Mark A. NollDec 9, 2015
In the Beginning was the Word
The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783
University Press 2015
Mark A. Noll is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. His book, In the Beginning was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783 (Oxford University Press, 2015), offers a rich and deep examination of the place of the bible, both as an object and a source of ideas, in the public life of early America. Noll sets out to show the evolution of the colonial relationship with the bible in the context of Christendom, anti-Catholicism and the British empire in which it was understood. Noll offers innumerable examples and references of New England as thoroughly immersed in scripture in which a broad biblicalism saturated the imagination, culture, and politics. Both fervent and lukewarm believers took the authority of the bible for granted providing analogies for interpreting immediate events, inductive instruction, and inspiration for a vast number of political and cultural projects. But the bible was also a double edge sword that could both unite and divide friends and foe. Noll teases out the often-subtle difference in views of the bible that had significant political consequence. Dissenters and religious radicals believed that the bible stood against Christendom and church establishment. Other issues were not only about the bible itself, and whether it was the sole or final authority, but also who could read it and understand it. Slaves, women, and common people under the sweep of revivals, increased literacy, and the tool of a versified text began to interpret the bible for themselves rather than look to the clergy for guidance. This worked to undermine Christendom and created a uniquely American attitude towards the bible. What remained was a providential rhetoric that replaced the empire with the nation, and ongoing debates over scriptural mandates on the economy, slavery, and arguments for or against the Revolution. Noll has demonstrated that it is virtually impossible to understand the colonial society without understanding the place, significance, and prominence of scripture in private and public life.