The Bible and American Culture

I just finished working my way through Claudia Setzer’s and David Shefferman’s The Bible and American Culture: A Sourcebook (Routledge, 2011).  It is a very useful text.  The editors have collected over 100 documents and images reflecting the use of the Bible in American history and culture.

Rather than presenting their sources in chronological order, the editors have chosen to divide them into five thematic chapters.  At first I was frustrated by this approach.  We historians like to think chronologically. But after reading the excellent introductory essays to each chapter I began to embrace the organizational theme of the book.

The editors should be commended for their creative choice of documents.  For example, the “Spreading the World” chapter not only includes classics like John Eliot’s Brief Narrative and the charter of the American Bible Society, but it also includes excerpts from the Jewish Publication Society, the Gullah Bible, and the 2008 Green Bible.

The “Bible and the Republic” chapter includes Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address and part of the legal argument in the Ten Commandments in the Alabama Courthouse case from 1990, but it also includes an image of Tim Tebow with his Philippians 4:13 eye black.

The “Bible and America’s Great Debates” chapters includes documents related to pro-slavery, abolitionism, Fannie Lou Hamer, Sarah Grimke, The Fundamentals, and the Scopes Trial.  The “Reading in the Margins” chapter includes documents on Mormonism, Pentecostalism, various women’s movements, the Millerites, the Holiness Movement, Mary Baker Eddy, Elijah Muhammad, and David Koresh.

The final chapter includes some great examples of Bible-related art and literature, including documents from Phyllis Wheatley and images of artwork by Edmonia Lewis, Bessie Harvey, and Edward Hicks.

There are documents here to satisfy both the traditionalists and those who want to teach their American religion courses in a more diverse way.  I will definitely return to this book over and over again.  It has already helped me with a small project on the Bible I am working on.