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  • Bible Culture & Authority in the Early United States by Seth Perry
  • John Fea (bio)
Bible Culture & Authority in the Early United States. By Seth Perry. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018. Pp. xv, 195. Cloth, $35.00.)

Seth Perry joins scholars such as Peter Thuesen, Paul Gutjahr, Mark Noll, Lincoln Mullen, Timothy Beal, Candy Brown, David Nord, and John Fea in examining the centrality of the Christian scriptures to American politics, civil society, public discourse, and lived religion. Perry's monograph is deeply theoretical and perhaps unnecessarily dense. The fascinating stories he has uncovered in the archives and elsewhere often take a backseat to his methodological musings. But scholars willing to wade through the academic jargon will be challenged to think differently about the use of the Bible by ordinary Americans in the early republic.

Some of the earliest Bible societies in the United States, including the American Bible Society (ABS), claimed to publish the scriptures "without note or comment." In 1824, Jeremiah Day, president of Yale College and a trustee of the ABS, asked, "Should not the Scriptures … be accompanied with notes and comments? So far as commentators enable us to understand what we read, we may be grateful for his aid. But we [End Page 572] are not to look for improvements on a revelation from heaven."1 Comments like Day's are representative of the way American Protestants have understood the Bible for more than three centuries, but as Perry notes, this "Bible alone" mentality does not represent the way most Protestants engaged the scriptures. As Perry reminds us, "the Bible was never, ever alone" (dust jacket).

Perry examines the Bible not as "source" of religious authority in the early republic, but as a "site" of authority, "a cultural space for editors, commentators, publishers, preachers, and readers to cultivate authoritative relationships" (dust jacket). His book draws heavily on what religious-studies scholar Vincent Wimbush has called "scripturalization" in his book White Men's Magic: Scripturalization as Slavery (Oxford, UK, 2012). According to Wimbush, the study of sacred texts should focus "not upon texts per se (that is, upon content-meanings), but upon textures, gestures, and power—namely the signs, material products, ritual practices and performances, expressivities, orientations, ethics, and politics associated with the phenomenon of the invention and uses of 'scriptures.'" Scripturalization, according to Perry, implies an "ongoing, dialogic process, replacing 'scripture' and its connotations of fixity" (5–6).

Perry applies this theory of scripturalization to five different moments in the religious history of the early republic. In Chapter 1, he introduces us to what printers believed to be the ideal American Bible reader. This reader was white and Protestant but also "some combination of marginally literate, lower-class, and often female." She read the Bible in the context of family prayer. While printers often hoped that their Bibles would contribute to a white Christian nation, readers often made their own meaning of the text, suggesting that "real and imagined readers exist always in dialogic relationships" (39). Chapter 2 deals with "paratexts," the commentaries, cross-references, illustrations, concordances, and children's Bibles that "carried scholarly, ecclesiastical, social and state authority into the text itself" (41). These texts, what the ABS used to refer to as "helps," allowed readers to assert their own authority of the scriptures. In the process, they were creating new texts and "refracting the scripturalized status of the Bible in new directions" (62).

In his last three chapters, Perry examines forms of biblical citation in [End Page 573] the early republic that "expanded upon rather than referred specifically back to the Bible itself." For example, when Denmark Vesey led his famous slave rebellion in Charleston, South Carolina, he employed a Bible-based rhetoric of resistance and violence that Perry calls "performed biblicism" (xx). Evangelical itinerant preacher Lorenzo Dow often performed in the role of "apostle" to "cultivate relationships of authority with audiences" (77). His wife Peggy expanded the scriptures for her audiences by publishing a memoir that built upon biblical models for women such as Martha and Mary. Visions, Perry writes, were another way the scriptural text was extended beyond the printed word. Published accounts of spiritual visions—Perry calls them "visionary...


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