Bible Reading Altered History


If (as hath been showed) all ought to read the scriptures then all ages, all sexes, all degrees and callings, all high and low, rich and poor, wise and foolish have a necessary duty therein....English Puritan minister Thomas Cartwright, 1570 THE Bible - its events, teachings, and meanings - would have little impact on human thought if no one read it. But after Martin Luther's Reformation people did read it - and, more heretically, they debated its meaning. Consider that in 1525 in northern Germany, only 5 percent of the population was literate - most from the learned classes. Yet 150 years later in New England, 95 percent of the population was literate, and from all walks of life - coopers, farmers, merchants, craftsmen. Today, issues around reading, hearing, and interpreting the Bible - literacy issues - get higher priority from historians trying to understand the dynamics and origins of modern Europe and America. Access to the Bible by large numbers of ordinary people for the first time - one of Luther's reforms - is a key to these dynamics. Luther demanded that all have direct access to the Word of God in their own language. People must interpret the Holy Scriptures for themselves, he stated, rather than have their message mediated by churchmen, or obscured by what he referred to as profane church rituals. Cultural historian David Hall of Harvard University argues that "the history of spirituality in Europe and America coincides closely with the printing of the Bible and its dissemination." Hence, questions about who and how many read the Bible, how closely it was read, how affordable Bibles were, and how they influenced sermons and popular and private writings about religious ideas - all are being added to the historical picture. Did people become literate to read the Bible? Or was literacy caused by other forces in society? Prior to the Reformation, few in Europe read. Afterwards, the Bible was forbidden for lay people in the Roman Catholic lands of France, Italy, and Spain. But in northern Europe and England, a revolution was under way. Between 1522 and 1525 Luther's New Testament was an instant bestseller (hundreds of thousands were sold by century's end) according to Reformation scholar Mark Edwards of Harvard. Still, change was gradual. Dr. Edwards notes that, after Luther, "the literacy rate grew very slowly, and there's no clear evidence that people at that time learned to read in order to read the Bible. The drive to read and write is as much, if not more, commercially motivated. Not until the mid-to-late 17th century is a critical mass of ordinary people reading the Bible." The rise of literacy in northern Europe broke apart old authority patterns. It led to the empowerment of the individual and the development of diverse Protestant faiths. In churches and in popular culture, scriptural meanings were debated. New interpretations led to new sects or denominations, and to new experiments in local church government in which lay people and clergy shared power. Scholars such as Patricia Bonomi of New York University and Harry Stout of Yale University see in these experiments the buddings of democracy and self-government in the United States. In "Bread, Knowledge, and Freedom," which examines narratives of working-class Londoners, scholar David Vincent finds that they show "the assertion of the right of every individual to determine his spiritual identity. All that stood between him and his maker was the Bible." Protestantism becomes a kind of historical hothouse for literacy, Dr. Stout says: "Protestantism and literacy were made for each other. Protestantism's innovation is faith and belief, not ritual. The arguments for Protestantism become more persuasive the more literate you are. Its full significance requires literacy, reading, and memorization." Scholars are quick to point out, moreover, that to Bible readers before the 20th century, literacy had a more profound meaning than it does today. Today literacy is considered a mechanical or technical skill. To the religious culture prior to the modern era, however, literacy was conceived of as something almost sacred that was woven into one's entire world view and one's approach to living. "It's hard to use the same word," says Dr. Hall. "There was less separation then between knowing and doing. There was an interchangeability of speech and writing." Hall's 1989 book, "Worlds of Wonder," about popular religious belief in New England, goes further: "In the culture I describe, learning how to read and becoming 'religious' were perceived as one and the same thing. Imagining themselves as the 'Lord's free people' the godly in England and New England valued direct access to the Word of God as the most precious of their privileges. Thus did literacy figure at the heart of cultural politics; thus did it represent the freedom these people proclaimed...." The Bible itself was regarded as a holy, living document, and people turned to it as such. A young English Puritan arguing mightily with his father about his decision to go to the New World wrote: "I hastily toke up the bybell, and tould my fatther if whare I opend the bybell thare I met with anie thing eyther to incuredg or discouredg that should settell me. I oping of it, not knowing no more then the child in the womb, the first I cast my eys on was: Cum out from among them, touch no unclene thing." Scholarship on literacy after Luther has gone through three basic stages. In the older version of church history, Luther prints his Bibles and a giant wave of literacy and Protestantism instantly sweeps Europe. In this view "everybody is happy and homogenous," says Dr. Edwards. "It's not true. The literate in Europe are always a real minority, until the 19th century." The second, postwar, stage uses social history influenced by the French "Annales school." In this view, Europe was divided into two cultures - the educated elite and the pagan masses. Both Protestant and Catholic elites indoctrinated the masses into religion as a form of social control. The third wave might be called "cultural history." It uses aspects of the earlier histories (piety and manipulation, respectively) but seeks to view the past as more complex, variegated, and flexible - where competing voices and stories, elite and poor, religious and commercial, come into play out of a general, shared culture. Cultural history uses statistical evidence (how many people owned Bibles? What kind?) but doesn't draw definitive conclusions from it. (Edwards notes: "People might own a Bible, bu t not read it - like a coffee-table book.") Recent studies show the most popular book in the Bible was Psalms. Some 200 separate editions of Psalms were printed between 1550 and 1640. Psalms conveys the sense of a helping, efficacious God, a deity willing to reach into human lives and help redeem and transform - all the basic elements of English Protestantism, Hall notes.

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