In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783 by Mark Noll

Summary: As with everything, it’s complicated.

Noll is one of my favorite historians. He is well respected but probably not well known outside of those that pay attention to 17th to 19th century American religious history. I had him both as an undergrad at Wheaton and when he was a visiting professor in grad school at the University of Chicago. He has been at Notre Dame for the last 10 years.

Noll has written widely, everything from multiple books on Christianity in the Global South to a history of Race and religion in US politics to modern analysis of Evangelical thought to his more traditional early American religious history. A theme that has continued through several of his recent books is that how Christians, particularly Protestants, use scripture.

In the Beginning Was the Word is Noll’s attempt to make sense of the high level of biblical rhetoric from the colonies. The colonies were a different world from the modern US in a number of ways that many current users of those early religious quotes do not adequately take into account.

First, and probably most important, the bible was universally understood and referenced in a way that is very difficult to understand today. Those that were literate and had any books almost always had a bible. But many did not have any other book or if they did have other books it was only a handful of books or pamphlets. So the bible was culturally well known and it was expected that people would understand references to scripture in the way that many people today reference current events or culture, but with a higher expectation of understanding.

One of the strengths of the book is how Noll compares scripture usage in England and the colonies (and to a lesser extent the Catholic areas of Canada and Central and South America.) Prior to the early settling of the new world, Christianity only existed in Christendom forms in Europe. In other words, while there there were often tensions between the religious and political authorities in a region, virtually everyone understood that the only way for an area to be Christian was for there to be religious agreement among everyone in an area, and political support of that religious agreement. separation of church and state, as we understand it now, was not part the idea of the early colonies. Particularly New England was founded not with an idea of religious freedom, but with the idea of religious exclusivism.

What changed is that the philosophical, political and religious underpinnings for Christendom started to fall away and because of the diversity of the mix of early colonies, that gradual transformation from Christendom to Christian pluralism started to fall away faster in the colonies than in Europe.

Noll, as is common in his books, does a very good job summing up the evidence in the epilogue. (These are different quotes by paragraph.)

“On many occasions colonists turned to the Bible as a didactic authority with the straightforward desire to be taught from its narratives, precepts, poetry, parables, and doctrines. Even more frequently colonists drew on Scripture rhetorically—not exactly to discern the will of God but more to enlist God’s word on behalf of causes that may or may not have been directly taught from the sacred text.”

 

“In point of fact, this particular conflict [the American Revolution] reinforces the general truism that when Scripture comes into a fight that is already under way, it becomes all but impossible for the Bible to exercise an objective, unprejudiced authority.”

 

“From this history of the Bible in early American history, the moral judgment that makes most sense to me rests on a difference between Scripture for oneself and Scripture for others….where Bible-believers applied their scriptural interpretations to direct the lives of others, more questions about motives and actions must arise. Sincerity, integrity, and altruism may indeed lie behind efforts at making others follow one’s own understanding of Scripture, but the evaluation of evidence in such cases becomes much more difficult.”

 

“I also believe that powerful traditions of Protestant biblical interpretation misled many colonists into thinking that Britain, or the colonies, enjoyed a special divine calling much more than casually analogous to the calling of biblical Israel. Further, dangerously mistaken interpretation of Scripture undercut the charity that the Bible enjoins toward foes, sanctioned murderous assaults on the sort of marginal people for which Scriptures requires special consideration, justified a system of racial slavery with no biblical warrant, and short-circuited the capacity for self-criticism that Scripture everywhere demands of God’s elect people.”

In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783 by Mark Noll Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition

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