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Abstract

An ascendant scholarly narrative has understood the Enlightenment and Protestant call to universal biblical literacy—to “read the Bible for oneself”—as an individualistic, impersonal, and purely rational ethic that united Americans by aligning a way of reading the Bible with a particular political project, that of establishing and sustaining a new democratic republic. I argue that this scholarly narrative of consensus regarding the Bible depends on a theological and ideological ideal espoused, but never really practiced. Especially among the majority of Americans whose status was relatively unchanged by the Revolution, for whom even the highest degree of biblical literacy could not entail political power, and whose interests and desires diverged from a culturally ascendant vision of the United States, different understandings and uses of the Bible frequently prevailed. Americans regularly used the Bible and literacy to accomplish projects that were unconcerned with the idea of “America” promulgated by civil religion and nationalistic rhetoric. Sometimes these projects were personal and idiosyncratic; many enslaved black people, for instance, viewed it as a badge of spiritual honor that God had helped them learn to read the Bible in ways individually suited to the special needs wrought by their condition of bodily bondage. The Cherokee, whose interests were directly at odds with the manifest destiny of the United States, selectively adopted and rejected aspects of biblical literacy with the aim of protecting their own sovereignty. In the most famous novel of the nineteenth century, Harriet Beecher Stowe contrasts the secular literacy of white men with the biblical literacy of female and black characters to question an America ruled by self-interest and individualism, rather than by self-denying benevolence toward others. The variety of these projects reflects the variety of readers. This work seeks to show, through an exploration of three antebellum contexts, not only that Americans interpreted the Bible in diverse ways and according to diverse agendas, but also that they entertained extremely broad definitions of both “the Bible” and literacy. These broad definitions, too, reflect the variety of readers: far from viewing Bible-reading as purely an objective, intellectual, and impersonal exercise of universal capacities, antebellum readers imagined biblical literacy in deeply personal, contingent, and spiritual ways that often made even secular reading a religious experience. Furthermore, for most Americans it was not enough merely to be able to read and make sense of the Bible; true biblical literacy was that kind of reading which caused one to live and act in accordance with God’s word. Biblical literacy, knowing the Bible, is set apart from other reading because it almost always implies application, acting in accordance with that which one has read. As such, biblical literacy, more obviously than other kinds of literacy, is established through the non-literate activities of readers. This high standard of literacy made the Bible a powerful tool of critique, reform, and resistance even for people who had not achieved the standards of academic literacy: it was possible to be biblically literate—to live according to the Bible—without having read it; at the same time, the mere act of reading the Bible did not constitute biblical literacy at all. Thus, biblical literacy was inevitably personal—constituted through what readers did with the text—and often physically personal, or embodied, because it transformed readers into living texts.

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