The Bible has been a fixture in American popular culture from the first European settlements to the present. Mentioning only a few random facts is enough to suggest the breadth of the Bible's presence in American civilization. The first English book published in North America was The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Meter (1640). The American Bible Society, founded in 1816, has distributed well over four billion copies of the Bible or biblical portions (see Bible Societies). Throughout the nineteenth century, American settlers regularly named their communities after biblical places, like Zoar, Ohio (Gen. 13.10), or Mount Tirzah, North Carolina (Josh. 12.24), as well as forty‐seven variations on Bethel, sixty‐one on Eden, and ninety‐five on Salem. When in 1842 the Roman Catholic Bishop of Philadelphia, Francis Patrick Kenrick, petitioned city officials to allow schoolchildren of his faith to hear readings from the Douay‐Rheims translation of the Bible instead of the Protestant King James Version, the city's Protestants rioted and tried to burn down Philadelphia's Catholic churches. In 1964, a thought‐provoking book was published on the biblical content of a famous comic strip (Robert Short, The Gospel According to Peanuts). Two of the most popular rock‐operas of the 1970s, Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, were based on the biblical Gospels. During the same decade, the best‐selling book of any kind (except the Bible itself) was Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth, which attempted to show how current events were fulfilling prophetic passages of scripture. In 1990, at least seven thousand different editions of the Bible were available from hundreds of publishers. However difficult it may be to define the impact of the Bible on ordinary people precisely, scripture has always been a vital element in American popular life.
From the first colonists, the Bible provided themes for Americans to define themselves as a people, and then as a nation. Puritans in New England believed they were in covenant with God just like the ancient Israelites. The first public political campaigns of the 1830s were modeled directly on the organized enthusiasm and passionate rhetoric of the religious revival. In the intense sectional strife leading to the Civil War, the Bible became a weapon put to use by both sides. In the South, passages like Leviticus 25:45 (“the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you … they shall be your possession”) defined the righteousness of their cause. In the North, favored passages, usually from the New Testament, like Galatians 5:1 (“Stand fast … in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free”), did the same. (See Slavery and the Bible.) Abraham Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural Address, put the Civil War into perspective by quoting Matthew 18:7 and Psalm 19:9, and by noting that “both [sides] read the same Bible.” Biblical phrases and conceptions, particularly with politicians from the South like Woodrow Wilson or Jimmy Carter, have continued to exert a political force even in the more secular twentieth century.
If anything, the Bible has been more obviously at work in the popular culture of African Americans than among whites. Slaves made a sharp distinction between the Bible their owners preached to them and the Bible they discovered for themselves. Under slavery, stringent regulations often existed against unsupervised preaching, and sometimes even against owning Bibles. But with or without permission, slaves made special efforts to hear black preachers. One slave left this striking testimony: “a yellow [light‐complexioned] man preached to us. She [the slave owner] had him preach how we ought to obey our master and missy if we want to go to heaven, but when she wasn't there, he came out with straight preachin' from the Bible.”
Blacks sang and preached about Adam and Eve and the Fall, about “wrestlin’ Jacob” who “would not let [God] go,” about Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, about Daniel in the lions' den, about Jonah in the belly of the fish, about the birth of Jesus and his death and future return. The slaves' profound embrace of scripture created a climate for Bible reading and biblical preaching that has continued among African Americans since the Civil War. (See also African American Traditions and the Bible.)
In the popular media, scripture has been as omnipresent as in politics. Fiction, hymns, and poetry employing biblical themes have always made up a huge proportion of American publishing. Composers William Billings (1746–1800), John Knowles Paine (1839–1906), and many in the twentieth century, such as Charles Ives and Aaron Copland, followed earlier precedents by writing musical settings for the psalms. Among the populace at large, the flood of sheet music, hymnals, chorus books, and gospel songs has never ebbed. In the nineteenth century, one of the most frequently reprinted sheet‐music titles was “My Mother's Bible.” Its first appearance (1843) evoked an emotional domestic ideal: “My mother's hands this Bible clasped, / She dying gave it me.” At another level, millions of Sunday school students have learned songs like “The B‐I‐B‐L‐E, / Yes, that's the book for me, / I stand alone on the word of God, / The B‐I‐B‐L‐E.” (See also Music and the Bible.)
American writers of popular fiction have always drawn on biblical materials. Biblical allusions feature prominently in works such as Herman Melville's Moby‐Dick (which begins, “Call me Ishmael”), William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Go Down Moses (1942), James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), and Peter Devries's The Blood of the Lamb (1961). The American people have never been able to get enough of popular fiction inspired directly by the Bible. The first important novel of this kind was William Ware's Julian: Or, Scenes in Judea (1856), which described gospel events through the letters of its fictional protagonist. General Lew Wallace's Ben Hur (1880), which climaxed in a breathtaking chariot race, is probably the supreme example of biblical fiction. President Garfield wrote his personal thanks to Wallace from the White House, and it soon became a huge success with the public at large (in part because Sears, Roebuck printed up a million inexpensive copies). Ben Hur was also the inspiration for an immensely successful touring drama (complete with surging horses on a treadmill) and two motion pictures. Other similar books have had nearly as much success, including Henryk Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis? (1896), Lloyd Douglas's The Robe (1942) and The Big Fisherman (1949), Marjorie Holmes's Two from Galilee (1972), and several novels of both Taylor Caldwell and Frank G. Slaughter. One of the most unusual examples of this fiction was written first in Yiddish by a Jewish author, Sholem Asch. When published in English in 1939, The Nazarene won praise from Christians for its sensitive portrayal of contemporary customs at the time of Jesus. (See also Literature and the Bible, article on North American Literature.)
Many of the blockbuster biblical novels eventually found their way to the screen. Cecil B. de Mille's The King of Kings from 1927 (with H. B. Warner as a diffident Jesus) and George Stevens's The Greatest Story Ever Told from 1965 (with Max von Sydow as a Jesus who was allowed to show traces of humor) were among the most memorable, but there have been many others.
The Bible as a theme in popular communications is hardly exhausted by songs, poems, stories, and movies. In the visual arts, biblical materials have provided inspiration for German immigrants embellishing needle work with Fraktur print, lithographers such as Currier and Ives, countless painters at countless levels of ability, and a few masters acclaimed by both public and critics, such as Edward Hicks, who in the mid nineteenth century painted several versions of The Peaceable Kingdom. (see Art and the Bible.) Since the beginning of mass‐marketed religious objects about the time of the Civil War, both Catholics and Protestants have purchased immense quantities of pictures, statues, games, children's toys, paperweights, refrigerator magnets, jewelry, T‐shirts, greeting cards, calendars, and business cards decorated with biblical motifs.
Allene Stuart Phy, editor of the best book on the subject, once observed that there is often a “ludicrous discrepancy … between the ancient wisdom of the scriptures and the vulgarities of American popular culture” (The Bible and Popular Culture in America, 1985). But Phy also saw clearly that even these “vulgarities” show the “profound ways in which the holy books of the Jewish and Christian religions relate to [the] lives of Americans.”
See also Everyday Expressions from the Bible.
Mark A. Noll