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America's long love affair with the Scriptures

By Paul O. Williams / September 9, 1999



AN AMERICAN BIBLE: A HISTORY OF THE GOOD BOOK IN THE UNITED STATES, 1777-1880 By Paul C. Gutjahr Stanford University Press 254 pp., $39.50

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Paul Gutjahr's publishing history of the Bible in America takes the story from the first English New Testament published in the United States through the approximately 2,000 editions published before the Revised Standard edition of 1881.

At the beginning of this period, the Bible in the United States was by far the nation's most frequently owned and read book. But by the end of the period, in spite of heroic attempts of Bible publishers to maintain the primacy of the Bible, it was only one of many books in educated households.

Gutjahr maintains that a good part of the cause of this came from the great advances in printing and publishing technology brought about in Bible production itself, advancing techniques that eventually made possible the cacophony of voices that tended to drown biblical importance in a sea of secular writing.

Furthermore, he holds that the competition among publishers to sell their Bibles promoted profusely illustrated versions, from the inexpensive to the Harper's Illuminated Bible, with more than 1,600 pictures. A host of new adjunct books also detracted from the attention the biblical text itself had been given.

He points out, in addition, that biblical fiction, with such books as Joseph Holt Ingraham's "The Prince of the House of David" and Lew Wallace's "Ben Hur," provided further competition for the Bible by providing substitutes for the scriptures that had a suitable religious feel.

In addition to describing the struggles to produce a textually pure scriptures, Gutjahr outlines the battles between Catholics and Protestants over which biblical translations would have primacy in schools and public life, embroilments which seem incredible in our secular times.

The final chapter, "Popularity," examines biblical fiction and other competitors for scriptural attention, as well as the work of Bible promoters to keep the Good Book foremost in public attention.

In his "Postscript," Gutjahr maintains that by the 1880s, the "Bible did not disappear from America's publishing marketplace; it simply no longer towered over it."

While he seems to find reasons for this in the world of publishing, surely there are other reasons as well in the changing interests of the nation, which he does not explore.

Other aspects of his explanations seem to show a keener knowledge of publishing history, which he surely has, than of the temper of the nation.

For example, Scottish common sense philosophy, which he feels accounts for the attitudes of the American Bible Society as late as the 1830s, surely had been largely replaced by Romantic attitudes in publishing as well as in literature, music, art, and architecture.

"An American Bible" was originally a doctoral dissertation, but aside from the welter of detail and the 614 footnotes, he has managed to rescue his text from the desiccated appearance of most dissertations. In spite of its highly academic subject, this book is a very readable treatment of an important chapter in American cultural and religious history.

*Paul O. Williams taught American literature at Principia College for 22 years. He lives in Belmont, Calif.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society