America’s Public Bible

Lincoln Mullen has come out with another great digital project of interest not only to historians of American religion but to all historians of U.S. history more generally (Yep, if you think religion isn’t relevant to your work on the 18whatevers, you’re wrong). Go play with America’s Public Bible right now!

Mullen’s site allows you to explore how individual Bible verses were used and understood in the U.S. between the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, using the Library of Congress’ amazing Chronicling America database of newspapers.

For instance, in this Hamilton-ian moment, let’s look at Micah 4:4. It brings us to an article on peace in the Vermont Telegraph in 1836, a plea for the temperance movement in an 1856 newspaper from Abbeville, S.C., and a piece on viniculture in Illinois in 1857.  It also, however, brings us to an account of a speech by Isaac Mayer Wise, who uses the verse to discuss “the progress of religious freedom in the world.”

As I’m getting ready to work through my subject’s religious commonplace books in preparation for writing some new material for the manuscript, I am so excited to be able to compare her thoughts on individual passages to public interpretations of the same passages.

In addition to the explicit, directed uses we’ll all have for the site, playing around with it reminds me of the way I experience the Texas Runaways feed on Twitter – the verses serve as an entry point for exploring a moment in time as much as they stand on their own importance. I mean, I didn’t even know people in Illinois were interested in viniculture in the 19th century!

A few notes on sources:  As someone who studies Catholicism in the U.S., the use of the King James Bible is understandable but might leave some of us hanging, which is why it’s good that Mullen already said the next version of the website will address that issue. For the Unitarian mother of my Catholic convert, the Book of Sirach is a constant source of inspiration, so I look forward to seeing how her contemporaries read it.

Using Chronicling America also leaves us with some gaps which are important to be aware of for anyone using the site. A quick look at the list of newspapers available in digital form reveals that some parts of the country are woefully under-represented in the collection. That being said, maybe Connecticut and Massachusetts can stand to be marginalized for once and let Arizona and Florida shine!

This site is exactly the kind of digital project I like to see as a scholar, and I’m also interested to see how we might put it to use in the classroom. I already give my students a couple of Mullen’s other small digital projects in the U.S. surveys and look forward to integrating this into my research and teaching.

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