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

By Paul C. Gutjahr

Stanford, CA

Stanford University Press. 1999. 256 pp. $39.50

Never, in over fifty years of reading about the history, translation, publication, and distribution of the Bible, have I found so fascinating and comprehensive a story as this one. The author, unintimidated by the intricacies and magnitude of his theme, has successfully illuminated the details of his subject. He brings into the limelight the printing practices in early America regarding the English Bible, the economics of the book trade, and the vicissitudes of American taste, as well as the supremacy of the Scrip-tines in early American life.

Gutjahr is Assistant Professor of English and American Studies at Indiana University. His chapter titles are alliteratively consistent: Production, Packaging, Purity, Pedagogy, Popularity and Postscript. These are enriched by the addition of six appendices that provide an overview of Bible production in the U.S., statistics on American Bible Society production and distribution for its first 62 years, prices for the cheapest editions of American Bibles in the 19th Century, a survey of bindings from the ABS, a list of new translations ofthe English Bible in the U. S., and finally a graph and map regarding the production of Catholic Bibles from 1790-1880.

It was during the first three-quarters of the 19th century that American publishing experienced unprecedented growth. The emerging market economy, widespread religious revival, educational reforms, and innovations in printing technology all worked together to create a culture increasingly formed and framed by the power of the printed page. At the center of this new culture was the Bible, that uncontested bestseller in American publishing history. Yet it is important to recognize that the Bible was not a simple, uniform entity.

This book examines how many different constituencies, both secular and religious, fought to keep the Bible the preeminent printed text, when a multitude of creative, attractive challenges were constantly emerging. The author shows how these heated battles had profound consequences for many American cultural practices. By exploring the threat that new printed material posed to the dominance of the Bible, Gutjahr reveals the causes and consequences of mutating God’s supposedly immutable Word.

Gutjahr includes a substantive account of the influence of such challenges as Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon upon the Bible when it first appeared. He also addresses the gradual impact and acceptance of Bible-based novels. The supplementing of the Biblical text with historical essays, illustrations, etc., and the Bible Society’s struggle to compete by providing the text alone is also here addressed. Many aspects of the Bible in America, generally overlooked by most books, are here examined and analyzed.

I can scarcely recommend too highly, to Bible students and collectors alike, the broader picture that Gutjahr here presents.