Let Us Talk of Fear
Redacted excerpts used with permission from
An American Bible (Continued from page 1)
In the four score years that followed the American Revolution, the American Print Marketplace exploded in terms of volumes of material. Whereas print runs of 2000 were the norm at the time of the Revolution, by the 1850s print runs in the 100,000s were possible – and needed. Before 1800, if anyone owned a book in America it was most likely a Bible or an almanac. In the opening decades of the nineteenth century, this was all changing. One writer moaned in 1817: the “prodigious multiplication of books” in the United States had already “jostled the Bible from its place, or buried it from notice; so that those who formerly read it because it was the only volume they possessed, might be surprised to find, if they were now alive, with how many [people] it is the only volume which is not worth possessing” Not everyone was so pessimistic about the place of the Bible in American print culture, but a comment, no matter how accurate, about the “jostled” position of the Bible is telling.
The hitherto unprecedented competition for the reading time and attention of Americans was met in several ways by those interested in keeping the Bible the preeminent book in the culture. What follows is an analysis of this quest for preeminence, which considers five different aspects of bible production, distribution and reception. The first strategy involved various ways of producing and distributing the Bible in the United States, ultimately focusing on the attempts by the American Bible Society to provide a Bible for every household in America.
The Society sought preeminence for the Bible through a brute force approach, believing that by making the Bible the most accessible text in the United States, they would make it the country's most influential text. This strategy led to the production and circulation of hundreds of thousands of bibles, but it also created a massive diversification of bible editions as publishers sought to compete with the ever-cheaper editions of Scripture offered by the mammoth American Bible Society. In attempting to woo buyers and readers to their bible editions, American publishers helped erode the timeless, changeless aura surrounding "the Book" by making it "the books."
Competition among bible publishers created an ever-expanding array of bible packaging. Bindings became more elaborate, page formatting diversified, and bible illustrations multiplied. The second strategy centered on how different “readings” of bible bindings and bible illustrations changed both why people bought bibles and how they interpreted the bibles they bought.
Expensive materials could make bibles markers of gentility rather than a book to be read, and illustrations could subvert or obscure the meanings of the passages they were supposed to illuminate. Consequently, publishers’ battles to foreground different bible editions in the marketplace created books where the meaning of the Word was radically altered by its very presentation.
While bindings, illustrations, and the vast array of tables, marginal commentaries and extended introductory material helped guide one’s interpretation of the scriptural text, a new wave of work on revising the Bible’s central text began. The third strategy focused on new English translations that appeared throughout the nineteenth century fostered by debates over manuscript accuracy, as well as by differing opinions on how the meaning of the original text might be conveyed to contemporary readers.
As Unitarians, Baptists, Disciples of Christ and others argued over the trustworthiness of the Bible's central text and the limits of language translation, Americans became painfully aware that what they had hitherto viewed as a divinely unmediated text was, in fact, heavily influenced by the fallible nature of human intervention.
As debates raged over the purity of the Protestant bible’s core text, new concerns arose over the relationship of that purity to the nation’s public institutions. The fourth strategy dealt with the diminishing role of the Bible in the nation’s schools. The once largely homogenous composition of the United States began to change in the early years of the nineteenth century as wave after wave of immigrants flooded into the country. Looming large among these numbers were Irish and Catholic immigrants who made Roman Catholicism the largest single denomination by 1840. No longer was the United States a clearly Protestant country, and the nation’s public institutions had to deal with this fact. The controversies which emerged in the midst of the rise of American Catholicism found one of their bloodiest battlegrounds in American public education, where hundreds of Americans would die, be injured, or lose property as various educational reformers, government officials and religious factions attempted to redefine the role of the Bible in American culture.
Not everyone attempted to determine the place of the Bible in American culture by addressing institutional concerns; some approached the topic of winning attention to the Bible through new rhetorical strategies. The final strategy centered on how a number of authors, publishers and clergymen turned to transforming the Bible’s story into less sacred forms of print to turn American readers once again to the Bible. As narrative forms such as the novel became more popular with the American reading public, American Protestants decided to commingle scriptural truth and fictional fancy in order to attract their countrymen to the Bible's message. Perhaps the most popular manifestation of this mixture was the nineteenth-century genre of the lives of Christ, a genre that included titles such as The Book of Mormon, The Prince of the House of David and Ben-Hur. As Americans were introduced to increasingly fictionalized lives of Christ, they were given both a new way to imagine themselves as characters in the Bible's story, as well as a means to avoid the density and complexity of that story. Consequently, an attempt to emphasize the Bible's story resulted in de-emphasizing the Bible itself.