Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States by Seth Perry, Princeton University Press, US $35.00, Pp 216, June 2018, ISBN 978-0691179131
It is commonly believed that the early Americans looked to “the Bible alone” for authority. In Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States, Seth Perry challenges this widespread view. He argues that the Bible was never alone. Perry evaluates the place and authority of the Bible in the decades immediately after the revolution and its actual place rather than an idealized one. He explains that early national American religion was grounded in detailed moments of biblically-constituted relational authority in the context of large-scale cultural characteristics that determined what it meant to read or otherwise use the bibles during this time.
In the early post-revolution period, a variety of relationships among would-be religious authorities and their potential followers flourished. Many of these were created and maintained through reference to the Bible. Perry argues that this period matters because the question of how roles were to be made recognizable was particularly acute during this time. The revolution brought about changes that created new opportunities for new roles, but they also unsettled the terms by which those roles could be made legible, understandable, and recognizable. For Protestants, Catholics, and those they proselytized, the Bible was the shared script for responding to this uncertainty. Perry argues that all authority is fundamentally rhetorical and rhetoric was unusually effective in developing relationships of authority in the decades after the revolution.
In early national America, Perry argues that the bibles were constitutive of subjectivities not just in the mechanics of the text’s rhetorical use, but at the material level of their format and composition. Just as tropes and symbols of the biblical text made identities recognizable and performable, the American bibles rhetorically constituted approaches to and regard for the Bible itself. The co-constitution of the American Bible and its readers will be the key to understanding the bible-based authority in the nineteenth century. Written scripture demands authority. Perry argues that the divine truth may be imagined as self-authenticating and eternally changeless, but writing it down is an act of mediation that must be explained and legitimated. Various mediating voices are built into any given example of a written scripture but each alike assumes the asymmetrical apportioning of relevant knowledge that defines a pedagogical relationship. Each voice found in a scripture is fundamentally a voice that teaches.
This fact has been particularly salient in the history of Western Christianity. Parry argues that early modern Catholicism found authority in its own body of thought and tradition as the institution founded and headed by Christ to carry out his work on earth. Reformers, on the other hand, insisted that authority for doctrine and practice rested only with scripture, that anything that was not so grounded had to be left off, and that it was the responsibility of each Christian to pursue the understanding of such distinctions through the reading of scripture. Reformation leaders insisted that the Bible be accessible to all Christians, their connection of this access with teaching is often overlooked in favor of the suggestion that they encouraged lay freedom in the reading of scriptures. Notwithstanding any Protestant rhetoric, preaching is fundamentally pedagogical. The Protestant bible reader has always been a reader who must be taught and not only by the Spirit.
Exegetical uses of the Bible are only a small aspect of scripturalization. Perry argues that the para-biblical material that became widespread in the early United States knew no bounds by the end of the nineteenth century. If the proposition of the “the Bible alone” was facetious in the early post-Revolution period, the later nineteenth century’s signature development in the Bible usage — dispensationalism — rendered it completely farcical. While the Bible’s cultural presence in the early national period has been treated as flat and simple, the identities quarried from it were of infinite diversity and particularity. The Bible’s presence in the conjuring of those identities was at the nexus of religious authority in the early national period, and that presence persists. Americans, even those who regard the quarry as abandoned, continue to live among the statues.
Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States focuses on the role the Bible played in the evolution of Christianity and religious culture in America’s early national history. Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States is a meticulously-researched and well-argued book which shows how the roots of today’s evangelical Christianity can be traced to the scripturalization in America’s early national period. With his unmatched academic credentials as a historian of religion, Seth Perry provides new perspectives and creative insights into Christianity in early American history. Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States is a required reading for the students and experts of not only Christianity but also America’s post-revolution period.