Candy Gunther Brown Reviews *The Bible Cause*

The forum on my The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society continues at the Religion in American History blog with a review by Candy Gunther Brown of the Religious Studies Department at Indiana University and the author of The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880.

It is a pretty negative review of the book.  I am looking forward to responding to it.

Here is a taste:

The Bible Cause presents a largely affirmative portrayal of the ABS and its agents. Fea reports that “the American Bible Society has never lost touch with its cultural mandate: to build a Christian civilization in the United States and, eventually, around the world” (3), concluding that “as the Bible Cause in America enters its third century, the future looks bright, but the challenges ahead are great” (316). Although noting examples of “nationalism” (96) and “imperialism” (117), the book does not offer sustained analysis of the ABS’s cultural agenda. It relies primarily on ABS sources and makes relatively scant use of secondary scholarship, for instance post-colonial theory and critical renderings of U.S. nationalism, exceptionalism, and policies aimed at the assimilation of Native Americans and non-Protestant immigrants, and of institutions like the ABS as agents of cultural imperialism abroad and social control of the working classes and people of color domestically.

The book foregrounds ABS perspectives and seems to accept the claims of ABS agents and authors at face value. Citing ABS publications as the only source of evidence, Fea reports that seamen were “notorious for vice, irreligion, and congregating together in urban areas where they gambled, visited prostitutes, and drank their fair share of alcohol,” but they “found comfort in the Bible,” and “it was common for sailors to return to port desperate to replace a Bible lost at sea” (38). Similarly, “the urban poor . . . spent their Sundays roaming city streets looking for trouble” until rescued by Sunday Schools (55). Bible sales reportedly “brought an intense spiritual interest among the Cherokee . . . . One Cherokee woman was so overwhelmed upon receiving an ABS Bible that she wrapped it in silk and carried it close to her chest at religious meetings” (55). As to the ABS’s positive impact on soldiers, “the evidence is overwhelming. Stories abound of soldiers reading the Bible in their tents before bedtime.” The “overwhelming” evidence cited consists exclusively of ABS reports that “filled the pages of the Bible Society Record,” such as the claim of one ABS agent that “ ‘I have not seen one New Testament thrown away or otherwise misused’ ” (81–82). The analysis could have been enriched by considering how ABS agents might have heard or seen what they wanted or expected to encounter and how their portrayals functioned as rhetorical strategies that served ABS purposes such as fundraising. Similarly, the text could have contemplated editorial decisions about what kinds of reactions to ABS overtures to publish, which parts to include and which to exclude, and how to frame them, and devoted more attention to negative responses.

Read the entire review here.

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