has collected non-biblical texts treated as scriptural by various groups.51
Finally, scholars are giving new attention to the material aspects of the Bible. Sonia Hazard has offered an overview of this turn in religious history.52 A chapter of Colleen McDannell’s Material Christianity focuses on Bibles as devotional and print objects in Victorian homes.53
Brown, Candy Gunther. The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789–1880. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.Find this resource:
Coffman, Elesha J. The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:
Conforti, Joseph. “Jonathan Edward’s Most Popular Work: ‘The Life of David Brainerd’ and Nineteenth-Century Evangelical Culture.” Church History 54.2 (June 1985): 188–201.Find this resource:
Fea, John. The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:
Goff, Philip, Arthur E. Farnsley II, and Peter J. Thuesen, eds. The Bible in American Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.Find this resource:
Gutjahr, Paul C. An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777–1880. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.Find this resource:
Hall, David D., ed. A History of the Book in America. 5 vols. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000–2010.Find this resource:
Hatch, Nathan O., and Mark A. Noll, eds. The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.Find this resource:
Hedstrom, Matthew. The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.Find this resource:
McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.Find this resource:
Mercado, Monica L. “‘Have You Ever Read?’: Imagining Women, Bibles, and Religious Print in Nineteenth-Century America.” U.S. Catholic Historian 31.3 (2013): 1–21.Find this resource:
Noll, Mark A. In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:
Nord, David Paul. “Benevolent Capital: Financing Evangelical Book Publishing in Early Nineteenth-Century America.” In God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790–1860. Edited by Mark A. Noll, 147–170. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.Find this resource:
Nord, David Paul. Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.Find this resource:
Nord, David Paul. “Religious Reading and Readers in Antebellum America.” Journal of the Early Republic 15.2 (July 1995): 241–272.Find this resource:
Perry, Seth. “Scripture, Time, and Authority among Early Disciples of Christ.” Church History 85.4 (December 2016): 762–783.Find this resource:
Roberts, Kyle B. “Locating Popular Religion in the Evangelical Tract: The Roots and Routes of The Dairyman’s Daughter.” Early American Studies 4.1 (2006): 233–270.Find this resource:
Sarna, Jonathan D., and Nahum M. Sarna. “Jewish Bible Scholarship and Translations in the United States.” In The Bible and Bibles in America. Edited by Ernest S. Frerichs, 83–116. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988.Find this resource:
Sarna, Jonathan D. JPS: The Americanization of Jewish Culture, 1888–1988. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.Find this resource:
Stein, Stephen J. “America’s Bibles: Canon, Commentary, and Community.” Church History 64.2 (1995): 169–184.Find this resource:
Thuesen, Peter J. In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles Over Translating the Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.Find this resource:
Twaddell, Elizabeth. “The American Tract Society, 1814–-1860.” Church History 15.2 (1946): 116–132.Find this resource:
Watt, David Harrington. Bible-Carrying Christians: Conservative Protestants and Social Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.Find this resource:
Wosh, Peter J. Spreading the Word: The Bible Business in Nineteenth-Century America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.Find this resource:
(1.) Stephen Foster, The Long Argument: English Puritanism and the Shaping of New England Culture, 1570–1700 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 86, 92, 129, 166–168, 202, 213–218, 264–269, passim.
(2.) On New England preaching, see Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
(3.) See Reiner Smolinski, Jan Stievermann, et al., eds., America’s First Bible Commentary: A Synoptic Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010–).
(4.) See Jon Butler, “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretative Fiction,” The Journal of American History 69.2 (September 1982): 305–325; but cf. Thomas S. Kidd, The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007); and Joseph Conforti, “Jonathan Edward’s Most Popular Work: ‘The Life of David Brainerd’ and Nineteenth-Century Evangelical Culture,” Church History 54.2 (June 1985): 188–201.
(5.) David Paul Nord, “Benevolent Capital: Financing Evangelical Book Publishing in Early Nineteenth-Century America,” in God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790–1860, ed. Mark A. Noll (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 147–170.
(6.) See Pauline Maier, “The Revolutionary Origins of the American Corporation,” William and Mary Quarterly 3d series, 50.1 (1993): 51–84.
(7.) See Lori Ginzberg, Women and the Work of Benevolence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992); John W. Compton, The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); Charles I. Foster, An Errand of Mercy: The Evangelical United Front, 1790–1837 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960); and Michael P. Young, Bearing Witness against Sin: The Evangelical Birth of the American Social Movement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
(8.) Nord, “Benevolent Capital,” 151–152.
(9.) The American Tract Society founded in New York is not to be confused with the American Tract Society founded in Boston, which had a much smaller scope and much shorter life.
(10.) See American Tract Society, A Brief History of the American Tract Society (Boston: T. R. Marvin, 1857), and the Annual Reports of the ATS issued in New York, available via the Hathi Trust; and Elizabeth Twaddell, “The American Tract Society, 1814–1860,” Church History 15.2 (1946): 116–132.
(11.) For this description of the subject matter and authorship of ATS tracts I am relying on Lincoln Mullen, “Quantifying the American Tract Society,” Religion in American History (blog), August 1, 2013.
