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America's GodFrom Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln$

Mark A. Noll

Print publication date: 2002

Print ISBN-13: 9780195151114

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0195151119.001.0001

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The “Bible Alone” and a Reformed, Literal Hermeneutic

The “Bible Alone” and a Reformed, Literal Hermeneutic

(p.367) 18 The “Bible Alone” and a Reformed, Literal Hermeneutic
America's God

Mark A. Noll (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

By the 1830s and 1840s, challenges began to emerge to republican, commonsense understandings of the Christian faith. In the North, stronger individualistic interpretations emerged, whereas Southerners were returning to classic understandings of republicanism. In both the North and the South, however, the dominant pattern of biblical interpretation was shaped by the Reformed tradition, and it stressed a literal reading of the text. In the years leading up to the Civil War, differences over how to interpret Scripture, especially with regard to slavery, led to far‐reaching theological debates.

Keywords:   Bible alone, hermeneutics, literalism, Reformed Protestantism, Scripture, slavery

The American theology that was firmly in place by the 1830s and 1840s among Calvinists, Methodists, and within many other religious traditions did not retain its cultural preeminence for long. The reason was not primarily difficulties in that theology with respect to personal or ecclesiastical religion, but problems with the public alliances that had built the theology. Although by the 1850s questions were being raised about the wisdom of linking Christianity, common sense, and Baconian reasoning as they had been joined for the preceding two generations, the intuitive bond between republican values and Christian faith remained strong. Christian republicanism endured because republican language was developing into something like the language of covenant in the 1770s—a diffuse congeries of morally powerful but somewhat imprecise concepts that could be harnessed to many different political and religious viewpoints.1 Something of the confusion, but also continuing power, of the language is suggested by an early supporter of the Republican Party who was worried that it had chosen a Roman Catholic, John C. Frémont, as its presidential candidate in 1856. To this observer, some of those who spouted slogans about liberty in favor of Frémont were doing so without the necessary allegiance to evangelical Christianity—that “may be red republicanism, or it may be black republicanism, but it is not American republicanism.”2

For theology, it was also significant that sectional politics was reconfiguring the shape of republican commitments.3 While the South was reverting to more classical conceptions, republican ideals in the North were becoming more individualistic. In the North, fragmentation of the Whig Party and the emergence of the Republican Party served to boil down the Whigs' broad understanding (p.368) of freedom, public virtue, self‐fulfilling commerce, and transformative evangelicalism into simpler equations between slavery and vice, free labor and virtue. In the South, criticism from the North stimulated an effort to recast republican values in earlier forms that defined vice as menacing concentrations of alien power, looked upon freedom as the privilege of acting honorably in one's station, and idealized virtue as mutual, organic dependence in communities protected by benevolent patriarchs. Such changes made it easier for Southern theologians to maintain traditional views of divine sovereignty in salvation, but they posed challenges for traditional Calvinists in the North. Significantly, Oliver Wendell Holmes published his poem “The Deacon's Masterpiece,” which describes Calvinism as a “wonderful ‘one‐hoss shay,’” collapsing all of a sudden, in September 1858.4 The shay ran much, much longer in points west and especially south of Holmes's Massachusetts.

The major theological crux of the period leading up to the war was the interpretation of Scripture. Earlier theological battles—Unitarians versus trinitarians, New Haven versus East Windsor, New School versus Old School—had set the terms of debate on substantive doctrinal questions and allowed the leading theologians to stake out their claims. From the mid‐1840s there was little substantial movement on such questions, except from the few critics who were abandoning the era's standard intellectual assumptions. Opposing “American” and traditional positions remained pretty much as they had been. By contrast, questions about how to interpret the Bible now took on special urgency. The success of evangelical religion in the early republic had transformed the public square through its amalgamation of Protestant doctrine and public discourse. Because of that transformation, national conflicts over states rights, slavery, temperance, immigration, and other contentious issues automatically became theological issues as well. Because the Bible had become so much a part of public consciousness, these same debates spurred efforts to use it for adjudicating public controversies. But they also posed grave difficulties. When the nation, which the mixture of commonsense, republican, and Protestant commitments had done so much to create, experienced profound political strain, then tensions also increased about the meaning, use, and interpretation of Scripture.

A comparison between the ideological conflicts of the Revolution and the Civil War sheds light on how the bonds between public life and religious thought had taken shape by the mid‐nineteenth century. Religious‐political strife during the Revolution occurred between the proponents of what everyone recognized as separate ideologies—between Loyalists, who clung to an early‐modern conception of hierarchy, tradition, and monarchical order, against patriots, who contended for a modern understanding of rights, personal capacities, and republican freedom. By contrast, the religious strife of the Civil War occurred between proponents of alternative visions of the same ideology made up of evangelical religion, republican political principles, and commonsense moral reasoning. Religious strife was intense in the earlier conflict but soon faded once the fighting stopped. In the Civil War, religious (p.369) strife was much more vituperative, there was much more of it, and rather than fading away rapidly after the shooting stopped, religious antagonism continued for a very long time after 1865.5

For the middle decades of the century, a history of theology must also be a history of how the theological elements that built the nation fared when the nation came apart. Especially prominent in that history were debates over the interpretation of Scripture.

In 1857 there was published yet another European traveler's account of an American sojourn. This time the author was James Stirling from Britain, who had first journeyed in the North before making his way through the Southern states. Included in the extensive letters that constituted his book was full consideration of Southern arguments for slavery, arguments that had obviously impressed Stirling. Yet although he praised the logic on display particularly in works from George Fitzhugh and Albert Taylor Bledsoe, both of Virginia, Stirling as himself an opponent of slavery was convinced that “the common sense and moral sentiments of mankind” would soon destroy the institution. Nonetheless, Stirling made a special point of commending the skill of the proslavery apologists at “metaphysics,” by which he meant also their skill as biblical exegetes. In particular, Bledsoe's 1856 volume An Essay on Liberty and Slavery seemed to Stirling an intellectual tour de force: “I must confess that, as against his opponents, the orthodox Abolitionists, he is perfectly triumphant.” Stirling felt that Bledsoe's examination of Old Testament passages describing the patriarchs as slaveholders and showing the place of slavery in the Mosaic law, as well as New Testament passages treating the apostle Paul's instructions concerning slaveholding, constituted “irresistible proofs that the institution was recognized by the founders both of Judaism and Christianity.” But then Stirling moved from exegesis to hermeneutics, and in so doing opened up the broader intellectual landscape in which debates over the Bible and slavery had become so important. “How,” Stirling wrote, “those who adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible, and consider every direction contained in its pages as applicable at all times to all men, are to reconcile these facts with modern anti‐slavery notions, it is, thank goodness, no business of mine to find out.”6

Stirling's comments pointed to several important realities concerning the use of the Bible in the antebellum period. First, they underscored the grand reliance on Scripture that, as we have seen repeatedly, constituted so much of the theologians' stock‐in‐trade during this period. But they also underscored the magnitude of the religious crisis at midcentury, since a common trust in Scripture was producing on the subject of slavery anything but a common conclusion. Most important, Stirling's comments pointed toward a distinction perceived by only a few of his American contemporaries, a distinction between the authority of the Bible per se and the axioms of interpretation by which biblical authority was apprehended throughout the United States. Stirling's commentary may have been unstudied, but it was insightful. Not (p.370) just the Bible, but “a literal interpretation of the Bible” and a belief that “every direction contained in its pages [is] applicable at all times to all men” was winning for proslavery the palm in exegetical battle with its foes.

