America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794-1911 by Mark A Noll

America's Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794-1911 cover imageSummary: An exploration of the role of the Bible in American public life from the rise of the new country until just before WW1.

I have read Noll’s work widely. And have had three classes with him in undergrad and graduate school. I am familiar with his work, and I respect him greatly. So it is not lightly that I think that America’s Book I think is my favorite of his books. Part of this is that it is just masterfully done. I can’t think of many books of this size that I read as voraciously. I have always appreciated Noll’s writing, but this book felt more incisive, important, and better written. But as I was thinking about it as I was finishing the book, I realized that part of it was the framing of the story concerning race. Noll is not new to examining how race has impacted American religious history. He has written two books that were particularly about the role of race, God and Race and American Politics and The Civil War as Theological Crisis, but with In the Beginning Was The Word and now in America’s Book, the history of American Christianity is much more intentionally the multicultural and multi-religious history of the US. The main focus of America’s book is looking at the different ways over time that the Bible (primarily the KJV for most of this time) was used by different communities within the United States. So minority communities (whether it is minority religious communities or minority racial communities) are central to telling the story of the differences in how the Bible was used.

America’s Book is the second in a planned trilogy. In the Beginning Was the Word looked at the public use of the Bible in North America before the American Revolution. Diversity of use was important to that story, but part of the thesis of this book is that after the revolution, there was an attempt to come together as a Bible culture. The American Bible Society (ABS) was founded early in the 19th century and became the dominant publisher, not just of Bibles, but of all books and pamphlets. (America’s Book makes me want to read John Fea’s history of the American Bible Society) There was a somewhat successful (depending on the region) push to get a bible in every home in the United States. The ABS was committed to publishing the KJV without notes or commentary, which prioritized the KJV (against the Catholic Douay Rheims and other translations) and was an attempt to avoid sectarian debate.

Noll sets up the main initial debate over the use of the Bible not between Catholics and Protestants (Catholics were a tiny minority initially) but between the “Custodial Protestants and the Sectarian Protestants”. In Noll’s conception, Custodial Protestants are those that “took for granted the comprehensive intermingling of ecclesiastical, governmental and social interests–as well as their own leading position as intellectual and moral preceptors.”(p54). There was a tension between the assumptions of European Christendom translated to the United States, where some sense of religious liberty existed. As sectarian Protestants became numerically and culturally stronger, especially after the second great awakening, the common understanding of the church’s role within the community fell apart, as did the bible’s role. Noll is not evaluating the rightness of sectarian versus custodial Protestantism. Noll subtly points out the difference between those custodial Protestants that took responsibility for the community and those that understood their role to be, in some sense, a divine right to rule based on chosenness.

That chosenness (my term) was part of the problem that arose as the discussion over slavery became more prominent. Slavery was the largest but not the only cause of the fracturing of how the Bible was used. As he points out in The Civil War as Theological Crisis, the Civil War broke more than just the legal entity of the United States, it was a theological fight as well. The other main fractures around the use of the Bible were its use in public schools and how Americans understood their self-conception. Early Americans saw themselves broadly as Christian and centered around a Protestant identity, which used the KJV as a rhetorical, literary, and cultural touchstone, but there was always more diversity than what that identity could hold. Noll has three successive chapters in the middle, all titled “Whose Bible?” that look at how Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, Native Americans, Women, and other naysayers were not content with the status quo identity as a Protestant KJV-only social identity.

I listened to America’s Book on audiobook as I read Karen Swallow Prior’s Evangelical Imagination. The main point of her book is that Evangelicals have a social imaginary. Although many Evangelicals have not explored the social imaginary, their conception of how the world works matters to how they perceive the world around them. Prior suggests that Victorian Age culture has impacted the social imaginary of Evangelicals because that was the era when Evangelicalism originally arose. Prior is primarily pointing to British Victorian culture as she explores the social imaginary of modern Evangelicals, but Noll is exploring American Christians, and it is easy to see her point in the history that Noll is laying out. One easy example is that proslavery Christians largely could not conceive of a valid biblical argument for abolition. In my post about Evangelical Imagination, I shared a quote from America’s Book where Noll points out that proslavery Christians could only conceive of abolitionist biblical arguments as either heretical readings or as abolitionists reading into the scripture that did not exist. While I do not love this article because of the way it centers Russell Moore as if he is saying something new (or even as if this were new for him), Christians rejecting Jesus’ own words because of the way they are interpreting them politically, is a good modern example of the social imaginary that Prior is pointing out.

In discussing the changes in how the Bible was used in the post-Civil War era, we must talk about figures like Robert Dabney. This is because he is a good exemplar of the role that overtly Christian call for white supremacy played, but also he is an example of the turn to biblicist reading against the modernist turn in the understanding of the Bible. Noll does not note this, but Dabney is still recommended by John Piper, the Gospel Coalition, and other conservative evangelicals because of his commitment to the Bible. But Dabney’s commitment to the Bible was a commitment to a type of bible reading that upheld overt white supremacy. (Again, this is a place where the social imaginary impacts biblical use and understanding.) Joel McDurmon has a good section in his book about the role of Christianity in slavery, discussing Dabney’s post-Civil War support of white supremacy.

Returning again to reading America’s Book in light of Karen Swallow Prior’s Evangelical Imagination and Andrew Whitehead’s American Idolatry, and while Noll does not make judgments about whether people like Dabney have distorted Christianity to the extent that they have ceased to be Christian, Dabney is an example of why Michael Emerson speaks about the need to distinguish between Christianity and a “Religion of Whiteness.” I do not know where the line should be drawn exactly, but the evidence throughout America’s Book is that Christianity is not perfectly malleable; at some point, cultural influences on Christianity have changed it so much that it ceases to be Christianity. That is part of what the discussion around Christian Nationalism is about. Andrew Whitehead leans toward identifying Christian Nationalists as Christian (I think in part as a rhetorical tool to draw people toward a better Christianity.) And Michael Emerson leans toward rejecting the Christianity of those he thinks have started following a different religion. Both make good cases for their own choices.

The value of reading America’s Book is to give historical grounding to the discussion of what it means to be a Christian in the US now. We can see that people have regularly used and misused Christianity and the Bible for political purposes, to enforce cultural purity, and for power in the past. Those more culturally distant uses may be easier to see than current examples. But when your social imaginary includes the type of history that Noll shares here, you are better prepared to follow Jesus.

America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794-1911 by Mark A Noll Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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