Mark Noll on the Bible's Public Role in American Life, 1492 – 1783


On April 16, 2016, more than 80 participants gathered at the Morris Inn for the Seminar in American Religion. The topic of this semester’s seminar was Mark Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783 (Oxford University Press, 2015). Noll, a longtime friend and collaborator of the Cushwa Center, served as the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame before retiring in May 2016. He has authored, edited, or co-edited over 50 books, including America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (2002) and Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction (2011). In the Beginning Was the Word details how American colonists came to prize the Bible as an authoritative text even as they disagreed over how to interpret it and rejected the formalized union of church and state found in European Christendom. Brendan McConville, professor of history at Boston University, and Beth Barton Schweiger, independent scholar, responded to the book.

Nollsar Web(l to r) McConville, Noll, Schweiger, Cummings

Cushwa Center Director Kathleen Sprows Cummings and Noll both offered opening remarks at the seminar. Cummings praised Noll as an “incredibly prolific writer” while Noll expressed appreciation to those whose questions, feedback, and insight had enriched his own scholarship. He highlighted contributions made by his graduate students and by participants at Wheaton College’s 1979 conference on the Bible in America. He also thanked the Cushwa Center, calling the Seminar in American Religion a “great gift” for scholars.

Noll explained how he had initially set out to write a history of the Bible in public life from Columbus to Barack Obama, only to see his study of the colonial period grow into a standalone work. Ending the present volume in 1783, he noted, made it harder to show how colonial and Revolutionary era interpretations of the Bible continued to influence public life well into the 19th century. Noll expressed hope that he would be able to investigate these resonances in a subsequent volume. He also acknowledged that the American history told in this book focused on the colonies that became part of the United States, rather than on the North American continent as a whole.

McConville began his comments by praising Noll’s book as a fascinating and ambitious study, then offering an alternative interpretation of how social and religious change occurred in the colonies. McConville suggested that the book “too readily accommodates” the view that Enlightenment thought undermined the Bible’s teaching authority and ushered in a more secular and materialistic period. Before U.S. independence, McConville argued, the Enlightenment affected only a small group of colonial elites, while the majority of colonists remained largely unaware of it.

McConville described how revivals and imperial political culture accounted for colonists’ decreasing focus on biblical literalism and their growing identification with Protestantism.

Because the mid-18th-century evangelical revivals collectively referred to as the First Great Awakening emphasized the importance of spiritual inspirations, dreams, and visions, McConville explained, “awakened” colonists reread the Bible in light of these revelations and otherwise downplayed the importance of the printed scriptural text. Public celebrations of Pope’s Day and other imperial holidays in the colonies likewise fostered an emotional attachment to Protestantism that did not require participants to read or interpret scripture. Rising population density and mobility, combined with literacy and religious education, McConville added, further shaped colonists’ understandings of themselves and the Bible.

Schweiger began her remarks by describing Noll as a generous mentor and colleague, noting that his book displays Christian doubleness, or concursus, in which the “narrative of worldly events is always coupled or doubled by a supernal one.”

She then suggested that his book primarily treats the Bible as a printed text and that “the word as preached in this account was clearly most powerful when it was heard by those who could already read their own Bibles.” Noll’s emphasis on literacy and text, she explained, led him to focus the book on New England biblicists and printers. But the story of the Bible in America, Schweiger continued, extends beyond New England and books. The 18th-century colonial book trade carried Bibles and other printed works up and down the Atlantic coastline, even as many readers in New England and elsewhere recited words off the page without knowing what the terms actually meant. But this did not stop colonists or slaves, most of whom also could not read with fluidity or comprehension, fromembracing the evangelical message spread by revivals. Schweiger highlighted Noll’s argument that the revivals exposed slaves for the first time to a Gospel freed from the constraints imposed by European Christendom. She extended this point, explaining how Christianity made inroads in slave communities because of religious syncretism as well as songs, oral testimonies, and related forms of personal evangelism. “Christianity thrived in the New World because culture is more than books,” she argued, and so historians of American religion should borrow insights from medievalists and anthropologists who have taken into account the importance of both orality and literacy.

