The Bible

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The decade of the 1820s was a watershed moment for publishing in America. Whereas a print run of two thousand copies of a book was the industry standard before 1820, a number of factors coalesced during the ensuing decade to enable publishers to print several hundred thousand copies of a title if they wished. Improvements in publishing technologies such as papermaking, power printing, and stereotyping all contributed to this change, as did key cultural shifts in American society, such as rising literacy rates, a push by various ideologies that moved the activity of reading from a luxury to a necessity, and better transportation networks to help disseminate printed material. These diverse factors worked together to make the United States a society that was increasingly formed, framed, and fractured by the power of print.

Towering above the massive growth in American printed material was the country's single most important and prevalent printed text, the Christian Bible. The Bible was the most produced, most widely distributed, and most read title during the middle part of the 1800s. Simply put, it was the most common book in America during this period.

As early as the late 1820s, the American Bible Society—a voluntary society founded in 1816 with the goal of providing a Bible to all those who did not own one—made a concerted effort to place a Bible in every household in America. In 1829 they termed this effort their "First General Supply," and although they did not accomplish their goal, the society did print over a million Bibles over the next three years for the purposes of general distribution, an absolutely unprecedented and staggering number of books to come from an American publisher of the time. So important was this goal of getting Bibles into the hands of every American that the society sponsored three more "general supplies" before the end of the century.

Along with the American Bible Society, a host of other American publishers helped saturate the United States with Bibles. By the 1840s nearly two hundred different publishers in almost fifty different cities across the nation had produced over 350 different Bible editions. No single book came close to the kind of effort and attention American publishers placed on producing and distributing Bibles. Such a deep level of textual saturation showed itself to great effect in almost every area of American life whether it be politics, literature, education, recreation, law, or science. For example, politicians not only invoked biblical phrases in their speeches but pointed to the book itself as pivotal to American attitudes and actions. The writings and oratory of Abraham Lincoln provide ample examples. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln invoked biblical content with phrases like "let us judge not that we be not judged" and also pointed to the importance of the book itself when he stated that both Northerners and Southerners "read the same Bible, and pray to the same God."

The Bible's presence made itself felt throughout the American literary writing of the time. Before 1820 many American Christians eschewed fiction as an evil influence on its readers, but by the 1830s certain denominations such as the Universalists and Episcopalians were tempering their remarks about novel reading and even encouraging writers in their ranks to transpose biblical characters, stories, and messages into the plots of their novels. Other denominations would follow, and by the 1850s one of the best-selling novels of the decade, Joseph Holt Ingraham's The Prince of the House of David (1854), sported Jesus as a leading character.

Authors throughout this period used biblical stories and phraseology as a kind of cultural anchor in their own works. They were able to allude to the biblical narrative—or how that narrative was worded in the King James Version of the Bible—with an un-abashed fluency and confidence. Readers were so familiar with certain biblical stories, characters, and passages that authors could build upon these narratives in their own works without feeling any need to point out the biblical roots of their thinking. Frederick Douglass could write of weeping "near the rivers of Babylon" and Harriet Beecher Stowe could underline the Christlike character of Tom in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by lacing his conversation with unattributed biblical allusions, knowing that their readers would know the parts of the Bible they were so freely referencing. Stowe was not the only writer of women's fiction in the period to fill her works with biblical quotations and allusions. Best-selling authors such as Susan Warner, E. D. E. N. Southworth, and Maria Cummins all packed their fiction with biblical phrases and imagery.

Because of the mass popularity of the Bible itself and the narratives it spawned, historians have long liked to refer to early Americans as "A People of the Book." What is lost in such a broad characterization is the critical fact that the Bible as it was printed and read in the United States was never a simple, uniform entity. The Bible may have had a core text—and even that core text was subject to wide variation—but it also was disseminated in the colonies and then the states in different English translations, in varied styles of type, and with different commentaries, illustrations, and bindings. Such differences significantly complicate any understanding of the Bible's place in American culture.


