In 1982, a young scholar named Mark Noll edited a volume of essays entitled The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982). Noll’s interest in this study of the Bible in American life has persevered throughout decades of teaching and scholarship as he became one of the most celebrated historians of American Christianity. Noll once again demonstrates this passion with his publication of In the Beginning Was the Word, his final book in his role as the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.
More than viewing the Bible as Scripture, literature, or text, Noll’s work considers the Bible as a book that has had enormous influence in the intellectual and cultural history of the United States. This work is not simply an argument that the Bible was used by people in colonial America; rather, Noll dives deep into how it was used. He answers three interrelated questions: 1) What does it mean “for Protestants to claim that they followed the Scripture above all other human authorities?” 2) If Scripture was the guide, was it a primary guide, an essential guide, a crucial guide, or the only guide? 3) How did this understanding of scripture (which Noll refers to as “Biblicism”) differentiate the colonies from the Christendom so prominent in Europe and ultimately allow for a rejection of church-state establishments (pp. 2–4)?
In short, Noll describes how the Bible was used (and abused) in the public life of colonial America. A prelude and the first three chapters provide context from Catholicism in New Spain and New France as well as the origins of Protestantism, its particular evolution in England, and the development of the English Bible from William Tyndale to the King James Version. The balance of the book focuses on the Bible’s influence in Protestant Christianity in the British colonies. Understandably, chapter 4 begins with the Puritans’ fixation on the Bible. The following chapters show how, in contrast to a Puritan Biblicism and an intertwining of church and state, an attachment to scripture by colonists developed so that the War of Independence “dealt a death blow to establishmentarian Christendom while at the same time freeing up a vigorous Biblicism to exert far-ranging effects in the new United States” (p. 127). This counterintuitive argument that an embrace of Scripture damaged the colonies’ relationship with British (and European) Christendom animates Noll’s overall argument. Along the way, Noll explains that at times the relationship with the Bible is “deepened” (ch. 8), “thinned,” “absorbed” (ch. 9), and even how the Bible provided both rhetoric and an argument for revolution (chs. 10 and 11).
Noll’s study joins other recent works considering the role of the Bible in late colonial America, including James P. Byrd’s Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) and Daniel L. Dreisbach’s Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). Noll’s distinct contribution is in its scope, both in the eras it covers and in the very range of subjects.
The breadth of the work, while providing a helpful picture of the role of the Bible in America, proves to be a weakness. Because the nature of the work requires a deep reading into the cultural productions to determine how the Bible was utilized by historical actors, Noll settles for fewer examples to establish broader trends. To be sure, Noll’s source material is extensive, even “overexuberant quotation to the point of tedium” in a desire to reflect the “atmospheric ubiquity of Scripture” in colonial America (p. 19). A deep reading of this work, while attending to the myriad articles and books cited in the notes, would provide the student with a well-developed understanding of Christianity in the colonies (and not just in how the Bible was used). But Noll’s arguments concerning the use of the Bible over 300 years feel necessarily generalized from the sources used to support them.
In the end, this is mere quibbling over a work that is meant to provoke further scholarship. While not an easy read, a careful reading of this work will pay great dividends and leave the reader hoping for more. Noll says as much in the conclusion: “After independence came heroic efforts to build a Bible civilization. The extent to which those efforts partially succeeded and eventually failed is a subject that requires its own exploration” (p. 339). Such a study has been done before (see, for example, Paul C. Gutjahr’s An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777–1880 [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999]), but Noll’s experience is bound to allow for new and richer insights on the subject.
Indeed, Oxford University Press’s website refers to Noll’s work as “the first part of a multi-volume set that will trace the history of the Bible in America up to the present day.” With a more relaxed schedule in his post-faculty years, we can all hope that this plan comes to fruition.