Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783

Article excerpt

AMERICAN

In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783. By Mark A. Noll. (New York: Oxford University Press. 2015. Pp. xiv, 431. $29.95. ISBN 978-0-19-026398-0.)

The Bible, according to the eminent religious historian Mark A. Noll, is by far "the single most widely read text, distributed object, and referenced book in all of American history" (p. 1). In the Beginning Was the Word is a sweeping, yet nuanced, "public history" of that book in America, from the first European encoun- ters with the New World through the War for American Independence. Its focus is on the Bible's use for "political, imperial, and national purposes" (p. 5). This is an ambitious project, given that Christianity and its sacred text are thoroughly intertwined with the narrative of American history.

Noll begins his richly textured and well documented volume with a brief prelude on the first Bibles in the New World brought by Catholic explorers and priests. What follows is mostly a Protestant story. The first three chapters examine the place and critical role of the Bible-specifically the vernacular Bible-in European Reformation culture and Protestant theology. The Protestant notion of the "priesthood of all believers" diminished the role of the Church and its priests as mediators between God and man and made it essential for believers to have access to the Bible, which Protestants regarded as authority in all matters of Christian faith and practice, in a language they could read and understand. Noll then turns his attention in the remaining chapters to the Bible in Britain's North American colonies, with chapters on the Bible in New England's Puritan colonies, mid-seventeenthcentury challenges to these Puritan Bible commonwealths, the Bible in an age of religious awakening, the interaction between the Bible and "the population that Christendom had enslaved" (p. 208), and the status of the Bible in a mid-eighteenth-century world shaped by the Enlightenment's expanding influence. The final two chapters examine the complicated rhetorical uses of and appeals to Scripture by opposing sides during the revolutionary era. …

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