Marking up the Bible
An 1891 edition of the Wheeling Sunday Register published a poem celebrating a mother’s Bible, inherited by the wayward son of a sorrowful woman. The well-read Bible’s “markings here and there / show where she found its peaceful need; where she lingered in silent prayer.” Not just the marks of a pencil, but the stains of her tears wrinkling the Bible’s pages were a guide to her son: “where the precious text is blurred the most, we read the sweetest line.”1
The poem, which was written by the humorist and Baptist layman Robert J. Burdette, drew on a number of Protestant tropes: the faithful mother shedding tears for her son, but also the well-marked Bible as a key to understanding the spiritual life of its owner. The annotation of personal Bibles was a common practice among American Protestants. An obituary, for example, might remark on a “diligent reader of the Scriptures” whose “Bible is full of markings of such passages as specially arrested her attention.”2 Pastors advertised classes on the “method of Bible marking for Christian workers,” which were intended to help evangelists rapidly flip to the key passages of the Scriptures about the way to salvation so that they could readily persuade unbelievers.3 Such markings could even solve crimes, according to the more sensational newspaper headlines. One accused murderer supposedly defaced a pulpit Bible with chalk, underlining the words “for murderers of fathers and mothers, for manslayers.”4 The professor and criminologist E. O. Heinrich, according to the Associated Press, observed, “The average man marks his Bible with a purpose. In doing so he reflects his innermost thought.” With that insight, he used markings in Bibles to prove the faithfulness of a woman estranged from her husband and even to identify a murder victim.5
These stories shared the assumption that people revealed their personalities in the way that they marked up the scriptures. Heinrich, the detective, observed of one criminal, “He has traced in the Scriptures an image of ‘his inner self.’” Burdette’s poem described the mother’s Bible as a “palimpsest”—a layered text where God’s Word was mixed with the markings and annotations of the faithful reader. Notably, the direction of revelation was the opposite of what one might expect. For Protestants, the purpose of Bible readings was to have the Scriptures make an impression on the heart of the reader that was powerful enough to transform him or her into a different person.6 But for the psychologist and the newspaper reporter, the fact to be observed was not so much that the Bible made its mark on a person, but that in making literal marks on the Bible, people revealed something essential about themselves.
Not unlike the criminologist, historians have sometimes turned to markings in personal Bibles as a form of evidence. Highlights and underlining in the text, comments in the margin wrestling with the text—such annotations are a useful guide to how individuals read the Bible. They show how readers do not give equal weight to all parts of the text. Some readers favor the Psalms, others the Epistle to the Romans, others the eschatological passages. They provide clues as to how such readers interpreted passages and put them to use. While such sources are necessarily partial, leaving out much of religious experience and practice, historians can nevertheless learn a great deal about how historical individuals read the Bible looking at how they marked it up.7
It takes only a small leap of the historical imagination to come up with a parallel that would allow historians to study a congregation rather than an individual. One might imagine the stereotypical pulpit Bible—an imposing, leather-bound folio. Presumably most churches discourage their congregants from marking up the pulpit Bible. But we could figure out other ways for learning how a congregation interpreted the scriptures. Perhaps we could catalog all the texts that the ministers preached from, or that were discussed at Bible studies, or that children were assigned to memorize. Again, not every text would receive equal weight, and the members of any congregation would likely have differences of opinions about the texts that they studied. We would find these patterns of usage revealing.8 Scholars of religion have in fact figured out such methods, turning to surveys, studies, and sociological or anthropological observation of Bible readers to see what use they make of the sacred text.9 The artifact of a marked-up congregational Bible might not exist, but conceptually and methodologically there is a relationship between these forms of study.
Can we also imagine what an annotated Bible might look like, not for an individual or for a congregation, but for the public sphere? Many scholars have demonstrated the significance of the Bible in public affairs in the United States. For that matter, many religious groups, especially Protestants, have claimed that the United States has had, or ought to have, a special relationship to the Bible.10 Others, of course, have contested that idea. For instance, the Bible’s role in public schools has long been disputed. Arguments and even violence have erupted between Catholics and Protestants over which versions should be read and which students should be required to listen to them. Court cases about whether the Bible should be read at all have been a major part of establishing the jurisprudence of religious freedom since the First Amendment was incorporated by the Supreme Court.11
If we look for a Bible for the public sphere, we are unlikely to find it solely as a physical object. We might find certain key texts carved in stone.12 The Lincoln Memorial, for instance, features a wall engraved with Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. That address—with its many citations of the Gospels and the Psalms, and its structure as a jeremiad—is as much a sermon as a speech, and it arguably captures the essence of the American experiment better than any other text.13 As important as such memorials and disputes over them (such as arguments about the presence of the Ten Commandments in courthouses) might be for discussions of historical memory or the role of religious symbolism in public, they provide only a very small base of sources. As cultural historical sites they are primary sources at least one remove from the events they commemorate.
