Sweeney’s Booknotes: In the Beginning Was the Word

Mark A. Noll, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) 

IntheBeginningThis book does not deal with Edwards’ use of the Bible in detail. It gives a few pages to Edwards in the context of the revivals, and refers to Edwards briefly in several other places. Nevertheless, its grand narrative regarding the role of Scripture in the public life of Christians in colonial America builds a solid frame of reference within which to make sense of the cultural significance of Edwards’ exegesis.

Board member Peter Thuesen has written an excellent review of Noll’s tome in Books & Culture.

Here, we note simply that this is the first of two volumes on the Bible in America, the second of which will take the story through the nineteenth century. Noll concentrates throughout on the life and hard times of European Christendom in the Western hemisphere–the way the Bible both supported it and, eventually, undermined it, and the role of Protestant “biblicism” in animating criticism of status quo assumptions on the part of those in power even as it undergirded some of those very same assumptions. The Bible seemed to be everywhere in American public life. It was used by the oppressed to speak divine truth to power. It was used by the powerful to keep others down. And it was used by the rank and file–sometimes naively and at other times wisely–as a lamp unto their feet and a light unto their paths.

As Noll lays out clearly near the beginning of the book, there are three “connected realities” that “propel” his metanarrative. First, “if Roman Catholics introduced the Christian Scriptures to the Americas, including areas now in the United States, Protestants, professing to follow the Bible above all other authorities, dominated this early history and dominated it overwhelmingly. . . . A primary goal of this study is to show what it meant—positively, negatively, ironically, often inadvertently—for Protestants to claim that they followed the Scripture above all other human authorities.” Second, “Protestants always differed considerably among themselves concerning how Scripture served as a guide. Was it the primary guide? The one essential guide? The crucial guide? Or the only guide? Protestants in colonial America held all of these positions, and more. Yet attempts to live by ‘the Bible alone’ . . . enjoyed greater currency in the colonies than in any part of Europe.” (Noll devotes much of his energy to highlighting the nature and implications of this biblicism.) Third, and most complexly, Western Christendom arrived with most settlers in America. “Yet because of the diversity of colonial settlements as well as the space that America opened for innovation, assumptions about Christendom eventually changed and, in some cases, drastically so. Because the Bible had always functioned as a crucial factor in those assumptions, the new-world history of Scripture and the new-world history of Christendom moved in lockstep together” (pp. 2-3).

Over the course of more than 300 wide-ranging pages, Noll demonstrates that Scripture had a rich and varied history in colonial America. It guided the daily lives of individuals, groups, and governments. “It also functioned as a rich treasury of tropes, models, types, examples, and precepts in service to principles that did not rise from its pages” (p. 339).

Indeed, Edwards was not alone in grounding his daily life in Scripture. Most others did the same. As Noll and Nathan O. Hatch chided long before today’s best graduate students were born (in The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History), “Scripture has been nearly omnipresent in the nation’s past.” Unfortunately, however, we still know little about this presence. We have acknowledged it for years. But too many have been lulled by its deceptive familiarity.

It is high time that scholars pay due heed to this real presence.