Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States

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Seth Perry
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , June
     2018.
     216 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691179131.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The past decade has seen a wealth of scholarship regarding the role of the Bible in early America. Works like Mark Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word (Oxford University Press, 2015), Daniel Dreisbach’s Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press, 2016), and James P. Byrd’s Sacred Scripture, Sacred War (Oxford University Press, 2013) have provided both a larger picture and helpful nuance to our understanding of the “atmospheric ubiquity” of the Bible in the colonial and early national periods of the United States.

For the colonists-turned-Americans, the Bible was a source (even the source) of authority in an otherwise unstable environment. But the Bible, at its most basic, is a book—an inanimate object that requires people for its authority to mean anything. This reality takes center stage in Seth Perry’s work Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States. Perry’s argument eschews “static notions of biblical and bible-based authority,” and instead considers such biblicism in “the practical, lived, material experience of rhetorical worlds” (3). Instead of simply viewing the Bible as a source of authority, in the biblicism of the early republic, Perry’s work views the Bible as a site of authority—a tool used for its “ability to conjure . . . identities in concert with circumstance and other presences,” identities “of infinite diversity and particularity” (14). Perry explores this reality in two parts.

Part 1 describes the development of print Bible culture in the early United States. Perry attends to the environment of scripturalization: a dynamic process where the Bible was printed alongside parabiblical material in response to perceived cultural needs and trends. The Bible, Perry argues, was presumed to be reliable, but the additions to the biblical text showed the imagined reader at the turn of the 19th century to be “marginally literate, lower-class, and somewhat female” (20). Chapter 1 describes this development from the use of the Great Bible in 1539, through the myriad Bibles printed in England, to the burgeoning market for domestically printed Bibles in the early United States. Chapter 2 describes the practical uses of scripturalization on a human level—namely, the rhetorical power that arose from the citation of a scriptural text.

Part 2, appropriately titled “Beyond Bibles,” identifies three ways in which biblical citation became a way to expand upon the text rather than to refer back to the Bible itself. According to the author, doing so was an appeal to and a utilization of the implicit assumptions of the scripturalized culture of early national America. Chapter 4 describes “performed biblicism,” a way for individuals to see themselves and act accordingly within the assumptions of Bible-based authority. Multiple examples culminate with Lorenzo Dow’s self-descriptions that lined up with those of the apostles, and his wife Peggy’s usage of the biblical models of Mary and Martha. Chapter 5 argues that the scripturalized environment allowed for people to claim visionary authority in line with the biblical models of visions. The chapter uses The Vision of Isaac Childs (Philadelphia, 1766) as the primary textual example of one who appealed to visionary authority. Chapter 5 concludes the book with a focus on the Bibles of Joseph Smith and early Mormonism. Using the scripturalized environment, in his performed biblicism Smith scripturalized new texts while becoming the primary subjects of those texts.

Perry’s book is both theoretically innovative and historically grounded, novel in argument yet couched in a wealth of other secondary sources. The introduction and the beginnings of each chapter focus the reader’s attention on the new soil Perry is ploughing, but each chapter ends with a longer illustration of the chapter’s argument. In fact, the book could be said to be doing the same thing, as the first four chapters set the reader up for Joseph Smith’s textual creations in the 1820s and 1830s. One could extend the argument further and consider how the fluid reality of the Bible in an atmosphere of scripturalization provided fertile ground for the acceptance of Smith’s writings that both copied and mimicked Biblical texts. Indeed, such a theoretically novel work like this calls out for analysis of other time periods of American history that are only briefly mentioned in the conclusion. Scholars of American religious history will find this book a helpful resource.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel Roeber is an Adjunct Professor of Religion at Florida State University and Tallahassee Community College.

Date of Review: 
May 15, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Seth Perry is Assistant Professor of Religion at Princeton University.

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