America’s public Bible is necessarily an imaginary text. But then, in a sense the nation and (less obviously) the Bible are themselves the product of imagination. Scholars have long emphasized that the nation as a group of people linked across time and space is an act of the imagination.14 Understanding the United States as a nation took the power of imagination as expressed in maps depicting the nation’s history and its territorial ambitions, as well as imagination about who was included and who was excluded from the national project.15 Religion, and in particular Christianity, played a role in creating that “imagined community” of the nation, though to what extent the Bible contributed to a sense of Christian nationalism in the United States is one of the topics that we will have to consider.16
The Bible is also an imaginary text. As Seth Perry points out, “the Bible” is an abstraction whose imagined unity and consistency does not line up with the experience of “bibles” as material objects.17 Physical bibles vary hugely in terms of what they include, how they present the biblical text, which readership they aim to reach, and the interpretative aids that they use to shape readers’ understanding of the Bible.18 Translation of the Bible into various languages has been a matter of contention since at least the early modern period. None of the main branches of Christianity have agreed precisely on which texts are a part of the canon. For that matter, Christians have adopted the Hebrew Bible, but Jews of course do not accept the Christian New Testament.19 The unity of the Bible came under further questioning in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Then doubts about the exact text of the Bible and the way it should be translated were greatly exacerbated by nineteenth-century trends in biblical scholarship. The rise of lower criticism re-established the text of the Greek New Testament on the basis of textual criticism. Higher criticism called into question traditional dating and authorship of significant portions of the Bible, from the Pentateuch to the Epistles of Paul. Revision of the King James Version of the Bible, for Protestants at least, led to the proliferation of new translations of the Bible and correspondingly a shift in the authority of the Bible (see figure 1).20 For that matter, innovations in printing and binding, combined with the imperatives of market capitalism, led to an explosion in the types of Bibles, segmented by price and audience, that were available in the United States.21
Text, translation, material form—to mention these variations is to say nothing of the weightier matter of interpretation. Sects and denominations proliferated in the United States for many reasons but not least because individuals and groups claimed to read the Bible alone, on its own authority. They propounded every kind of “private interpretation” so that the Bible could scarcely be claimed to speak with a unitary voice.22 “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God,” are the words engraved in the Lincoln Memorial, capturing in a phrase the process that scholars have expounded on at length.23 Though both sides claimed it, the Bible failed to solve the most pressing problem of slavery or, for that matter, any other political problem. The Bible in the imagination of an apologist for slavery like Robert Lewis Dabney and that in the imagination of a Black woman like Maria Stewart were unrecognizably different.24 Such variations in interpretation took place at precisely the moment that the interpretation of the Bible supposedly became more scientific, more scholarly, and more informed by the historical-critical method.
The point is that “the Bible” is an abstraction which glosses over a world of variation about which texts are included, how those texts are translated, how they are interpreted, by whom, to what ends, and with what authority (if any) the Bible is presumed to have. That abstraction is useful because it is one which many of the people whom historians and religious studies scholars study have so often deployed for their own purposes. It is also a useful abstraction for historical analysis, because it assembles in a convenient package a range of questions of interest for the history of American religion.
The marked-up Bibles of the mother, the pastor, and the psychologist have an appealing fixity against such abstractions. But if we seek to understand how the Bible was used in the national life of the United States, we will need to make use of the abstractions of the Bible and the nation. Can we find an analogue to the annotated scriptures, a way of studying America’s public Bible?
America’s public Bible
America’s Public Bible: A Commentary is a study of how biblical quotations and allusions were used in U.S. newspapers during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Using computational methods, the project detects biblical quotations in the pages of those newspapers. It uncovers trends in how biblical verses were quoted in newspapers, showing how the popularity of various parts of the Bible waxed and waned over time. It also points users to the location of specific quotations on the newspaper page, where they can understand the meaning of the quotation in context. Through a series of visualizations and essays, this website offers a commentary on America’s public Bible.
How to use this website
This website contains elements akin to a traditionally published book, but it also contains interactive elements that take advantage of the medium of the web. All of the elements of this website are accessible from the home page, which serves as a table of contents.
The different elements of the site form an interpretative pyramid, something like the e-books that Robert Darnton envisioned:
- At the base are quotations in the newspaper. You can browse the gallery of quotations to see examples or see the datasets for a complete list.
- Those quotations are aggregated into trend lines, which are accompanied by tables of quotations. You can start by browsing the featured verses.
- Verse histories take the information from the trend lines and the quotations and offer brief interpretative essays on their history.
- Longer essays introduce the site and its methods and address other questions on the history of the Bible in the United States.
As a digital monograph, the site constitutes a particular configuration of sources and methods, form and interpretation, which creates an interactive but also interpretative work of scholarship.
The sources for this project are two large collections of newspaper texts from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The first, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, is a collection of newspapers funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and hosted by the Library of Congress.25 The second, Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers (hereafter NCNP), is a commercially available collection from Gale.26 Chronicling America offers the text of about 15 million newspaper pages, while NCNP offers the text of 1.9 million pages divided into 19.6 million items, including articles, editorials, advertisements, and other types of newspaper content.27
This project uses a set of methods from computational history to find and then analyze a set of biblical quotations in those sources. A computer program has scanned these texts in order to find quotations from several of the most commonly used versions of the English Bible: chiefly the King James Version, but also the Revised Version (1885) and American Standard Version (1901) used by Protestants, the Douay-Rheims version used by Catholics, and the Jewish Publication Society (1917) version. The program measures certain things about those matching phrases: How many of them are there? Are they phrases that are distinct to the Bible (such as “through a glass darkly”) or are they common phrases in English? Is an entire verse present on a page, or only certain phrases? A machine-learning model then sorts through all the potential matches to find the ones that are likely to be genuine. The program has turned up millions of quotations, which are presented and analyzed in this digital monograph.