In order to understand why debates over the Bible and slavery reveal so much about the development of an American theology, it is necessary to sketch the remarkable course of Scripture in the new United States and then to probe in somewhat greater detail the particular hermeneutical conventions that became almost as widespread as trust in the Bible itself. Those conventions, which Stirling caught with unusual economy, may be described as a Reformed and literal hermeneutic. Understanding the prevalence of such a hermeneutic is critical for understanding the debate over Scripture and slavery in the years before the Civil War, which is the subject of the next chapter. An examination of that debate shows, in turn, why the nation's theological crisis grew in magnitude alongside its political crisis. It also reveals how distinctively American the use of the Bible had become, since even sympathetic commentors from outside the United States could no longer fathom what their American peers were now up to as they pondered, debated, and applied the texts of Scripture.

The Bible Alone

As we have seen, the Bible was a given in the history of Protestantism, including Protestant developments in early America. Yet in the immediate aftermath of the decline of Puritanism, the use of Scripture for analysis, argument, and reasoning was more prevalent among individuals and churches than for society at large. The Bible continued to be a presence in the Revolutionary and constitutional periods, but that presence was predominately rhetorical and ornamental. There are few biblical arguments, as such, in these periods like the ones that began to appear after 1800. To be sure, during the 1770s and '80s, the Bible was quoted and biblical narratives were invoked to provide a sacred aura for public actions.7 But it was rare for political actors to cite chapter and verse as the primary reason for pursuing a particular public policy, and it was even more uncommon for arguments to move from biblical exegesis to direct public advocacy. By contrast, beginning in the 1790s and extending through the Civil War, exactly those sorts of arguments became more and more common, for example, over the transport of mail on Sunday and more general questions of Sabbath observance, over goals and strategies of temperance advocates, over removal of the Cherokee, over the rights of women, and preeminently over the rights and wrongs of slavery.

The Bible became directly important for nineteenth‐century public life because, in the great expansion of the evangelical churches, it was becoming so important for private life. The religious revival that filled the churches, that generated such powerful ideals for domestic life, and that created a plethora of voluntary societies led in turn to a much more explicit deployment of the Bible in the public sphere.

(p.371) Modern historians have recognized the nearly ubiquitous bearing of Scripture on American consciousness in the half century before the Civil War. Joyce Appleby, for example, once observed that the United States Constitution “entered a culture already fully fitted out with symbolic systems and sacred texts.” Among these, “the most important source of meaning for eighteenth‐century Americans was the Bible.”8 Perry Miller had earlier claimed that “the Old Testament is truly so omnipresent in the American culture of 1800 or 1820 that historians have as much difficulty taking cognizance of it as of the air people breathed.”9 Yet despite such acknowledgment, the cultural role of the Bible has rarely been studied analytically. The result is failure to grasp the immense, and immensely complicated, role of biblical authority in creating the two Christian nationalisms that in 1861 fell on each other with a holy vengeance.

The most striking American development when compared with Europe was that the Bible flourished in the wake of revolution. The presence of Scripture remained strong in western European societies through the first half of the nineteenth century, but without the intense democratization that took place in America. In Europe there was also a strong continuing link between biblical authority and the claims of conservative regimes.10 Moreover, Hans Frei's description of earlier Bible reading as “strongly realistic, i.e., at once literal and historical,” remained true for most Americans far into the nineteenth century, even as that particular way of treating Scripture was fading rapidly from elite and middle‐brow circles in Europe.11

The striking contrast was that amid America's post‐Revolutionary tide of antiformalism, antitraditionalism, democratization, and decentralization, trust in the Bible did not weaken but became immeasurably stronger. It was still “the Bible alone,” as proclaimed during the Reformation, that American Protestants trusted. But it was also “the Bible alone” of all historic religious authorities that survived the antitraditional tide and then undergirded the remarkable evangelical expansion of the early nineteenth century. By undercutting trust in other traditional authorities, the power‐suspecting ideologies of the Revolutionary and constitutional periods had the ironic effect of scripturalizing the United States. Deference to inherited authority of bishops and presbyters was largely gone, obeisance to received creeds was largely gone, willingness to heed the example of the past was largely gone. What remained was the power of intuitive reason, the authority of written documents that the people approved for themselves, and the Bible alone.

Publishing the Good Book

Up to and through the Civil War, publishing and distribution of the Bible dwarfed all other literary enterprises in the new nation.12 Because printing of the Bible during the colonial period was restricted by copyrights held in Britain, Scripture publication began slowly in the new nation. Only 22 editions of the Bible appeared before 1790.13 But then came an explosion. The numbers of editions doubled every decade for thirty years and then leveled off to an average of about 27 new editions each year from 1830 to 1865. In the decade (p.372) of the 1830s, new editions of the Bible were printed in fourteen different states, led by New York (100 editions), Pennsylvania (65), Massachusetts (58), and Connecticut (57). Thereafter the total number of editions dropped slightly, but larger print runs meant that more actual Bibles were being produced. Many editions in this period represented one‐off efforts by struggling printshops, whose efforts were barely noticed in their own locales. But others were publishing juggernauts. A Bible annotated by the Calvinist Anglican Thomas Scott, for example, was first published in America in a five‐volume set by William Woodward of Philadelphia over the years 1804–1809. But then in 1827 a consortium of New York and Boston printers brought out a new six‐volume edition whose initial print run of over 20,000 copies quickly sold out; this same six‐volume edition was reprinted at least ten more times before 1865. The New Testament paraphrase by the eighteenth‐century English Congregationalist Phillip Doddridge was republished in 1833 by an Amherst, Massachusetts, firm that recruited Boston scholars to provide additional material on Doddridge and the paraphrase. It passed through at least seventeen printings in the next twenty‐three years.14 During the Civil War, the American Bible Society by itself distributed more than three million Bibles or New Testaments to the North's approximately 2.2 million combatants; something like 300,000 Bibles also passed from Northern publishers into the South (despite a ban on trade between the sections); and Moses Hoge of Richmond by himself braved the Union blockade to smuggle 10,000 Bibles, 50,000 New Testaments, and 250,000 portions of Psalms and Gospels from England back to the South.15

The surprising degree of homogeneity that America's heterogeneous religious landscape could produce is indicated by the predominance of the Authorized, or King James, Version in this sea of American Bibles. Fully 90% of the 1,784 separate editions of Scripture published in America from 1776 to 1865 were of the King James Version. Only 6% were Catholic translations, most Douay‐Rheims; the rest represented unsuccessful efforts by Protestants to improve upon the King James. The prevalence of this one translation was even greater than these figures suggest, since the larger print runs and the most often reprinted editions were almost always of the Authorized Version.

By the early years of the United States, in other words, Scripture had become the national book par excellence. Confidence in the ability of ordinary people to understand it fueled the formation of many new sects. The revitalization and expansion of Protestantism in the early republic rested upon a widely shared confidence in the trustworthiness of the Bible. Broad familiarity with its contents characterized both ordinary people and elites.16

The Bible in a Constitutional Republic

Trust in the Bible was a religious analogue to political trust in the Constitution, and the analogy was sometimes drawn explicitly. William Ellery Channing, for example, said in 1819 that “we reason about the Bible precisely as civilians do about the constitution under which we live.”17 In fact, confi‐dence in the Bible as an authoritative written document from which one could (p.373) understand practical questions of life may have been one of the impulses that transformed the notion “constitution” from its British meaning of an inherited body of precedents to its American sense of a written document.18 It was certainly the case that widespread reverence for the written Scripture preceded widespread reverence for the written Constitution. Concentrated attention to the Constitution as such was slow in developing. By the 1830s and '40s, when constitutionalism did emerge as a key concept in political debates and public celebrations, the authority of the written Scriptures had already been long established among the American populace.19

To explain why “the Bible alone” in both senses of the term remained so strong in America would require a large book of its own. Here it may be suggested that, among a wealth of inherited Protestant practices, trust in Scripture was the one best suited to the circumstances of the early republic. Reliance on the Bible was a principle that could be easily democratized. Those who trusted the Bible alone found themselves strategically armed for resisting tyrannical abuses of power and soon proved themselves strategically effective in shoring up republican virtue. Religiously considered, reliance on the Bible alone meant that those who had experienced a life‐transforming conversion could move immediately to proclamation, even itineration, without waiting for formal institutional or denominational approval. For the millions who purchased, read, pondered, preached, and debated the Scriptures, the principle of sola Scriptura constituted an anchor of religious authority in a churning sea of demographic, social, and political turmoil.