The English Bible was first printed in the United States in 1777. Before that date the Bible was held by royal copyright, and only certain British printers were allowed to produce the book. The American Revolution would change this practice. As the colonies broke off from England, American publishers found themselves free of the restrictions imposed by the royal copyright. If they had the substantial resources to produce a Bible edition, American publishers now found themselves free to do so.

Once it began to be printed in the United States, the Bible soon underwent a great many textual revisions and changes in format, as different editors and publishers appropriated it to meet a wide range of changing ideological and economic demands. By 1820 American publishers had already produced nearly 300 different editions of the Bible, and by 1870 the number of different editions had increased to almost 1,900 in the English language alone. The Bible's myriad mutations played an enormous and often ignored role in determining its place in the hearts and minds of Americans. It is essential to realize that the Bible for nineteenth-century Americans was not in its purest sense a single book. It was a book whose core text was constantly adapted and repackaged to meet a wide range of needs in American religious, intellectual, and consumer cultures.

One of the most noticeable differences among Bible editions in the mid-nineteenth century is the way they were formatted. Bibles came in all shapes and sizes in this period, with all manner of bindings and illustrations. Beginning in the 1820s pocket Bibles became a common fixture among American Protestants as the larger quarto and folio formats diversified into the ever more popular and smaller octavo and duodecimo editions. Bibles grew smaller so that everyone from ladies who wished to carry them in their purses to sailors who wanted to stow them among the few personal items they carried on voyages might be able to avail themselves of the Holy Scripture.

Bibles in this period grew larger as well. As Bible editions multiplied, so did the number of American households that owned more than one Bible. Different Bible editions could serve different purposes, and by the 1840s Bibles had begun to be used as markers of gentility and middle-class refinement. Americans came increasingly to display large, expensive family Bibles—often weighing as much as fifteen pounds—in their parlors to show that they were both pious and affluent.

Many Bible editions in this period came to hold an ever-growing number of textual notes and illustrations. In 1846 the firm of Harper & Brothers utilized a new technology called electrotyping that allowed them to produce a beautiful family Bible edition that sported over 1,600, mostly black-and-white, illustrations. Up to that time the most heavily illustrated Bible editions to be found in America had contained somewhere around 200 pictures. By the 1870s Bible publishers were advertising Bible editions with 2,000 illustrations and over 100,000 marginal references and readings. Bible editions had moved from simply containing the Holy Scripture to becoming more like biblical encyclopedias that contained concordances, cross-references, biblical commentary, and essays on everything from biblical history to ancient botany.

Biblical illustrations also became one of the great distinguishing marks of elegant American Bible editions. Most of the time such illustrations were simply used to accent various biblical stories or scenes, but illustrations could have grave theological import as well. By the 1820s American Bible publishers were using illustrations to underline the authenticity of the biblical text by including pictures of ancient tablets that supposedly were inscribed with ancient versions of the Scriptures and maps detailing the most minute aspects of the Holy Land's geography and topography. The sentiments of William Thomson (1806–1894), an American missionary and writer in the Middle East, underscored the theological power of biblical illustrations and cartography when he wrote that the Holy Land was one "vast tablet whereupon God's messages to men have been drawn, and graven deep in living characters by the Great Publisher of glad tidings, to be seen and read [by] all to the end of time. The Land and the Book—with reverence be it said—constitute the entire and all perfect text, and should be studied together" (1:1).

As scholars argued over issues of biblical chronology, how the ancient languages were being translated, and how reliable the ancient manuscripts were in the first place, the Bible through its maps and pictures gave readers the assurance that sites such as the town of Bethlehem, the river Jordan, and the Mount of Calvary were actual locations that stood as tangible proof that the Bible was true and that the events reported in it did in fact take place. With the rise of certain biblical schools of European thinking in the opening decades of the nineteenth century, thinking which eventually coalesced into a biblical branch of interpretation known as the Higher Criticism, the trustworthiness of the biblical narrative became an ever greater question. One strategy to address such doubts became biblical illustrations and an emphasis on Holy Land geography, which reminded readers that the places where Jesus was born, was baptized, and was executed actually existed. The implication of such illustrations was simple: just as the Holy Land actually existed, so must have Jesus.


