A Resource I Want: The Bible in Early America

winthropThis month in class I’m teaching the Puritans, which means that an idea I’ve had for several years has returned, and I’ve been mulling it for a few days. As most of our readers already know, the Bible was easily the most widely owned and widely read publication in the British North American colonies (in particular in New England). Protestant Christian settlers were deeply versed in the Bible – they could cite and quote regularly from a broad range of prophecies, parables, and psalms. But they also read and understood the Bible in historically specific ways, focusing on certain books of the Bible in their study and reflection, quoting certain passages with higher frequency than others. For those of us who are not religious historians (and/or were raised ourselves in traditions in which textual exegesis was not strongly emphasized), figuring out not only the meaning of Biblical passages but also the ways in which specific historical actors used them would require significant reading.

That leads me to my request, my hope: I want there to exist a Guide to the Bible in Early America. I’m no Bible expert, so I want to take advantage of the knowledge and interpretive skills of those who are. Here’s what I envision—and early American religious historians, the idea is a freebie; take it and run with it!

With the flourishing of digital projects, at this point I could foresee something online. The problem I want to solve is to understand particular passages in historical context, so I want to be able to look up a passage from the Bible that was used frequently by a group in early America and find an explanation of the Biblical passage as generally understood, some notion of how the group or groups read this passage, how understandings of the passage changed across time and space within early America, and possibly links to other resources. It wouldn’t have to cover the entirety of both the Old and New Testaments, but instead could focus on the most frequently used books, chapters, and verses.

Let me sketch out a quick example with a verse that I used in a lecture last week on the Puritans as an introduction to Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God. When Puritans came to Massachusetts, they thought they were founding a new holy city in accordance with Revelation 21:10:[1]

10 And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and an high mountain, and he showed me that great city, that holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God,

With a passage like this, I would want to know something about the consensus exegesis (am I allowed to do that to the English language?) of Revelation 21—a little primer on the chapter within the context of the entirety of the book for those of use not familiar with it. I would want to know a little something about John Winthrop and his “A Model of Christian Charity” sermon he delivered aboard the Arabella, and perhaps other examples of Puritan figures using the verse in order to support their arguments about the settlement of Massachusetts. Were there other groups in early America that drew inspiration from the same verse? I don’t know that well, but somebody does, and it would be interesting to be able to access that. And in this particular case, there could be an extension to discuss the resonances of the idea of a “city on a hill” in modern American politics.

In my mind’s eye, this kind of project would build on something like Lincoln Mullen’s fantastic America’s Public Bible project, which tracks the use of Biblical quotations in American newspapers. What I’m looking for would be a bit more interpretive, and take advantage of the expertise of a range of scholars. (Usually when I imagine it, John Fea plays a role overseeing the project. John, you’re not busy, right?) In fairness, it’s a massive undertaking, and might not even be feasible. But the Puritans didn’t get across the Atlantic by thinking small.

[1] Those hopes for New England were, as we know, later deflated.

15 responses

  1. If you haven’t already, you need to hie thee to Amazon and buy a Geneva Bible – you will probably find the apparatus enormously helpful (and that may ease the sticker shock).

    But to your larger point — the Puritans didn’t think small but they didn’t think alike, either. I am very eager to hear from those with expertise, but my sense is that each person put an individual spin on the passages of the Bible that spoke to him or her. When you read the conversion narratives, that comes through so clearly i.e., “the Lord showed me this or that [now insert chapter and verse, say Matt: 18:11].

    That said, I John 3.14 is perennially popular – and it was one of the Puritan ministers most reliable signs of holiness. “We know that we are translated from death unto life, because we love the brethren: he that loveth not his brother, abideth in death.”

    Still, a database of flexibly useful passages *would* be awesome.

  2. I have to admit, but I’ve never much thought about early North American colonists and their Bibles. What Bibles did they use? The Geneva, I imagine? at least early, but did they? What Bibles did the Dutch colonists use? The German speaking colonists? (I know NOTHING about non-English Bible translations.)

  3. The first bible printed in North America was the work of Rev. John Eliot, the “Apostle to the Indians,” who translated the Geneva Bible into the Algonquian language and published it (on the first printing press in North America) in 1663.

