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Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States$

Seth Perry

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780691179131

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691179131.001.0001

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Creating the American Bible Reader, 1777–1816

Creating the American Bible Reader, 1777–1816

(p.19) Chapter One Creating the American Bible Reader, 1777–1816
Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States

Seth Perry

Princeton University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter traces the evolution of early American bibles and bible readers during the period 1777–1816. More specifically, it explains how the imagined American bible reader, both subject to the bearers of religious authority and potentially empowered by those authorities' address, was created out of British print-bible culture. The chapter first considers the use of the English bibles in the fifteenth century in preaching before discussing how a distinctively new imagined English bible reader emerged in the eighteenth century. It then describes the development of American print-bible culture beginning in the 1780s, set by the pedagogical interests of English bibles, and analyzes family bibles in the context of “family prayer” as their imagined site of reading and use. It also looks at the production of American bibles beginning in the 1790s and their nation-building aspirations, as can be seen in the work of the American Bible Society.

Keywords:   family bibles, American bibles, bible readers, Bible, print-bible culture, family prayer, nation-building, American Bible Society, religious authority, preaching

[I]t is a mere bobtail thing, and its fort lies in telling “how many chapters, verses, words, syllables, and letters there are in the Bible; which is the shortest, which the longest, and which the middle chapter … all such goodly discoveries as are fit to make Old Women & Children wonder.” However, as many of our Readers are of that sort, insert it by all means.

—Mason Locke Weems to Mathew Carey, September 28, 1801

The “MERE BOBTAIL THING” to which Mason Weems was referring was this chart:

Creating the American Bible Reader, 1777–1816

Figure 1.1. “The Bible Dissected.” The Holy Bible (Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1802).

Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Mathew Carey, the Philadelphia printer for whom Weems peddled books in the Southeast, included “The Old and New Testament Dissected” at the foot of a page near the end of his first King James Bible, which reached consumers in 1802.1 Weems was a bit of a card—he was being characteristically flip when he urged Carey to use it. He was also serious: he had seen the chart in other (p.20) contemporary bibles and did not want Carey’s to be found wanting in any respect. “To have it said that Carey’s bible contains more Curious things than were ever seen in any other bible, wou’d be a great Matter,” Weems argued. He based the value of “curious things” on the nature of the readers he imagined for Carey’s bibles—“old women and children.” Putting aside, for the moment, the question of the appeal of “bobtail things” for any particular class of reader, Weems’s blunt description of the intended or imagined readership of Carey’s bibles brings into relief a crucial aspect of early national print-bible culture: that it was self-consciously oriented toward a sort of reader who was defined as somehow lesser than those variously responsible for that print.2 At the turn of the nineteenth century, the interests involved in the burgeoning American bible market, embedded in a broader market of bible-oriented religious print, imagined a bible reader who was in many ways the inverse of the dominant religious authority of the eighteenth century: rather than educated, upper-class, and male, some combination of marginally literate, lower-class, and often female. Different aspects of this need or deficiency were emphasized in different contexts, and this imagined reader’s relationship to actual readers was uneven, but her presence in early national print-bible culture was fundamental to the era’s processes of scripturalization. Print-bible culture’s address to this imagined reader created space for actual readers to imagine the self-sufficient authority of their own bible reading.3 At the same time, because this address to readers was accomplished largely through the textual mediations of intellectual and theological elites, it encouraged novel forms of religious authority to develop along traditional lines.

The inversion of the imagined agent of religious authority (male, patrician, and educated) in the subject constituted by print-bible culture (female, common, and in need of teaching) is a key to understanding the development of bible-based authority in the early national period. The era saw a proliferation of cheap, spare bible-society bibles oriented toward those supposed to be in need. Meanwhile, more substantial “family” bibles also became familiar, uniformly addressing themselves to “common” readers, often containing illustrations oriented toward women. These bibles constituted a print-bible culture that imagined a reader both subject to the bearers of religious authority and potentially empowered by those authorities’ address.

In two telling respects, though, the distinction between bible-authority and bible-user was not complete. The early national bible reader was generally imagined to be a Protestant, although a robust Catholic print-bible culture was present from the late eighteenth century. Less ambiguous is the question of race. Despite all manner of missionizing rhetoric, both the face of religious authority and that of the imagined reader of print-bible culture were emphatically white. While a large amount of pedagogical print was directed at Native and African Americans throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, (p.21) bibles were not. This, I will argue, had to do with the nation-building assumptions embedded in this print-bible culture: the American bible reader was not just a Christian (real or potential), but also a citizen. This classification naturally excluded indigenous peoples and the enslaved but included white women, unable to participate fully in political culture yet rhetorically held responsible for the promulgation of American nationhood.4

This chapter will trace the development of early national print-bible culture from the built-in pedagogical assumptions of scripturalization itself to its evolution in the specific history of eighteenth-century British bible culture. At their most straightforward, the pedagogical goals embedded in colonial-era print-bible culture concerned readers’ understanding of the biblical text. Bibles of this era also reinscribed the Bible’s privileged status—they participated actively, that is, in the processes of scripturalization. Beyond that, though, they conjured an image of the British bible-reading subject and of the relationship between the Bible and Britishness. Early national American bibles would inherit these pedagogical goals, with the significant difference that nationalist interests would necessarily be turned toward creating American bibles and readers.

In early national America, bibles were constitutive of religious subjectivities not just in the mechanics of the text’s rhetorical use, but at the material level of their format and composition. Just as tropes and symbols of the biblical text made identities recognizable and performable, American bibles rhetorically constituted approaches to and regard for the Bible itself. The visceral metaphor of Weems’s chart, for example—advertising the Bible dissected and inviting the reader to handle it as a palpable, limited object with countable words and a precise midpoint—did not just say something about that bible’s imagined readers: it told its actual readers something about the Bible. The co-constitution of the American Bible and its readers will be the key to understanding bible-based authority in the nineteenth century.

Scripture and Pedagogy

Written scripture demands authority. The Word of God, or divine truth, or transcendent wisdom may be imagined as self-authenticating and eternally changeless, but writing it down is an act of mediation that must be justified, explained, and legitimated. In the New Testament, before Luke begins his account of the gospel, he announces his qualification for writing it down: “[P] erfect understanding of all things from the very first” (1:3).

This act of mediation, moreover, is fundamentally pedagogical. Written scriptures teach. (Luke, again, says that he writes “[t]hat thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed” [1:4]). Various mediating voices are built into any given example of a written scripture— (p.22) author, transcriber, translator, indexer, publisher—but each alike assumes the asymmetrical apportioning of relevant knowledge that defines a pedagogical relationship. Each voice found in a scripture is, at base, a voice that teaches.

This fact has been particularly salient in the history of Western Christianity. Early modern Catholicism found authority in its own body of thought and tradition as the institution founded and headed by Christ to carry out his work on earth. Reformers, on the other hand, insisted that authority for doctrine and practice rested only with scripture, that anything that was not so grounded had to be left off, and that it was the responsibility of each Christian to pursue the understanding of such distinctions through the reading of scripture. The doctrine of sola scriptura placed an extreme burden on the proper presentation and reception of the Bible at the same time that it undermined the Catholic Church as the institution presumed to be responsible for ensuring scripture’s purity and correct interpretation.5

While Reformation leaders insisted that the Bible be accessible to all Christians—and promoted vernacularization to this end—their connection of this access with teaching is often overlooked in favor of the suggestion that they encouraged lay freedom in the reading of scripture.6 Early on, Martin Luther himself moderated his rhetoric about the laity’s bible reading in the face of what he considered dangerous tendencies toward misinterpretation. He was less sanguine than typically suggested with respect to lay bible reading, and even among the clergy he suggested a tiered system of authority based on humanist pedagogy. “There is a vast difference therefore between a simple preacher of the faith and a person who expounds Scripture,” Luther wrote. “A simple preacher (it is true) has so many clear passages and texts available through translation that he can know and teach Christ, lead a holy life, and preach to others. But when it comes to interpreting scripture, and working with it on your own, and disputing with those who cite it incorrectly, he is unequal to the task; that cannot be done without languages.”7

Preaching, for all the Protestant rhetoric about the minister acting as a mere vessel for the Word, is fundamentally pedagogical. The earliest English bibles, appearing in the fifteenth century, were created specifically to facilitate preaching to a vernacular audience, and it was this attempt to teach, rather than the fact of translation itself, that caught the Catholic Church’s ire.8 Reformers, citing both the Bible’s difficulty and the radical beliefs which could be generated by what they saw as incorrect readings, were essentially as uncomfortable with laypeople reading without supervision as the Catholic Church. Vernacular bibles right away became cluttered with guidance for readers—notes and commentary in the margins; personal addresses from commentators and translators and crowned heads; charts and lists at the front, at the back, between the testaments.9 The first edition of Luther’s own 1534 German translation has cross-references and marginal explanations, a preface, and introductions to the testaments. Scriptura was never, ever, sola.10

(p.23) The Protestant bible reader, then, has always been a reader who must be taught, and not only by the Spirit. The pedagogical impulse at the core of Protestant biblicism, materially embedded in a pedagogically-focused print-bible culture, identifies a reader in need. The characteristics by which this need has been defined, however, have varied according to the contexts of bible production.