While the computational techniques that identify the quotations obviously constitute a method, the approach to reading the quotations is no less a methodology. Too much of digital historical research describes quantitative or technical approaches but neglects to surface the methodologies of interpretation, which are more akin to conventional historical research.28 The computational methods bring to our attention a set of quotations which no reader could identify without their aid. This process is akin to the far more common historical approach of keyword searching—a method which is obviously computational and quantitative but which historians have not regarded as such.29 But the search process for this project is more disciplined in the sense that computational methods turn up quotations not one by one but in the context of the newspapers and of the trends in quotations. Yet it is also serendipitous, in that the algorithm turns up many surprising quotations that a researcher would likely have never thought of on their own. To use Lauren Klein’s memorable phrase, the computational methods are a form of “stirring the archive.”30 This disciplined serendipity nevertheless requires careful reading of the context of the quotations like a more conventional cultural or religious historian would do.31 It is on such readings that most of the written content of this site rests.
The form of this project likewise stands outside the norm. To readers accustomed to scholarship in the form of books and journal articles, the project is unusual for being an interactive scholarly work, combining interactive visualizations with prose. The centerpiece of the site is a set of interactive visualizations that show the trends in rates of quotations for many verses from the Bible. The site also features other visualizations that show other ways of understanding how the Bible was used in newspapers. Those visualizations are in part intended for use by scholars to inform their own study of the Bible in American history.32 But they also undergird a series of essays published on this site about various aspects of the history of the Bible. Besides its novel source base, the site thus comprises a digital monograph, combining prose with the affordances of databases, visualizations, and the web to attempt an unusual form of scholarship.
But again, as with the methodology, the differences in form brought about by the digital nature of this project are not our only consideration. The more significant change to form is that this project is a commentary rather than a monograph. It is a commentary in the sense, to be elaborated on further below, that it is structured around the biblical text itself. While not a commentary on the biblical text, it is a commentary on how the biblical text was used. That is not to say that this work is not argumentative or interpretative. A biblical commentary that claims only to be undertaking the exegesis of a text is of course taking one contested position on the text. But the text is structured explicitly as a paratext, rather than as a narrative or argument. In choosing this form, I have been motivated by the obvious harmony with other approaches to studying the Bible in America. But it has also been an attempt at finding a middle ground that respects the way that this research is rooted in a mass of sources for which a single explanation is probably not possible, but for which many explanations at different levels of analysis can be offered. It is thus an attempt to combine the exploratory and the argumentative, and thus to combine computational digital history and more conventional historical approaches.
Scholars have brought an enormous range of creativity to the study of the Bible, including ethnographic studies;33 counting texts that were used and the context in which they were used;34 studying marginalia; identifying allusions and writing commentaries on historical texts;35 surveys of readership;36 studies of the process of the scripturalization of texts;37 studies of the material form of the text;38 intellectual histories of the Bible and its use;39 analysis of the major institutions that promoted the Bible, especially the American Bible Society;40 histories of the translation and interpretation of the Bible;41 explorations of the political contexts of the way that the Bible is used;42 and studies of readership of the Bible and its place in print culture.43 Recent edited collections have traced the Bible’s significance through a huge array of time periods, religious traditions, and areas of human endeavor, from art to politics.44 Among historical studies, Mark Noll has done the work of synthesizing the history of the Bible in the United States into a coherent narrative.45 Other scholars have studied the prevalence of the Bible down to the presence, finding its influence has shifted but that it still remains prominent.46
This project takes its place among that already large literature. In its unusual configuration of sources and methods, form and interpretation, it offers an approach to studying the history of the Bible that combines a broad overview with attention to small details, thus allowing us to see the shape of the abstraction that is America’s public Bible.
Sources: The Bible in the newspapers
For most of its issues in 1902, the Ellensburg Dawn of Washington state featured a quotation from Benjamin Franklin prominently on its front page. “A Bible and a newspaper in every house,” the masthead proclaimed, “are the principal support of virtue, morality, and civil liberty.”47 The quotation from Franklin was doubtless spurious, and its use in the newspaper was obviously self-serving. But in yoking the newspaper as a source of information about public affairs and opinion to the Bible as a source of public virtue and morality, the paper expressed the sense that the two kinds of texts were linked. In fact, not only can we find the Bible and the newspaper celebrated together, but we can also find that the Bible was frequently quoted, discussed, advertised, and promoted within the pages of American newspapers.
The reasons for using newspaper corpora as the sources for this project are partly pragmatic. Newspapers were a primary record of public affairs. Newspapers in the nineteenth century were not “hard news” venues like the twentieth-century ideal of newspaper, but they were public venues for cultural and political topics, commercial and religious information alike.48
Newspapers are one of the few large collections of historical texts that have been both digitized in a format suitable for text mining and where the digitized corpora are in the public domain. Without valuing scale for the sake of scale alone, large corpora are suitable for use with text analysis methods that do not work on smaller corpora. For instance, to establish the trends in quotation with some certainty, it is necessary to have a corpus that is big enough so that even texts which are quoted relatively infrequently show up often enough.49
Newspaper issues are also published on specific dates. They are published faster than books, and they tend to discuss topics of interest quickly and then be done with them.50 While newspapers did reprint stories frequently, they were not republished like books are and so are more closely associated with a particular date. Newspapers are thus closely bound to the passage of time and so can be used to understand the trends in quotation. It is even possible to identify instances over the course of days or a few weeks where a quotation was popular, perhaps because it was used by some prominent public figure.
Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, newspapers in the United States—even newspapers which were not published by a religious denomination or organization—had frequent recourse to the Bible. Newspapers printed sermons and Sunday school lessons, and ministers offered lessons through newspaper Bible clubs.51 Newspapers featured jokes whose punchlines required familiarity with the Bible. They aired political commentary that cited the Bible on all sides of a given issue. They ran features on Thomas Jefferson’s edited Bible and Abraham Lincoln’s use of the Scripture.52 On Good Friday, Easter, and Christmas they reprinted long portions of the Scripture.53 They opined on revisions to the English Bible, and offered word-by-word comparisons of the changes in new translations.54 They made money from advertisements for Bibles of every kind. Some newspapers even sold Bibles directly as a way of raising revenue or gave them away as an incentive to subscription (figure 2).55 The mass production of newspapers and Bibles were both enabled by changes in printing technology, and the proliferation of Bibles meant that newspapers that offered them as gifts meant that newspapers had to distinguish their edition of the Bible from others with lengthy explanations and quotations.56
But most of all, newspapers quoted or alluded to the Bible with great frequency on nearly every topic. For the reasons explained in the chapter on methodology, identifying quotations and then determining the trend in rates of quotation for specific verses is a difficult task. But taking as given that those trends can be established, this project has turned up some 1.8 million biblical quotations and established the trends in quotation for some 2,918 individual verses from the Bible. These quotations and trends constitute a useful source for understanding how the Bible in public life was ubiquitous.
Methods: Scale, search, and serendipity
At least, ubiquitous is a word that historians of the Bible commonly use to describe its presence in the United States. In a certain sense, that term is correct. While no one quite means that the Bible’s presence is literally everywhere, it does turn up in practically every place that one might go looking for it. The sheer mass of primary source material for the history of the Bible is one kind of problem—a problem only exacerbated by identifying millions of quotations. But on the other hand, identifying the Bible as ubiquitous is unsatisfying and insufficient as a historical claim. However extraordinarily common the Bible—again, an abstraction—was in American history, its presence was extraordinarily variegated. So divergent were the uses of the Bible that we need to understand that variation, rather than the ubiquity.
The challenge is to find a way of describing the Bible’s presence in a way that is produces historical insights. The approach that this project takes is to operate at three different scales of analysis. The fact that a quotation occurred on a particular newspaper page can aggregated into trends for individual verses, and those trends can in turn be aggregated for the Bible as a whole. We can then ask different questions about the way the Bible was used at different scales of analysis and what the reasons were for changes in how it was used over time.
The biggest scale, then, is the rate at which the Bible as a whole was quoted in the two newspaper corpora. These general trend lines show the ebb and flow in quotations of the Bible. Intriguingly, these trends do not show a simple decline in the rate of quotation, indicating that the Bible’s presence did not become less important over time. Nor do they show a significantly different trend for the New Testament versus the Old Testament. But this level of analysis is comparatively less important, because it is difficult to make any significant claims on the basis of this evidence. For example, does the overall trend for the Bible provide evidence for or against a growing secularization of American discourse? Such a framing is not a particularly useful one. Simply knowing that the Bible was used more or less frequently tells us relatively little.
The second scale of analysis is the trend lines for individual verses. This middle level of analysis is much more useful for understanding the Bible’s history. Even if the Bible was ubiquitous, it was by no means the case that all parts of the Bible were used with equal frequency, nor that the frequency with which different texts were used stayed the same over time. Scholars sometimes use the concept of a “canon within the canon” to describe how certain parts of the Bible receive much more attention than others. America’s Public Bible provides empirical evidence about what texts were actually used, how frequently, and how they fell into and out of favor. The Bible as a whole might have been ubiquitous, but the ubiquity of its constituent parts varied greatly over time. There were many possible reasons for those variations, as explained below, but the trend lines for individual verses provide more meaningful evidence than the trend for the Bible as whole.
The third level of analysis involves looking at specific instances of quotations. Computing the trend lines depends on knowing that a verse was quoted, in a certain newspaper, on a certain date. But the mere fact that a part of the Bible was quoted is only suggestive. It is necessary to dig deeper by looking at the context of the quotation where possible. In addition to the trend lines for each verse, this site also includes links to the newspaper pages in Chronicling America, with the key words from the verse highlighted. Given that there are millions of quotations, it is obviously not possible to examine each in its context. But a judicious examination of some of these quotations can reveal why verses were quoted, by whom, and to what ends. These provide political, cultural, and religious contexts for the quotations, giving meaning to the bare trend lines.
The main part of this site, then, is comprised not of a broad overview of how the Bible is used, nor of close readings of individual instances, but of a middle level of analysis of the trends for specific verses. These verse histories include data analysis of the trends combined with close reading of specific instances of a quotation, along with connections to the broader religious, political, and social histories of the time. In our era of over-enthusiasm about big data and data analytics, this project could easily be seen as a hubristic attempt to solve the history of the Bible. But my hope is that it is much more targeted: a contribution that uses computational history and the affordances of the web and of data visualization, mixed with more traditional methods of reading sources, in order to understand the Bible not as evenly ubiquitous, but as an ever-changing text that was changed to fit the times.57
Interpretations: Factors that influenced the Bible’s popularity
If the way that the Bible was quoted changed constantly, then we should ask what reasons explain those changes. The reasons that any particular verse varied in popularity will of course be particular to that verse. But it is possible to understand what the key factors were that influenced a quotation’s popularity, which in turn gives us an understanding of how the Bible entered American public life.
One important reason that a verse might become more frequently quoted was that it was relevant to whatever was newsworthy at the time. Newspapers, more than books and perhaps more than sermons, were likely to be highly sensitive to both short- and long-term trends in what was worth quoting from the Bible.
