In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783
by mark a. noll
oxford, 448 pages, $29.95
iblical images, idioms, and verses are everywhere in early American historical sources, so much so that historians have often treated the Bible, in Mark Noll’s words, as “wallpaper, simply a backdrop for more important objects of attention.” It’s hard to get a handle on something so pervasive. Noll’s careful scholarship, deep knowledge of the time, and intimate familiarity with Scripture fit him uniquely to take up this challenge.
Noll traces the use of the Bible in American public life from the Puritans’ roots in the Reformation through the Revolution. His survey’s central theme is the relationship between the ideals of Christendom—an organic unity of government, church, and society—and of “biblicism,” a term he uses to convey the commitment to follow “the Bible alone” in structuring all aspects of life and faith.
The American experiment diverged immediately from the experience of European Protestants, for whom the biblicist ideal had a short history. The Reformers spoke in biblicist terms when trying to rid Christendom of what they identified as Catholic errors, but biblicism became a less functional standard once Protestants began to disagree among themselves about the meaning of the Bible. Noll describes how English Protestants, exhausted from the religious and political conflicts of civil war, recoiled from the effort to structure Christendom along strictly biblical lines. Having come to associate the direct application of Scripture to governance with violent conflict and political instability, English Protestants were primed to turn to Enlightenment ideals that promised a reasonable path to tolerance and peaceful governance at the expense of biblical authority.
Biblicism had a different history in America. New England’s Puritans retained the vision of biblical Christendom that their English coreligionists had left behind. This vision ultimately failed, but biblicism retained a strong influence in America, even with, or as Noll suggests, because of, the collapse of Christendom in the colonies. The strongest challenges to a biblical Christendom in America came not, as in Europe, from secular thinkers, but from fellow biblicists. Roger Williams and William Penn, along with other Baptists and Quakers, put the Bible to use against Christendom. While retaining commitment to a biblical civilization, they argued that legal enforcement of worship and belief was itself unbiblical.
Noll summarizes the situation with what he calls an oversimplification, but to which he lends plentiful support: “Where Britain retained Christendom by subordinating the Bible, America would unleash the Bible by overthrowing Christendom.” The American approach to the Enlightenment reflected this telling difference. Colonists would eventually embrace Locke, along with Whig political thought, but as a complement to rather than a substitute for biblical authority. Unlike Europe’s, America’s move away from biblicism was gradual, evolutionary, and incomplete.
In the century between 1660 and 1760, the place of Scripture in the colonies both narrowed and intensified. During these years, American colonists drawn into British imperial battles took on a sense of British identity that conflated Protestantism with British liberty, anti-Catholicism, and commercial prosperity. In this context, still-ubiquitous references to Scripture, particularly in wartime sermons, often served less to build a biblical civilization than to sanctify and strengthen British imperial identity. Noll writes, “the foundational profession of Reformation Protestantism to rely on Scripture before—or even apart from—other authorities faded as Protestant self-identification strengthened.” As long as the relationship between individual believers and communities and the wider social order was contested, Protestants took their direction from Scripture. However, once the Protestant nature of the wider social order seemed settled, colonists felt less need to apply the Bible to the social order. Protestant biblicism found its strength in protest.
By the mid-eighteenth century, economic, political, or philosophical arguments that found their ultimate grounding in “the Bible alone” became rare. Instead of using the Bible to condemn usury or profiteering, New England’s courts and divines began to tolerate usury, defer to the practicalities of commercial life, and value colonial economic success for its contribution to God’s plans for the empire. During this time period, only a few Quakers made biblical arguments against slavery. Colonial philosophy still treated the Bible with respect, but, under the influence of the Enlightenment, colonial intellectuals began to employ arguments from nature and reason that could explain the case for morality, liberty, and God without appeals to revelation. In each case, the Bible retained rhetorical force but lost much of its teaching authority.
And yet, as Noll describes, during the same time period, the Great Awakening led many to rely more intensely on Scripture. Preachers revived the faith of the lukewarm, encouraged believers to rely more deeply on the Bible, and spread the faith effectively to those who had been marginalized and exploited by Christendom, especially African Americans. By focusing on individual conversions apart from traditional church authorities that had, even for Protestants, provided the context for the communication of biblical truth, the revivals encouraged individuals to appropriate Scripture for their own purposes. Proof-texting had been a part of Protestant discourse since the seventeenth century, but during the age of the revivals, it became the customary Protestant system of biblical reference. The Bible of the revivals ultimately undermined Christendom and fueled a new biblicism. However, Noll notes, this was not the biblicism of the Puritan experiment. Focused on individual spiritual transformation, the converted no longer aimed to organize all of American civilization according to scriptural principles.
During the Revolution, colonists appealed to both Scripture and Whig political thought to reject British Christendom. The War of Independence, Noll argues, expanded the rhetorical presence of the Bible in American society and further detached the Bible from traditional forms of authority. He claims that the Revolution led to an upsurge of biblicism, but explains that only in the case of debates over colonial bishops and slavery did colonists actually draw directly upon the teaching authority of Scripture. Arguments for revolution and wartime sermons used Scripture mostly as rhetorical support for ideas grounded elsewhere. According to Noll’s neat formulation, colonists who once conflated a personalized and imperial Bible became Americans who combined a personalized Bible with a national one.
Unfailingly humble and loyal to his sources, Noll clearly shies away from any judgments that might involve speculation or condemnation. He does derive several moral lessons from his study. He concludes that more attention to the Bible did not necessarily mean more virtuous action; that personal engagement with the Bible did result in self-sacrificing service, but also in divisive hubris, mistaken interpretations (such as the identification of America with ancient Israel), and blindness to social evils; and that Protestant spiritual individualism undercut corrupt hierarchies and supported democracy, but also promoted political excesses and violent anti-Catholicism. All of these judgments are fair, and I appreciate Noll’s hesitancy to push his sources too far or to claim too much. While I respect his reticence, though, his narrative raises fascinating issues that, at least for this reader, call out for bolder, more speculative treatment.
Perhaps my own Catholic commitments are to blame, but I kept wondering about the possible conclusions one could reach about the Protestant experiment the book details. Would Noll agree that his narrative implies that Protestant commitment to individual interpretation of Scripture makes a Protestant biblical Christendom impossible to sustain? Or that Protestant civilization in general faces a decision between Christendom coupled with lukewarm religion and an individualistic biblical fervor that fractures communities and divides the Church?
Also, Noll tells a story of political allegiances to empire and then to nation that replaces a Protestant commitment to biblical Christendom. Was this just a historical accident, or could we fairly conclude that personal, individualized religion is particularly prone to politicization? Finally, Noll’s fascinating conclusion that Protestant colonists were most apt to apply biblical teaching to public life when they had an anxious relationship with the wider social order seems to imply a fundamental and revealing link between biblical hermeneutics and cultural anxiety. With a few bolder claims, this book might have done more to help us understand our own religious culture.
Molly Oshatz writes from Mountain View, California.