The need that defined the imagined reader of the first English bibles was, as Luther indicated in his distinctions among preachers, philogical: scripture required translation. In the mid-sixteenth century, Henry VIII—who broke with Rome but remained religiously conservative—opposed the vernacular bible until persuaded that a sanctioned, regulated English Bible for which he could claim responsibility was less likely to spread heresy (and more likely to enhance his authority as head of the English Church) than the illicit translations already circulating.11 The title page of the Great Bible of 1539 features a looming, enthroned Henry literally handing out bibles, and a very small God peeping out above him, voicing His support.12 Though apparently wanting in humanistic education, the recipients of Henry’s largesse are depicted as affluent and male. From these readers, vernacular scripture might spread farther, as it first issued from Henry. A royal decree of 1542 held that “[i]t shalbe law-full to everye noble man and gentleman being a householder to reade or cause to be red by any of his famylie or servants in his house orchard or gardeyne, and to his owne famylie, any texte of the Byble or New Testament, so the same be doone quietlie and without disturbaunce of good order.” Absent a nobleman’s instruction on his own lands, women were prohibited from reading the Bible to others, and the lower classes were forbidden to read it at all. “[N]o woomen nor artificers prentises journeymen serving men of the degrees of yeomen or undre, husbandemen nor laborers shall reade within this Realme or in any other the Kings Domynions, the Byble or Newe Testament in Englishe, to himself or any other pryvatelie or openlie, upon paine of oone monethes imprysonement for every tyme so offending.”13

Education and class, with varying degrees of emphasis and differing assumptions, would continue to be the primary ways in which the imagined readers of English bibles were identified. The Geneva Bible was the work of Protestants who had fled England in the 1550s at the threat of persecution under Henry’s Catholic daughter, Mary. The Geneva translators justified their work on the basis of their learning, positioning the reader according to education rather than class or status, strictly speaking. In an introductory note, the translators professed concern for “simple readers,” and contended that their translation mediated not just the original languages of the Bible but the vast scholarship on interpretation and translation: “[W]e have also endeavored both by the diligent reading of the best commentaries, and also by the conference with the godly and learned brethren, to gather brief annotations upon all the hard places.” The Geneva is thus explicitly pedagogical in its content and (p.24) tone. Each book is headed with a summary of its “argument”; the text is supplemented by tables including chronologies of both the Old and New Testaments and an extensive index of biblical events and proper names arranged alphabetically. The presence of woodblock illustrations is explained by the translators’ determination that “certeyne places in the bookes of Moses, of the Kings and Exekiel semed so darke that by no description thei colde be made easie to the simple reader.” These readers, they hope, will benefit from “figures and notes for the ful declaration thereof.”14 The Geneva’s most famous feature, its marginal commentary, amounts to three hundred thousand words, by Harry Stout’s count, “a self-contained theological library” that guided “common readers” through the text.15

Religious partisanship was also a defining characteristic of the Geneva’s imagined reader; that reader was a Protestant, and a Calvinist one. The definitive English bible translation for Catholics, the Douay-Rheims, appeared in the same era as the Geneva, its Latin imprimatur and exhaustive polemical notes constituting a Catholic reader. Partisanship likewise inflected intra-Protestant controversies over bible production. When the subject of a new state-authorized translation to replace the Geneva was raised in 1604, James I voiced his dislike of the Geneva on the grounds that he found “some notes very partial, untrue, seditious, and favoring too much of dangerous and traitorous conceits.” Specifically, he thought the Geneva commentary promoted disobedience to kings, singling out a note at Exodus 1:19 which allowed that the midwives who refused to carry out Pharaoh’s order to kill Israel’s male babies were acting in a “lawful” manner. In commissioning a new translation, James directed that it bear no marginal commentary at all.16

Rhetorically, the 1611 King James Version attended to the needs of “common readers”: “[W]ithout translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well (which was deepe) without a bucket or something to drawe with.”17 In keeping with its official nature, though, the first editions promoted a sense of what David Norton calls “ecclesiastical splendour” through their size, quality of paper, and use of black letter type.18 The size suggested that these bibles were for the preaching of clergy, not the study of lay people. Its extrabiblical material was primarily of a liturgical nature: a liturgical calendar, an “Almanacke” chart giving lunar information relating to the timing of Easter, and thirty-five pages of meticulously illustrated biblical genealogies. Its margins had no commentary but did bear cross-references, potentially useful to lay readers but at this early date most commonly associated with ministers’ needs in preparing sermons.

James reasserted Henry’s claim to authority for the English Bible, legibly and self-consciously, and by the late seventeenth century the King James text had supplanted the Geneva’s.19 The Geneva’s intentionally accessible, pedagogically oriented style, however, prevailed over the Authorized Version’s relative austerity. Into the mid-seventeenth century, the Geneva would be the bible (p.25) that English-speaking settlers were likely to carry to the New World. Geneva bibles remained common in the colonies among Reformed groups, and were widespread in popular preaching into the eighteenth century.20 After the Puritan Commonwealth was established in England—James I’s sensitivity about disobedience to kings proved justified—the Geneva commentary came back into favor. From 1642 at least nine editions of the King James were published with the Geneva commentary, and publishers developed a new set of annotations in the 1660s and 70s.21 Like Weems and his chart, seventeenth-century bible publishers recognized the addition of notes to the Authorized Version as “a sensible commercial move,” as Norton calls it.22 At the same time, it is also important to recognize how, at the level of the text, theological and market considerations combined in the hybridization of the Geneva and the Authorized Versions to create a distinctively new imagined English bible reader in the eighteenth century.

Eighteenth-Century English Bibles

Ironically, state attempts to control the content of English bibles contributed to their increasing variety. In 1577, Elizabeth I granted London printer Christopher Barker exclusive right to print “all and singular Bibles and New Testaments whatsoever, in the English tongue or in any other tongue whatsoever, and any translation with or without notes,” an authorization known as the “bible patent.”23 Later, exclusive patents were granted to selected printers in Wales and Scotland, and to the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford.24 For the first half of the eighteenth century, London printer John Baskett and his sons, through a series of purchases and leases from 1710 on, controlled both the royal and the Oxford patent, which meant that they dominated the legal bible market.25 At the same time, the profitability of bible printing led many others to find ways into the market. Straight piracy, based primarily in Holland, was common from the early seventeenth century: nearly eighty unlicensed editions of English bibles were published in Holland or elsewhere on the continent between 1599 and 1746.26 Other printers, though, composed bibles that could nevertheless be presented, for legal purposes, as something other than bibles. Beginning in 1659, printers shut out of the official bible business began producing sets of bible illustrations, ostensibly to be bound into bibles published by the patented printers. By 1688 printers were restyling these sets of pictures as illustrated bibles under titles such as “History of the Bible,” a title that would remain widespread well into the nineteenth century. These went so far as to incorporate scriptural text to accompany the pictures, and eventually nonpatented printers were printing full illustrated bibles.27 The practice extended beyond illustrations, to elaborate annotations. Titles proliferated which identified a publication as a bible and yet as something else: The Compleat History of the Old and New Testament: or, a Family Bible (p.26) (1736); The Universal Bible: or, Every Christian Family’s Best Treasure (1759); An Illustration of the Holy Scriptures, by notes and explications on the Old and New testament (1759).28 This was also the era of the proliferation of heavily-annotated bibles with a particular commentator’s name prominently attached to them, and these, too, were published outside of the provisions of the bible patent: Samuel Clark’s The Holy Bible, containing the Old Testament and the New: with Annotation and Parallel Scriptures … (1690); Philip Doddridge’s Family Expositor (1739–1756); Mr. Whiston’s Primitive New Testament (1745); John Brown’s Self-Interpreting Bible (1778).29 While the majority of English bibles were still produced by a handful of patented printers under the generic Authorized Version title (The Holy Bible, Newly Translated out of the Original Tongues …), these too became distinguishable for their aesthetic qualities and expanding content.

