The Bible in American History

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.


6 thoughts on “The Bible in American History

  1. I might’ve asked whether Professor Cooper believes that the Bible’s inspirational and existential influence on abolitionists and slaves outweighs its validation of slavery for slaveholders and defenders of slavery at that time. I’m not stating an opinion by saying this; it’s just interesting that a book—introduced to slaves by their masters and used as a tool of their enslavement—might also be a tool that aided slaves in their emancipation.

    I suppose one difference in this duality of the Bible is that former slaves were actually reading the book while enslaved people were likely only being told “what it said.”


  2. I went to a Gullah art opening in Blulffton, SC a few months ago. The artist was a black woman. She talked about her art in a very spiritual way and had us singing songs throughout. I could really feel the depth and joy they have from the inside while I was glad to join in for that small amount of time. A racially mixed audience, the white folks’ response didn’t have that “soul.”


      1. Gullah (thought to come from Angola), art is a more recent evolution to depict the culture. What I found interesting about their history is that even though they were brought over as slaves they had more room to evolve their culture because they were working in an environment geographically isolated with infectious diseases, to grow rice. They had a greater immunity to malaria and yellow fever, so whites left them mostly alone during the seasonal outbreaks. So the culture is like nothing else.


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