- A Book for All Seasons:Biblical Authority and Public Life in Early American Christendom
New England Puritans were biblicists: that is, they lived their lives and strictly organized their colonies according to biblical principles. In 1630, John Winthrop challenged the people of Massachusetts Bay Colony to establish themselves as a covenanted society in which all their actions—social, economic, and political—were in strict adherence to the Bible. While Holy Scripture had long been authoritative for Protestants, it would be for these Puritan settlers the center of their culture and the sole authority governing their lives. Moreover, they made their strict adherence to biblical precepts a solemn vow. Their settlement was to be a “City upon a Hill,” a Bible commonwealth that would serve as a model for Protestants around the world.
More than a hundred and fifty years later, the delegates to the Federal Convention framed the U.S. Constitution according to republican principles rooted primarily in Whig ideology and Enlightenment ideas, not biblical precepts. That is not to say that they did not believe in the Bible nor that they did not believe that biblical principles were important in guiding human behavior. But it does mean that in ordering public affairs, the delegates looked elsewhere. They embraced natural law and natural rights as unalienable gifts from Nature’s God and then they—through what delegate Nicholas Gilman of New Hampshire described as “bargain & compromise”—hammered out a federal structure to protect those rights by dividing power and providing checks and balances. While the Bible was the sole authority of the short-lived Bible commonwealths of Puritan New England, it was a peripheral presence during the American Revolution, mainly as a source of rhetoric and symbols. [End Page 191] Nonetheless, for many Christians harboring a desire for a return to a biblicist society, the Bible persisted as a standard for judging public affairs under the new secular “supreme Law of the land.”
The place of the Bible in America from early settlement to the Revolutionary era raises the question of authority in public life and is the focus of two recent works that seek to answer the question by examining the two most widely read books of the time: the Bible and almanacs. Mark Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word offers a deeply researched and nuanced analysis of how the relation between Christendom and the Bible changed over time from before the Protestant Reformation to the end of the American Revolution. T. J. Tomlin’s A Divinity for All Persuasions provides a fresh interpretation of almanacs, one that views them as reflecting and buttressing Biblical authority and Protestant theology rather than the more traditional notion that they represented a non-Christian, superstitious worldview that stood alongside and rivaled Christianity in early America.
In his new book, Noll extends his earlier work on the place of the Bible in early America, but he brings to it the same judicious approach that characterizes his impressive body of scholarship on religion in American history. By beginning his study in Pre-Reformation Europe, he widens the scope of an earlier examination of the Bible that was set forth in his edited book with Nathan O. Hatch, The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History (1982). While professing his own faith in the Bible, Noll rejects a triumphalist interpretation that sees the Bible as a consistently followed blueprint in American culture and history, as argued, for example, in Peter Marshall and David Manuel, God’s Plan for America (2009). Instead, Noll views the Bible as important yet contradicted in certain aspects of American history, such as the treatment of Natives—an understanding akin to that seen, for instance, in James Juhnke and Carol Hunter, The Missing Peace (2004)
In what will no doubt become the new scholarly standard...