Book Review---An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States

NOTE:This article is reprinted with permission from As I See It, a monthly electronic magazine compiled and edited by Doug Kutilek. AISI is sent free to all who request it by writing to the editor at dkutilek@juno.com.

by Doug Kutilek

An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880 by Paul C. Gutjahr. Stanford. California: Stanford University Press, 1999. 256 pp., paperback. $19.95

The dates 1777 and 1880 may seem strange parameters for the study of the place and impact of the Bible in American history, but there is good reason for the choices. Before 1777, no English language NT or Bible was printed in America, due to English copyright laws. The first English NT printed in America appeared in Philadelphia in 1777. At the other end of the study, 1880 was the year preceding the publication of the English Revised Version NT, the first ecclesiastically-sanctioned, committee-made revision of the KJV, which set the tone and pattern for the subsequent century.

The Bible was foundational to the development of American culture in the colonial period. The 19th century, especially, saw a loosening of the grip, so to speak, of the Bible’s influence and impact on all aspects of American life. The author seeks in this book to provide some explanations for that change. He notes about five different things that he believes contributed to this trend (summarized pp. 175-178). While no doubt some of those mentioned, especially the proliferation of printed matter of all kinds competing for readers’ attention, were strongly influential, I would find the greatest influences in this trend to be the influence of the so-called Enlightenment and its accompanying rationalism (of which Unitarianism is a fruit), the large Catholic immigration into the States in the 1820s and 1830s (since, frankly, the Bible is markedly less important in the religious life of Catholics in comparison with conservative Protestants), but especially Darwinism, which logically makes God unnecessary and de facto discredits the Bible as just so much antiquated fiction.

Changes in the technology of printing in this period greatly facilitated the manufacture of Bibles in greater quantities and at lower prices. Mechanization of printing presses, development of “stereo-typing” (a process of reproducing the plates from which a book was printed, without having to reset all the type by hand), improved efficiencies in paper manufacture and even changes in bookbinding resulted in higher production and availability at lower prices. The Bible truly was placed within the reach of everyone.

The first century of Bible publishing on America soil saw two streams of development–first, private printers, no longer constrained by English law, issued a variety of Bible editions, with a strong trend toward greater size, opulence, ornamentation, illustration and annotation–seeking the “high-end” buyer in the Bible market (since they could not compete on price with the often subsidized or at-cost Bible society editions). The number of private Bible printers as well as the number of differing editions peaked in the decades before the American Civil War. On the other hand, the rise of the Bible societies in the early part of the 1800s resulted in a growing deluge of low-priced, unannotated, unillustrated “text-only” NTs and Bibles, with the express aim of providing a Bible for every household in America at an affordable price. From 1818 through 1880, the American Bible Society distributed some 32 million Testaments and Bibles. At its lowest price, a Bible could be purchased for 20 cents, and a NT for just a nickel!

The period in question also witnessed a growing number of new or revised versions (there have always been such projects throughout the history of the English Bible)–some of modest enduring fame, including that of Noah Webster. But also some now long-forgotten. There were several Unitarian NT translations made (anticipating the Jehovah’s Witness version by rendering John 1:1, “the word was a God” and rejecting “eternal” as the meaning of eon, opting for “age”; in short, they were altering the translation to fit their aberrant theology). Alexander Campbell also made his own NT version (1826)—wherein he rendered baptize by “immerse,” preceding a Baptist “immerse” version by a several decades. With the rapid spike in Catholic immigration to America from Ireland, Germany and elsewhere before the Civil War, there was a great increase in the number of Catholic Bible translation editions published (duly annotated to enforce Catholic dogma), and a parallel controversy over the reading of the Bible in government schools, with Catholics objecting to being made to read a Protestant version.

The rise and popularization of religious fiction led to the neglect of Bible reading as people opted instead for reading indirectly about the Bible. Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace was the most popular book in this genre, but Gutjahr also includes here (as a work of fiction), The Book of Mormon (though he uncritically ascribes the book to Joseph Smith, when there is strong evidence that one Rev. Spalding actually wrote it).

The volume, the author’s doctoral dissertation in a revised form, is well supplied with photographs. He sometimes capitalizes “Bible” and sometimes puts it in lower case, drawing a distinction in a note preceding the “preface,” a note which is largely incomprehensible to me. Having read multiplied thousands of pages on the history of the English Bible previously, it is not often that I read a book with a great deal that is fresh or new. But there was a considerable amount of new information, or information in a new light here (including an account of how Charles Thomson, secretary of the First Continental Congress, came to make the first English translation of the Septuagint; and the fact that the Harper Brothers of publishing fame were devout Methodists), and a very extensive bibliography for further investigation. The author does make some errors–he repeatedly refers to various printed Greek texts as “manuscripts,” he gives incorrectly a Bible reference twice (pp. 96, 99, substituting I John 5:8 for the correct I John 5:7); he fails to note that Murdock’s 1851 NT translation is an English translation of the Syriac Peshitta Version; and some other blemishes.

On its topic, this is a very informative volume.

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