Evidence for American allegiance to “the Bible alone” in both senses abounded on every side in the new nation. Because it was hardly a new thing for Protestants to proclaim their loyalty to Scripture, assertions privileging the Scriptures over against all other authorities can be found as far back in the American past as one cares to look. But by the 1770s criticism of other authorities that earlier Protestants had accepted alongside Scripture was becoming more pronounced. Thus in 1775 the learned Congregationalist Ezra Stiles complained that biblical commentaries were “becoming little more than a Vehicle to put off human Systems upon Mankind for the Scripture Verity.” Stiles was even nervous about paraphrases of Scripture; he wanted “to have the pure word of God by itself,” and to have it in the King James Version, since he felt a better translation had never been prepared for any of the world's main language‐groups.20 Stiles's desire to promote only the Scriptures would be multiplied many times over in the decades that followed.

After the Revolution, Bible‐onlyism emerged with great force. In contrast to the late‐colonial period, when professions to follow just the Scriptures had been a staple of heterodox exegesis practiced by liberals, now the appeal to Scripture alone was linked closely to traditional theological orthodoxy.21 What was not traditional, however, was the link between the Bible alone and political republicanism, a link that was especially prominent among the upstart plebeians contending for their place in the public life of the new country. Among the welter of Protestant groups active after the Revolution, the driving force on the question of authority was provided by those who interpreted (p.374) the founding of the United States as a blow for universal liberation. John Leland, the earnest Baptist itinerant, was seeking souls in Virginia when in 1789 he published The Bible‐Baptist. It was a tract daring any defender of infant baptism to find anything but nonscriptural support for such practices. Leland elaborated his defense of baptizing adults by immersion through exegesis of biblical texts, but the grounds from which he worked combined religious and political principles of the broadest sort. In contrast to the “lies” that had been allowed to circulate for so long in “the Eastern and European worlds,” the new government allowed “the Sons of America [to] be free.” With that freedom it was the duty of all to abandon “tradition, prejudice, or systematical myths”—to flee the “absurdity” of trusting ancient inherited religious authorities—in order to find the “plain truth” of the Bible.22

Four years later, after Leland had returned to his native Massachusetts, the message was the same. For Baptists, “the Bible is the only confession of faith . . . the final umpire they appeal unto for a decision of controversies.” What was new in Leland's appeal was not these assertions as such, for they were shared by all kinds of Protestants. The new element, rather, was Leland's vehemence in denouncing the religious authorities from which Baptists were now gloriously liberated: “without pope or king for head—without spiritual or civil courts established by law—without a conclave of bishops, or convocation of clergy—without legalized creeds or formularies of worship—without a ministry supported by law, or any human coercion in discipline.”23

As a Baptist, and also as a supporter of Thomas Jefferson, Leland stood toward the radical end of American Protestantism, but his willingness to stake all on the Scriptures was an increasingly common theme in the public statements of others. Benjamin Rush, the renowned Philadelphia physician, moved in very different circles from the itinerant Leland, but even as Leland was claiming to base his Baptist preaching on a strict adherence to the Bible alone, so also was Rush saying nearly the same thing, and saying it with even more self‐conscious reliance on new political realities. In the spring of 1791, Rush published a letter appealing for the use of the Bible as a set text in the new country's primary schools. More than Leland would do, Rush conceded that God had revealed himself through creation and also in human consciousness, but at the same time he exalted the Bible as a far stronger, purer, and clearer source of divine teaching. Rush's reliance upon Scripture for the health of the nation indicated the singular honor in which he held the Bible (nearly) alone: “We profess to be republicans, and yet we neglect the only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican form of government, that is, the universal education of our youth in the principles of Christianity, by means of the Bible: for this Divine book, above all others, favours that equality among mankind, that respect for just laws, and all those sober and frugal virtues, which constitute the soul of republicanism.”24

The bond Rush perceived between Scripture (over against other authorities) and republican government (over against other political systems) would be ardently promoted in the years that followed, and by no one more ardently than Elias Smith. Smith—publicist, preacher, and antiformalist par excellence (p.375) —spoke and wrote many times about the organic connection between trusting only the Bible and enjoying the fruits of republican liberty. One of the most notable of such performances was his Fourth of July address in Taunton, Massachusetts, in 1809. It rang the changes on the “foreign despotic yoke” that had been overthrown on 4 July 1776, and it expatiated at length on why the United States should be recognized as the most prosperous, most equal, and most free country on the earth. For considerations of the place of the Bible in early national America, it is revealing that Smith saw a common set of destructive authorities opposing trust in the Bible alone and also undermining the republican experiment. Religious liberty, that is, meant “being wholly free to examine for ourselves, what is truth without being bound to a catechism, creed, confession of faith, discipline, or any rule excepting the scriptures.” But living by no rule but the Bible turned out to be a defense against virtually the same list of enemies as living up to the standards of republicanism: “Many are republicans as to government, and are yet half republicans, being in matters of religion still bent to a Catechism, creed, covenant, or a superstitious priest. Venture to be as independent in things of religion as in those which respect the government in which you live.”25 Few Protestants expressed themselves as flamboyantly as Smith in the early republic, but most followed where he led.

So thoroughly did notions of following Scripture alone inform the speech and practice of American churches that by the 1840s observers both American and foreign were able to see, beneath the profusion of the United States' competing sects, a broadly based and widely shared biblicism. The principles of that biblicism were stated by New Hampshire Baptists in 1833 in a much‐copied profession: “We believe the Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired, and is a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction; that it has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter; that it reveals the principles by which God will judge us; and therefore is, and shall remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.”26

When the English Methodist James Dixon was sent by his denomination to observe the quadrennial conference of the United States' Northern Methodists in 1848, Dixon returned to England with a glowing report on the forces that bound American Protestants together. In his view, the United States was experiencing something quite new. Though there were different groups of Christians with different names, he contended that “there are no sects . . . , no Dissenters, no seceders. . . . They are all alike considered as Christians; and adopting, according to the judgment of charity, with equal honesty the common charter of salvation, the word of God, they are treated as equal.”27 To Dixon, common trust in God's written word provided a common platform of cooperative Christian practice.

Dixon's conclusion was seconded by the era's ablest historian of American religion, Robert Baird. In his explanation for why the “evangelical” denominations of America could cooperate on so many fronts, Baird stressed (p.376) not merely a common trust in the Bible. Rather, commonality among Protestants existed because “they hold the supremacy of the scriptures as a rule of faith, and that whatever doctrine can be proved from holy scripture without tradition is to be received unhesitatingly, and that nothing that cannot so be proved shall be deemed an essential point of Christian belief.”28 Whatever the case may have been with regard to actual practice, the idea that American Protestants followed “the Bible only” was firmly, deeply, and permanently fixed in popular belief.

A Reformed, Literal Hermeneutic

Yet American belief in Scripture was never as simple as believers in the Bible alone assumed. When a perceptive observer like James Stirling could see so clearly that a particular hermeneutic was implicated in arguments over slavery, it is strange that most Americans did not share that recognition.

