For most of its issues in 1902, the Ellensburg Dawn 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.” Though the quotation from Franklin was doubtless spurious, the combination of newspapers and the Bible would have been familiar to readers.
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—made frequent recourse to the Bible. Newspapers printed sermons and Sunday school lessons, and ministers offered lessons through newspaper Bible clubs. 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. On Good Friday, Easter, and Christmas they reprinted long portions of the Scripture. They opined on revisions to the English Bible, and offered word-by-word comparisons of the changes in new translations. They made money from advertisements for Bibles of every kind, and some newspapers even sold Bibles directly as a way of raising revenue. But most of all, newspapers quoted the Bible.
America’s Public Bible: A Commentary is an interactive scholarly work that uncovers the history of the Bible in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States. By identifying and studying quotations in American newspapers, the site offers a commentary on how the Bible was used in public life. (See the introduction.)
The base of this project is a dataset of quotations or verbal allusions to the Bible in newspapers. This dataset was computationally generated using a machine-learning model that identified quotations from several English translations of the Bible in the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America collection of U.S. newspapers, supplemented by also finding quotations in Gale’s Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers collection.
Total quotations detected
Bible verses visualized on this site
Pages from Chronicling America included
Pages from Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers
With the set of quotations that the model identified, it is then possible to chart trends in the rate of quotations. For example, we can see the trend in the rate of quotations for the Bible as whole. The trend line shows that the overall rate of quotation from the Bible did not decline into the twentieth century, but actually rose from its low point from the 1850s to 1880s.
The trends for individual verses, however, show far more variation than the trend for the Bible as a whole. The ebbs and flows of popularity for different verses indicate that a particular part of the Bible was used at some particular time to contribute to the public discourse. For instance, the verse “God has made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26) was of particular importantance in debates over slavery and abolition in the 1850s and 1860s. The verse “Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15) burst into popularity in 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt lost the nomination to the presidency from the Republican Party and thundered, “Thou shalt not steal a nomination.”
For the most significant verses, this site lets you see the trend for how that verse was quoted over time, allowing you to compare the trend for quotations in Chronicling America and Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers. For quotations from Chronicling America, you can also use a table that will show you the quotation on the newspaper page. The site thus uncovers two contexts for each verse: the context of the newspaper article in which it was used, and the broader chronological trend of quotations from that verse.
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.
Those trends reveal patterns that would be invisible to a single scholar’s reading of these documents, yet they also enable a close reading of the ways in which verses were put to use. As a reader of this site, you can use those quotations and trend lines to undertake your own analysis. But this site also offers essays and histories of verses that advance a particular angle on an interpretative history of the Bible in the United States.
For many Americans, the Bible was a text whose meaning was self-evident, yet the Bible’s role in U.S. history cannot be understood apart from the ways that Americans actually put it to use. That is why this site is called America’s Public 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) 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.