  4. This seems almost too obvious, but…aren’t Perry Miller’s multifaceted volumes on the Puritan mind a basic starting point {spectacularly topped off with his last, unfinished, book written in the context of the fervent ’60s dealing with the transformations in perception of biblical images and messages ‘from the Revolution to the Civil War’) a major ‘jump-off’point? They certainly combine scrupulous research withcivicpassion and ‘lofty’ ethical stance.

  5. Dear All,

    I just noticed your blog. First of all, to have such a resource as Joseph talks about would be a tremendous boon to anyone interested in history, religion, early America–you name it. You might be surprised to know that in some sense, such a project is already in existence AND underway. (1) The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale has made available all of the published volumes online (free of charge). This also includes transcriptions of a huge cache of manuscripts by Jonathan Edwards. http://edwards.yale.edu/

    (2) Cotton Mather’s own BIBLIA AMERICANA holograph manuscript is being edited in a 10-vol. scholarly edition–4 vols. are already published and the next will come out in 2017. Biblia Americana is colonial America’s first full-fledged commentary on all the books of the Bible. Our volumes contain professional introductions about the Bible and hermeneutic issues in the early Enlightenment period, detailed annotations, appendices, and indexes. I am the Editor in Chief of our Biblia Americana project guiding a team of 7 international scholars who are editing the individual volues. They are being published by the distinguished theology publishing house Mohr Siebeck (Germany). See our website http://matherproject.org/
    Amazon.com and esp. Reformation Heritage Books http://www.heritagebooks.org/ offer steep discounts on the published volumes, each of which contains more than a thousand pages..
    If you have any questions about our Biblia Americana and Mather Project, please contact me at rsmolinski@gsu.edu

  6. Richard M. Gamble’s book on the “City on a Hill” myth addresses much of Winthrop’s speech, and IIRC also has a bit of context on Biblical language. https://www.amazon.com/Search-City-Hill-Unmaking-American/dp/1441162321/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1475508456&sr=1-3&keywords=richard+m+gamble
    I was using it in another context, but Haselby’s “Origins of American Religious Nationalism” might be worth a look. https://www.amazon.com/Search-City-Hill-Unmaking-American/dp/1441162321/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1475508456&sr=1-3&keywords=richard+m+gamble

    An odd counterpart to Winthrop’s address— so odd that only I seem to find it interesting — is Washington’s “Circular to the States (8 June, 1783).” [The Founders’ Constitution, Volume 1, Chapter 7, Document 5. Accessed June 14, 2015. http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch7s5.html%5D It echoes the substance of Winthrop, but is completely stripped of all Biblical language. Whether GW knew about the earlier document or was merely sharing a mood is an interesting question.

  7. Good morning. The first thing that comes to mind is sermons. Each preacher mined the Bible for passages which he then explicated for his congregation. I would take a look at published collections of sermons. You may not get a complete list of references, but preachers used various texts for specific purposes, Fast Days, Execution Days, and so on. In addition there are numerous concordances to the Bible, some of which were published in the time frame you’re interested in. You can check the online library catalog of the Library of Congress loc.gov, Yale, Harvard, or any well-known divinity school.

  8. Another source of spade-work that might be useful to examine is Eric Nelson’s “The Royalist Revolution.” He’s more focused on the run-up to 1776, of course, but the background stems from the English Civil War– much of which (he says) was justified based on a close reading of the Book of Samuel. Some Puritan/revolutionaries/regicides thought the issue important enough that they consulted prominent Talmudic scholars for their view. I wasn’t paying attention to which English translations were being used in that discussion, but a perusal might unearth some interesting detail.

  9. Mark Noll’s latest, “In the Beginning Was the Word: the Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783” distills a lot of what you may be looking for, though the book’s scope makes the discussions broad.

  10. This happens to be a field I’ve studied quite intensely, as I’ve always had an interest in how the Puritans (in particular) interpreted Scripture. I’ve also written a guide on historic English language Bible translations and versions that were used from the Reformation to around 1800. I’ll be happy to help you in any way that I can.

  11. Pingback: What We’re Reading: Oct. 10-13 | JHIBlog


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