The reason that very few American could articulate a distinction between the Bible and the Bible‐as‐read‐in‐America was precisely because Americans shared so implicitly one particular hermeneutic. The reason they held it so implicitly was precisely because this hermeneutic had unleashed the power of the Bible in the creation of American civilization. Evangelical Protestants contending against each other over the future of the United States were in no position to examine, with critical detachment, the assumptions that had made the fate of the United States worth contending for. Of those assumptions one of the most pervasive was that the people had the right to read all of the Bible for themselves. The assumption behind this assumption was even more widely shared—that the Bible truly revealed God. Such assumptions fed upon the characteristic hermeneutic of the age, for it was compounded of a distinctly Reformed approach to the scope of biblical authority (“every direction contained in its pages as applicable at all times to all men”) and a distinctly American literalism that privileged commonsense readings of scriptural texts (“a literal interpretation of the Bible”).


A Reformed and literal hermeneutic had been emerging in America for two and a half centuries before 1860. On the Reformed side, it was descended from New England Puritans, midstate Presbyterians, and, beyond them, the Scottish, English, Dutch, South German, and Swiss—or broadly Calvinist—forms of the Protestant Reformation. Reformed approaches to Scripture have loomed so large in standard accounts of American religious history that it is easy to forget that they were neither the first nor the only orthodox Protestant ways of appropriating the Bible. A Reformed hermeneutic followed at least three principles that distinguished Calvinists from sixteenth‐century Lutherans, as also from the Anglicanism associated with Richard Hooker (ca. 1554–1600) and his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.29 Although a full range of internal differences (p.377) divided Calvinists against each other, they were united against Lutherans and high Anglicans in holding the following beliefs about the Bible: First, Calvinists appropriated the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura by perceiving the Bible as an authority set over against other religious authorities. Second, Calvinists often practiced some version of the “Regulative Principle,” a position the English Puritans had developed from general Reformed leanings. It held that believers were required to do what the Bible commands but were equally required not to do those things about which the Bible is silent.30 Last was the so‐called third use of the law, or the belief that, after its twofold use for restraining sin in society and for showing individuals their need of salvation, the moral teaching of Scriptures existed also (even primarily) to provide a blueprint for how Christians, in grateful obedience to God, should live their entire lives.31

These doctrinal principles of Reformed Protestantism often coexisted with reinforcing social habits.32 Reformed Protestantism usually flourished in regions where Calvinists were attacking ecclesiastical tradition, devising efforts to empower the laity, building institutions to encourage literacy, and promoting the sermon as the central element in communal worship. The hermeneutic inspired by these Reformed practices reverenced the Bible as the supreme guide to life but also inculcated a suspicion that other authorities beside biblical chapter and verse were not just secondary but dangerous. In other words, all of the Bible, but only the Bible, for all of life.

Lutherans and high Anglicans shared many of the Reformed attitudes toward Scripture, but they appropriated the Bible with different hermeneutical practices.33 Both Lutherans and high Anglicans held to sola Scriptura, but in the sense that the Bible was to be favored over all other authorities, rather than in place of all other authorities. Both Lutherans and high Anglicans were also conservative in the sense that they held traditions to be useful so long as they did not violate the Bible's message of salvation. Martin Luther repudiated Thomistic definitions of transubstantiation and rejected the sacrifice of the Mass because he felt these Catholic teachings violated the meaning of the gospel, but he maintained received traditions on the presence of Christ's body and blood in the Mass and on the regenerating character of infant baptism. These traditions, he thought, enjoyed a thorough, implicit sanction, as well as occasional explicit sanction, in Scripture. High‐church Anglicans reasoned in similar fashion about the divine right of traditional monarchs. Neither group accepted the Regulative Principle or the desire to find explicit biblical warrant for all contemporary Christian practices, as did the Reformed.34

On the relation of the Bible to the conduct of daily life, high Anglicans like Richard Hooker were not far removed from the Reformed, except that Hooker felt it was appropriate to allow more authority to reason and Christian tradition in setting norms for Christian behavior. For Lutherans, the law of God as contained in the Bible was certainly important as a guide for Christian conduct, but it was far more important as the prick of conscience driving sinners to Christ. It is a small, but telling, difference that in ordering his Small Catechism of 1529, Luther discussed the Ten Commandments first (as an introduction (p.378) to the exposition of salvation as explained in the Apostles' Creed), whereas the Reformed Heidelberg Catechism (1563), which otherwise shared so much of the limpid Christ‐centered faith of Luther's Small Catechism, discussed the Commandments only after it explained the meaning of Christian salvation. Heidelberg's order, where the commandments guided the believer in godly living, featured a detailed attention to divine law and law‐keeping that would be widely imitated in America.

Reformed views of Scripture carried practical implications of extraordinary scope. By the deductive reasoning of some modern intellectuals, as well as to some contemporary Catholics, Lutherans, and high‐church Anglicans, Calvinism looks like a thin religion. In point of fact, the Reformed faith was a great fountain of piety. On the ground in early modern Europe and North America, it possessed remarkable social and intellectual power. To be sure, Calvinism was most potent in opposition (as the Dutch against the Habsburgs, John Knox and his associates against Mary Queen of Scots, English Puritans against unfriendly bishops, and Scots‐Irish against Anglicans or Roman Catholics). Once having triumphed over their foes, Calvinists were prone to moralism, formalism, and especially schism (as most notably during the English Civil Wars and Commonwealth, 1640–1660). But whether in opposition or in control, when pious Calvinists began to ask, How should we live in the world? they answered by looking to the Bible as a guidebook for life as well as for its message of salvation.

The Reformed hermeneutic became dominant in America in part because the dominant American churches were heirs of this form of Protestantism. The Bible, as read by Reformed hermeneutical principles, fueled the most intensely religious colonial settlements, energized early American higher education, and midwifed the revival tradition of the mid‐eighteenth century. It also contributed a full share to the spirit of the American Revolution and to the creation of early American nationalism.35 It defined as well the approach to Scripture that drove the great voluntary movements in the two generations before the Civil War. Other Christian, and Protestant, groups were present in early America, but for better and for worse, the way they handled the Bible made little public difference.

After the Frenchman André Siegfried visited the United States in the 1920s, he made much of these Calvinist influences in his interpretation of American history. In his opinion, the “religious mysticism and political cynicism” of Lutheranism could not be more different from the characteristic Reformed stance. Siegfried did not refer directly to the use of Scripture, but his general comments accurately described the effects of believing that all of the mandates and sanctions found in the Bible were intended as guides for contemporary action: “Born anew through grace, the Calvinist has a mission to carry out; namely, to purify the life of the community and to uplift the state. He cannot admit two separate spheres of action, for he believes that the influence of Christ should dominate every aspect of life.”36

(p.379) When biblical interpretations clashed as they did in the run‐up to the Civil War, this Reformed spirit became a liability. Within a Reformed hermeneutical framework, the only possible explanation for an opponent's persistently erroneous use of Scripture was the opponent's malicious intent to pervert the clear word of God. Such clashes led to violent confrontation, but only because the Calvinist use of Scripture provided great energy for religiously inspired social construction.

To illustrate the public weight of Reformed voices during the Civil War, several crude measures are useful. When in April 1863 a convention of Southern ministers appealed to their fellow Christians in the world, 94 of the 96 signers came from Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Disciples churches, all branches of English‐speaking Reformed Protestantism.37 In David Chesebrough's two compendious books on Northern sermons during the war, well over 90% of the representative texts he selected came from the same ecclesiastical families.38 A Reformed approach to the Bible had divided into many American variations, but it also defined the theological instincts with which most theologians at the time of the Civil War read, inwardly marked, and outwardly applied the Scriptures. On issues like the morality of slavery, they felt that the Bible spoke just as clearly as it did on questions of eternal life.

