Review of “America’s Book”: The word out of season

Many Americans born after 1960 find it hard to imagine that for much of the country’s history the Bible has been a primary source of national identity. Older Hollywood directors sometimes get it right. Take “Liberty Heights” (1999), written and directed by Barry Levinson (b. 1942). The film explores Jewish, Black, and WASP relations in the 1950s, when Baltimore’s public schools were integrated. In one scene, the Jewish son of a burlesque theater owner watches an African American girl, the daughter of a surgeon, during the recitation of Psalm 23 in class. They have different grips. He likens it to singing the national anthem before an Orioles game. She says it provides a brief respite before a busy day of study. Whether ceremonial or therapeutic, Bible reading in public schools was, in the 1950s, one of the last unquestioned conventions of American Bible civilization.

Mark Noll’s “America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Biblical Civilization, 1794-1911” explains how the Bible achieved this status. The new nation’s rejection of European forms of Christianity such as the sacred monarchy and state churches left the Bible to bear the burden of the American attempt to create a Christian civilization. A completely secular republic was never a possibility except for the most free-thinking of free-thinkers. The Founders, practically down to a man, insisted that a republic depended on virtuous citizenship and that the best source of morality was religion. Despite the variety of Protestant denominations, church leaders and officials agreed that the Bible was the best and most reliable guide for determining moral consensus.

“America’s Book” documents the breadth of the Bible’s reach – from the printing and distribution of Bibles and the establishment of Sunday schools to the intellectual impasses into which unwise Bible handlers have been drawn. The breadth of the book is a tribute to Mr. Noll’s career as an interpreter of Protestantism in North America, even if its encyclopedic quantity sometimes obscures the overall argument.

The Book of America: The Rise and Decline of a Biblical Civilization, 1794-1911

By Mark A. Noll

Oxford University Press

We may earn a commission when you purchase products through links on our site.

A crucial element of biblical civilization, Mr. Noll explains, was the establishment of public schools. Started in Massachusetts in the 1830s to compensate for the Commonwealth’s recent dismantling of its state church, schools included the Bible to inculcate public morality and assimilate children (and indirectly parents) to civic standards. The heaviness of Bible reading in public schools has also generated heated political controversies, known as the “Bible Wars.” Although many prominent Americans believed the Bible united the country—founder Benjamin Rush, for example, and education reformer and abolitionist Horace Mann—other groups, Roman Catholics and Jews among them, dissented. Disputes over the Bible in public schools grew heated, especially in places where Protestant elites clashed with non-British immigrants. In 1844, Philadelphia was the most violent front of these conflicts. Riots led to the death of 14 people and the burning down of two Catholic churches.

If public school controversies raised doubts about the civic usefulness of the Bible, the Civil War fueled disbelief. Mr. Noll traces with great subtlety the range of pro- and anti-slavery arguments, mostly from church leaders, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. For slavery advocates, who were mostly silent on the racial character of the institution, it was enough simply to observe the prevalence of slavery in human history, including biblical times, and to point out the shaky interpretations of abolitionists of Scripture. The anti-slavery side, preaching to its own choir, appealed either to the golden rule or to the spirit of ancient texts on liberty or equality. Minds rarely changed. In the process, inevitably, the cultural authority of the Bible has diminished.

The political aspects of Bible history in America are not simply additions to a primarily religious narrative. Mr. Noll is as much interested in national issues as it is in believers who have drawn their instruction and inspiration from the scriptures. From the beginning, Americans used the Bible to name their cities: Zoar, Ohio (Genesis 13:10), Ruma, Ill. (2 Kings 23:36) and a thousand others. And their children. Ten of the first 16 presidents had biblical names (Thomas, Andrew, James, John and Abraham). On the First Ladies side, 14 of the 17 First Ladies were from the Bible (including Martha, Abigail, Sarah, Elizabeth, Hannah, Anna, Priscilla, Julia, Rebecca and Mary).

The Bible also infiltrated Hollywood studios with epics such as “Ben-Hur”, based on Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel. His book spawned four remakes of the first 1907 screen adaptation. With the implicit blessing of the Bible, the film spawned entire lines of branded goods: cigars, flour, bicycle keys, canned tomatoes, wheels paddle.

As attentive as Mr. Noll is to the gimmicks of biblical civilization, his eye is never far from the importance of the Bible in shaping Christian nationalism. Biblical and political ideals in the United States grew together, married, and only began to spit during the Civil War. Here Mr. Noll is equivocal in his judgment. He acknowledges that the Bible was a necessary, if not always decisive, ingredient in exposing the wickedness of white slavery and privilege. The African-American belief that the Bible “proclaimed an undivided message of eternal salvation and temporal redemption” prompts Mr. Noll to give Biblical civilization a passing grade. Yet this judgment is not progressive or whiggish; he is quick to observe that appeals to Scripture “easily encouraged the absolutization of the public principle” and inevitably resulted in “the demonization of the naysayers”.

Since Mr. Noll’s book ends with the tercentenary of the King James Bible in 1911, “America’s Bible” offers little help in understanding why the vilification of political enemies increased even after American biblical civilization lost its grip. . Perhaps the Puritan spirit, once installed as the operating system of the nation, makes it more difficult to load new moral applications. Whatever the explanation for the continued moralization of politics and law by left and right, Mr. Noll’s book is a valuable reminder that conceiving of America in Christian categories is not a product of 2016 elections.

Mr. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College and is a research associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Leave a Comment