The titles of the bibles produced by nonpatented printers and the contents they signaled suggest a shared sensibility. Though partly inspired by concern about copyright restrictions, they evolved in ways that spoke to issues unrelated to anything so banal as copyright law. Three recurring themes stand out: these bibles imagined their readers as constitutive of a “family,” accentuated the narrative or “historical” aspect of the Bible, and promised “completeness.” These elements conjured an image of both the Bible as an object and the imperial British subject as bible reader that would be crucial antecedents of the imagined American bible reader. The pedagogical interests of English bibles in the colonial era would set the terms of the development of American print-bible culture beginning in the 1780s.30

“Complete” “Family” “History”

It is important to place the family bible in the context of “family prayer” as its imagined site of reading and use.31 “Family” in the titles and general description of English bibles should be thought of as a place and an occasion as well as an audience: just as later “school bibles” were for students in the classroom and “pulpit bibles” were for ministers in church, family bibles were imagined as suiting a father’s reading in the home.

In that context, two aspects of “family” are key. One is that this imagined reader is, as most often expressed, “common.” The commentators responsible for family bibles’ paratextual content invariably prefaced their work with lengthy introductions, and here these authors proclaimed their interest in bringing the Bible to readers with little money or education.32 The imagined reader of a “cottage bible” was a “cottager”—a Britishism referring to rural laborers—who would read aloud to his family. Samuel Clark addressed his preface to “the plainer sort of Christians” and included explicit “Directions to the less Intelligent, for their more easy understanding these Notes.”33 The Self-Interpreting Bible, Brown wrote in his preface, was intended to present commentary (p.27) “in a manner that might best comport with the ability and leisure of the poorer and labouring part of mankind.”34 Philip Doddridge, in the Family Expositor, explained that he paraphrased the New Testament to make it more accessible “to those that wanted the benefit of a learned education”; paraphrase, he said, “is the most agreeable and useful manner of explaining [scripture] to common readers, who hardly know how to manage annotations.”35 In the 1754 preface to his “Expository Notes upon the New Testament” (appearing in American editions beginning in 1791), John Wesley dedicated his work to “serious persons, who have not the advantage of Learning” and was more explicit than most about whom he really meant and whom he did not: his notes are “not principally designed for Men of Learning; who are provided with many other helps: And much less for Men of long and deep Experience in the ways and word of God…. I write chiefly for plain, unlettered men, who understand only their Mother-Tongue, and yet reverence and love the Word of God, and have a Desire to save their souls.”36

In addressing “common readers” explicitly, each of these authorities for the Bible cultivated both a rhetorical respect for that reader and a fundamentally superior pedagogical attitude toward him. George Whitefield’s widely-circulated preface to Samuel Clark’s bible, first used in a 1760 edition, takes Peter’s attitude toward the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26–40) as paradigmatic for all such presenter-reader relationships. “An instructive passage this!” Whitefield writes. “Not only as it shews us how the greatest Personages ought not to think themselves above perusing God’s lively Oracles, but also points out to us that teachable and child-like disposition, with which all ought to come to the reading of them, as well as the care the Holy Spirit of God takes to furnish such as have a mind to do his Will, with proper Instructors, that they may know it. The Meek will he guide in his Way.”37

The imagined reader of a family bible in a moment of family reading remained emphatically male; as Henry’s decree two centuries earlier had imagined, family bible reading meant men reading aloud to their families. This will be one of the differences between the colonial and early national imagined bible reader in America, as the diversification of the market for bibles and the feminization of literacy instruction turned family bibles into feminine commodities after the end of the eighteenth century.

The pedagogical focus on simple readers also informed these bibles’ promise of “Completeness.” Cottagers tended not to own many books, and these bibles promised that they didn’t need to. Just as the Geneva translators had promised that they had sifted scholarly work on the Bible in order to present it to common readers, heavily-annotated eighteenth-century bibles promised that they were all-encompassing: all that a given reader needed in order to understand the Bible was contained within the covers of a given artifact. Brown’s Self-Interpreting Bible promised both to allow the Bible to explain itself and to present in a single volume “the principal substance” of a range of (p.28) major commentaries: “Pool, Patrick, Clark, Henry, Burkitt, Gill, Doddridge, Guyse, &c. &c.”

Completeness held the sense of universality, as in The Universal Bible or, Every Christian Family’s Best Treasure (1759). Here, an English bible becomes the Bible, which told readers something both about the Bible and about the English. In the title of 1764’s The British Bible: Or, A Compleat System of Rational Religion, “British” is identified with rationality itself, and both are made to inhere in the English-language bible.38 In a similar fashion, one of the most popular lines of bibles in the early nineteenth century would be referred to as “polyglots”: while the word, prominently featured on title pages, implied broad linguistic scope, the only language actually present was English.39

This triple identification of true religion, the Bible, and Britishness was carried also in the eighteenth century’s increasing historicization of the Bible. This development is typically associated with German scholarship, and what scholars generally think of as higher criticism would not have a significant impact with respect to English bibles until well into the nineteenth century. Elements of historicism, however, are plainly obvious in early English bibles. These include a cognizance of the origins of the Bible as a text, of its translational and archaeological complications, and an impulse toward contextualizing sacred stories according to events of world history. In 1699, the convocation of Anglican bishops commissioned William Lloyd to supervise an improved edition of the Authorized Version. Lloyd’s bible, first appearing in 1701, contained extensive historicizing material: revised marginal dates, a lengthy chronological index plotting biblical events on the timeline of world history, and an essay comparing biblical weights and measures to contemporary ones. Lloyd’s timeline was reprinted in countless editions of the Bible well into the nineteenth century under the title “An Index to the Holy Bible” and quickly became such an expected part of English bibles that by 1741 the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) specified that the bibles used by its missionaries in churches contain it.40 The Index relies primarily on scriptural references, but it also cites extensively from noncanonical histories, such as Josesphus’s Antiquities and Bellum Judaicum, Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, and Dionysius Exiguus’s Liber de Paschate. The explicit blending of works of history with scripture to plot biblical events historically is of a piece with the maps and images of the Holy Land that also proliferated in bibles of this era. The historicizing attributes of eighteenth-century English bibles may be read as the products of scholarship, but in the context of print-bible culture their pedagogical effects on the imagined reader were, in part, imperial. Plotting biblical events on the timeline of world history made them antecedents to English history, inviting readers to imagine their national past as part of the sacred past. Running dates in the margins of these bibles likewise allowed a reader to track the relationship between the biblical period and her own.41

(p.29) The title of The Grand Imperial Bible (1766) said explicitly what all copies of the Authorized Version implied in the dedication to King James, bound in at the front to honor James I as “the principal Mover and Author of the Work”: England had a special relationship with the Bible. Scholars have theorized extensively about Christianity’s colonialist logic, and specifically about the Bible’s status as a key tool of colonialism. Vincent Wimbush argues that belief in the Bible’s importance and the nation’s importance were mutually constitutive, that the respective fictions of England’s preeminence and the Bible’s preeminence depended on one another.42 English colonization of the New World was couched in missionizing terms that emphasized the unique responsibility of the English to spread the gospel. By the Victorian era, this would manifest in the British and Foreign Bible Society taking responsibility for providing translations of the Bible in the various languages of the British Empire, famously emblematized by “The Secret of England’s Greatness,” Thomas Jones Barker’s circa 1863 painting of Queen Victoria presenting a bible to an African prince fairly cowering before her.43 In the early eighteenth century, though, where bibles themselves were concerned, England mostly kept its secret to itself. Many representatives of the SPG—which served as the primary missionary organ in the Anglican-dominated South through the revolution—were ambivalent about teaching slaves, free blacks, and Native Americans to read and relied instead on oral catechesis.44 Writing from South Carolina in 1710, one of the SPG’s missionaries reported that at least one slave accepted his distance from literacy: “I asked once a pretty ancient and very fine slave whether he cou’d read,” Francis Le Jau wrote. “His answer was he wou’d rather choose hereafter to practice the good he cou’d remember.”45