Commonsense Literalism

At least two full generations before the Civil War, the prevailing American hermeneutic had also come to embody what James Stirling called “a literal interpretation of the Bible.”39 The literalism that Stirling observed owed more to American historical circumstances than to the Reformed Regulative Principle, for the first Reformed theologians (Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr, and many English and American Puritans) had practiced a theological rather than a strictly literal approach to Scripture. That is, their efforts to understand the Scriptures characteristically produced syntheses in which individual biblical texts were subordinated to overarching interpretations, as with Calvin's view of divine sovereignty, the covenant theology of Bullinger, or the ecclesiastical communalism of the Puritans.40 Yet traditional Reformed hermeneutics connected at a critical point with American popular religion in the early years of the republic. That point was a shared antitraditionalism, long ingrained among the Reformed by struggle against Roman Catholic tradition, and then promoted among early‐national Americans by the democratic individualism arising from the Revolution.

The crucial circumstance for later hermeneutical practice was the post‐Revolutionary alliance between newly empowered ordinary people and the traditional authority of the Bible. The distinctively American development was the way in which common people appropriated the written Scriptures to create an irrefutable warrant for managing their own lives. As Nathan Hatch has suggested, plebeian trust in the Bible offered “a new ground of certainty for a generation distressed that it could no longer hear the voice of God above (p.380) the din of sectarian confusion. This approach to Scripture also dared common people to open the Bible and think for themselves. It even challenged them to limit religious discussion to the language of the Bible.” So armed with the Bible, ordinary people were liberated from “staid ecclesiastical traditions” and could escape the control of “the respectable clergy.”41

The Christian antitraditionalism that this use of “the Bible alone” fueled was a commonplace of American religion to and through the Civil War. Its character is illustrated by an outline that Charles Finney prepared for a sermon in 1863:

Christianity is radically reformatory. Satan has usurped the government of this world. . . . Christ has undertaken the work of counter‐revolution . . . to create all things new in the moral order of things . . . to reform or destroy, all governments that dont obey God. . . . It follows that conservatism is its great antagonist. . . . Conservatism is a disposition to preserve the established order. . . . Its law is custom—Precedent—Established usages. . . . It looks back for all that is excellent & counts progress insanity. . . . It is every where & evermore antiChrist.42

By the 1860s Finney's animus against conservative religious practice was an American commonplace. Seventy years before, the Connecticut Episcopalian Samuel Seabury had published an appeal for members of the various American churches to unite under the banner of historic Anglicanism, which Seabury tried to defend as the most biblical of all Christian denominations. It was an entirely futile effort, in part because ecclesiastical fragmentation had already advanced too far, in part because Seabury was mistaken in assuming that “the generality of christians,” even in America, would “pay a due regard to the traditions of the church.”43

Much more typical was a particularly American conception of what it meant to think for oneself and thus to read the Bible for oneself. In promoting this distinctly American mandate, upstart Restorationist “Christians” spoke for a much broader audience than did the traditionalist Seabury. Thomas Campbell's early manifesto of American Restorationism, his Declaration and Address of 1809, left no doubt about the pillars of the movement. They were self‐reliance and the Bible. Campbell was convinced that “it is high time for us not only to think, but also to act, for ourselves; to see with our own eyes, and to take all our measures directly and immediately from the Divine standard.” No mere “human interpretation” of the Bible or “human opinions” of any sort should stand in the way of appropriating “the Divine word alone for our rule; the Holy Spirit for our teacher and guide, to lead us into all truth; and Christ alone, as exhibited in the word, for our salvation.”44 Campbell's son Alexander, who brought Restorationism to maturity, professed to steer by the same lights: “I have been so long disciplined in the school of free enquiry, that, if I know my own mind, there is not a man upon the earth whose authority can influence me, any farther than he comes with the authority of evidence, reason, and truth. . . . I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me.”45

(p.381) This opposition to anything that smacked of interpretive deference with respect to Scripture flourished in the heavily republican climate of early national America. Among the followers of Barton W. Stone, who joined Campbell in creating the Restorationist churches, one writing in 1827 made explicit the connection between politics and hermeneutics: “The present conflict between the Bible and party creeds and confessions, or, in other words, the war between the church and the clergy, is perfectly analogous to the revolutionary war between Britain and America; liberty was contended for on the one side, and dominion and power on the other.” It was a question of “Bible government” versus “ecclesiastical despotism.”46 Restorationist hermeneutics represented the extreme statement of a common position. The engine of the era's most active and influential religion was, as proclaimed in 1832 by the Christian Spectator of New Haven, “the word of God interpreted by common sense.”47

The inevitable outworking of populist antitraditionalism was literal interpretation of Scripture. Stripping away the dross of the past enabled present‐day readers to grasp what Scripture really meant. What Scripture really meant was exactly what it said. In 1843 a writer in the Methodist Quarterly Review expressed this conjunction magisterially in a discussion of biblical eschatology, a theme that regularly produced as much hermeneutical clarity as exegetical confusion: “We claim to be, not only rigid literalists, but unsparing iconoclasts—ruthless demolishers of all theories. We wish to strip the passage of all the superincumbent strata which ingenious men have deposited all round it, and come down to the plainest and most obvious literal reading of the text.”48 Once interpretation had become a democratic enterprise, attempting to understand the Bible literally became the only possible goal.

The assumption that people could see clearly and without ambiguity what the Bible said, and that this biblicistic knowledge qualified one to judge connections between moral cause and moral effect, was the common person's counterpart to the Enlightenment confidence displayed by intellectual elites who employed learned formal moral philosophy to the same ends. Democratic biblicism undercut trust in traditional interpretations of Scripture with the same force that they were being leveled by a reliance on philosophical common sense. In both cases, confidence in present abilities overmastered confidence in what was handed on from the past. In both cases, a liberated modern self was the starting point for biblical interpretation. Populist appropriation of democratic principles and the learned moral philosophy of intellectual elites did not coincide everywhere in the early modern West. But in republican America they provided powerful reinforcement for each other, especially as men and women turned to the sacred page.49

A Reformed, literal hermeneutic was the interpretive strategy that evangelical Protestants exploited in winning the new republic for Christ. The social transformation achieved by these evangelicals seemed to validate their approach to Scripture. For reaching the unreached with the Christian message, for organizing congregations and building churches, for creating agencies to construct and reform society, reliance on the Bible alone, literally interpreted, (p.382) worked wonders. Yet without a principle of revolution—of trust transferred from hereditary, deferential hierarchy to democratic, ideological antihierarchy—this distinctly American form of biblicism could not have come into existence.


By the time of the Civil War, Enlightenment habits of mind were exerting significant influence on the country's theologians. These mental habits fit remarkably well with the Reformed, literal hermeneutic that was being put to use generally as Protestants studied the Bible. A prominent feature common to much of the era's Protestant discourse, whether from high estate or low, was the assumption that life's great issues were simple and could be controlled simply by appeal to simple human exertion and to the simple words of Scripture. Although the complex arguments of confessional theologians and the perplexing religious experiences of many ordinary people forcefully contradicted this assumption, the conventions of pietist‐Enlightenment‐biblical simplicity circumscribed the known world for much religious thought. Few were capable of the view to which Abraham Lincoln came during the nation's civil conflict, that, as summarized well by Phillip Paludan, “the war had become too complex, too astounding, for him to believe that mere argument made complete sense.”50

A philosophical tradition reaching back to Locke featured the power of “simple ideas” from sense information. Even as the Scottish moral philosophers removed what they considered the unnecessary fiction of Locke's “ideas,” they retained a high opinion of “simple” impressions from whatever source. Thus, to look to Scripture for simple truths of great power was to combine hereditary Protestant trust in the Bible with a modern epistemological stance.