American Bible editions in the nineteenth century could also differ significantly in the area of translation. American publishers produced Bibles throughout the nineteenth century in a host of different languages. The tremendous influx of immigrants from Europe, which became especially noticeable in the 1820s, created a market for Bibles in languages as diverse as Dutch, French, Italian, German, and Welsh. Often these European Bible editions were printed in a dual language format with one language on one page set against the English translation of the scriptures on the facing page. Thus Bibles were not only used for religious purposes but for educational ones as well. Immigrants could work at improving their English skills by reading from Bibles with this format.

American religious publishing also had a long tradition of reaching out to Native American populations through the printing of Bibles, hymnbooks, and grammars in Native American languages. By 1870 missionaries to the Native Americans had worked with publishers to produce translations of the New Testament in languages such as Cherokee, Sioux, Cree, Micmac, Mohawk, and Chippewa.

During the 1820–1870 period American English translations also began to diversify at an unprecedented rate. Prior to 1820 only a single new translation of the Holy Scripture in English had been completed by an American. This particular edition was the product of decades of labor by Charles Thomson (1729–1824), a long-term secretary of the Continental Congress, who spent the final years of his life working to translate the Septuagint (a Greek version of the scriptures) into English. He completed his Bible translation in 1808, predating the next American English translation by fif-teen years.

What is important in Thomson's effort is the way in which he foreshadowed the concerns of almost every nineteenth-century translator who came after him. He had an abiding interest in the original texts of scripture and the original meanings of those texts. For Thomson, original texts and meanings were strictly a matter of timing. He wished to find the oldest reliable texts and then find the most reliable scholarship on how the words in these texts might best be translated into the nineteenth-century American idiom. He argued that the Septuagint offered an older account of the Old Testament than any available Hebrew manuscript, and thus his translation would be more accurate because it was based on the biblical manuscript most proximate to the actual events it related.

Between 1820 and 1870 no less than twenty-three Americans would translate over thirty new portions of

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the Bible into English. Although driven by different reasons, the core values of using the most original texts and discovering the most original meanings lay at the root of almost every one of these translations.

A driving interest in the first texts of scripture created a flurry of translation work among Unitarians in the United States in the 1820s, the same decade that they emerged as their own denomination. Unitarianism was fundamentally defined by a theological belief that instead of there being a threefold Godhead, or Trinity, made up of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Bible taught that God was clearly preeminent and that Jesus his Son and the Holy Spirit were nowhere near his equal. Unitarians turned to producing their own translations of the Bible to prove their point of view concerning the Godhead. Formidable Unitarian scholars such as George R. Noyes, John Gorham Palfrey, and Andrews Norton would produce a series of translations from the 1820s through the 1850s bent on challenging the biblical basis for believing in the doctrine of the Trinity. These translators worked tirelessly to show that every biblical verse that might be used to support the doctrine of the Trinity was spurious and could be found nowhere in the most ancient biblical sources.

The Unitarians, however, had no corner on the market for using translation work to argue for various aspects of doctrinal clarity. The most popular Protestant alternative to the King James Version to be found prior to 1870 was a translation of the New Testament made by the religious revivalist and reformer Alexander Campbell (1788–1866).

Campbell had traveled extensively in the back countries of Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, preaching a gospel based on the vision of the Christian Church found in the "primitive" firstcentury church of the New Testament. Eschewing creeds as untrustworthy and divisive, Campbell founded a new denomination he called the Christian Church—later known as the Disciples of Christ—which became the fastest-growing denomination in mid-nineteenth-century America, numbering some 200,000 members by 1860. To make his argument that the pattern of the true Christian church could only be discovered in the New Testament and not in Christian traditions or creeds, Campbell worked on his own translation of the New Testament, which he titled The Sacred Writings of the Apostles and Evangelists of Jesus Christ, Commonly Styled the New Testament (1826).

The Sacred Writings is a translation work notable for two reasons. First, Campbell used it to clear up the heavily contested debate of the period on whether true believers could be baptized as children or whether they needed to be baptized as adults. Many denominations of the day believed that God alone predestined—or chose—who was to be saved and who was not. Such denominations most frequently baptized infants, signaling their admission into a relationship with God that they would then have to consummate through their own faithful actions throughout their lives. Infant baptism emphasized God's initiative in extending His grace to humankind.

