Let Us Talk of Fear

Redacted excerpts used with permission from An American Bible

By Paul Gutjahr
Indiana University, Dept. of English

    Let us talk of fear: fear born of despair, disgust, and a deep sense of urgency. In 1816 at the age of 75, the long officially retired Elias Boudinot -- a man baptized by George Whitefield, one-time neighbor of Benjamin Franklin, fellow patriot with Washington at Valley Forge, mentor of Alexander Hamilton, first president of the Continental Congress, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and decade-long director of the United States Mint -- accepted the position of President of the American Bible Society. An appointment he considered to be “the greatest honor that could have been conferred on me this side of the grave.” No small statement considering his pedigree, but heartfelt words for a man with intense reservations about the future of the country he had given the better part of his life to birthing and nurturing.

    When Boudinot retired from the directing the Mint in 1805, he left his last government post deeply disillusioned. Demoralized by how he and like-minded Federalist friends were increasingly marginalized in the United States’ nascent government, Boudinot was particularly depressed by the election of Thomas Jefferson to the Presidency in 1800. There could be no clearer sign that his dreams of an elite-centered government comprising “men who possess most wisdom . . . and most virtue” might lead the young republic was quickly dying. Jefferson was doubly a devil. He was a proponent of dangerous democratic leanings -- the results of which could be seen in the bloodletting and chaos of the French Revolution -- and he was an open skeptic of many traditional Christian beliefs. Boudinot believed that the rise of Jefferson with his heretical religious views and ill-advised optimism in the abilities of the common man could only mean the decline of the United States.

    As Boudinot and his fellow Federalists found themselves excluded from official government posts, many turned to voluntary organizations or other civic-minded, humanitarian institutions as a means of countering the Jeffersonian menace. Boudinot decided to pour his energy and resources into the area of print, first publishing his own writing and then working to establish a voluntary organization based on publishing.

    What is fascinating in this strategy is Boudinot chose the same weapon that “Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen & other infidels in America” had chosen to so insidiously influence the American people. In choosing to pursue publishing as a means of influence, Boudinot betrayed one of his central beliefs, namely that if people would not defer to those in the society who enjoyed greater privilege due to talent, birth, and education, the masses would have to be educated to supply the deficiency. Boudinot had decided to appeal directly to the American people through the medium of print in a desperate attempt to save his country by seeking to mold the inner character of Americans to achieve the responsible, educated citizenry necessary for the Republic to survive.

    Michael Warner, Bernard Bailyn and others have convincingly shown that by the time of the Revolution, printed material had become an essential medium of mass persuasion in the colonies. Perhaps there is no more vibrant example of this than the writings of Thomas Paine. Paine’s Common Sense burst like a lightning bolt upon the publishing horizon in April 1776. In an era where the common press run for books was often less than two thousand copies and pamphlet press runs half of that, Common Sense sold 120,000 copies in its first year, a figure made all the more astounding when one considers that it is estimated that five times as many people actually read the pamphlet. No pamphlet in the Colonies had ever experienced such popularity. Paine would follow up the success of Common Sense with Rights of Man (1791) and The Age of Reason (1794), both books sold so well in the United States and Europe that they broke every existing publishing record.

    Boudinot was not so much bothered by Paine’s popularity, but by his radical political and religious beliefs. In his The Age of Reason Paine proclaims that the Bible is more “the word of a demon, than the word of God” being “a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind.” So, when Boudinot heard in the late 1790s that “thousands of copies of the Age of Reason, had been sold at public auction, in . . . [Philadelphia], at a cent and an half each” making “so unworthy an object” accessible to children, servants, and the lowest people, Boudinot decided to write his own rebuttal to the Paine’s work.

    He published his extended answer to Paine in 1801 under the title The Age of Revelation: The Age of Reason Shewn to Be an Age of Infidelity. Whereas The Age of Reason sold 100,000 copies in 1797 alone, Boudinot’s The Age of Revelation sold so poorly that it never went beyond an initial press run (probably less then 2000 copies), further convincing Boudinot that his beloved country was in a severe state of spiritual and moral decay.