(12.) For a copy of the tract, see Four Spiritual Laws, Bright Media Foundation and Cru, 2007, http://crustore.org/fourlawseng.htm. John G. Turner, Bill Bright and the Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 99–103; and David Harrington Watt, A Transforming Faith: Explorations of Twentieth-Century American Evangelicalism (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991), 15–32.
(13.) General View of Colportage: As Conducted by the American Tract Society in the United States (New York: Daniel Fanshaw, 1845); Charles Peabody, Twenty Years among the Colporteurs (New York: American Tract Society, 1865); John Lardas Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 49–118; and James T. Siburt, “Tennessee Colporteurs: Flatboat Evangelism,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 47.4 (1988): 227–233.
(14.) Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), 69.
(15.) John Fea, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 1–39, 72–73, quotation from 22; and Nord, “Benevolent Capital,” 155.
(16.) Fea, Bible Cause, 40–50, 73–74, 85–87, 93–95, 145.
(17.) Fea, Bible Cause, 108–109.
(18.) Nord, “Benevolent Capital,” 160; and Fea, Bible Cause, 22, 32–33, 144–147.
(19.) Nord, “Benevolent Capital,” 154–155; Fea, Bible Cause, 51–60; and David Paul Nord, Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 129.
(20.) See Anne M. Boylan, Sunday School: The Formation of an American Institution, 1790–1880 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988).
(21.) On the interpretation of the Bible, see the study around the Civil War in Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), as well as more generally in Paul C. Gutjahr, An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777–1880 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999); Mark A. Noll, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); and Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Noll, eds., The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).
(22.) Paul C. Gutjahr, The Book of Mormon: A Biography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012); and Philip Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).
(23.) Peter J. Thuesen, In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles over Translating the Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 43–51.
(24.) Thuesen, Discordance with the Scriptures, 51–65, 70.
(25.) Thuesen, Discordance with the Scriptures, 67–91.
(26.) Thuesen, Discordance with the Scriptures, 94–113.
(27.) Thuesen, Discordance with the Scriptures, 121–143.
(28.) Thuesen, Discordance with the Scriptures, 9–11.
(29.) Jonathan D. Sarna and Nahum M. Sarna, “Jewish Bible Scholarship and Translations in the United States,” in The Bible and Bibles in America, ed. Ernest S. Frerichs (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), 84–89.
(30.) Sarna and Sarna, “Jewish Bible Scholarship and Translations,” 95–111; and Jonathan D. Sarna, JPS: The Americanization of Jewish Culture, 1888–1988 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989).
(31.) Rufus Anderson, Memoir of Catharine Brown, a Christian Indian of the Cherokee Nation (Boston: S. T. Armstrong and Crocker and Brewster, 1825), 11–12, 60–61.
(32.) McDannell, Material Christianity, 75–84.
(33.) McDannell, Material Christianity, 71, 73. Cf. Shane Landrum, “The State’s Big Family Bible: Birth Certificates, Personal Identity, and Citizenship in the United States, 1840–1950” (PhD diss., Brandeis University, 2014), 21–64.
(34.) McDannell, Material Christianity, 87–95.
(35.) Candy Gunther Brown, The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789–1880 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
(36.) Nord, Faith in Reading; David Paul Nord, “Religious Reading and Readers in Antebellum America,” Journal of the Early Republic 15.2 (July 1995): 241–272; and David Paul Nord, “Benevolent Capital: Financing Evangelical Book Publishing in Early Nineteenth-Century America,” in Noll, God and Mammon, 147, 170.
(37.) Peter J. Wosh, Spreading the Word: The Bible Business in Nineteenth-Century America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994).
(38.) Conforti, “Jonathan Edward’s Most Popular Work”; and Kyle B. Roberts, “Locating Popular Religion in the Evangelical Tract: The Roots and Routes of ‘The Dairyman’s Daughter,’” Early American Studies 4.1 (2006): 233–270.
(39.) Fea, The Bible Cause.
(40.) Sarna, JPS.
(41.) Elesha J. Coffman, The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
(42.) Matthew Hedstrom, The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
(43.) Hatch and Noll, eds., The Bible in America.
(44.) Gutjahr, An American Bible.
(45.) David Harrington Watt, Bible-Carrying Christians: Conservative Protestants and Social Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
(46.) Monica L. Mercado, “‘Have You Ever Read?’: Imagining Women, Bibles, and Religious Print in Nineteenth-Century America,” U.S. Catholic Historian 31.3 (2013): 1–21.
(47.) Philip Goff, Arthur E. Farnsley II, and Peter J. Thuesen, eds., The Bible in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
(48.) Noll, In the Beginning Was the Word.
(49.) Sarna and Sarna, “Jewish Bible Scholarship and Translations in the United States.”
(50.) Stephen J. Stein, “America’s Bibles: Canon, Commentary, and Community,” Church History 64.2 (June 1995): 169–184.
(51.) Laurie Maffly-Kipp, ed., American Scriptures: An Anthology of Sacred Writings (New York: Penguin, 2010).
(52.) Sonia Hazard, “The Material Turn in the Study of Religion,” Religion and Society 4.1 (December 2013): 58–78. See also her dissertation: Sonia Hazard, “The Touch of the Word: Evangelical Cultures of Print in Antebellum America” (PhD diss., Duke University, 2017).
(53.) Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity, 132–162.