Much of this website shows the most quoted verses in the newspapers. But what about the newspapers that quoted the most verses? Sometimes the Bible almost entirely took over the newspaper, covering the printed page with Holy Writ. Consider this example from the Rock Island Argus, which filled a newspaper side with quotations selected from the Bible, surrounded by stories of conversions, a hymn, and an advertisment for a Billy Sunday revival (figure 1).
Below are the pages in Chronicling America that each had the most quotations from the Bible. Viewed collectively, these pages offer a view of the several reasons why the Bible sometimes covered over entire newspaper pages. They reveal an easy assumption that the Bible was legible and meaningful—usually without commentary—and of general interest to the readers of these papers.
Holidays—whether Christian or national—were the most common reason that a newspaper page might be covered in lengthy quotations from the Bible. Holidays freqently featured reprints of whole chapters or lengthy selections from the Bible, appropriate to the topic. One suspects that a double motive might be at play. Editors probably suspected that readers would be interested in biblical excerpts appropriate to the occasion, but they also probably needed to fill column inches on an otherwise slow day.
Good Friday and Easter, the two holidays associated with the death and resurrection of Jesus, commonly featured excerpts from the Gospels on those events. The Evening Standard of Ogden, Utah, reprinted two whole chapters from the Gospel of John. They also advertised “new spring suits” and “dainty new dresses” as Easter finery for readers of the newspaper and customers of a local clothier (figure 2).1
The easy assumption that readers of a secular newspaper were interested in reprints of the Gospels sometimes played out in ugly ways that were visible on the page. The Gospel readings around the crucifixion, especially those from the Gospel of John, squarely blamed “the Jews” for the death of Jesus. Those readings were sometimes taken as the jumping off point for antisemitism. In fact, Good Friday had for centuries been a time when Jews were subjected to violence for the charge of “deicide.” In 1840, for example, the New York Morning Herald blamed the death of Jesus on “the Chief Priests of the bloody Jewish nation,” calling them the “the politicians, the financiers, the brokers, the bankers, and the fashionable leaders of society among the Jews.” To the claim of deicide, the newspaper added the antisemitic stereotypes of Jews as unscrupulous financiers and money changers who “had turned the temple of Solomon into a place for brokers, where money was changed, and the country people of Judah shaved as country people are shaved in Wall street.” Ironically, the newspaper included a separate news item mentioning that Passover coincided with Easter, only to add further antisemitic comments.2 Reprinting the Good Friday account was thus a means for critiquing the financial and political classes, but also for indulging in the antisemitism customary to the season.
Other holidays came in for lengthy biblical excerpts as well. Christmas, the other most important holiday to Christians and increasingly a holiday of consumption for most Americans, was frequently accompanied by excerpts of the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth.3 But other texts not related to Jesus’ birth were also used for Christmas excerpts, such as the Sermon on the Mount. In anticipation of the Fourth of July, the Port Tobacco Times reprinted another sermon preached on a mountain. A newspaper reader sent in “the patriotic address of Moses, the Jewish Lawgiver,” asking that it be reprinted without chapter and verse divisions, in the hopes that Moses’s instruction to the Jews on “how they should preserve their national purity and integrity, and how they should make their institutions perpetual” would be an example to Americans.4
Comparing editions of the Bible
The late nineteenth century saw the publication of major new editions of the Bible. Beginning most notably with the Revised Version (New Testament published 1881, Old Testament published 1885), many new translations came on the market.5 Bible publishers had long distinguished their wares on the basis of notes, maps, charts, reference materials, and bindings.6 Now they could also distinguish them on the basis of how their text differed from the venerable KJV.
Because people were curious about the changes to the text of the English Bible—or because they were outraged about them—newspapers sometimes printed the verse by verse comparisons of the changes.
Of course, the venerable King James Version, or Authorized Version, had never gone completely unchallenged. Isaac Leeser, for example, had created a Jewish translation of the Bible into English as early as 1853, and the Jewish Publication Society created a translation finished in 1917.7 Catholics used the Douay-Rheims edition and famously resisted attempts by public schools to force children to use the King James Version.8
But editing the text of the Bible was also a tradition, and there was no more famous example in American history than Thomas Jefferson’s Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Jefferson created his volume by taking a penknife and glue to the pages of a couple of King James Bibles to create an edition of the Gospels that fit his predilections. In 1895 the federal government purchased Jefferson’s bible, and in 1904 Congress authorized an edition brought out by the Government Printing Office (though not without controversy).9 When Congress decided to create the facsimile edition, the St. Louis Republic defended the text, published a brief synopsis and a facsimile of one page, and reprinted large portions of the text (figure 5).
When newspapers needed to fill column inches, one approach was to reprint the classics. Newspapers were filled with all kinds of content that was not news or advertisements.10 Just as a newspaper might reprint literary works or advice literature, the Bible was an evergreen source of content. Particularly common were the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) and the Ten Commandments, though other texts like Psalm 23 were also prevalent.
The Bible section
Newspapers were characterized by recurring content, such as obituaries, columns, and advertisements. Some newspaper made a point of having recurring sections that reprinted large numbers of Bible verses. The layout of the Rock Island Argus was particularly striking, with a bold headline followed by a central column of Bible verses thematically selected but usually presented without much commentary, if any (figure 7).
Other newspapers serialized the Bible, just like newspapers might serialize fiction. And other such sections took a more catechetical approach, explaining the content of the verses (figure 8).
Such instances of quotations triangulated between three concerns: relevance, authority, and perspicacity. The placement of lengthy excerpts from the Bible assumed their relevance, whether to the readers’ personal lives or to ongoing political concerns. The use of the Bible likewise assumed the authority of the Bible to speak to those concerns. Obviously the assumption of newspaper editors may or may not have matched the readers’ assumptions, just as the presence of a horoscope in a modern newspaper does not indicate belief or acceptance of astrology on the part of all readers. Most important, the way the Bible was presented reveals the assumption that the Bible spoke plainly, without needing extraneous interpretation. The actual multiplicity of uses to which the Bible was put belied that assumption, but newspapers practiced the presentation of Scripture “without note or comment,” to borrow a phrase from the American Bible Society, more rigorously than any Protestant.
Support for services
Finally, many newspapers printed materials that supported local congregations, such as sermons and Sunday school lessons. Some of these examples were striking, such as the sermons reprinted following the assassination of President William McKinley (figure 9).11 Many others were simply routine reprints of sermons or Sunday school lessons.
While such materials were usually in support of local congregations, sometimes they were an alternative to such congregations. Newspaper Bible clubs were one such example (see the introduction). Another striking example is a selection of Bible readings presented in a Chattanooga newspaper when churches were closed due to the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Cf. Leigh Eric Schmidt, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton University Press, 1997), ch. 1. ↩︎
Schmidt, Consumer Rites, ch. 3. ↩︎
Cf. Bruce Feiler, America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story (William Morrow, 2009). ↩︎
Peter J. Thuesen, In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles Over Translating the Bible (Oxford University Press, 1999). ↩︎
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 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. ↩︎
Steven K. Green, The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash That Shaped the Modern Church-State Doctrine (Oxford University Press, 2012). ↩︎
Peter Manseau, The Jefferson Bible: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2020), 111–118. For the facsimile edition, see The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (Government Printing Office, 1904): https://www.loc.gov/item/mtjbib026581/. ↩︎
Mark A. Noll, “Presidential Death and the Bible: 1799, 1865, 1881” (American Society of Church History, Atlanta, 2016). ↩︎