Let Us Talk of Fear
Redacted excerpts used with permission from
An American Bible (Continued from page 2)
American-made bibles were an echo, albeit an immensely magnified one, of the diversity in scriptural reproductive trends that had been active since the time of monastic scribes. What was peculiar to nineteenth-century America was the unprecedented growth of the country's publishing industry and the unprecedented diversity of bible editions that appeared in its publishing marketplace. Even with the incredible growth in American bible production, by the 1880s it was clear that the Bible no longer enjoyed its preeminent place as the most read text in the United States. One minister captured the sentiment of the times when he wrote in 1884: “The fact that the Bible occupies a somewhat different place in the thoughts of well-instructed Christians from that which it held twenty-five or fifty years ago is a fact that cannot be denied.”
Reasons for the bible’s drift from the center of the nation’s print culture are either too complicated or too uninteresting to garner much serious attention. Aside from Grant Wacker’s thoughts on the role German higher criticism played in the Bible’s fracturing influence, treatments of American literature, education, religion and reading tastes never directly address why the Bible lost its preeminence. Obviously, reasons behind such a move are complex, but this study has posited that central, and almost totally unexplored, components to explaining the bible’s changing role in American culture find their roots in the diversification of the country’s print marketplace and bible editions themselves.
While the Bible may have moved from the center of the country’s print culture by the 1880s, it would be horribly inaccurate to say that widespread interest in the Bible no longer existed. The bible did not disappear from America’s publishing marketplace; it simply no longer towered over it.
Perhaps most striking in the attempt to understand the Bible’s changing role is how it forces one to reconsider the Protestant penchant for demanding the Word to stand on its own. Most often applied to Scriptural interpretation, this propensity reaches far beyond intellectual design and ecclesiastical apparatus to touch the material aspect of the text as well. If the story of nineteenth-century American bible publishing teaches us anything, it is that bible packaging, content, and distribution all inseparably work together to give the Book meaning. A book is judged by its cover, as well as by its content and method of conveyance, a precious lesson worth remembering in any attempt to interpret the meaning and influence of the Word once it becomes words.