America's long love affair with the Scriptures
AN AMERICAN BIBLE: A HISTORY OF THE GOOD BOOK IN THE UNITED STATES, 1777-1880 By Paul C. Gutjahr Stanford University Press 254 pp., $39.50
Paul Gutjahr's publishing history of the Bible in America takes the story from the first English New Testament published in the United States through the approximately 2,000 editions published before the Revised Standard edition of 1881.
At the beginning of this period, the Bible in the United States was by far the nation's most frequently owned and read book. But by the end of the period, in spite of heroic attempts of Bible publishers to maintain the primacy of the Bible, it was only one of many books in educated households.
Gutjahr maintains that a good part of the cause of this came from the great advances in printing and publishing technology brought about in Bible production itself, advancing techniques that eventually made possible the cacophony of voices that tended to drown biblical importance in a sea of secular writing.
Furthermore, he holds that the competition among publishers to sell their Bibles promoted profusely illustrated versions, from the inexpensive to the Harper's Illuminated Bible, with more than 1,600 pictures. A host of new adjunct books also detracted from the attention the biblical text itself had been given.
He points out, in addition, that biblical fiction, with such books as Joseph Holt Ingraham's "The Prince of the House of David" and Lew Wallace's "Ben Hur," provided further competition for the Bible by providing substitutes for the scriptures that had a suitable religious feel.