    Even with the failure of The Age of Revelation, Boudinot did not abandon print as a medium through which saving action might be achieved. Instead of using his own words to defeat the infidels, Boudinot turned his energy to attempting to organize a national organization to produce and distribute the Bible. His rebuttal to Paine may have been a failure, but after all, it was a work wrought by human hands. The best way to counteract evil in print was with the most powerful piece of printed material, the Bible. Having confidence in the ability of the Word to speak for itself, Boudinot spent his remaining years occasionally taking up the pen himself, but predominantly using his considerable energies, finances and personal connections to bind together disparate local Bible Societies into one powerful, centralized group. He realized this dream in the spring of 1816, when sixty delegates from thirty-four local societies met in New York and decided to incorporate into one central organization. The American Bible Society was born.

    For Boudinot, none of this was happening any too soon. Moved by more than feelings of disillusionment and disgust, Boudinot was also propelled by a deep sense of urgency. Repeatedly, Boudinot stressed that it was “the eleventh hour;” Christ’s second coming was imminent. It is one of the ironies of history that Paine’s famous line “these are the times that try men’s souls,” best characterizes Boudinot’s feelings as he frantically worked to establish a national Bible Society. Boudinot passionately believed that if he and others did not act quickly it would be God, not the times, that tried men’s’ souls, and that was not blood Boudinot wanted on his doorstep.

    The Society Boudinot helped create pioneered many aspects of American publishing, including innovations in the areas of centralized production, power printing, in-house binding, and national distribution. Its fervor to make the Bible the chief text in the United States through sheer numbers led, however, to some unforeseen consequences. The Society’s ability to produce and distribute hundreds of thousands of bibles and New Testaments by the 1830s radically reoriented the bible market in the United States, making both that market and the Bible itself more complex, diverse and fragmented entities.

    In the four score years that followed the American Revolution, the American Print Marketplace exploded in terms of volumes of material. Whereas print runs of 2000 were the norm at the time of the Revolution, by the 1850s print runs in the 100,000s were possible – and needed. Before 1800, if anyone owned a book in America it was most likely a Bible or an almanac. In the opening decades of the nineteenth century, this was all changing. One writer moaned in 1817: the “prodigious multiplication of books” in the United States had already “jostled the Bible from its place, or buried it from notice; so that those who formerly read it because it was the only volume they possessed, might be surprised to find, if they were now alive, with how many [people] it is the only volume which is not worth possessing” Not everyone was so pessimistic about the place of the Bible in American print culture, but a comment, no matter how accurate, about the “jostled” position of the Bible is telling.

    The hitherto unprecedented competition for the reading time and attention of Americans was met in several ways by those interested in keeping the Bible the preeminent book in the culture. What follows is an analysis of this quest for preeminence, which considers five different aspects of bible production, distribution and reception. The first strategy involved various ways of producing and distributing the Bible in the United States, ultimately focusing on the attempts by the American Bible Society to provide a Bible for every household in America.

    The Society sought preeminence for the Bible through a brute force approach, believing that by making the Bible the most accessible text in the United States, they would make it the country's most influential text. This strategy led to the production and circulation of hundreds of thousands of bibles, but it also created a massive diversification of bible editions as publishers sought to compete with the ever-cheaper editions of Scripture offered by the mammoth American Bible Society. In attempting to woo buyers and readers to their bible editions, American publishers helped erode the timeless, changeless aura surrounding "the Book" by making it "the books."

    Competition among bible publishers created an ever-expanding array of bible packaging. Bindings became more elaborate, page formatting diversified, and bible illustrations multiplied. The second strategy centered on how different “readings” of bible bindings and bible illustrations changed both why people bought bibles and how they interpreted the bibles they bought.

    Expensive materials could make bibles markers of gentility rather than a book to be read, and illustrations could subvert or obscure the meanings of the passages they were supposed to illuminate. Consequently, publishers’ battles to foreground different bible editions in the marketplace created books where the meaning of the Word was radically altered by its very presentation.

    While bindings, illustrations, and the vast array of tables, marginal commentaries and extended introductory material helped guide one’s interpretation of the scriptural text, a new wave of work on revising the Bible’s central text began. The third strategy focused on new English translations that appeared throughout the nineteenth century fostered by debates over manuscript accuracy, as well as by differing opinions on how the meaning of the original text might be conveyed to contemporary readers.