Schweiger concluded her remarks by highlighting the importance of Noll’s Reformed perspective. “This disciplined and careful book,” she suggested, “is an artfully disguised howl

of rage from a wounded lover who grieves how the American project has damaged his beloved Church and its spouse.” Noll then thanked both respondents and briefly addressed their remarks. He agreed with Schweiger’s assessment of his book’s scope and limitations, and noted that slaves, preachers, and lay believers approached and understood the Bible in a variety of ways. He then challenged aspects of McConville’s description of 18th-century religiosity, arguing that secularization did not replace religion, but rather that secularization and religion marched

side-by-side. For instance, colonial natural philosophers continued to profess faith that God determined earthly events, even as they searched for the natural causes of earthquakes. George Whitefield similarly shifted his perspective over time, invoking the Book of Judges’ Curse of Meroz against those who turned from Christ in a 1744 sermon but then invoking it against those who failed to come to England’s aid against the French in 1754.

The second half of the seminar opened with a discussion of slave conversions to Protestantism. Rev. Gilbert Washington (St. Paul Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, South Bend) asked the panelists to speak more about what slaves believed before and after their conversions. McConville noted that some slaves had previously been Catholic or Muslim, while Noll stated that slaves were converted not to a religion steeped in Christendom, but rather to a faith seen as “transformative for the individual and constitutive of a local believing community.” Schweiger added that African indigenous beliefs often combined with Protestantism to create new variants of Christian belief and practice. While few primary sources survive, she continued, it appears that slave converts downplayed original sin and emphasized the Exodus narrative of liberation.

Tom Kselman (Notre Dame) questioned whether the book served as a critique of the Bible’s public life and a defense of individuals’ right to privately interpret scripture. Noll responded that it became harder over time for Protestants to square their own views on scripture with what ministers told them the Bible meant. Freedom of conscience grew as a result of colonial evangelical revivals as well as patriot leaders’ complaints about parliamentary tyranny, which convinced many ordinary Americans that no one should rule over them in any sphere of life. In the 19th century, Noll explained, Protestant leaders responded by creating an informal religious establishment through voluntary societies that sought to steer believers toward orthodoxy. Noll added that he believes society has often over-relied on elites to interpret the Bible.

Peter Thuesen (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis) next pressed McConville on his view of secularization and wondered whether Americans’ treatment of the Bible as a proof text showed that empiricism influenced a substantial portion of the colonial population. McConville replied that the Enlightenment remains poorly defined and that only a small, albeit influential, group of colonial leaders read the scriptures in an empirical manner.

Nelson Weaver (St. Paul Bethel Missionary Baptist Church) asked for more background on the King James Version. Noll noted that it remains the most popular Bible among modern readers, and that the story of its creation sheds light on the 17th century’s political and economic order. Royal printers could only print the King James Version, but within 100 years its popularity was based on its merits rather than its monopoly. American Catholic and Jewish leaders alike would similarly praise the King James Version, even as they worked on new translations tailored to the needs of their respective faith communities.

The conversation then turned to the Old Testament, with Darryl Hart (Hillsdale College) wondering why colonials placed so much emphasis on this section of the Bible and Stephen Warner (University of Illinois at Chicago) questioning whether this focus made it easier for American Jews to find acceptance in society. Noll explained the Old Testament’s prominence by pointing to covenant theology, in which the New Testament was seen as building upon the earlier Jewish covenant, as well as the belief that Israel served as a precursor to the American republican polity. Noll and McConville agreed that the Old Testament’s focus on law appealed to most American readers who were debating how to govern and create new republican institutions. Popular familiarity with and focus on the Old Testament, Noll added, helped ease Jews’ entrance into society well into the 19th century.

John Van Engen (Notre Dame) asked Noll to reflect upon how he had crafted the book’s narrative and why he had focused on the Bible’s public dimensions. Noll explained that he was trying to tell the backstories of both 19th-century biblicism in general and the specific antebellum claim that the Bible alone sanctioned slavery.