A sudden burst of relevance can explain a short-term spike in the graph. One example is when Theodore Roosevelt lost the nomination for the Republican Party in 1912. In response he gave a speech, in which he quoted from the Ten Commandments and alluded to the story of Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright. Roosevelt claimed that his political principles went “back to Sinai, and is embodied in the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ Thou shalt not steal a nomination. Thou shalt neither steal in politics nor in business. Thou shalt not steal from the people the birthright of the people to rule themselves.”58 His speech containing that quotation from the Decalogue was then reprinted in dozens of newspapers over the next few weeks and spurred others to comment on his speech. But as the speech quickly lost its currency as news, so the quotation from the Bible lost its currency.
But the increasing relevance of a verse could also be gradual, rather than sudden. Take, for instance, the text “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). That verse became increasingly popular over the the last few decades of the nineteenth century and first few decades of the twentieth. The verse had occasionally been used to commemorate those who died caring for those infected in epidemics like yellow fever, or those who died trying to rescue the victims of natural disasters. Its growth in popularity, though, was in large part due to its association with the deaths of soldiers and sailors, especially during the Great War. The verse became a constant in obituaries from the time. The text entered the customary discourse around death and commemoration gradually, and it was ready at hand when the the First World War gave occasion for its use.
As both of those examples illustrate, the changes in trends of a verse were not determined solely by its currency in the public discourse. A second reason why verses changed in popularity was because of the kinds of items that newspapers published. Roosevelt’s quotation from the Ten Commandments was popular because newspapers reprinted texts. Political speeches or other such texts at the peak of public awareness were of course commonly reprinted or quoted. But as the Viral Texts project has shown, newspapers reprinted not just news items and noteworthy speeches but all kinds of texts, including poetry, recipes, jokes, stories, proverbial wisdom, and information literature.59 Reprinting in newspapers magnified the popularity of texts that were deemed worth reprinting, including texts that quoted from the Bible.
The quotation commemorating fallen soldiers was popular because newspapers published obituaries. When obituaries became a regular feature of local newspapers, verses that could be used for commemoration or mourning were more likely to appear. But obituaries were not the only kind of recurring feature. Many newspapers, even those not formally published by religious groups, regularly published religious content. As the Sunday School movement arose during the nineteenth century, Sunday school lessons printed in newspapers were especially common. Often emblazoned across the top of those lessons were the words: “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16).60 Newspapers also sometimes regularly reported on the sermons that were being preached and mentioned the texts the preachers used. At other times newspaper published Bible study clubs, the equivalent of Bible study by correspondence, complete with contests and prizes (see figure 5).61 By the 1880s, as revision of the translation of the English Bible became a matter of concern throughout the world of Anglophone Christianity, newspapers sometimes published lengthy comparisons of the King James Version and the Revised Version.62 As these various categories of items in newspapers changed, the prevalence of verses that were likely to be quoted in them changed as well.
Besides such content that newspaper editors and readers would have obviously classified as Christian or religious, such as the sermons or Sunday school lessons, or content such as obituaries that were connected to lifecycle events associated with religious observances, there were also types of newspaper content that blurred any naive line between the secular and the sacred even in religiously unaffiliated newspapers. Chief among these were newspaper advertisements, especially advertisements for Bibles sold by newspapers. Over the course of the nineteenth century, newspapers increasingly became dependent on advertisements for their revenue. And advertisements sometimes used the Holy Writ to encourage people to buy products. As Christmas, and to a lesser extent, Easter became holidays for gift giving, newspapers found that the Bible could help their advertisements in those seasons.63 Retailers and department store pioneers like James Cash Penny were fond of quoting the verse “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) in their advertisements.64 Sometimes newspapers even advertised their advertisements using the Bible. For instance, under a quotation of this verse in large type, the Evening Times of Grand Forks instructed readers, “Start now and read The Times’ advertisements closely and constantly every day. Then you will know where to buy and what to give and purchase all your Christmas presents to best advantage” (see figure 6).
The Bible appeared in the newspaper, then, for a variety of reasons. The trends in the rate of quotation were driven in some instances by connections to newsworthy events or the recirculation of texts, and in other instances by changes to the types of content that newspapers published. This site does try to identify specific instances of quotations which were popular for a moment, and more broadly to group verses together with similar trend lines to see which verses were used at the same time. But for the most part, the visualizations present those trends without attempting to sort out the multitude of factors that influenced them, which is probably not possible and likely not even desirable.
These trends are therefore in need of further interpretation, to tease out the differences between the secular and the sacred and to identify trends driven by events and those driven by much deeper changes, particularly in the mindset and worldview of the people who quoted the Bible and the even larger array of people who read the articles containing those quotations. The trends can be combined with a more traditional reading of the articles and advertisements that contained the quotations, to find out not just what texts were used and when, but in what type of articles and for what purposes, and how the use of the Bible changed over time. What it needs is not just the evidence of America’s public Bible, but a commentary on it.
Form: Commenting on the public Bible
America’s Public Bible is an experiment in the form of historical scholarship. It is likely to be obvious to you upon browsing this site that it is a different kind of history than the typical monograph. The interactive visualizations and the dynamic tables of data at its center are perhaps the most straightforward way in which the form of this work is different from a print monograph. This work relies on computation to identify and find biblical quotations in newspapers and then on data analysis to make sense of the patterns of quotations.