The SPG’s 1741 “Instructions for Catechists for Instructing Indians, Negroes, &c.,” however, does stipulate that every effort should be made to “excite in them an earnest Desire to read the Bible as soon as they can” and even gave voice to the expectation that they have bibles of their own: schoolmasters were to “cause them to carry their Bibles and Prayer Books with them, instructing them how to use them there [at public worship].”46 Bibles themselves, however, imagined literate readers, and African Americans’ access to literacy remained sporadic and fraught; literacy among the enslaved would always be recognized as a risk.47 The oft-cited trope of the “talking book” in eighteenth-century black Atlantic writing is itself a mark of the foreignness of print. To be scripturalized in the anglophone Atlantic world, as Wimbush argues, was to submit to being, or to learn to be, or to be, English.48

Michael Warner has argued that in early America, literacy and printing themselves “constituted and distinguished a specifically white community”: “White colonists early learned to think of themselves as inhabiting the pure language of writing and to think of blacks as inhabiting a dialect, a particularized speech, that expressed their racial nature.”49 In this view, any generically English bible imagined a white reader. The print-bible culture notionally (p.30) addressed to Native Americans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries raises more complex questions about imagined bible readers, because English missionaries made an attempt to approach them in their own languages, something that apparently no one considered in approaching the multitudes of African languages present in the New World in the same period. The first bible printed in the Western Hemisphere was not an English bible at all, but a translation in Wampanoag, published in 1663, composed by at least two native translators, James Printer and Job Nesuton, and Puritan missionary John Eliot.50 The first reader imagined by indigenously American printed bibles, then, was an indigenous reader. Eliot’s bible did not spark a larger movement of native translation, though—only two other partial native-language bibles appeared before 1800. Eliot’s imagined reader was the exception that proved the rule: the indifference to native translation over the eighteenth century would underscore the white identity of the larger print culture’s imagined reader. The translation of bibles and tracts designed specifically for certain groups creates dialect, with its assumptions of a distinguishable norm. The native bible could not be “compleat” or “universal,” only particular.51

Throughout the colonial period, even for Euro-American residents of the Americas, the “universal” nature of English bibles would be tenuous. Until 1777, reading an English-language bible in the New World meant reading a European book. In the colonial era, all English bibles present in the American colonies came inscribed, on their title pages, with a reminder to colonists that authority resided in some distant other place: bibles originated in Edinburgh or Oxford or, by far most commonly, London.52 What Warner has observed of all print in the American colonies in the early eighteenth century was true for English bibles until the 1780s, and acutely so: “[P]rint in the early eighteenth century was distinguished for the fact of its distant origins, its ability to cross space and time in a way that made it represent the exotic.” Colonial bible readers were always “inscribed in the imperial periphery by a print discourse that everywhere recorded its emanation from distant parts.”53

Prior to the revolution, the provincialism cast on colonial readers by English bibles did not dampen demand for them. Historians have long noted the “spectacular American demand for English goods during the eighteenth century,” and bibles were clearly among such goods.54 In January of 1774, New York bookseller Samuel Loudon received a shipment which included “Clark’s folio bible, quarto bibles, with Ostervald’s notes; Burket on the bible, Doddridge’s family expositor … A large variety of bibles, gilt and plain.”55 Loudon also operated a lending library with over a thousand volumes, including the various bibles he offered for sale, indicating that such books could be known even to those who did not buy them.56 The effect that English bibles had on the first American domestic bibles is plainly obvious—to printers, anyway, The Compleat and Universal British Family Bible, variously titled, was what a bible looked like in the late eighteenth century. The titles of some early American (p.31) bibles echoed the titles and often repeated the content of earlier imports—The Self-interpreting Bible (1792); The Christian’s New and Complete Family Bible (1790)—even though the need for distinguishing titles was removed since the American printers could patriotically ignore the bible patent. The imagined reader remained “common” in the most-used prefaces: a rhetoric of benevolence persisted in which the Bible was always being given, even when it was being sold. Two major factors, though, conditioned the creation of a distinct American bible reader in the first decades after independence. One was the sheer quantity and variety of bibles, a condition brought about by changing technologies of print and transportation as much as by the advent of domestic production.57 These changes altered the horizons of print. In sixteenth-century England, Henry VIII mandated that every church have an English bible. In nineteenth-century America, the American Bible Society set out to print and distribute an English bible for every home. The other factor that set early national print-bible culture apart was specifically tied to domestic production: American bibles printed in English had to conjure an American, rather than a British reader. These two differences are crucial to understanding early national bible-based authority.

American Bibles

Between 1777 and 1840, American printers and publishers issued at least eleven hundred editions of New Testaments and full bibles.58 In the late eighteenth century, increased access to the resources necessary for printing and investment capital helped make the market viable, and seemingly every printer who had the resources wanted to be in the bible business.59 “Everything that can raise type is going to work upon the bible,” Weems wrote to Carey in 1800. “You’d take New York for the very town of Man-soul, and its printers the veriest saints on earth.”60

Those interested in American bible production had to grapple with the established “Britishness” of the English-language bible. In July of 1777, a group of Presbyterian ministers petitioned Congress to endow domestic bible printing, arguing that bibles were in short supply and assuming that bible production should come under the purview of the new government, as it had the old.61 Specifically, the request was tied to the rhetoric of benevolence that had informed British bible production. “[T]he price of bibles for the use of Families and Schools is greatly advanced beyond what was formerly given for them, thro their scarcity and difficulty in importing them from Europe,” the petitioners wrote, reinscribing the old assumption that it is a somehow common reader who is in need of the Bible.62 The petitioners’ interests went beyond simply supplying bibles, however: they assumed that Congress would exert control over the text of this bible and regulate its publication. “Ye most correct Copy of the Bible that can be found [shall] be delivered by ye Congress (p.32) to the Printer, who shall be bound by solemn Oath not to vary from it knowingly in his Edition, even in a single Iota, without first laying the proposed Alteration before Congress & obtaining their Approbation.”63 The primary pedagogical voice, as in Henry’s day, would be that of the state. The petitioners proposed that a new dedication replace the traditional dedication to King James, and that the title page carry the phrase “Printed by Order of Congress.” Codifed and controlled by the state, this was to be the American Authorized Version: “After the Bible is published, no more Bibles of that Kind be imported into the American States by any Person whatsoever.”64 Bids were solicited from Philadelphia printers, but this project never got off the ground—the Continental Congress never subsidized bible production.

In 1777, Philadelphia printer Robert Aitken printed an English New Testament and, in 1782, a full English bible, the first printed in America. If these publications may be thought of as constituting a self-consciously American reader, it is in something of a negative sense: rough and unattractive, their primary claim on the buyer was that they were the proud products of domestic craft. Influenced by the earlier petition, Aitken pursued the project with the desire to sell Congress on the idea of approving and underwriting his bible. He received none of the financial support he requested, but he did get an enthusiastic if somewhat careful response from the congressional chaplains, recommending the work “to the inhabitants of the United States” and celebrating this “instance of the progress of arts in this country.”65 Aitken printed the endorsement with his bible. There, it inhabited the same authorizing space as the dedication to King James—which Aitken left out—underscoring the general assumption that a bible could and should be authorized by the state, even though, from the perspective of the state, it had not been.

