Today I share and reflect upon what I have learned regarding one of the most important yet inaccessible books in print.
It is a book found in most American homes.
“The Bible in American History” is a conference that took place at the John W. Kluge Center at The Library of Congress on Thursday, June 7, 2018.
Four university professors came together to present and discuss different aspects of the Bible’s influence in the history of the United States.
Mark Knoll from the University of Notre Dame introduced the panelists and themes. His presentation discussed Thomas Paine and the Bible in the founding and early United States. He discussed Paine’s book, The Age of Reason, as well as the pamphlet that followed shortly after, “Common Sense.” Knoll identified Paine as a “radical deist” and emphasized that the American people fought to “maintain Christianity.”
Paul Gutjahr, from Indiana University, presented on images and appearances of Noah’s Ark in the history of America. Gutjhar identified the story as popular in children’s Bibles, with an evolving emphasis. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the telling of Noah’s Ark emphasized the plight of the wicked but by the end of the twentieth century the focus shifted to God’s desire to keep children safe. The ark became a metaphor. Interestingly, Dwight Moody saw the world as a “wrecked vessel” and felt God calling him to “save all he can.”
Valerie Cooper, from Duke Divinity School, presented on the Bible and the rights of African Americans. Her research found that the Bible delivered a message of freedom for abolitionists and slaves. It told slaves that their bodies did not deserve the enslavement and abuse they experienced. The image of the Bible as “a talking book,” became commonplace.
During the Q&A, I asked Professor Cooper to connect her historical observations with the literary. I explained I had read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which I blogged about yesterday. Professor Cooper indicated that in the novel Morrison is “preaching holiness out bodies that have borne slavery.”
My reading of the novel was greatly enhanced in appreciating its historical background. It is critical to understand history as the crux of the humanities.
Lincoln Mullen, from George Mason University, focused on and traced the presence of the Bible in America’s newspapers. He did so by searching for words and phrases from the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible between the 1840s and 1920s in search of trends. He found that the most quoted verses varied by year and were reflective of the times.
Each speaker brought to life a captivating dimension of the Bible within American history.