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America's Bibles: Canon, Commentary, and Community

  • Stephen J. Stein (a1)


In America the category ‘bible’ enjoys a privileged cultural position. That fact was brought home to me anecdotally several years ago when I received a telephone call forwarded through a departmental secretary. The woman on the other end of the line expressed frustration because she did not know what to do with a worn-out Bible. She asked if there was a proper way to handle the situation: should she bury it, or burn it? She was genuinely perplexed. Of one thing alone was she certain: she could not throw the Bible into a garbage can. As it turned out, I was of little help. I knew no liturgy for disposing of old Bibles, nor any special protocol for handling them. But I also do not remember ever throwing one away. I am accustomed to seeing old Bibles in attics or on shelves of used-book stores. The telephone call underscored in a practical way the special aura that surrounds the ‘bible’ in America.



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1. Frerichs, Ernest S., ed., The Bible and Bibles in America (Atlanta, Ga., 1988), p. ix.

2. Hatch, Nathan O. and Noll, Mark A., eds., The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History (New York, 1982), pp. 45.

3. Denny, Frederick M. and Taylor, Rodney L., eds,, The Holy Book in Comparative Perspective (Columbia, S.C., 1985).

4. Graham, William A., Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion (Cambridge, U.K., 1987), pp. xxii.

5. Levering, Miriam, ed., Rethinking Scripture: Essays from a Comparative Perspective (Albany, N.Y., 1989), pp. 5, 11.

6. Smith, Wilfred Cantwell, What is Scripture? A Comparative Approach (Minneapolis, Minn., 1993), pp. ix, 17.

7. See Allen, James B. and Leonard, Glen M., The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, Ut., 1976), pp. 2357.

8. Smith, Joseph, The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Ut., 1987), p. 110.

9. Bushman, Richard L., Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana, Ill., 1984), pp. 115142.

10. Stendahl, , “The Sermon on the Mount and Third Nephi,” in Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Madsen, Truman G. (Provo, Ut., 1978), pp. 139154.

11. Smith, , Book of Mormon, title page.

12. See Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 3:6–16.

13. The Pearl of Great Price: A Selection from the Revelations, Translations, and Narrations of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, Ut., 1967), p. 59.

14. Stewart, Philemon, A Holy, Sacred and Divine Roll and Book; from the Lord God of Heaven, to the Inhabitants of Earth: Revealed in the United Society at New Lebanon, County of Columbia, State of New-York, United States of America (Canterbury, N.H., 1843).

15. For background on Shakerism during this period, see Stein, Stephen J., The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers (New Haven, Conn., 1992), pp. 165200.

16. Ibid., p. 370.

17. Stewart, , Sacred Roll, p. 216.

18. Ibid., p. 39.

19. “One of Philemon Manifestos to the Ministry,” 1863, Shaker Papers, Western Reserve Historical Society, VII B 124, p. 88.

20. Peel, Robert, Mary Baker Eddy: The Years of Discovery (New York, 1966), p. 272.

21. Eddy, Mary Baker, Manual of the Mother Church, First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston, Massachusetts (Boston, Mass., 1936), p. 15.

22. Gottschalk, Stephen, The Emergence of Christian Science in American Religious Life (Berkeley, Calif., 1973), p. 35.

23. Eddy, Mary Baker, The First Church of Christ Scientist and Miscellany (Boston, Mass., 1915), p. 115.

24. Eddy, Mary Baker, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (Boston, Mass., 1991), pp. viiiix.

25. Ibid., p. 200.

26. Eddy, , Manual, pp. 120121.

27. Folkert, Kendall W., “The ‘Canons’ of ‘Scripture’: Text, Ritual, and Symbol,” in Scripture and Community: Collected Essays on the Jains by Kendall W. Folkert, ed. Cort, John E. (Atlanta, Ga., 1993), pp. 5383.

28. Eddy, , Science and Health, p. 456.

29. Peel, Robert, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” in Bible and Bibles in America, ed. Frerichs, Ernest S., p. 212, n. 4.

30. Numbers, Ronald L., A Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White (New York, 1976), p. 197.

31. Seventh-day Adventists Believe…: A Biblical Exposition of 27 Fundamental Doctrines (Washington, D.C., 1988), p. 216.

32. Van Noord, Roger, King of Beaver Island: The Life and Assassination of James Jesse Strang (Urbana, Ill., 1988), p. 97.

33. Braude, Ann, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (Boston, Mass., 1989), pp. 3435.

34. Moon, Sun Myung, Divine Principle (New York, 1973). See Outline of The Principle Level 4 (New York, 1980), pp. 17.

35. See Foster, Lawrence, Women, Family, and Utopia: Communal Experiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Mormons (Syracuse, N.Y., 1991), pp. 103120.

36. Nordhoff, Charles, The Communistic Societies of the United States (New York, 1965), originally published 1875, p. 58.

37. See insert in The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Numbers, Ronald L. and Butler, Jonathan M. (Bloomington, Ind., 1987).

38. Ham, F. Gerald, “The Prophet and the Mummyjums: Isaac Bullard and the Vermont Pilgrims of 1817,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 56 (1973): 290299.

39. Smith, Jonathan Z., “Sacred Persistence: Toward a Redescription of Canon,” in Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago (1988), p. 48.

40. Henderson, John B., Scripture, Canon, and Commentary: A Comparison of Confucian and Western Exegesis (Princeton, N.J., 1991).

41. Ibid., pp. 89–138.

42. Ehrman, , The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (New York, 1993), pp. 185187.

43. Roche, O. I. A., ed., The Jefferson Bible with the Annotated Commentaries on Religion of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1964), p. 10.

44. Ibid., p. 137.

45. Pelikan, Jaroslav, “Jefferson and His Contemporaries,” in The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, with an Introduction by F. Forrester Church and an Afterword by Jaroslav Pelikan (Boston, Mass., 1989), p. 161.

46. Smith, Theophus H., Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America (New York, 1994), pp. 46, 31.

47. Ibid., p. 58.

48. Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, The Woman's Bible, Foreword by Maureen Fitzgerald (Boston, Mass., 1993), Part I, pp. 57, 10.

49. Ibid., Part I, pp. 14–15, 115, and Part II, pp. 100, 157.

50. Fitzgerald, , “Foreword,” in The Woman's Bible, p. xxviii.

51. The Holy Scriptures (Independence, Mo., 1974), originally published in 1867.

52. Pearl of Great Price, p. 59.

53. Matthews, Robert J., “A Plainer Translation”: Joseph Smith's Translation of the Bible—A History and Commentary (Provo, Ut., 1975), p. 39. See also the very useful study by Barlow, Philip L., Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (New York, 1991), pp. 4373.

54. Matthews, , Plainer Translation, pp. 285286, 302.

55. See Shipps, Jan, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana, Ill., 1985), pp. 3032.

56. The Scofield Reference Bible. The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments. Authorized version, with a new system of connected topical references to all the greater themes of Scripture, with annotations, revised marginal renderings, summaries, definitions, chronology, and index; to which are added helps at hard places, explanations of seeming discrepancies, and new system of paragraphs (New and improved edition, New York, 1917). See also Boyer, Paul, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge, Mass., 1992), pp. 9798.

57. New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures Rendered from the Original Languages by the New World Bible Translation Committee—Revised 1970 C.E. (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1978).

58. The citations in this paragraph appear in promotional literature distributed by Thomas Nelson Publishers and Oxford University Press.

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Church History
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  • EISSN: 1755-2613
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