Domestic production of English bibles began in earnest in the 1790s, imagining an explicitly American reader in nationalist terms. The first bible printed in New York, in 1792, has at the front a lengthy list of subscribers, headed by George Washington (in outsized type) and other members of the national government.66 The traditional dedication to King James was the most legible evidence of American provincialism, and it was the first thing to go. Isaac Collins found it “wholly unnecessary for the purposes of edification, and perhaps on some accounts improper” for American bibles and replaced it with the preface by John Witherspoon.67

The subsequent ubiquity of Witherspoon’s preface highlights an important fact about the presumption of national identity embedded in the first American English bibles. Witherspoon wrote the text while president of Princeton; it first appeared in 1790 in a bible published in Philadelphia; and Collins printed a revised version in his first Trenton bible the next year. This preface, then, found its way into print through local channels (Princeton is about forty miles from Philadelphia, and Trenton is between them). Collins, however, had national aspirations: he headed the text with a statement about the impropriety (p.33) of using the traditional King James preface in “an American edition.” He had his quarto bible stereotyped in 1815, enabling him to sell copies of the printing plates, amplifying the text’s reach. Collins’s text of the Bible, Witherspoon’s preface in tow, became one of the standard texts for American bibles.68 Witherspoon’s preface was also picked up by commentator Hervey Wilbur for use in his annotated bible, and over the next several decades it showed up in bibles published in, at least, Albany; Boston; Brattleboro, Vermont; Buffalo; Dayton, Ohio; and Hartford, Connecticut. In 1876 it shows up, still, in a bible published in Philadelphia, now buried amidst an encyclopedia’s worth of images and other parabiblical materials.69

The local, northeastern origins of what became a standard national biblical text are indicative of the realities of “American” print-bible culture in the early national period. While early domestic bible producers had national aspirations, the imagined American bible reader was inescapably a northeastern, urban creation. That New York subscriber list from 1792 actually consists of two parts. The main list of subscribers—overwhelmingly from New York—is followed by a supplement, indicating that additional subscriptions were received after the type for the main list had been set. This supplemental list contains several (and the only) subscribers from Georgia, suggesting both the reach of this publishing project and the temporal and geographic distance of the South.70 American bible production began in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and their environs in the 1780s, and though these centers of print culture multiplied their production of bibles several times over in the ensuing decades, sites of production spread only slowly and intermittently. The bibliographic record tells a stark tale: in the first thirty years of American bible publishing, no bible or even New Testament was printed south or west of Baltimore.71

The northeastern dominance of American bible production continued for decades. Editions of a heavily-annotated study bible appeared in the 1820s bearing Cincinnati imprints, and in 1831 the following significant outlier appears—a bible bearing the imprint “Published by Silas Andrus: Hartford, Conn.; Luke Loomis & Co.: Pittsburgh, Penn.; A.B. Roff: Cincinnati, Ohio; and J.S. Kellogg: Mobile, Ala.” Examined carefully, though, this geographically-eclectic imprint was another northeastern creation with national aspirations: it was annotated and compiled “for the instruction of youth” by Jesse Olney, widely known as an author of school books and a resident of Hartford, Connecticut.72 Olney’s proximity to Andrus—the first and northeasternmost of the publishers in the imprint—makes it more than likely that Andrus printed the book and coordinated with the farther-flung publishers for distribution.73 Similar imprints, naming booksellers in Alabama, Charleston, and, in 1850, New Orleans, as distributors appeared during the next few decades. Finally, in 1858, three different New Testaments were published in Nashville. Tellingly, six editions of the New Testament were published in Nashville and Augusta, Georgia, during the Civil War; immediately after the war, this activity (p.34) ceased. The first full bible printed in the former Confederacy was published under the auspices of the Methodist printing concern in Nashville, in 1874—nearly a century after Aitken published the first American English bible in Philadelphia.74

The nation-building aspirations of early American bibles are most readily apparent in the work of the American Bible Society (ABS), founded in 1816.75 Beginning in the 1810s, the ABS formalized the idea of a national bible. Bible societies in America were originally local affairs—the first, the Bible Society of Philadelphia, was founded in 1808. The Philadelphia Society modeled its goals on those of the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS), founded in March of 1804, in organizing to provide bibles to those that might have difficulty buying them, but it explicitly rejected the British Society’s sense of national mission. The BFBS wanted a national organization in America, and, in sending the Philadelphia society start-up funds, let it be known that while they were sending two hundred pounds to the “Bible Society of Philadelphia,” they would have sent as much as five hundred pounds to the “United States Bible Society.”76 The Philadelphians demurred because they thought local organizations could do the work more efficiently and with greater participation among members. A national organization would have to hold meetings somewhere, and a national membership would find it difficult and expensive to attend. “It was believed, in a word,” they wrote, “that such an institution would never be conducted with vigour, and not be likely to continue for a length of time.”77 They concluded that “[i]f as many Bible Societies should be instituted as there are states in the union, the number probably would not be too large.”78

By the time the American Bible Society formed, there were 108 local societies, six times the number of states in the union. The ABS’s founders thought this too many. The founders of the ABS staked their argument for a national society on the question of efficiency: the various state and local societies were “without any common plan of operation” and were failing to meet what they depicted as a dramatic need for bibles in the young nation.79 The rhetoric they used to justify their consolidation of authority for distributing the Bible clearly imagines a reader in need in terms of education and class. Bible societies expressed particular concern for those too poor to buy bibles and those—such as sailors, convicts, and, eventually, the enslaved—in no position to buy books. The Philadelphia society, likewise, posited the poor as the paradigmatic bible readers: “It was the discriminating character of the gospel at its first publication, that it was preached to the poor; and it is to the poor chiefly that we have it in expectation to send the inspired and authentic records of that gospel.”80

The imagined recipient of the ABS’s bibles was in direct contrast with how the organization imagined itself. The blue-blooded condescension which permeates the rhetoric of the ABS is unmistakable, and, set in the long history of authority for the English Bible, telling. Owing to the state of society and culture in the United States, the ABS claimed that local societies found “it difficult (p.35) to assemble a respectable audience at their annual meetings.” By contrast, “the annual meeting of the British Society is one of the most crowded and interesting assemblies in England, attended by individuals the most distinguished of any in the kingdom for piety, eloquence and rank.”81 The implication was that one benefit of a national organization would be to have a larger set of worthy citizens from whom to select leaders, but in the event the ABS’s constitution required that two-thirds of its managers live in Manhattan, again underscoring the conflation of northeastern with national identity.82 The ABS’s founders argued that the group’s leadership had to be carefully chosen by a select committee, “and not left to the hasty inconsiderate choice of a promiscuous assembly at a general meeting.”83 This attitude has led historian Peter Wosh to place the ABS at the center of “a massive counteroffensive directed against Jeffersonian values” in the second decade of the nineteenth century.84 The Philadelphia Society, on the other hand, declined to send delegates to the ABS’s founding convention and continued to find ways to invest authority in ever more local organizations just as the ABS was consolidating nationwide power. Their 1816 report outlines the creation of “Bible Assemblies,” hyperlocal groups within Philadelphia and the greater area which gave individuals and congregations with little means a stake in the bible society’s goals. Membership in these microsocieties was “constituted and continued by the payment of six cents per month, payable monthly, quarterly, semi-annually or annually, at the discretion of the member.”85 Members of these groups took part in running their organizations, voting—in promiscuous assembly—for their fellow members to serve on the operating board.

