Hart Reviews Noll—America’s Book: The Rise And Decline Of A Bible Civilization, 1794–1911

Many Americans born after 1960 have trouble imagining that for much of the country’s history the Bible was a chief source of national identity. Older Hollywood directors sometimes get it right. Take “Liberty Heights” (1999), written and directed by Barry Levinson (born 1942). The film explores relations among Jews, blacks and WASPs during the 1950s when Baltimore’s public schools were integrated. In one scene the Jewish son of a burlesque-theater owner watches an African-American girl, the daughter of a surgeon, during their class’s recitation of Psalm 23. They have different takes. He likens it to singing the National Anthem before an Orioles game. She says it provides a brief respite before a busy day of study. Whether ceremonial or therapeutic, Bible-reading in public schools was, by the 1950s, among the last uncontested conventions of America’s Bible civilization.

Mark Noll’s America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794-1911 explains how the Bible achieved this status. The new nation’s rejection of European forms of Christendom such as sacral monarchy and state churches left the Bible to bear the burden of America’s attempt to create a Christian civilization. A completely secular republic was never a possibility except for the most free-thinking of free thinkers. The Founders virtually to a man insisted that a republic depended on a virtuous citizenry, and that the best source of morality was religion. Despite the variety of Protestant denominations, church leaders and public officials agreed that the Bible was the best and most reliable guide for determining moral consensus.

“America’s Book” documents the extent of the Bible’s reach—from the printing and distribution of Bibles and the creation of Sunday schools to the intellectual dead ends into which unwise handlers of the Bible were led. The book’s breadth is a tribute to Mr. Noll’s career as an interpreter of Protestantism in North America, even if its encyclopedic quantity occasionally obscures the overarching argument.

One crucial component of Bible civilization, Mr. Noll explains, was the creation of public schools. Begun in Massachusetts in the 1830s to compensate for the commonwealth’s recent disestablishment of its state church, schools included the Bible to instill public morality and assimilate children (and indirectly parents) to civic norms. Read more»

D. G. Hart | “‘America’s Book’ Review: The Word Out of Season” | Apr 26, 2022


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One comment

  1. I am a fan of Mark Noll, and, even more so, of Darryl Hart. Hart’s writing is always so engaging. How can you not love a review with the word “gimcrackery” in it? I definitely have to read this book. Thanks for posting.

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