John McGreevy (Notre Dame) asked what separated McConville’s view of secularization from Noll’s, and whether the Revolution had a major influence on U.S. biblicist culture. Noll answered that while he believed Enlightenment and evangelical thought became deeply intertwined, McConville believed that modern historians see more secularization in colonial society than was actually present. McConville noted that he did agree with

Noll’s account of how Protestants used voluntary societies to create an informal Christendom in the 19th century. Noll then addressed the importance of the Revolution, arguing that it stripped away many of the support systems, such as the Anglican Church, that had once helped readers interpret the Bible.

Phil Gleason (Notre Dame, emeritus) questioned whether Noll’s work contradicted John Higham’s argument that U.S. Protestants came to develop a self-conscious group identity for themselves only in the antebellum period. Noll replied that Higham may have placed the date 15 years too late. Anti-Catholicism and popular opposition to the French fostered colonials’ identification with Protestantism, he explained, but then between the 1780s and 1820s this shared attachment faded away as religious and political debates raged between Protestants. The common school movement’s focus on nonsectarian Bible reading, which fueled conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, helped to foster a self-conscious Protestant identity in the

United States beginning around 1830.

Tim Gloege (independent scholar) asked whether the history of the Bible in America follows a cyclical pattern, in which hope that all persons can find a common understanding of scripture repeatedly gives way to dissent, followed by elite attempts to control scriptural meaning that pave the way for more dissent. Noll responded that this framework could provide a way of telling the global history of the Bible, but that he preferred to see history more as a spiral, where elements of the story repeat themselves, but no two periods of time are exactly alike.

Robert Elder (Valparaiso University) asked how church discipline fit within Noll’s narrative. Noll replied that politics, social norms, and theology all helped to shape popular understandings of proper discipline. Schweiger added that discipline did not receive sustained attention in Noll’s book because the work is focused on how individuals, rather than communities, interpreted the Bible.

Don Westblade (Hillsdale College) asked Noll to speculate on how popular engagement with the Bible may change now that more people are encountering scripture through digital media. Noll noted that the effects of the Internet are still unclear, but that in the past radio and television both increased access to the Bible even as they provided new opportunities to abuse scripture. Schweiger cautioned against what she called technological determinism, arguing that older forms of engagement do not disappear when new forms are created and that people, not machines, are ultimately in control of how they choose to think and behave. Catherine Osborne (Notre Dame) added that technology allows readers to access several different translations of the Bible at the same time, but also makes it easier for them to encounter passages out of context.

Margaret Abruzzo (University of Alabama) then questioned how colonials approached the Bible through the liturgy and related religious practices. Noll responded that although many colonial Protestants considered themselves anti-liturgical, their worship still followed a set formula and featured liturgical objects such as Bible cushions. He called for more research on worship, meditation, and other practices related to use of the Bible.

Jared Burkholder (Grace College) next asked about how the Bible affected relationships between Native American converts and Euro-American Protestants. Noll acknowledged that while only fragmentary evidence survives, such as marginal comments written in Algonquian Bibles by Native readers, these sources suggest that Native Americans approached the Bible in ways that Euro-American missionaries such as John Eliot did not expect or fully understand.

Father Bill Miscamble (Notre Dame) then asked Schweiger to elaborate upon her description of the book as a “howl of rage” and Noll to respond to this characterization. Schweiger stated that Noll’s books double as jeremiads, and that this quality makes them insightful and powerful. Noll said that he preferred to view the book as a “squeak of irritation,” one informed at once by his belief in the priesthood of all believers and the perspicuity of scripture, and by his determination to show how some persons have abused the gift of the Bible.

Kathleen Sprows Cummings concluded the seminar by thanking Noll for his generosity, his support of the Cushwa Center and service on its Advisory Board, and his efforts to break down barriers separating Catholic and Protestant histories and to approach the study of American religion from a broader perspective.