Along with the arrogation of authority for the Bible on social grounds, the founders of the ABS argued that a national organization was necessary to control the text and form of English bibles in America. Control over the text further belied the local prerogatives embedded in the group’s national aspirations. The ABS’s directors had intended to distribute plates around the country, and sent plates to the Lexington, Kentucky, auxiliary. Subsequently, though, they changed their minds, opting to maintain centralized control of all bible production in Manhattan.86 In announcing the “First General Supply” in 1829, the ABS determined to put a bible in every American home, and every one of them was to be printed from stereotype plates in New York City.87

For all of their familiar condescension toward their poor, bibleless imagined reader, in eschewing most paratextual materials society bibles evinced a different approach to the pedagogical impulse implicit in all written scripture. The rationale for the “without note or comment” maxim, which all American societies adopted from the BFBS, was that it prevented dissent, ensuring that all denominations could cooperate with the work of bible societies in good faith.88 “Placing the Good Book in every household, in the minds of many, might lay the foundation for a common Christian social consensus,” promoters wrote. The pedagogical impulse nevertheless runs through the way that members (p.36) of the ABS imagined their books would be used. The ABS’s founders assumed that the Bible’s importance to America—and, through America, to the world—was pedagogical. The ABS’s leaders, John Fea writes, assumed that the “Bible was the source of the laws that kept the United States moral, and it was the means of restraining the passion-driven impulses of democracy that led to licentiousness.”89

The presentation of the Bible as a singular whole inherently delivering a unifying, “restraining” message to all readers was, at base, a different ideal of “completeness.” Incessant touting of the “without note or content” maxim embodied the same pretense used to identify a given printed English bible with the eternal, abstract Bible. By eliminating notes and comments, ABS bibles claimed to be the Bible, distinct from the variety of bibles in the market that came with adjectives attached but which also claimed to be complete and universal. Like other claims to universality, though, this one was fictive. In practice, bible societies were widely regarded as Presbyterian affairs, and in 1836 a coalition of Baptists would break from the ABS over translation issues. In any case, the ABS’s prohibition on paratexts was not absolute. In 1833 they began printing bibles with marginal references, guide words, and chapter summaries to guide reading, noting in their annual report that they had long intended to do so.90

Like other nationalistic organizations of the early nineteenth century, the ABS sought to knit the nation together through print, in their case holding up the Bible as the most essential shared national text. The fiction of a nationally-uniform bible and bible reader would become especially acute in responses to attempted bible distribution among the enslaved. Abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass believed that such efforts allowed sympathetic whites to assuage their consciences while taking focus away from the central problem, and in ridiculing such plans observed both the cognitive and geographical distance between enslaved African Americans and the sort of literate society in which having a bible made a difference in one’s life. “Are the men engaged in this movement sane?” he asked, in 1847. “Do they seriously believe that the American Slave can receive the Bible? … Do they suppose that Slaveholders, in open violation of their wicked laws, will allow their Slaves to have the Bible? How do they mean to get the Bible among the Slaves? It cannot go itself—it must be carried.”91 The imagined reader conjured by American bibles was still uniformly white, Douglass recognized.

The imagined enslaved reader, or nonreader, devoid of choices with respect to bibles, is in crucial contrast to the reader imagined by early national print-bible culture. The early nineteenth century was a period of economic expansion, involving both the rapidly expanding production of consumer goods and the disruptions attending a capitalist economy, as local economies became subject to distant markets.92 Bibles entered this market like other consumer goods: as objects intended to find buyers.93 In 1807, Mathew Carey issued a (p.37) prospectus advertising more than thirty different iterations of bibles, inviting buyers to specify that their bibles come with or without the Apocrypha, the metered Psalms, or a concordance; with no plates, eleven plates, or thirty plates (the two sets overlapped little); two maps, ten, or none; or any combination of these variables. Beyond the content, buyers could specify the grade of paper used and the type of binding. As James Green has noted, Carey’s line of bibles had reached unprecedented variety: “No Bible, in fact, no book of any kind had ever been offered in such a variety of formats, and the innovation was extremely popular with consumers.”94

To the extent that shopping—a word that first appeared in the modern sense in 1764—was from early on gendered as feminine, as ever more diverse commodities in a growing market American bibles came to be oriented toward an imagined reader who was female.95 In this period women became “highly visible shoppers,” in Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor’s phrase, and bible sellers took note.96 Their profit motive meant that they were more open to a fact that scholars of American religion have only come around to in the last few decades, which is that “the numerical dominance of women in all but a few religious groups constitutes one of the most consistent features of American religion,” as Ann Braude has put it.97 While typically barred from formal positions of religious authority, women have always made up the majority of American churchgoers. From the colonial era, moreover, women were identified as the teachers of literacy, and as the teaching of literacy was identified with the Bible, women had a clear stake in choosing among bibles in the market.98 To be clear, this is not to say that women were necessarily responsible for buying more bibles than men in this period. Subscriber lists bound into early national bibles are overwhelmingly composed of men. What is clear is that many bible producers thought that they needed to sell bibles to women, and that their bibles subsequently imagined female readers.

The clearest way in which many early American bibles appealed to women was in their illustrations. Bible illustrations—recognized as important by bible producers both for their pedagogical efficacy and their aesthetic appeal—became much more common in the early nineteenth century. Considering that there are 188 named women in the Christian bible, versus nearly twelve hundred named men, women are vastly overrepresented in early national bible illustrations. Of the eighteen biblical scenes illustrated in ten or more American editions of the bible between 1790 and 1825, at least seven feature women as central figures.99 Many of these are predictable—scenes involving the Virgin Mary, such as the annunciation and the adoration of the magi—but many are more idiosyncratic. “The Judgment of Solomon,” for example, was a particular favorite, featuring two women claiming the same baby (1 Kings 3), as were the woman of Samaria talking with Jesus at the well (John 4) and the widow watching Elijah raising her son from the dead (1 Kings 17). Many other illustrations feature women prominently even when they are not necessarily integral (p.38) to the biblical passage—the onlookers in renderings of Christ healing the man of Bethesda (John 5) are typically female, for example. Several American bibles of this era contain illustrations of Hagar in the wilderness (Genesis 16), the woman taken in adultery (John 8), and, interestingly, Judith. Protestants relegate the Book of Judith to the Apocrypha, but it was commonly included in early national bibles, and Judith carrying the head of Holofernes (Judith 13) was usually the only illustration in the Apocrypha.100

Over all of these stands the image of Bithiah discovering Moses in the reeds (Exodus 2). This scene of a group of young women swooning over an abandoned baby is by far the most common illustrated frontispiece in early national bibles, meaning that it was the first thing many bible producers imagined their readers encountering upon opening their bibles. This scene has interesting resonance with the nationalism that was also an integral part of imagining early national bible readers: Bithiah’s raising of Moses is, after all, an act of motherhood in service of the nation.101

Weems worried about the illustrations in Carey’s bibles. He was obsessed with the visual and tactile appeal of the books he sold and unhappy with the first edition of Carey’s bible, the one for which he had recommended the “Bible Dissected” chart; he called the edition “miserable” and “garbled.” “[B]ut that’s between you & I only,” he told Carey. He still wanted to give them as wide a circulation as possible. As much as he didn’t care for them himself, Weems was annoyed that many of his provincial customers were not especially interested in the “valuable improvements,” such as the illustrations and the “Dissected” chart, that he used to entice them to buy. Explaining concerns raised by his customers to Carey, in a letter Weems narrated a typical conversation with a customer. After Weems elucidates all of the additions and advantages of Carey’s bible, the customer replies: “All this is clever, yes, ‘tis clever enough indeed, but I wouldn’t give a fig the more for all that, for it only sarves to make the Children spoil the book.”102 While Weems and Carey put together a bible for a given imagined reader, customers worried about these bibles facilitating unexpected, ostensibly improper, responses from actual readers.

Those worries were justified. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History, in Jackson, holds a copy of an early Carey quarto bible, one almost certainly sold by Weems himself.103 Someone—perhaps a child—has indeed “spoiled” many of the illustrations, smudging out the faces of biblical characters in some illustrations, blacking out the eyes of others, doodling on their environments. The prodigal son’s homecoming has never been more terrifying (Fig. 1.2).

This bible, then, is an artifact of both imaginary and actual American bible readers. Its crowded family record pages indicate that it was originally owned by the Hewitt family, who bought it when they lived in Washington, DC, in late 1806 and carried it with them to Washington, Mississippi, sometime between (p.39)

Creating the American Bible Reader, 1777–1816

Figure 1.2. “The Prodigal Son.” Hewitt (James and Caroline Grayson) and Carradine Family Bible.

Image courtesy of the Archives and Records Services Division, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

1817 and 1821.104 It is now a particularly rough copy of what Weems thought was a rough book to start with: the main title page is gone and the rest of the opening pages have (mostly) survived a fire; one illustration has been ripped in half and stitched back together. While the text and paratextual elements of the book necessarily hailed an imagined reader, its current state indicates its use by actual readers. It is, to my reading, an artifactual demonstration that real and imagined readers exist always in dialogic relationships. In a book market, readers are never completely absent from any stage of the circuit of writing, production, distribution, and reception; producers and consumers are always co-constituted.105 Chapter 2 will argue that the reader present in this body of print had real consequences, though perhaps not the kind imagined by those responsible for her.