Reliance on what might be called “evangelical Enlightenment simplicity”—of perception and self‐assertion—was illustrated in a host of pronouncements throughout this period, some of which were also rooted self‐consciously in the rhetoric of the Revolution. John Leland, for example, could summarize his defense of the Baptists from 1789 as faithfulness in following one injunction: “simply regard the bible.”51 To Thomas Campbell, whose program resembled Leland's in many but not all particulars, the goal was to heed “Christ and his simple word” and so “reduce to practice that simple original form of Christianity, expressly exhibited on the sacred page; without attempting to inculcate anything of human authority, of private opinion, or inventions of men.”52

When Charles Finney, immediately after his conversion in 1821, asked a local minister whether the justice Jesus fulfilled before God the father was “retributive” or “publick,” he was not satisfied with the response, so he resolved to solve the issue himself with a self‐confidence paralleling the self‐confidence of a philosophe. Finney knew he “was but a novice in religion & (p.383) in biblical learning.” But this fact did not hold him back: “I had read nothing on the subject except my bible, & what I had there found upon the subject I had interpreted as I would have understood the same or like passages in a law book.” In presenting his conclusions on the subject, Finney was proud to report, “I do not recollect to have ever read a page upon the subject except what I had found in the bible.”53 A few years after Finney spelled out his method in this way, the Presbyterian John Holt Rice published an extensive consideration of the Christian faith. To Rice, a keystone of proper religion was religious freedom, which he thought had been taught in the Reformation, but which was even clearer on the pages of Scripture: “A remarkably exact proportion [exists] between zeal for freedom of conscience, and conformity of religious doctrine to the simple truths of the Bible.”54

In 1837 the abolitionist Sarah Grimké sounded a similar note in her own intellectual declaration of independence. For the “important subject” of whether the sexes were equal, she proposed a high standard: “I shall depend solely on the Bible to designate the sphere of woman, because I believe almost every thing that has been written on this subject, has been the result of a misconception of the simple truths revealed in the Scriptures, in consequence of the false translation of many passages of Holy Writ.” For Grimké, self‐reliance was as much a birthright of biblical interpretation as it was for the men of the period: “I . . . claim to judge for myself what is the meaning of the inspired writers, because I believe it to be the solemn duty of every individual to search the Scriptures for themselves, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, and not be governed by the views of any man, or set of men.”55 The principle of simplicity also featured large when Americans turned to interpreting the prophecies of the Bible. In 1842 the Philadelphia Presbyterian George Duffield claimed to bring no presuppositions with him to that task: “Theory is out of place and unallowable in the study of prophecy. . . . It is a simple question that in all cases must be asked, what is the fair and legitimate meaning of the words—a matter‐of‐fact investigation—no theorising, no speculations.”56

Not surprisingly, such views fit well with the age's trust in Baconian intellectual method. When in 1859 the Restorationist James S. Lamar published his Organon of Scripture; or, The Inductive Method of Biblical Interpretation, he spoke for many other Americans when he claimed, “The Scriptures admit of being studied and expounded upon the principles of the inductive method; and . . . when thus interpreted they speak to us in a voice as certain and unmistakable as the language of nature heard in the experiments and observations of science.”57 During the years of the Civil War, countless believers extended such convictions by assuming that moral perception could be crystal clear and the means of moral action entirely straightforward. In 1860, the Kentucky Presbyterian Robert Breckinridge told readers how they could discover the essence of a Christian church: “If the world, and more especially the children of Christ, would follow simply and earnestly the light of reason . . . and the teachings of that divine word, which he has given to be a lamp unto our feet . . . , it is not easy to imagine how the least obscurity could hang (p.384) over such a question.”58 In 1861 the Northern conservative Henry Van Dyke was flabbergasted that abolitionists could read the Bible as they professed to read it: “When the Abolitionist tells me that slaveholding is sin, in the simplicity of my faith in the Holy Scriptures, I point him to this sacred record, and tell him, in all candor, as my text does, that his teaching blasphemes the name of God and His doctrine.”59 That same year the abolitionist Gerrit Smith thought it was just as easy to come to the opposite conclusion: “The religion taught by Jesus is not a letter but a life. So simple is it that the unlearned can both understand and teach it. . . . The true religion is too simple to make the training of a theological seminary necessary for those who teach it. We should allow the wisdom and goodness of God to assure us that the religion which He has given to the world must correspond in its simplicity with the simplicity of the masses.”60 From the South in that same year, the Baptist Thornton Stringfellow expressed the opinion that God's intentions were clearly expressed in the Bible and readily available to all; benevolence was, in Drew Faust's summary, “a ‘simple’ matter of explicating the Bible and guiding men in following its dictates.”61 In December 1864, the Presbyterian Independent of New York felt that the problem of taking care of liberated slaves could be easily solved: “In effect the problem is simple, and its solution comparatively easy.” All one had to do was rely on the labor practices, the religious activism, and the educational zeal that had already “raised the american character in the Free States to its present altitude.”62

This habit of mind—to assume that a simple solution existed for problems in theology, morals, and society—was the mentality that grounded the theologians' approach to Scripture. It is a matter of great historical significance that American Protestants almost never cited biblical chapter and verse to defend their interpretive practices. Precisely as it worked on Scripture, the Reformed, literal hermeneutic revealed most clearly how it arose from the special circumstances of American life. Yet even if this hermeneutic itself was not necessarily rooted in a literal reading of Scripture, it was nonetheless the American norm for the generations between the writing of the Constitution and the end of the Civil War.

In 1865 Phoebe Palmer summed up an era, as well as one of her own arguments, when she wrote, “The Bible is a wonderfully simple book; and, if you had taken the naked Word of God as . . . your counsel, instead of taking the opinions of men in regard to that Word, you might have been a more enlightened, simple, happy and useful Christian.”63

By the early 1860s, however, some Americans might have been forgiven for wondering if things were really that simple. A great difficulty had arisen in simple appropriation of the truth‐telling Scriptures. The difficulty was especially troublesome because it grew from the foundational structures of the Christian republican civilization that Protestants had constructed, at the cost of such great effort and with such great success, in the early decades of the century. The extraordinarily potent combination of evangelical fervor, republican conviction, commonsense principle, and the Bible interpreted by the canons of a Reformed, literal hermeneutic had not in fact brought in the millennium. (p.385) Rather, it was bringing the division of God's chosen nation, a great mobilization of resources aimed at coercing assent, and a staggering death toll of men under arms. Among the most important casualties of the Civil War was American theology as it had developed over the preceding two generations. More than anything else, the crisis that brought this theology down was the inability of Reformed and literal biblical interpretation to handle the reality of black chattel slavery.


(1.) See William E. Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852–1856 (New York, 1987), 364–65, who suggests that by 1850 republican reasoning had assimilated several elements that would have been anathema in 1780, like party factions, the benefits of commerce, and white male suffrage (even without property), and virtue now meant as much a vigilance for liberty as a shunning of luxury.

(2.) The individual was John Inskip of New York; see Richard J. Carwardine, Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America (New Haven, 1991), 263.

