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America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794-1911

"Noll covers the contentious place the Bible had in shaping “a Bible civilization”...(i)f there was an issue of religious and public debate during the nineteenth century, the Bible was part of it, and Noll covers it."

Mark A. Noll
Oxford University Press, 846 pages | Published June 3, 2022

Mark Noll demonstrates the truth of the dictum that the Bible, especially the King James Version, is the most influential book in American culture. Though this verdict has often been rendered, it has never been demonstrated so carefully and compellingly as in Noll’s large book.

This is the second of Noll’s two books on this theme, the first being In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783. Nearly all of Noll’s prodigious publications touch on the role of the Bible in American Christianity and American culture. America’s Book represents the culmination of a career-spanning conception of what American Christianity was and how it came to be. It confirms Noll’s place as the foremost historian of American Christianity now writing and interpreting, both for the academy and the church, albeit as a professor of history emeritus at the University of Notre Dame.

In America’s Book, Noll plays a contrapuntal theme — the importance of the Bible in forming American culture and the ways in which American culture shaped the nature and meaning of Scripture. Noll writes that he hopes the book’s “arguments will not only highlight the simple importance of the nation’s biblical heritage but will do so in a way that illuminates both positive and regrettable legacies of that heritage. If it does so, the book may teach; it will certainly reprove and correct; it may even offer hints about instruction in righteousness.”

Noll covers the contentious place the Bible had in shaping “a Bible civilization” and how that fractious environment eventually broke the hegemony that the Bible held in both religious and civil discourse. His parameters are symbols of the power of the Bible in shaping America culture — 1794, when Thomas Paine’s anti-biblical treatise, The Age of Reason, was published; and 1911, when the American Bible Society celebrated the 300th anniversary of the release of the King James Version with triumphant orations by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.  His analysis ranges from Methodists to Roman Catholics to Jews to atheists to opponents and defenders of slavery and the Civil War and contenders over gender and more. If there was an issue of religious and public debate during the nineteenth century, the Bible was part of it, and Noll covers it.

The result is a tome — almost 700 pages of text and almost 200 pages of information- packed notes and two careful indices. This will limit the readership of Noll’s magnum opus, but it should be an invaluable addition to the library of every pastor and church leader as a guide to the future through the interpretation of the Bible in the past.

It may be ungracious to ask him to consider writing at least two more books. First, a summary and distillation of In the Beginning Was the Word and America’s Book for use in college and seminary classes and in church school settings. Second, a survey of the Bible in the twentieth century — the golden era of biblical translation and scholarship and continuing controversies over the Bible’s meaning for contemporary American, if not global, life.

A historian’s work is never done, even when it is as superb an achievement as Mark A. Noll’s.

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