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An American Bible: a History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880.

By Paul C. Gutjahr. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. 256 pp.

Paul Gutjahr argues that the prominence of the Bible in the lives of Americans began to decline in the first half of the nineteenth century, placing the decay a full generation earlier than Grant Wacker did in 1982. A number of factors led to this decline. A publishing revolution left Scripture competing for the reader's time with newspapers, magazines, journals, pamphlets, and novels. The various English translations, numbering thirty-five by 1880, raised questions about the infallibility and reliability of the Scriptures by introducing a human element into Scripture. The addition of illustrations often added to or detracted from the Bible story. And fictionalized accounts of the life of Christ and other biblical characters turned people away from reading Scripture "by offering Bible stories that were easier to understand and more exciting to read" (p. 173).

In this study, which begins in 1777 (the year of the first American edition of the Bible) and ends in 1880 (the year before the release of the Revised Version, the first real challenge to the King James Version of Scripture), the author makes a number of fascinating observations. Bible publishing was on the cutting edge of print technology throughout the early 1800s, often pioneering such innovations as in-house binding, permanent type sets, power presses, copper plates for illustrations, and electrotyping to place pictures and text on the same page. Moreover, biblical illustrations reinforced the belief in the woman's role as guardian and educator of nineteenth-century religious values. The author credits Alexander Campbell with producing the first modern-language edition of Scripture, replacing words and phrases no longer in use with contemporary English. Finally, pastors and Sunday School teachers recommended Lew Wallace's Ben Hur to the laity as an easy way to learn the geography of the Holy Land.

The most interesting section deals with the Bible and education. With the introduction of sectarian Bibles, which either sought to remove things added at a later date (e.g., the Unitarians eliminated the Trinity) or interpret the proper meaning of the original language (e.g., the Baptists and Campbellites changed "baptism" to "immersion"), some states sought to ban sectarian religious teachings. The issue peaked with the increase in the number of Roman Catholics in America, a group opposed to exposing their children to the Protestant Bible as well as the concept of individual interpretation of Scripture. The result was an Ohio Supreme Court decision in 1872, which "forbade school boards the prerogative of forcing bible [sic] reading and other religious instruction on pupils" (p. 140). This foreshadowed the U.S. Supreme Court actions of the early 1960s.

While one may find the P alliteration for chapter titles annoying and not completely understand the rationale for when and when not to capitalize the word "Bible," these are minor inconveniences in this otherwise superbly researched and well-written account of a little-known aspect of early American religious history.--W. Terry Lindley, associate professor of history, Union University, Jackson, Tennessee.
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Author:Lindley, W. Terry
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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