(3.) Reliance on republican values, broadly construed, through the time of the Civil War is amply documented in the standard literature, for example, Michael Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (New York, 1978), 4–6, 8, 16–17, and throughout; James Moorhead, American Apocalypse: Yankee Protestants and the Civil War, 1860–1869 (New Haven, 1978), 5–6, 55–59, 71–77, 109–10, 118–19, 159–60, 207–9, 224–26, and elsewhere; James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, Oxford History of the United States (New York, 1988), 48–49, 55–56, 241, and elsewhere; Carwardine, Evangelicals and Politics, 18–19, 64, 77–78, 200–201, 248–50, 297–98, 403, and elsewhere; and George C. Rable, The Confederate Republic: A Revolution against Politics (Chapel Hill, 1994), 12–16, 76–77, 281–87.

(4.) Ronald Gottesman et al., comps., The Norton Anthology of American Literature, vol. 1 (New York, 1979), 1378–81.

(5.) At least it did so in the South; see Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause (Athens, Ga., 1980); and Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865–1913 (New York, 1987).

(6.) James Stirling, Letters from the Slave States (London, 1857), 117, 118, 120. I was alerted to Stirling's observations by Eugene D. Genovese, “Slavery Ordained of God”: The Southern Slaveholders' View of Biblical History and Modern Politics, Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture (Gettysburg, Pa., 1985), 30n58.

(7.) On the extensive referencing of Scripture by founding fathers in the Revolutionary period, see especially the work of Donald S. Lutz, including “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth‐Century American Political Thought,” American Political Science Review 78 (1984): 189–97; and The Origins of American Constitutionalism (Baton Rouge, 1988), 140–43. A description of the rhetorical, ornamental use of the Scripture in these periods is found in Mark A. Noll, “The Bible in Revolutionary America,” in The Bible in American Law, Politics, and Political Rhetoric, ed. James Turner Johnson (Philadelphia, 1985), 39–60.

(8.) Joyce Appleby, “The American Heritage: The Heirs and the Disinherited,” Journal of American History 74 (Dec. 1987): 809. Appleby does not pursue her insight, perhaps because, as indicated in this essay, she regards the Bible primarily for how it was used to justify racial differences, traditional family structure, sexual taboos, and the inferiority of women, rather than as offering hope, energy, and self‐confidence to many—black and white, female and male—who read it.

(9.) Perry Miller, “The Garden of Eden and the Deacon's Meadow,” American Heritage, Dec. 1955, 54.

(10.) For comparison, see the essays on France (20–132), Germany (133–59), and Great Britain (161–86) in Bible de tous les temps, vol. 8, Le monde contemporain et la Bible, ed. Claude Savart and Jean‐Noël Aletti (Paris, 1985).

(11.) Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven, 1974), 1.

(12.) See especially Paul C. Gutjahr, An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777–1880 (Stanford, 1999), with details on publication and distribution, 181–96; and for a helpful study of the American Bible Society, Peter J. Wosh, Spreading the Word: The Bible Business in Nineteenth‐Century America (Ithaca, 1994).

(13.) The information in the next two paragraphs is taken mostly from Margaret T. Hills, The English Bible in America (New York, 1962), 1–266. I thank Rachel Maxson for assistance in cataloging its contents.

(14.) Details on these two editions are from ibid., 20–21, 90–91, 125.

(15.) Hills, English Bible in America, 255; Philip Schaff, Der Bürgerkrieg und das christliche Leben in Nord‐Amerika (Berlin, 1866), 31, 50; and W. Harrison Daniel, “Bible Publication and Procurement in the Confederacy,” Journal of Southern History 24 (1958): 191–201.

(16.) Works in which this familiarity is particularly well illustrated are Lewis O. Saum, The Popular Mood of Pre–Civil War America (Westport, Conn., 1980); Carwardine, Evangelicals and Politics; Eugene D. Genovese and Elizabeth Fox‐Genovese, “The Religious Ideals of Southern Slave Society,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 70 (Spring 1986): 9–14; and Kenneth Cmiel, Democratic Eloquence: The Fight over Popular Speech in Nineteenth‐Century America (Berkeley, 1990). Reference to the use of Scripture between the Revolution and the Civil War in the testimonials of presidents and other social leaders, by Bible societies, in the naming of children and places, and in public iconography is found in Mark A. Noll, “The Image of the United States as a Biblical Nation, 1776–1865,” in The Bible in American Culture, ed. Nathan O. Hatch and Noll (New York, 1982), 40–41, 52–53.

(17.) William Ellery Channing, “Unitarian Christianity” (1819), in The Unitarian Controversy, 1819–1823, vol. 1, ed. Bruce Kuklick (New York, 1987), 8 (with following pages showing how Channing thought that the same principles used to interpret the Constitution should lead readers of the Bible to Unitarianism). On the Bible‐Constitution analogy, there are also helpful hints in Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago, 1979), 23–24, 227; and Robert H. Wiebe, The Opening of American Society: From the Adoption of the Constitution to the Eve of Disunion (New York, 1984), 308.

(18.) On how “constitution” came in America to mean a single, written document, see Gerald Stourzh, “Constitution: Changing Meanings of the Term from the Early Seventeenth to the Late Eighteenth Century,” in Conceptual Change and the Constitution, ed. Terence Ball and J. G. A. Pocock (Manhattan, Kans., 1988), 44–48.

(19.) On the relatively slow process by which the Constitution came to be venerated, see Michael Kammen, A Machine that Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture (New York, 1986), 72–75, and the first part of this book more generally.

(20.) The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, 3 vols., ed. Franklin Bowditch Dexter (New York, 1901), 1:556–57.

(21.) For the way in which Charles Chauncy, Jonathan Mayhew, and like‐minded Boston liberals had appealed to just the Scriptures as justification for heterodox teachings like the salvation of all people or a Socinian interpretation of Jesus, see Conrad Wright, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America (Boston, 1955), 187, 194, 209.

(22.) John Leland, The Bible‐Baptist (Baltimore, 1789), 4, 5, 24.

(23.) John Leland, “Circular Letter of the Shaftsbury Association” (1793), in The Writings of John Leland, ed. L. F. Greene (New York, 1969 [orig. 1845]), 196.

(24.) Benjamin Rush, “A Defense of the Use of the Bible as a School Book” (dated 10 Mar. 1791), published as pp. 53–65 in John Eyten, Our Lord Jesus Christ's Sermon on the Mount . . . Intended Chiefly for the Instruction of Young People, 2d American ed. (Baltimore, 1810), 65 (quotation) and 55 for Rush's understanding of revelation in creation and consciousness (with quotation from Lord Shaftesbury).

(25.) Elias Smith, The Lovingkindness of God Displayed in the Triumph of Republicanism in America: Being a Discourse, Delivered at Taunton (Mass.) July Fourth, 1809 at the Celebration of American Independence (n.p., 1809), 3, 27, 32. For discussion, see Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, 1989), 69–70.

(26.) Timothy George and Denise George, eds., Baptist Confessions, Covenants, and Catechisms (Nashville, 1996), 131.

(27.) James Dixon, Methodism in America (1848–49), in The Voluntary Church: American Religious Life, 1740–1860, Seen through the Eyes of European Visitors, ed. Milton B. Powell (New York, 1967), 174.

(28.) Robert Baird, Religion in the United States of America (Glasgow, 1844), 658 (emphasis added).

(29.) For general consideration of the many paths explored by Protestants for replacing Roman Catholic norms of authority, see G. R. Evans, Problems of Authority in the Reformation Debates (New York, 1992).

(30.) For modern explanations of this principle, see Ralph J. Gore Jr., “Reviewing the Puritan Regulative Principle of Worship,” Presbyterion 20 (Spring 1994): 41–50 and 21 (Spring 1995): 29–47; and John Allen Delivuk “Biblical Authority and the Proof of the Regulative Principle of Worship in the Westminster Confession,” Westminster Theological Journal 58 (Fall 1996): 237–56.