(1.) In subsequent Carey editions the chart is titled “Analysis of the Bible.” This chart or one like it appears in many later American bibles.

(p.142) (2.) Writing about “popular” French books of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Roger Chartier focuses on what the producers of books thought their potential readers needed, or wanted. “The vast labour of adaptation—shortening texts, simplifying them, cutting them up, providing illustrations—was commanded by how the bookseller-publishers who specialized in that market envisioned their customers’ abilities and expectations. Thus the very structure of their books was governed by the way that book publishers thought that their target clientele read.” The Order of Books, 13. The precise relationship between readers’ imagined desires and the preferences and practices of actual readers invites questions more fully discussed in chapter 2.

(3.) My approach to the imagined reader of American bibles is indebted to Leah Price’s discussion in How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain; see, especially, chapters five and six. See also the essays in Suleiman and Crosman Wimmers, eds., The Reader in the Text, especially Wolfgang Iser’s “Interaction between Text and Reader.” Lastly, Millner, Fever Reading, presents an excellent and evocative treatment of these questions (20–4).

(4.) As Linda Kerber writes of this “Republican Mother”: “She was to educate her children and guide them in the paths of morality and virtue. But she was not to tell her male relatives for whom to vote. She was a citizen but not really a constituent” (Women of the Republic, 283). See also Robbins, “‘The Future Good and Great of Our Land.’”

(5.) The essays in Saenger and Van Kampen, eds., The Bible as Book offer an important material-texts perspective on this history.

(6.) For an elaboration of this point, see Gilmont, “Protestant Reformations and Reading” in Cavallo, Chartier, and Cochrane, eds., A History of Reading in the West.

(8.) The Lollards—pre-Reformation proponents of the vernacular—embraced the idea of an English bible out of pedagogical practicality, not from an aspiration to universal access to the Bible itself. “Faced with the necessity of communicating his message to those outside the university, Wyclif moved logically to employing preachers. This move necessitated using the vernacular to convey his message through the use of the pen as well as through preaching.” Smeeton, Lollard Themes in the Reformation Theology of William Tyndale, 89.

(9.) See Saenger, “The Impact of the Early Printed Page on the Reading of the Bible.”

(10.) In Wimbush’s succinct phrase: “The Protestant mentality is misunderstood if it is assumed to mean that anyone’s reading is acceptable.” White Men’s Magic, 255 n. 12. At the same time, the need to annotate scripture did make reformers uncomfortable. See William H. Sherman, “‘The Book Thus put in every Vulgar Hand’: Impressions of Readers in Early English Printed Bibles” in Saenger and Van Kampen. For observation of this paradox with specific reference to English bibles in America, See Nord, 15; Hall (1990), 27; and Gutjahr.

(13.) Statutes of the Realm, 896. As Heidi Brayman Hackel notes, the patriarchal assumptions of bible reading are clear here: it is significant that the act “allows the householder to assign the task of reading to someone—daughter, wife, servant—who could not otherwise lawfully read the Bible aloud.” “‘Boasting of Silence,’” 103. These assumptions would be carried through the history of family bible reading.

(14.) The Bible and Holy Scriptvres conteyned in the Olde and Newe Testament (Geneva Bible, 1560), “To Our Beloved in the Lord … ,” unpaged.

(p.143) (17.) “The Translatours to the Reader,” in The Holy Bible (1611), unpaged.

(19.) Ibid., 291.

(21.) Norton, 99.

(24.) For a consideration of the English bible patent in the context of intellectual property rights in the English book industry at the beginning of the seventeenth century, see St. Clair, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, 75. For more on this history, see Perry, “‘What the Public Expect’”; Daniell, Hitchin, and Norton.

(29.) St. Clair positions lax enforcement of the bible charter as part of large-scale changes in English intellectual property after a series of legal decisions in 1774 (75–6). See table 3.1 of The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period for a summary of St. Clair’s timeline of changes in the intellectual property regime from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth.

(30.) It is worth pausing to note here that at the level of the text the recognition that these words were both constitutive of readers and intended to be appealing to them signals a chicken-or-egg problem endemic to studies of rhetoric and subject-formation: Were these words and the content they promised a response to consumer demand, or did they create, as I am emphasizing here, the consumer who demanded this kind of content? The answer is, well, both. This is a question that this study will continue to grapple with, but in that I am in good company, because the question strikes to the heart of not just the study of popular culture but the study of subjectivity itself. So, Judith Butler: “We cannot presume a subject who performs an internalization if the formation of the subject is in need of explanation. The figure to which we refer has not yet acquired existence and is not part of a verifiable explanation, yet our reference continues to make a certain kind of sense. The paradox of subjection implies a paradox of referentiality: namely, that we must refer to what does not yet exist” (Psychic Life of Power, 4). I have found investigations of this question by Thomas Rickert (Ambient Rhetoric) and Diane Davis (Inessential Solidarity) particularly instructive. For my purposes here, it is important to remember that scripturalization has no “beginning” in the period under consideration. The scripturalized environment of eighteenth-century anglophone culture was an inherited privileged distinctiveness for the Bible, which meant that attaching words such as “Family,” “History,” and “Complete” to a bible had the rhetorical weight to help constitute particular relationships of subjectivity. At the same time, it meant that such words were part of the ongoing processes of scripturalization—they altered the precise nature of the Bible’s privileged status.

(32.) “Paratexts” are, as elucidated by Gerard Gennette, thresholds to texts. This division is never absolute, but it is rhetorically significant enough to be a useful rubric for analysis. Genette, Paratexts. See also Gray, Show Sold Separately.

(p.144) (34.) Brown, unpaged.

(35.) Unpaged.

(39.) See Hills, entry 753. Benedict Anderson holds that “the idea that a particular script-language offered privileged access to ontological truth, precisely because it was an inseparable part of that truth” had to “lose its grip on men’s minds” before the nation-state could be imagined (Imagined Communities, 36). This point, along with the canonization of particular vernacular translations observed by Sheehan, make plain, though, that the identification of specific languages with ontological truth did not go anywhere. See Sheehan, The Enlightenment Bible, 24.

(40.) “A Catalogue of the Missionaries Library, &c,” 44.

In the 1790s, when Thomas Paine sought to mock and undermine biblical authority without recourse to any text other than a bible, he used the chronology that had become so standard as to be inseparable from the biblical text itself. “The chronology that I shall use is the bible chronology, for I mean not to go out of the bible for evidence of any thing, but to make the bible itself prove, historically and chronologically, that Moses is not the author of the books ascribed to him.” Age of Reason Part the Second, 12.

(41.) See Sheehan and Brown, Jonathan Edwards and the Bible, xxi, 100. In The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, Hans Frei details the intellectual forces that gave rise to this sort of understanding but construes it, as the title suggests, as a fundamentally antinarrative move. Frei found this to be the case because he argued that mapping the events of the Bible onto historical time meant that it could no longer be appreciated in a narrative sense— that biblical stories could not be thought of as both true and temporally locatable relative to the events of profane history. American bible readers, at least, have never made any such distinction. I am arguing here that that is not because they imagined folding their own lives into “sacred time,” but because they imagined biblical events as historical. A similar question is raised here with Anderson’s argument that nationalism necessarily drove “a harsh wedge between cosmology and history” (36).

(42.) Wimbush, White Men’s Magic, 113–4. See also Carpenter (2003). Though Carpenter does not make this point about the effect of the historicization of English bibles, she carefully documents the racial themes of this imperial rhetoric, as well as its gendered meanings. See also Brown, “Converting the Lost Sons of Adam” and especially Glasson, Mastering Christianity.

(43.) “The Secret of England’s Greatness,” National Portrait Gallery. See Howsam, Cheap Bibles, 2.

(44.) See Glasson, 109; see also Monaghan, chapter 5, for an in-depth account of the SPG and literacy.

(45.) Francis Le Jau to the Secretary, June 13, 1710.

(47.) See Monaghan, 149–56. “Slaves were rarely introduced to the Bible through the medium of the printed page,” Callahan writes (Talking Book, 11).