    As Unitarians, Baptists, Disciples of Christ and others argued over the trustworthiness of the Bible's central text and the limits of language translation, Americans became painfully aware that what they had hitherto viewed as a divinely unmediated text was, in fact, heavily influenced by the fallible nature of human intervention.

    As debates raged over the purity of the Protestant bible’s core text, new concerns arose over the relationship of that purity to the nation’s public institutions. The fourth strategy dealt with the diminishing role of the Bible in the nation’s schools. The once largely homogenous composition of the United States began to change in the early years of the nineteenth century as wave after wave of immigrants flooded into the country. Looming large among these numbers were Irish and Catholic immigrants who made Roman Catholicism the largest single denomination by 1840. No longer was the United States a clearly Protestant country, and the nation’s public institutions had to deal with this fact. The controversies which emerged in the midst of the rise of American Catholicism found one of their bloodiest battlegrounds in American public education, where hundreds of Americans would die, be injured, or lose property as various educational reformers, government officials and religious factions attempted to redefine the role of the Bible in American culture.

    Not everyone attempted to determine the place of the Bible in American culture by addressing institutional concerns; some approached the topic of winning attention to the Bible through new rhetorical strategies. The final strategy centered on how a number of authors, publishers and clergymen turned to transforming the Bible’s story into less sacred forms of print to turn American readers once again to the Bible. As narrative forms such as the novel became more popular with the American reading public, American Protestants decided to commingle scriptural truth and fictional fancy in order to attract their countrymen to the Bible's message. Perhaps the most popular manifestation of this mixture was the nineteenth-century genre of the lives of Christ, a genre that included titles such as The Book of Mormon, The Prince of the House of David and Ben-Hur. As Americans were introduced to increasingly fictionalized lives of Christ, they were given both a new way to imagine themselves as characters in the Bible's story, as well as a means to avoid the density and complexity of that story. Consequently, an attempt to emphasize the Bible's story resulted in de-emphasizing the Bible itself.

    American-made bibles were an echo, albeit an immensely magnified one, of the diversity in scriptural reproductive trends that had been active since the time of monastic scribes. What was peculiar to nineteenth-century America was the unprecedented growth of the country's publishing industry and the unprecedented diversity of bible editions that appeared in its publishing marketplace. Even with the incredible growth in American bible production, by the 1880s it was clear that the Bible no longer enjoyed its preeminent place as the most read text in the United States. One minister captured the sentiment of the times when he wrote in 1884: “The fact that the Bible occupies a somewhat different place in the thoughts of well-instructed Christians from that which it held twenty-five or fifty years ago is a fact that cannot be denied.”

    Reasons for the bible’s drift from the center of the nation’s print culture are either too complicated or too uninteresting to garner much serious attention. Aside from Grant Wacker’s thoughts on the role German higher criticism played in the Bible’s fracturing influence, treatments of American literature, education, religion and reading tastes never directly address why the Bible lost its preeminence. Obviously, reasons behind such a move are complex, but this study has posited that central, and almost totally unexplored, components to explaining the bible’s changing role in American culture find their roots in the diversification of the country’s print marketplace and bible editions themselves.

    While the Bible may have moved from the center of the country’s print culture by the 1880s, it would be horribly inaccurate to say that widespread interest in the Bible no longer existed. The bible did not disappear from America’s publishing marketplace; it simply no longer towered over it.

    Perhaps most striking in the attempt to understand the Bible’s changing role is how it forces one to reconsider the Protestant penchant for demanding the Word to stand on its own. Most often applied to Scriptural interpretation, this propensity reaches far beyond intellectual design and ecclesiastical apparatus to touch the material aspect of the text as well. If the story of nineteenth-century American bible publishing teaches us anything, it is that bible packaging, content, and distribution all inseparably work together to give the Book meaning. A book is judged by its cover, as well as by its content and method of conveyance, a precious lesson worth remembering in any attempt to interpret the meaning and influence of the Word once it becomes words.

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