Bible Reading Altered History THE BIBLE AND LITERACY

By Robert Marquand, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 13, 1991 | Go to article overview

Bible Reading Altered History THE BIBLE AND LITERACY


Robert Marquand, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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