Review of An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880

by Paul Gutjahr
Book Reviewed
Book Title
An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880
Book Author
Paul Gutjahr
Book Publisher
Stanford University Press
Place of Publication
Year
2002
ISBN
9780804743396 More info
Book Review Citation
Review Author
Maria Freeman
Year
2001
Publication
The Journal of Religion
Volume
81
Issue
1
Pages
130-131
Publisher
Language
English
License
Select License
URL
Updated
September 25th, 2012
Abstract

The Journal of Religion

GUTJAHR,PAULC.An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999. xvS256 pp. $39.95 (cloth).

Convinced that the Bible should not be divorced from the form in which it reached the public, Paul C, Gutjahr has written a pioneering study of the hun- dreds of editions of the Bible that flowed from American presses during the cen- tury following the American Revolution. Beginning with the first Bible published in America in 1777, Gutjahr has traced the history of Bible editions to 1880, just prior to the publication of the Revised Standard Wrsion. From simple Bibles distributed by the American Bible Society to opulent volumes displayed in front parlors, Gutjahr has categorized the amazing variety of editions and described them in rich detail, aided by well-selected illustrations. His work illumines a ne-

glected area of the history of the Bible in America.

At the core of the complexities of so many different versions, Gutjahr finds a common theme, "a fervent longing to keep the Bible the country's most physically and intellectually accessible text" (p. 3). Gutjahr has utilized this theme to help organize the extensive material into five areas: "Production," with an excellent account of the history of printing in America; "Packaging," including not only bindings but illustrations and marginal notes, as well as commentaries and con- cordances bound with Bibles; "Purity," determining the original texts and their translation, which resulted in much controversy; "Pedagogy," the place of the Bible in schools, including the violence that erupted over whether Catholic stu- dents could read the Rheims-Douay Bible in school; and "Popularity," manifested through fictionalized "lives of Christ," The Book of Mormon, and novels such as Ben Hur and Uncle Tom? Cabin. From mass-producing inexpensive volumes to decorat- ing books with expensive bindings and beautiful illustrations, from filling Bibles with historical and geographical information to repackaging the Bible's message in easier-to-read fiction, these chapters reveal the array of strategies aimed at keeping the Bible the primary book in America.

In early American history, when books were rare, the Bible towered above the rest, maintaining a preeminent place in American society that it no longer enjoys. Understanding the waning of the Bible's influence is an issue Gutjahr grapples with throughout his book. Finding expressions of concern for the decline of the Bible's influence already in the opening decades of the nineteenth century, Gut- jahr argues for pushing the roots of the decline back to that early date. Innova- tions in printing techniques and the advent of machine-made paper vastly in- creased the quantity of books being published, including Bibles. Gutjahr highlights how the American Bible Society was an innovator in publishing, be- coming the first publisher in America to bind its books in-house and to set up a highly effective distribution network. The difficulty Gutjahr finds with the Ameri- can Bible Society's success was that it flooded the market with inexpensive Bibles, increased competition among Bible publishers, who responded with a greater variety of editions. Thus, during the same time the Bible was a best-seller and editions proliferated, its influence was waning. Addressing this paradox, Gutjahr proposes a causal connection; the very existence of hundreds of editions dimin- ished the aura of the Bible as the immutable Word of God. In fact, each strategy employed to increase the Bible's influence, Gutjahr concludes, was, ironically, counterproductive.

While Gutjahr's theory is difficult to accept in its entirety, and further research into the apparent successes of strategies and continued record Bible sales would

Book Reviews

be necessary to verify it, many insights are helpful. For example, he offers the interesting perspective that lavishly illustrated Bibles, such as Harper & Brother's Illuminated Bible with over sixteen hundred illustrations, became picture books distracting people from the text. Within his broad scope, Gutjahr explores how popular "lives of Christ," such as The Prince of the House of David, competed with the Gospels, and how Ben Hur found its way into Sunday schools as a source of information on life at the time of Jesus. Examples could be multiplied from the rich resources of An American Bible. As Gutjahr summarizes, "[The Bible's] core text could be invoked, but one need not necessarily grapple with that text because pictures, marginal commentaries, encyclopedic introductions, and now fictional- ized bible stories all created ways in which readers might access the Bible without having to confront the Bible itself" (p. 173).

Gutjahr's fascinating book escapes being a dry catalog of Bible editions due to his organization of the vast material, detailed descriptions of illustrative books, and inclusion of pertinent anecdotes. Regardless of whether additional research confirms or modifies Gutjahr's negative assessment of the impact of hundreds of editions on the influence of the Bible in America, he has broken new ground in the wealth of material he presents on American Bibles. MARIAFREEMAN,

Chicago, Illinois.

ISRAEL,ADRIENNEM. Amanda Berry Smith: From Washerwoman to Evangelist. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1998. 180 pp. $40.00 (cloth).

Adrienne M. Israel, a historian on faculty a; Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, has written a richly detailed and descriptive biography of Amanda Berry Smith, one of the more capable, gifted, well-known, and dedicated African-American women evangelists of the late nineteenth century. This biogra- phy is listed as one in a series ("Studies in Evangelicalism"), and it provides the academic community with an invaluable resource. Although her conclusion pro- poses that Amanda Berry Smith was distinct as an African-American woman com- mitted to holiness evangelism, the body of Israel's volume uses many headings of the evangelist's autobiography and historical chronology to present the reader with a wealth of information about the surrounding circumstances to Smith's life.

The book has seven chapters in 157 pages of text, an appendix, an essay on sources with accompanying citations, and an index. Titles of the chapters reflect the headings gleaned from Smith's autobiography, which Israel uses to sustain a focus on the evangelists, while still providing details about a myriad of individu- als, circumstances, and places. The chapter titles are "Born of the Spirit: 1837- 1865"; "Sanctified: 1865-1868"; "Washerwoman to Evangelist: 1868-1878"; "Around the World: 1878-1 889"; "'She Drew the People': 1889-1 895"; "'A Fresh Anointing': 1895-1 899"; and "'Self-Reliant, Self-Helpful': 1899-1 9 18." The ap- pendix is a reprint of a sermon delivered by Smith in 1877.

Throughout the book, there are abundant descriptions of people, places, and events that surrounded the life and times of Smith, as well as exacting particulars about these contexts as influences on actions taken by the dedicated and re- nowned evangelist. For example, chapters 1 and 2 focus on her early life before beginning her international preaching career. We not only learn that Smith was born Amanda Berry in northern Maryland on January 23, 1837, but we are given illuminating details about her father and mother, Samuel Berry and Miriam Mat- thews. Similarly, there is genealogical information on the Maryland families who

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