Early Americans Read the Bible in a Way That Nearly Destroyed America

Thomas Paine threw gasoline-soaked ink on the fiery spirit of American independence by publishing his pamphlet Common Sense six months before the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Upon independence from King George III, Paine promised, “The birthday of a new world is at hand.”

This new world would be born free from a king. Citing the Gospel of Matthew, the Book of Judges, and 1 Samuel 8 (where Israel demands to be ruled royally like other nations), Paine argued that “the Almighty hath here entered his protest against monarchical government.” Common Sense was an enormous success; over 100,000 copies sold within months. You know the rest of the story about 1776: America echoed Paine’s call and claimed independence.

Eighteen years later, Paine authored more advice for his devoted readers. In 1794, he published the first of three parts of The Age of Reason, in which he trumpeted his deist beliefs about the Bible. It too was an immediate bestseller. As Paine declared on the opening page, “I believe in one God, and no more.” He added, “I do not believe in … any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church. … [Churches are] human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” Paine dissected the Bible, book by book, concluding, “Search not the book called the Scripture, which any human hand might make, but the Scripture called the Creation.”

As Mark Noll explains in America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794–1911, figures like Paine were instrumental in shaping America’s commitment to independence, which in turned shaped how its people engaged the Bible. In Paine’s mind, and in the minds of many of his contemporaries, Americans had the right to use the Bible however they saw fit, lest they bite the hand—independence—that fed them their freedom.

A tool to guide independent citizens

Noll is a preeminent historian of American Christianity who spent 27 years at Wheaton College before finishing his career at the University of Notre Dame. America’s Book picks up where Noll left off in his 2016 publication In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783, which examined the Bible’s impact on American politics from Christopher Columbus to the signing of the Treaty of Paris. America’s Book develops several themes explored in Noll’s earlier work: the influence of Paine, the prevalence of the King James Bible, the tendency of Americans to imagine themselves as a type of Israel, their habit of enlisting Scripture to support republican and democratic principles—and the intersection of slavery with all this and more.

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Noll organizes his 30 chapters in six parts. The first part lays the groundwork to help readers understand the first of Noll’s two main arguments: America’s commitment to independence shaped how Americans utilized the Bible from the very beginning.

How do you govern a nation of independent free citizens? Noll explains that part of the answer is in “voluntary reliance on Scripture”—with special emphasis on “voluntary.” He adds, “While Scripture remained indispensable for personal religion and church order, it also became the tool for ensuring the well-being of a free people in a free society.” In early America the Bible was a tool to guide independent citizens. Noll quotes an early historian of the Bible in America, who wrote in 1844, “Nothing but the Bible can make men the willing subjects of law; they must first acquiesce with submission to the government of God before they can yield a willing obedience to the requirements of human governments.”

Part two shows how the Bible emerged seemingly everywhere in the new republic. American towns, mountains, and children were given biblical, and often Old Testament, names—embracing the sense of America as a new Israel. Meanwhile, an astonishing number of King James Bibles filled churches and homes, aided by the creation of the American Bible Society.

Noll’s second primary argument emerges in the third and fourth parts of the book: An independence-first approach to the Bible that prioritizes proof-texting and “Bible only” reasoning ended up fracturing America when its politicians, pastors, and citizens could not agree on what the Bible taught regarding slavery. These fractures surfaced in the Missouri Compromise (1820), Denmark Vesey’s attempted uprising (1822), William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator magazine calling for immediate emancipation (1831), Nat Turner’s slave revolt (1831), and ruptures among Northern and Southern Methodists and Baptists (1845). Independent interpretation of the Bible allowed for Joseph Smith’s reinterpretation in The Book of Mormon (1830), Bible-based calculations of the timing of Christ’s return among Millerites (1843), and new views regarding the rights of women.

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The climax of the book arrives when Noll shows that America’s failure to agree on what the Bible taught about slavery fractured the nation completely in the Civil War. As Noll explains, “when arguments over Scripture and slavery exposed conflicting opinions about what common sense revealed, American Protestant theology began to divide, as it remains divided to this day.”

Noll provides exhaustive details of the arguments made for proslavery and antislavery readings of the Bible. He admits that he changed his mind regarding which side provided stronger arguments to the people of that era. In his 2006 book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Noll had contended that the proslavery position won greater support on account of its simplicity. His current book reexamines previous evidence and draws on new materials, the weight of which convinced him that the antislavery argument should have been sufficient to carry the day.

I admire Noll’s willingness, as a senior scholar, to reconsider the evidence and reverse his previous conclusion. And he does well to specify what he might have told antebellum Bible interpreters regarding slavery, explaining “what could have been the strongest weapon in their arsenal”: If “Americans claimed to follow the Bible alone, or even the Bible as the chief witness alongside other authorities, and Scripture contained almost no examples of African slaves—and no credible directives that only Africans should be enslaved—the proslavery arguments should not have enjoyed the importance they so obviously did enjoy.”

Declining influence

The final two parts of the book document the place of the Bible in the 50 years after the Civil War. Noll argues that the place of the Bible declined in America because white Protestants “created a popular perception that religion had nothing reliable or coherent to say about the greatest American issue of the nineteenth century,” meaning slavery. Near the dawn of the 20th century, as some Protestants insisted on the inerrant nature of the Bible as a hermeneutical starting point, fewer Americans were listening. Between increased immigration among non-Protestant groups and the catastrophe of the Civil War, Noll writes, “English-speaking white Protestants no longer controlled public space.”

In 1911, the 300th anniversary of the creation of the King James Bible was celebrated in London, New York, and Chicago. Commemorations featured remarks from the British prime minister, national ambassadors, President William Howard Taft, and King George V. Looking back, their words functioned as eulogies for the prominent role the Bible once played in England and America. Noll believes that near the turn of the 20th century, “large numbers also turned away entirely from religious guides in favor of social authorities or complete preoccupation with life in this world.”

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There is plenty to chew on in Noll’s meaty book, which runs over 800 pages. While reading it, I formed three questions that I hope Noll’s future writing might discuss or inspire others to address.

Noll rightly argues that Americans made their arguments, good and bad, “not because they were stupid but because they lived with a different universe of assumptions.” So, I ask first, how can Americans become more aware of how our current assumptions about democracy and independence influence the way we use and interpret our Bibles? Second, how might a new era of Americans cultivate Christian virtue if history has shown us that we are unlikely to come to any consensus on interpreting Scripture? And third, might Noll continue his project in a third book that picks up after 1911 to help us understand how Americans have engaged the Bible in the last century? I hope he does.

Sean McGever is area director for Paradise Valley Arizona Young Life and an adjunct professor at Grand Canyon University. He speaks, teaches, and ministers across the United States, Canada, and the UK. His books include Born Again: The Evangelical Theology of Conversion in John Wesley and George Whitefield.

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