But at the heart of what makes this project different from the typical form of historical scholarship is that it is a commentary. A commentary is not at all common as a form of historical scholarship. A rare example of history as commentary would be the annotations provided by documentary editors. Among works on the history of the Bible in the United States, Valerie Cooper has provided a brilliant example of commentary as argumentative scholarship in a chapter (embedded in a larger monograph) which reprints Maria Stewart’s 1831 address “Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality” with a thorough commentary on Stewart’s biblical allusions and their meaning.65
If rare in historical scholarship, a commentary that offers an exegesis of some significant text is a common form of scholarship in other disciplines. Most obviously, commentaries are a common genre in biblical scholarship. In its typical form, a biblical commentary divides up the text pericope by pericope, or even verse by verse, with each section of the biblical text being followed by an explanation. Usually that explanation includes a discussion of the words used, perhaps in the ancient languages; an exegesis of the meaning of the passage; an outline of the passage’s place in the larger structure of the biblical book under consideration; a discussion of the historical context of the passage; cross-references to other biblical passages; and perhaps didactic comments intended to stir devotion in the readers. Sometimes volumes undertook the task of commentary as a series of footnotes or annotations on the text. It is worth pointing out that biblical commentaries became increasingly popular during the nineteenth century, the primary period studied in this work. Popular commentators such as Matthew Henry and Albert Barnes were commonly published in this period, as were more scholarly commentaries such as the International Critical Commentary, begun midcentury (see figure 13).66
But America’s Public Bible is not a commentary on the Bible in the way that a nineteenth-century pastor or a twenty-first-century critical scholar might comment on the text itself. Rather it is a commentary on how Americans have used the Bible throughout their history, at least as discussed in public through the medium of the newspaper. Rather than being a work of biblical scholarship, it is a work of historical scholarship on the Bible. In a recent essay, Paul Gutjahr summarized the kinds of ways that Americans have engaged with the Bible.67 From the perspective of a historian of religion, the list mixes both scholarly activity and the kinds of activities that scholars study, including (1) textual interpretation, (2) biblical translation, (3) bibliographic and textual work on the Bible, (4) historical work on the Bible, (5) cultural examinations of the Bible, and (6) reception studies of the Bible. This rubric is helpful for examining what America’s Public Bible is studying and where it fits in with other works on the Bible in America. The work falls firmly into the category of reception studies of the Bible, as well as a cultural examination of its place in the Untied States.68
A commentary is a form of scholarship in between argumentation and exploration, which draws attention to both the interpretations of the scholar and the object of study. Making due allowance for the difference between an interactive work of digital scholarship and a printed commentary, this work shares the form of a commentary for the following reasons.
First, the commentary is keyed to the text, and is in fact organized verse by verse. In the centerpiece interactive visualization, users are invited to explore the patterns of how specific verses were quoted. Like a commentary taking up each verse in turn, that visualization is keyed to specific biblical references.
Second, the commentary is intended to turn the reader’s attention from the annotations back to the original text itself. In this case, though, the original text is not the Bible but the primary sources that contained biblical quotations. For quotations that originated in the Chronicling America corpus, links are provided back to that site, where users can examine the quotations in context on the page.69 There is much more to be learned from the interactive visualization as a pointer to the primary sources than the rest of this project can capture. This project is a work of argumentative scholarship, but it is also a reference work for other scholars.
Third, the commentary is accompanied by essays that seek to make argumentative historical interpretations.70 If the interactive visualization at the heart of the project is like the verse-by-verse exegesis in a commentary, then these essays are like the introductory chapters in a commentary which try to gather the major themes of the biblical book. But in this case, the essays are trying to capture the major thematic threads which might be missed at a lower level of analysis.
In short, America’s Public Bible is a work of scholarship that has adopted a different form than the monograph, even as it aims to advance some of the goals of interpretative scholarship assumed by the monographic tradition. Like a commentary, it is a mix of reference work and interpretation, a waypoint for other scholars as well as a work of scholarship on its own terms. This difference is made possible by the affordances of digital publication, which provide a way to navigate large corpora, a tight integration with primary sources, and visualizations as equal partners with prose. But it also takes up a form which is native to the subject at hand while completely reconfiguring it for a different purpose.
The Bible as a medium of discourse
So what does the commentary show? Like any commentary, the usefulness of this site is less in its overarching claims than in the details that it uncovers. As with any commentary, readers will come to this site seeking to make their own interpretations, and it is quite likely that the reader will be more interested in the materials that this site provides than the arguments that it advances. You are invited to make use of this site as a reference work, a commentary, or an argument as it suits your purposes. You may find many entry points into the project, either through this introduction or the discussion of methodology; through the visualizations; or through any of the thematic essays.
But the commentary’s overarching argument is that the Bible is primarily a medium through which public discourse happened, rather than primarily a substantive source for that discourse. Many American Protestants who thought of the Bible seriously as the source for all human endeavors walked a fine line between the clarity and mystery of the Scriptures. On the one hand, many Protestants believed wholeheartedly in the perspicacity of the Scriptures, a doctrine which held that the meaning of the Scriptures was sufficiently plain that any believer could understand it on his own, without even the aid of pastor or priest. God had written the Scriptures so plain that “he who runs may read,” in the memorable phrase from the prophet Habakkuk. But on the other hand, those same Protestants wrestled with the text, and filled their bookshelves with commentaries, Sunday school lessons, and sermons in the hopes of better understanding the Word of life. The Scriptures were full of the “the words of the wise, and their dark sayings,” as King Solomon had said.
When the Bible was quoted in the newspapers, the way it was used mirrored that paradox of clarity and confusion. When the Bible was cited on one side or the other of an issue, only rarely was its meaning explicated rather than assumed. It was far more common to treat the text as an authority to be cited rather than as a text to be understood. Those who cited the text most typically thought that their readers would understand its meaning precisely as they did.
