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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The Bible in Early America: Colonies, Empire, Revival, War

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Mark Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, spoke at Boston College on October 29 about the Bible’s role in public life in the American colonies. Noll drew on his new book, In the Beginning Was the Word, which explores the historical trajectory of the Bible’s political uses and cultural place in American civil society.

Noll’s book demonstrates how the use of the Bible in America guided the development of politics and government. While Noll acknowledged the Catholic introduction of the Bible in the Americas, he said that Protestant readings of the Bible deeply informed the emerging American identity.

Noll spoke about the importance of the Protestant Reformation in Europe to the colonial American experience. The British understanding of imperial Christendom, gave way to a message of personal Christianity in America that undermined the concept of Christendom.

Also significant to the development of American public identity, Noll explained, was the adoption of the Bible by the African-American slave community. Slave owners continued to invoke sections of the Bible that appeared to permit slavery, even after their slaves became Christians and found evidence in the Bible opposing slavery. This demonstrates how personal interpretations of scripture put Christians in opposition with one another.

Biblical authority was seen as coming from scripture itself, not through the medium of governmental authority. This difference in Biblical interpretation, Noll showed, was not an isolated incident in American social, political and economic contexts. This tradition of using the Bible as partisan weaponry, Noll claimed, is still alive today.