Review: The Bible Cause

The Bible Cause. By John Fea. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Viii + 356 pp. $29.95

How did a country whose founding documents explicitly forbid an established religion remain so thoroughgoingly Protestant? The American Bible Society (ABS), offers a window into the processes that facilitated this paradox. The Bible Cause, a bicentennial memorial to this venerable organization written by respected historian John Fea, is a fascinating and eminently readable history that provides a long-view.

Protestantism has profoundly affected all facets of American society. This influence came not by the direct imposition of clerical power, but through elite laymen who promoted an amorphous “religion of the Old and New Testaments” as the nation’s moral foundation. From its founding in 1816, the ABS contribution to this project was simply to manufacture and distribute the Bibles (“without note or comment”) that served as the precondition of this “non-sectarian” faith.

The study is strongest when it highlights the connections between the ABS and American politics. Indeed, the parallels are striking. During the Early Republic, both the federal government and the ABS were hamstrung by constitutions that ceded most power to local entities; both became more centralized after the Civil War. The ABS conducted four “general supplies”—campaigns to place a Bible in every American home—that typically ignored Americans of non-European descent, thus reflecting their tenuous claims to secular citizenship as well. International Bible distribution grew with the nation’s imperial ambitions. Meanwhile, scripture distribution to military personnel (an ABS staple since the US incursion into Mexico in 1846) flowered into other government partnerships, suggesting a more formal “Protestant establishment” than is often recognized. Throughout its history, the ABS sensed the shifting locus of religious power in American culture and adjusted its alliances accordingly: from Congregationalists and Presbyterians, to a broader ecumenical mainline, to its present alignment with conservative evangelicalism.

Amid shifting alliances, the ABS conviction that an uninterpreted Bible could transform society remained steady. Whatever the problem—whether the onset of World War I, life in a Japanese internment camp, or hospitalization for mental illness—a copy of the Good Book was their go-to solution. This makes sense from one perspective—if all you have is a hammer, the saying goes, everything looks like a nail. Yet in explaining this story, Fea sometimes neglects important context, choosing instead to take ABS promotional material at face value. Rather than noting Noll’s assessment that the Civil War triggered a major theological crisis rooted in conflicting biblical interpretations, he simply recapitulates the breezy ABS assertions that the war was caused by people rejecting “the authority of the Bible in their lives.”

This habit of repeating the perspectives of ABS leadership is particularly jarring on subjects related to race and “civilization.” ABS assertions that former enslaved people had a “superstitious reverence” for the Bible, that civil rights advocates in the 1930s were “selfish and radical agitators,” and that the solution to “racial unrest” in the 1960s was Bible distribution to African Americans (rather than the white supremacists most in need of spiritual transformation) are all offered “without note or comment.” The darker aspects of ABS history are not hidden so much as left unanalyzed. Numerous scholars have conclusively demonstrated that “civilization” talk (“Christian” or not) was the handmaid of white supremacy; the ABS’s complicity in that project should be noted.

By the 1960s, special pleading for the power of an uninterpreted Bible had grown too tenuous even for ABS leadership; and so, they began searching for a more substantive mandate. The first move beyond distribution was the production of the Good News Bible: a new, and wildly popular, English translation in modern language. But at this point, Fea’s clear narrative becomes muddled. It exhibits a curious devotion to the myth—now debunked by a decade and half of historical work—that conservative evangelicals “withdrew” from mainline denominations and cultural engagement. By that storyline, evangelicals must have been outsiders to the ABS (since it was aligned with the mainline) and suspicious of its new translation. Yet Fea notes that the project was overseen by Eugene Nida—a man who had taught at the fundamentalist Biola College and worked for the evangelical Wycliff Bible Translators. Similarly, the arch-evangelical Billy Graham readily adopted the translation for use in his crusades. Clearly the evangelical “subculture” was neither as isolated nor as doctrinally coherent as old narratives claim.

Fast paced and free of jargon, The Bible Cause will provide non-specialists with a helpful introduction to the long history of American Protestantism. It will spur fruitful discussions and will surely find a home in classrooms and church settings. Scholars of religion will be grateful for the prodigious research it contains, even if they are occasionally frustrated with its lack of critical analysis. Fea has collected all the pieces for a pathbreaking reinterpretation of American Protestantism, but some assembly is required.