Summary: 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.