The multiple and mutually exclusive ways in which newspapers used the Bible put paid to that assumption. If the Bible could be cited against slaveholding, then it could also be used to bolster a slave society.71 The Bible spoke in favor of capitalism and markets, and also cried out for the plight of the worker. The Bible condemned whiskey and “demon rum,” unless it didn’t. The Bible promoted peace and pacifism, and also supported the nation in its wars against Mexico, Spain, and Germany. The apostles and prophets were Republicans, unless they were Democrats. In short, any given quotation from the Bible seemed a source of certainty, but in the aggregate they sowed confusion.72
The significance of the Bible in public discourse, then, was less what in it said—or was made to say—but in the fact that people said what they had to say in the language of the Bible. By looking at uses of the Bible in newspapers, we can see which parts of the Bible were in common currency among Americans, as well as the range of interpretations that were given to those verses. Verses that could be cited without a reference, or used in jokes and proverbs, indicated a kind of literacy or familiarity, and possibly a shared assumption about what those verses could be interpreted to mean. Verses that were used constantly were a shared cultural touchstone, while verses that were used only episodically reveal the tensions in a particular political or social situation. By looking at how the verses were actually used, we can see how the Bible was a contested yet common text. Like the markings that they made in their Bibles, the verses that they quoted tell us nothing about the Bible, but a lot about nineteenth-century Americans.
Wheeling Sunday Register (Wheeling, WV), 13 Dec. 1891, p. 9. The poem was later published as “Mother’s Version” in Robert Jones Burdette, The Silver Trumpets (Philadelphia: Sunday School Times Company, 1912), 35. ↩︎
Candy Gunther Brown, The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789–1880 (University of North Carolina Press, 2004). ↩︎
My colleague Mack Holt is doing precisely this with a study of marginal annotations in early modern French Bibles. ↩︎
Goff et al. have studied, for example, how congregations use the Bible. Philip Goff, Arthur E. Farnsley II, and Peter J. Thuesen, eds., The Bible in American Life (Oxford University Press, 2017). ↩︎
T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (Knopf, 2012). ↩︎
Mark A. Noll, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783 (Oxford University Press, 2016). ↩︎
Steven K. Green, The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash That Shaped the Modern Church-State Doctrine (Oxford University Press, 2012). ↩︎
The Museum of the Bible’s “Washington Revelations” takes exactly this approach, providing visitors with a video that allows them to “fly past iconic places like the Lincoln Memorial, through the U.S. Capitol and over the Washington Monument as you discover biblical imagery and verses all around Washington, D.C.” (accessed February 25, 2019). On the Museum of the Bible more generally, see Kelly Gannon and Kimberly Wagner, “Museum of the Bible, Washington, D.C.,” Journal of American History 105, no. 3 (2018): 618–25, https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jay283. ↩︎
Andrew R. Murphy, Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment from New England to 9/11 (Oxford University Press, 2009). ↩︎
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed (Verso, 2006). ↩︎
Susan Schulten, Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Chicago Press, 2012). ↩︎
Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Noll, eds., The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History (Oxford University Press, 1982); Mark A. Noll, “Presidential Death and the Bible: 1799, 1865, 1881,” paper presented at the American Society of Church History, Atlanta, 2016. ↩︎
Seth Perry, Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States (Princeton University Press, 2018), xv. ↩︎
Paul C. Gutjahr, An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777–1880 (Stanford University Press, 1999). ↩︎
Jonathan D. Sarna, “The Bible and Judaism in America,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America, ed. Paul C. Gutjahr (Oxford University Press, 2017), 505–16; Jonathan D. Sarna and Nahum M. Sarna, “Jewish Bible Scholarship and Translations in the United States,” in The Bible and Bibles in America, ed. Ernest S. Frerichs (Scholars Press, 1988), 83–116. ↩︎
Peter J. Thuesen, In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles Over Translating the Bible (Oxford University Press, 1999). ↩︎
Gutjahr, An American Bible. ↩︎
Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Brazos, 2011). ↩︎
Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), ch. 3. ↩︎
Valerie C. Cooper, Word, Like Fire: Maria Stewart, the Bible, and the Rights of African Americans (University of Virginia Press, 2011). ↩︎
Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, Gale, https://www.gale.com/c/nineteenth-century-us-newspapers. ↩︎
There is some overlap between the two collections, which, as described below, is useful for validating the method. Chronicling America continues to add to its collection; the figures given are correct as of the date when I did the analysis. In practice, pages with truly poor OCR are thrown away as are any matches that happen to be found in those pages. ↩︎
Stephen Robertson has pointed out that digital history often requires us to more formally conceptualize the methods of traditional history. Stephen Robertson, “The Differences between Digital Humanities and Digital History,” Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matt Gold and Lauren Klein (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 289–307. ↩︎
Lara Putnam, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast,” American Historical Review 121, no. 2 (2016): 377–402, https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/121.2.377; Julia Laite, “The Emmet’s Inch: Small History in a Digital Age,” Journal of Social History 53, no. 4 (2020): 963–89, https://doi.org/10.1093/jsh/shy118. ↩︎