(48.) Cooper Harriss has written evocatively about the effect that this enforced illiteracy may have had on African American bible usage in the nineteenth century. Harriss posits “a decided lack of precision in the reception of biblical material received at second-or even third-or fourth-hand” (“On the Eirobiblical,” 474). While literate culture, he argues, could produce writers such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs who deployed careful, precise biblical references, the ad hoc, overwhelmingly oral experience that the vast majority (p.145) of the enslaved had with the Bible enabled a loose sense of the text that gave rise to subversive, ironic forms of citation. While I question the efficacy of the “overwrought determinism” that Harriss argues characterized literate bible usage in the nineteenth century, his insights are important. The current study argues that the processes of scripturalization mean that all biblical citation has an effect on the text—adds to it, alters its applications, changes its position relevant to other cultural constellations. I would emphasize that literacy-based biblical pedagogy does not equate with precision in citation, and that irony and all other aspects of “counter” readings depend on a normative sensibility of the text that is itself contingent. Harriss’s argument about what he calls “eirobiblical rhetoric,” though, gives important clarity to the way that forms of citation exist in greater and lesser degrees of ironic tension with a given discursive community’s expected forms of biblical usage. Chapter 2 will argue that written biblical paratexts both enabled biblical citation and did so in ways that reinscribed traditional, expected applications of scriptural texts. Harriss’s argument suggests that oral forms of citation—lacking direct access to those written aides to the text—were less beholden to those traditional forms.

(51.) On the stakes and cultural meanings of literacy for Native Americans in the colonial period, see Wyss, Writing Indians, especially chapter 2. Protestant antipathy to African languages would endure. In the mid-nineteenth century, some who questioned missionary organizations would mock efforts to translate the Bible into some African languages as “extreme examples of accommodating the Bible to … ignorance and barbarism.” Unitarian George Livermore called one such translation—into “the abominable patois spoken by the slaves” of Surinam—an “extraordinary volume of gibberish” (Livermore, Remarks on the Publication and Circulation of the Scriptures, 12–13).

(52.) The exception to this would be bibles pirated elsewhere in Europe, which would have counterfeit title pages or no legible publication information at all.

(54.) Breen 1986, 477. Specifically regarding the colonial trade in imported books, see Raven, “The Export of Books to Colonial North America.”

(56.) Ibid., November 7, 1774.

(58.) The authoritative bibliography of American bibles is Hills, The English Bible in America. See Gutjahr, An American Bible, 182, figure 46; see, especially, Gutjahr’s notes about the complexities of edition-counting, discussed further here in chapter 2.

(59.) For a detailed overview of the development of the American book market in this era with particular attention to bible publishing, see Green, “The Rise of Book Publishing.”

(60.) Weems to Carey, August 22, 1800, in Ford, His Works and Ways, 139.

(61.) The perception that the Bible was scarce in America, at least as compared with England, would persist for decades. In the early nineteenth century, it was sustained by the rhetoric of the American Bible Society’s fundraising efforts and self-justifications, and took hold in popular culture. In the 1830s, African American preacher Zilpha Elaw listed the prevalence of bibles in England relative to her homeland among the factors that made her insecure in her ability to preach there: “I often argued the matter before the Lord in prayer, pleading my ignorance, my sex, my colour and my inability to minister the gospel in a country so polished and enlightened, so furnished with Bibles, so blessed with ministers, so studded with temples” (Memoirs, 135).

(63.) Ibid., 276.

(66.) On the promotion of American nationalism in the early national period, particularly through the figure of Washington, see Furstenberg, In the Name of the Father.

(67.) Collins, “Preface” in The Holy Bible (1791).

(68.) Stereotype was a printing technology in which plates were made from blocks of set type, allowing the same text to be printed over and over again while the type was broken down for other uses. See Perry 2014, 138.

(69.) See the following bible imprints: Albany: E. F. Backus, 1816; Boston: C. Ewer, 1816; Brattleborough, Vermont: J. Holbrook, 1818; Buffalo: Phinney & Co., 1859; Dayton, Ohio: E. A. & T. T. More, 1857; New York: N. and J. White, 1832; Hartford, Connecticut: Sumner and Goodman, 1846; and Philadelphia: W. W. Harding, 1876.

(71.) A New Testament was printed in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in 1813. (Chambersburg is only about 85 miles from Baltimore, but west, nevertheless.) The later 1810s saw several testaments and a full bible printed in Pittsburgh.

(73.) I am indebted to James N. Green for these observations on the Olney bible.

(74.) Trish Loughran has forcefully questioned the ability of a print culture dominated by Northeastern producers to effectively conjure a “national” public sphere. While this mattered differently for bibles than for other forms of print, it has important implications for understanding the rhetorical worlds created with and for bibles in America. In The Republic in Print Loughran argues that until midcentury American print culture was emphatically regional and atomized, and therefore incapable of playing the sort of unifying role in creating (p.147) the American nation ascribed to it by Michael Warner and Benedict Anderson. On one hand, the geographic disparity in early national bible production accords with Loughran’s findings: “American print-bible culture,” where it refers specifically to the production of printed bibles, is not so much “American” as “Northeastern” throughout the period of this study. On the other hand, though, Loughran’s caution against accepting, with Anderson, that print could “erase local differences and … install, in their place, a formal homogeneity, whether in fact or in feeling” is not really relevant to print bible culture. There were no local differences for very long, and “formal homogeneity”—which, in the context of the bible correlates to textual accuracy—was an established goal. Though particular bibles might have been more commonly owned by readers near their sites of production, there were no “local” bibles. Small local presses turned out newspapers and pamphlets, as Loughran observes, but they had no resources for a printing project as large as a bible or even, with a handful of exceptions, a New Testament. American print bibles themselves, published almost exclusively in a handful of American cities even into the third quarter of the nineteenth century, are textual artifacts of one region’s pretense to representing a national consciousness. Unlike the forms of print on which Loughran focuses, though, other regions produced no print bibles with which that pretense could clash. The Republic in Print, xix, 3.

(75.) See Fea, The Bible Cause. For an account of the ABS’s history with particular attention to its national ambitions and local tensions, see Wosh, Spreading the Word; see also Gutjahr, An American Bible, chapter 1, and Haselby, The Origins of American Religious Nationalism, chapter 6.

(76.) BFBS 1809 Report, 17–18; see also Nord, 43.

(78.) Ibid., 7.

(80.) Ibid., 9.

(88.) See Fea, 22.

(91.) Frederick Douglass, “Bibles for the Slaves,” The Liberty Bell, June 1847, in Selected Speeches and Writings, 86–7.

(92.) For an overview of the “market revolution” and its historiographical treatments with particular attention to the book market, see Gross, “Introduction,” 6–8. See also Brekus 1998, 120–2.

(p.148) (97.) Braude, 88.

(100.) See Carpenter for more on Judith in English bibles. Gutjahr, An American Bible (see 47–59 and 71–4) has also noted the prominence of women in bible illustrations, though with a particular emphasis on what he sees as their potential to distract from the biblical text that relies on a sharp division between reader and text from which I dissent. As I’ll argue in the next chapter, paratexts such as illustrations in which readers could see themselves invited readers into the text of the bible, making it more readable, rather than distracting from it.

(102.) Weems to Carey, November 27, 1801, Carey Correspondence, Lea & Febiger Records, Box 35, Historical Society of Pennsylvania. On Weems’s aesthetic obsessions, see Garcia, “The ‘curiousaffaire’ of Mason Locke Weems.”

(103.) Hewitt (James and Caroline Grayson) and Carradine Family Bible, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, Mississippi. James Hewitt bought this copy for Caroline, his wife of just less than two years, in late 1806. James was born in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Caroline was from Prince William County, Virginia, “between Dumfries and Colchester.” They were married in Washington, DC. This was Weems’s home territory—he was on the road constantly, but his family lived in Dumfries during the years he peddled Carey’s bibles. It is virtually certain that James Hewitt bought this Carey bible from Weems himself.

(104.) The family record pages of this bible document the family’s (and the bible’s) movements. The Hewitt’s first four children were born in DC, the fourth in June of 1817. The fifth Hewitt child was born in Washington, Mississippi, though, in April of 1821.