(31.) See John Hesselink, “Christ, the Law, and the Christian: An Unexplored Aspect of the Third Use of the Law in Calvin's Theology,” in Reformatio Perennis: Essays on Calvin and the Reformation in Honor of Ford Lewis Battles, ed. Brian A. Gerrish (Pittsburgh, 1981), 11–26; and for a Lutheran perspective, Paul M. Hoyer, “Law and Gospel: With Particular Attention to the Third Use of the Law,” Concordia Journal 6 (Spring 1980): 189–201.

(32.) A good survey of local situations is Calvinism in Europe, 1540–1620, ed. Andrew Pettegree et al. (Cambridge, 1994).

(33.) In a discussion of biblical practices, the Anabaptists may be considered as following an extreme Reformed hermeneutic, with a particular emphasis on the New Testament. See, for orientation, the chapter “The Scripture and Mennonite Ethics,” in Abraham P. Toews, The Problem of Mennonite Ethics (Grand Rapids, 1963), 35–53.

(34.) As introductions to complicated subjects, see Eric W. Gritsch and Robert W. Jenson, Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings (Philadelphia, 1976), esp. 2–15; and Horton Davies, Worship and Theology in England, vol. 1, From Cranmer to Hooker, 1534–1603 (Princeton, 1970), 51–54, 234–37.

(35.) The multiple and contradictory connections between Scripture and the Revolution are well illustrated in Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730–1805 ed. Ellis Sandoz (Indianapolis, 1991).

(36.) André Siegfried, America Comes of Age: A French Analysis (New York, 1927), 34.

(37.) An Address to Christians throughout the World, by a Convention of Ministers, Assembled at Richmond, Virginia, April, 1863 (Philadelphia, 1863), 17–20.

(38.) David B. Chesebrough, God Ordained This War: Sermons on the Sectional Crisis, 1830–1865 (Columbia, S.C., 1991), 297–349 (where identifications of ministers are incomplete); Chesebrough, “No Sorrow like Our Sorrow”: Northern Protestant Ministers and the Assassination of Lincoln (Kent, Ohio, 1994), xvi, 149–92 (where denominational identification is nearly complete).

(39.) The best discussions of which I am aware on biblical interpretation in the antebellum period are in E. Brooks Holifield, The Gentlemen Theologians: American Theology in Southern Culture, 1795–1860 (Durham, 1978), esp. 96–100, “Interpreting the Word: Rational Hermeneutics”; Theodore Dwight Bozeman, Protestants in an Age of Science: The Baconian Ideal and Antebellum American Religious Thought (Chapel Hill, 1977), 132–59 (“Baconianism and the Bible”); and George M. Marsden, “Everyone One's Own Interpreter? The Bible, Science, and Authority in Mid‐Nineteenth‐Century America,” in The Bible in America, 79–100. For the hermeneutics of the Restorationists, who enunciated general “American” principles with special clarity, see C. Leonard Allen, “Baconianism and the Bible in the Disciples of Christ: James S. Lamar and ‘The Organon of Scripture,’ ” Church History 55 (1986): 65–80.

(40.) Puritans, by calling their initial scheme of government in Massachusetts “Moses' Judicials,” sought the biblical high ground for their experiment, but they did not use principles of commonsense literalism in defending the scripturalism of their system. See Edmund S. Morgan, ed., Puritan Political Ideas, 1558–1794 (Indianapolis, 1965), where the eighteenth‐century examples do begin to use those modern principles.

(41.) Hatch, Democratization of American Christianity, 182–83.

(42.) Charles Finney, sermon outline, 1863, Finney Papers, Oberlin College, courtesy of Allen Guelzo. I have omitted Finney's many italicizations.

(43.) Samuel Seabury, An Address to the Ministers and Congregations of the Presbyterian and Independent Persuasion in the United States of America. By a Member of the Episcopal Church (New Haven, 1790), 12.

(44.) Thomas Campbell, Declaration and Address (1809), introduction by F. D. Kershner (St. Louis, 1972), 23–24. For Restorationism as an extreme example of typical American attitudes, see Richard T. Hughes and C. Leonard Allen, Illusions of Innocence: Protestant Primitivism in America, 1630–1875 (Chicago, 1988); Richard T. Hughes, ed., The American Quest for the Primitive Church (Urbana, lll., 1988); and Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America (Grand Rapids, 1996).

(45.) Alexander Campbell, “Reply” (to an Episcopal bishop who had written to reprove Campbell for breaking with tradition), Christian Baptist 3 (3 Apr. 1826): 204.

(46.) T.S., “To the Editor,” Christian Messenger 1 (25 Sept. 1827): 249–50.

(47.) As quoted in Perry Miller, The Life of the Mind in America from the Revolution to the Civil War (New York, 1965), 47.

(48.) ”The Millennium of Rev. xx.,” Methodist Quarterly Review 25 (Jan. 1843): 87, as quoted in James Moorhead, “Prophecy, Millennialism, and Biblical Interpretation in Nineteenth‐Century America,” in Biblical Hermeneutics in Historical Perspective, ed. Mark S. Burrows and Paul Rorem (Grand Rapids, 1991), 297.

(49.) An important statement of connections between populist religion and elite realms of thought has been provided by Gordon S. Wood, “Evangelical America and Early Mormonism,” New York History 61 (Oct. 1980): 359–86, esp. 378: “The biblical literalism of these years became, in fact, popular religion's ultimate concession to the Enlightenment.” “Contribution” might describe what happened better than “concession,” but the synergy between spheres of religion and thought was every bit as powerful as Wood suggests.

(50.) Phillip S. Paludan, “Lincoln and the Rhetoric of Politics,” in A Crisis of Republicanism: American Politics in the Civil War Era, ed. Lloyd E. Ambrosius (Lincoln, Nebr., 1990), 88.

(51.) Leland, Bible‐Baptist, 23.

(52.) Campbell, Declaration and Address, 24–26.

(53.) The Memoirs of Charles G. Finney: The Complete Restored Text, ed. Garth M. Rosell and Richard A. G. Dupuis (Grand Rapids, 1989), 44–45.

(54.) John Holt Rice, Historical and Philosophical Considerations on Religion (Baltimore, 1832), 50–54, as quoted in Fred J. Hood, Reformed America: The Middle and Southern States, 1783–1837 (University, Ala., 1980), 58.

(55.) Sarah Grimké, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, and Other Essays (1838), ed. Elizabeth Ann Bartlett (New Haven, 1988), 31–32.

(56.) George Duffield, Prophecies Relative to the Second Coming (New York, 1842), as quoted in Moorhead, “Prophecy, Millennialism, and Biblical Interpretation,” 296.

(57.) Lamar, Organon of Scripture (1859), 176, as quoted in Hughes and Allen, Illusions of Innocence, 156.

(58.) Robert J. Breckinridge, The Knowledge of God, Subjectively Considered (New York, 1860), 444–45.

(59.) Henry J. Van Dyke, “The Character and Influence of Abolitionism,” in Fast Day Sermons; or, The Pulpit on the State of the Country (New York, 1861), 139.

(60.) Gerrit Smith, “The Religion of Reason,” in Sermons and Speeches (New York, 1861), 4–5.

(61.) Drew Gilpin Faust, “Evangelicalism and the Meaning of the Proslavery Argument,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 85 (Jan. 1977): 8.

(62.) Independent, 15 Dec. 1864, 4, as quoted in Moorhead, “Prophecy, Millennialism and Biblical Interpretation,” 118.

(63.) Phoebe Palmer, “Witness of the Spirit,” Guide to Holiness 47 (June 1865): 137; as quoted in Nancy A. Hardesty, Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: Revivalism and Feminism in the Age of Finney (Brooklyn, 1991), 65–66.