Lauren F. Klein, “The Carework and Codework of the Digital Humanities,” Digital Antiquarian conference (May 2015). ↩︎
The idea of disciplined serendipity is more fully explained in Lincoln Mullen, “The Making of America’s Public Bible: Computational Text Analysis for Religious History,” in Introduction to Digital Humanities: Research Methods for the Study of Religion, edited by Christopher D. Cantwell and Kristian Petersen (DeGruyter, 2021), 31–52: https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110573022-003. A preprint is available. ↩︎
Two books which have made use of this project are James P. Byrd, A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood: The Bible and the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2020) and Seth Perry, Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States (Princeton University Press, 2018). ↩︎
James S. Bielo, Words upon the Word: An Ethnography of Evangelical Group Bible Study (New York University Press, 2009). ↩︎
James P. Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). ↩︎
Cooper, Word, Like Fire. ↩︎
Introductory essay in Philip Goff, Arthur E Farnsley II, and Peter J. Thuesen, eds., The Bible in American Life (Oxford University Press, 2017). ↩︎
Vincent L. Wimbush, Theorizing Scriptures: New Critical Orientations to a Cultural Phenomenon (Rutgers University Press, 2008); Vincent L. Wimbush and Rosamond C. Rodman, eds., African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Textures (Continuum, 2000); Wilfred Cantwell Smith, What Is Scripture? A Comparative Approach (Fortress Press, 1993). ↩︎
Gutjahr, An American Bible. ↩︎
Noll, In the Beginning Was the Word. ↩︎
John Fea, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016); Peter J. Wosh, Spreading the Word: The Bible Business in Nineteenth-Century America (Cornell University Press, 1994); David Paul Nord, “Benevolent Capital: Financing Evangelical Book Publishing in Early Nineteenth-Century America” in Mark A. Noll, ed., God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790–1860 (Oxford University Press, 2002). ↩︎
Peter J. Thuesen, In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles Over Translating the Bible (Oxford University Press, 1999). ↩︎
Elizabeth L. Jemison, Christian Citizens: Reading the Bible in Black and White in the Postemancipation South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020); Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. ↩︎
David Paul Nord, Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America (Oxford University Press, 2004). ↩︎
Paul Gutjahr, ed., The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). ↩︎
Noll, In the Beginning Was the Word; Mark A. Noll, America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794–1911 (Oxford University Press, 2022). ↩︎
Goff, Farnsley, and Thuesen, The Bible in American Life. ↩︎
Ellensburg Dawn (Ellensburg, WA), 18 Jan. 1902. Also quoted in the Liberty Advocate (Liberty, MS), 18 Oct. 1845. ↩︎
David Paul Nord, Communities of Journalism: A History of American Newspapers and Their Readers (University of Illinois Press, 2001). ↩︎
This is not subject to the problem that Lara Putnam points out that you can find a few examples of anything in a large corpus, because the point of this project is to count those references rather than simply find them. Putnam, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable.” ↩︎
Perrysburg Journal (Perrysburg, OH), 18 Sept. 1919; Amador Ledger (Jackson, CA), 19 Feb. 1909. ↩︎
St. Louis Republic (St. Louis, MO), 1 June 1902; Los Angeles Herald (Los Angeles, CA), 14 Feb. 1909. ↩︎
Evening Standard (Ogden City, UT), 21 March 1913; Memphis Daily Appeal (Memphis, TN), 25 Dec. 1871. ↩︎
The Sun (New York, NY), 10 Aug. 1919; Bismarck Tribune (Bismarck, Dakota Territory), 20 May 1881. ↩︎
Minneapolis Journal (Minneapolis, MN), 24 October 1903, p. 10. ↩︎
On changes in printing Bibles, see Gutjahr, An American Bible; Fea, Bible Cause. ↩︎
Kellen Funk and Lincoln A. Mullen, “The Spine of American Law: Digital Text Analysis and U.S. Legal Practice,” American Historical Review 123, no. 1 (2018): 132–64, https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/123.1.132. ↩︎
The Viral Texts project, for instance, has shown the significance of “information literature.” Ryan Cordell, “Reprinting, Circulation, and the Network Author in Antebellum Newspapers,” American Literary History 27, no. 3 (2015): 417–45, https://doi.org/10.1093/alh/ajv028; David A. Smith, Ryan Cordell, and Abby Mullen, “Computational Methods for Uncovering Reprinted Texts in Antebellum Newspapers,” American Literary History 27, no. 3 (2015): E1–15, https://doi.org/10.1093/alh/ajv029. ↩︎
On Sunday Schools, see Anne M. Boylan, Sunday School: The Formation of an American Institution, 1790–1880 (Yale University Press, 2000). ↩︎
Amador Ledger (Jackson, CA), 19 February 1909, p. 3. ↩︎
Thuesen, In Discordance with the Scriptures. ↩︎
On Christmas, see Leigh Eric Schmidt, Consumer Rites: The Buying & Selling of American Holidays (Princeton University Press, 1997). ↩︎
On the connections between religion and the rise of retail, see Nicole C. Kirk, Wanamaker’s Temple: The Business of Religion in an Iconic Department Store (New York: New York University Press, 2018); Daniel Vaca, Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America (Harvard University Press, 2019). ↩︎
Cooper, Word, Like Fire, ch. 1. ↩︎
Gutjahr, “Introduction,” xx–xxi. ↩︎
Gutjahr, “Introduction,” xx–xxx. ↩︎
Of course other scholars have studied the reception history of the Bible, though scholars of contemporary research have methods available to them, such as surveys and ethnographies, that historians do not. ↩︎
On the role of argumentation, see the “Digital History and Argument” white paper. Arguing with Digital History working group, “Digital History and Argument” (Roy Rosenzweig Center for History & New Media, November 13, 2017), https://rrchnm.org/argument-white-paper/. ↩︎
Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, ch. 3. ↩︎
For a related argument, see Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible. ↩︎