Other denominations, such as Campbell's, put the emphasis on individuals having total free will and the ability to choose for or against salvation on their own. Those who chose a belief in Jesus Christ as their savior got baptized as adults, signaling their allegiance to Jesus as people old enough and knowledgeable enough to appreciate what they were choosing when they proclaimed that they were Christians. Adult baptism emphasized human volition in the process of salvation.

Campbell used his version to argue his view that adult baptism by immersion was the practice of the primitive Christian church and was therefore the most correct and orthodox church doctrine. To argue this stance he translated the Greek word for "baptize" as "immerse." By making this change Campbell clarified just what John had done when Jesus came to him to be baptized in the Jordan River, and in so doing, Campbell renamed John the Baptist as "John the Immerser."

Second, Campbell's translation could lay claim to being the first modern-language Bible translation to appear in America. Campbell knew that many of his less-educated followers had trouble with the archaic language and cadences of the preeminently popular King James Version of the scriptures, a version which had first been translated two centuries earlier, in 1611, and was written in the language of Shakespeare, Elizabethan English. So Campbell worked hard in his New Testament to simplify the Bible's language. He replaced outdated word forms with more common, contemporary counterparts. He dropped the "eth" off verbs, turning "doeth" to "does" and "keepeth" to "keeps." He also helped readers by printing his Bible in single-column format without the traditional chapter and verse markings, so that the text itself might be less distracting and easier to read.

In the end, however, neither the desire for greater doctrinal clarity or a more understandable idiom moved Americans away from their most highly favored translation of the Bible, the King James Version, which would remain by far the most dominant translation of the scriptures found in the United States long into the twentieth century. It is important to note, however, that many of the translators who worked on new forms of the scriptures in the nineteenth century lay the groundwork for the translations that would eventually eclipse the popularity of the King James Version.


Although the King James Version reigned supreme as the favorite Bible translation for American Protestants throughout the nineteenth century, American Catholics had a different view of the proper Bible translation altogether. The Catholic Douai Bible differed from Protestant Bibles in two significant ways: it was approved by the Holy Catholic Church while the King James Version held no such imprimatur, and it was filled with officially sanctioned commentary. Many King James Versions, particularly those produced by the millions by the American Bible Society, were published "without note or comment." Catholics held that such bare Bibles were dangerous for Catholic youth because it taught them that private biblical interpretation was acceptable, thus degrading the central importance of the interpretative role of the Catholic Church's priest-hood and hierarchy. The conflict between the two Bible translations might have been largely intellectual on one level, but its practical applications were felt most forcefully in a series of conflicts that broke out across the United States concerning the role of the Bible in the public school classroom.

By the 1820s the Bible had almost completely receded from its role as a pivotal text in teaching reading and writing. Only in rural areas did the practice persist of pupils bringing whatever books they had (most often the Bible) to school in order to use them as textbooks. In most cases the Bible had been relegated to daily or twice-daily devotional reading in schools because of the vast influx of schoolbooks and grammars. The issue thus centered on which Bible version was to be read in those daily or twice-daily readings.

Protestants insisted the King James Version was the most prevalent Bible translation in the land, and the land was predominantly Protestant. Catholics strenuously objected to this kind of sectarianism, and the issue came to a head in the 1840s in both Philadelphia and New York City. While Catholic leaders began to argue forcefully that if Catholics were in public schools they should only be subjected to devotional reading from an approved Catholic Bible, other issues began to be layered into the argument. Most prominent among these was a feeling that Catholics not only represented a renegade and dangerously anti-democratic religion (there could be no democracy when the pope could dictate whatever he wished and Catholics were forced to obey) but that they were also largely German, Irish, and Catholic immigrants who were flooding the country and taking jobs away from workers who were already in the United States.

