Bible demonstrates the problems and potential of Catholic-Protestant relations

Due to the expense of printing the Bible, Mathew Carey needed 400 subscribers to move ahead with the project. Bishop John Carroll provided his support—so much so that he personally solicited subscriptions for the Bible on Carey’s behalf. “Carroll collected money from purchasers, passed on instructions about how subscribers wanted their Bibles bound, and reminded Carey to send overdue copies to impatient buyers,” Margaret Abruzzo said. “He was literally Carey’s middle-man for many of the copies of the Bible.” 

Carroll did this in part because of the shortage of spiritual and religious resources for Catholics in the United States at the time; he wanted his flock to have access to a suitable, church-approved Bible. But both bishop and publisher had another motive for wanting U.S. Catholics to have access to a Bible. “Carey and Carroll understood the importance of the Bible for challenging popular notions that Catholics were immoral people who could not be trusted either as neighbors or as citizens,” Abruzzo said. “They wanted to improve popular perceptions about Catholics, particularly by refuting the claim that Catholics could not or did not read the Bible. This was especially important at a time when Bible-reading was linked to good citizenship and morality.” For instance, Abruzzo said, until 1790, a person had to acknowledge the divine inspiration of both the Old and New Testaments in order to hold public office in Pennsylvania. 

“In many ways, this Bible represented the hope of both Carroll and Carey that Catholics could forge new relations with Protestants—not by erasing difference, but simply by living in harmony,” she said. That hope was tested when Carey’s Bible was being bound, Abruzzo said. The bookbinder made so many errors—putting pages out of order—that Carey was sure it was a deliberate move by someone who objected to the Catholic Bible. 

But glimmers of harmony and new relations between Catholics and Protestants also emerged during the publishing project. One of the 471 subscribers to this Bible was Benjamin Rush, a Protestant. And some Protestants, including George Washington, donated money during this time to help build Catholic churches in various locations around the country. “There was a sense that religion—even Catholicism —would promote morality and citizenship,” Abruzzo said. 

A lay Catholic leader, Carey went on to become one of the country’s most successful publishers during his lifetime, thanks in part to his vision of living in harmony with his Protestant neighbors. According to Margaret T. Hills’ The English Bible in America, while this 1790 Bible is Carey’s first, he published two additional editions of the Douay-Rheims translation in 1805—and more than 60 editions of the King James Version before his retirement in 1824. 


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