Such anti-immigration sentiment became thoroughly mixed with the Bible-reading issue in the public schools. Those who considered themselves Americans of sufficiently long standing came to see the Bible-reading issue as largely symbolic of the immigrant Catholic threat to American democracy in general and American education in particular. So heated did the debates become that in 1844 riots ostensibly over the use of the Bible in American educational life broke out in Philadelphia. Catholics shot Protestants in the street, and in turn Protestants burned Catholic churches, schools, and whole blocks of Catholic homes. Riots also threatened to take over New York City, but the city's mayor called out the state militia after Catholic leaders promised that they would defend their churches and their property with all necessary force if they were threatened by Protestant mobs.

In the end the riots and debates over Bible reading in the schools changed little before 1870. The King James Version continued to be the translation of choice in the schools, but the debates and violence surrounding the issue brought forth important changes in American education toward the close of the century, most noticeably the founding of a parallel Catholic school system that would eventually spread to touch almost every part of the country.

Another significant result of these debates was the growth of Catholic publishing in the country. As the Bible controversy heated up in the 1820s and 1840s, Catholics came to realize that they would need their own editions of the Holy Scripture available if they were going to demand that American Catholics use only Church-sanctioned copies of the Bible in schools and elsewhere. Thus, beginning in the 1840s Catholic publishers began to print new editions of the Douai Bible in the United States, and Catholic scholars in America such as Bishop Francis Kenrick even began to work on new vernacular translations, which they eventually hoped would gain the Catholic Church's approval for use in the United States. Such approval would not take place until the next century, but the significant impetus for new translation work among Catholics began in this period.


It should be noted that other religious traditions had their own versions of the Holy Scripture. Among these traditions was the growing American Jewish population. In 1845 Isaac Leeser (1806–1868), a German-born scholar and printer, began translating the Pentateuch into English for American Jewish communities. In the same year he founded the Jewish Publication Society, which would make his translation, as well as other important Jewish material, available in America from an American publisher. By 1853 he had completed his translation of the entire Jewish Old Testament. Jewish publishing would grow slowly in the decades to come, but that it had found a presence at all during these middle nineteenth-century years positioned it to play an important role in the education and cohesion of various Jewish communities throughout the United States.

It might well be impossible to overestimate the importance of the Bible in nineteenth-century American culture. It was so much a part of the warp and woof of almost every aspect of American intellectual thought and cultural life that its influence was felt in every area of American society. Within this massively pervasive influence, however, it is important to remember that the Bible in America was not a static, monolithic entity. It changed with the times as it helped change the times. To even attempt an understanding of the role of the Bible in nineteenth-century American culture, one must first come to terms with the vast diversity of Bible editions to be found throughout the nation during the period. Such a course of study will serve to convince even the most casual observer that nineteenth-century Americans were not only a People of the Book, but a People of the Books.

See alsoBook Publishing; Catholics; Evangelicals; Protestantism; Publishers; Religion; Religious Magazines; Unitarians


Secondary Works

Cmiel, Kenneth. Democratic Eloquence: The Fight OverPopular Speech in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: William Morrow, 1990.

Gutjahr, Paul C. An American Bible: A History of the GoodBook in the United States, 1777–1880. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Gutjahr, Paul C. "Sacred Texts in the United States." Book History 4 (2001): 335–370.

Hatch, Nathan O., and Mark A. Noll, eds. The Bible inAmerica: Essays in Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Hills, Margaret T. The English Bible in America: ABibliography of Editions of the Bible and the New Testament Published in America 1777–1957. New York: American Bible Society, 1962.

Nord, David Paul. "The Evangelical Origins of Mass Media in America, 1815–1835." Journalism Monographs 88 (May 1984): 1–30.

O'Callaghan, E. B. A List of Editions of the Holy Scriptures and Parts Thereof Printed in America previous to 1860. Albany, New York: Munsell and Rowland, 1861.

Reynolds, David S. Faith in Fiction: The Emergence ofReligious Literature in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Sussman, Lance J. Isaac Leeser and the Making of American Judaism. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995.

Thomson, William McClure. The Land and the Book. 3 vols. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1880–1886.

Wosh, Peter J. Spreading the Word: The Bible Business inNineteenth-Century America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Paul C. Gutjahr