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The Bible in Colonial America

The Bible was a central document in the colonial period of the United States.

Title page of David M. Rubenstein’s Copy of the Bay Psalm Book, ca. 1640. Courtesy the Smithsonian.

The most widely used Bible in colonial America was the Protestant King James Version of 1611. Yet Protestants, whose reliance on Scripture guided private lives and also influenced the public sphere, often differed seriously among themselves about what the Bible meant and how it should be followed.

Which Bibles were printed in the colonies?

The King James Translation of 1611 was by far the most popular scriptural version in colonial America. But because printers in England retained a monopoly copyright, King James Bibles were not printed in America until after the Revolutionary War. Other versions of the Bible, however, could be found. In the 1540s Catholic missionaries to what is now Mexico were responsible for publishing the first new-world scriptural selections (in Spanish and Nahuatl). In 1663 the New England Puritan minister John Eliot oversaw the first complete Bible published in America, a translation into Wôpanâak that Eliot completed with much help from several Natives. Only in 1743 did Christopher Saur of Pennsylvania produce the first European-language Bible, the German translation of Martin Luther. American printing of the King James Version would begin in 1782.

What did the Bible mean for colonial America?

The “Puritans” who settled New England were serious English Protestants who hoped to “purify” errors in the Church of England by appealing to Scripture. Their religion featured a biblical understanding of covenants, or promises, God had made with Old Testament Israel, but even more with those who put their trust in Christ.

The Bible anchored the spiritual lives of early New England leaders, like William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony and John Winthrop in Massachusetts, along with countless other laypeople and ministers in that region and beyond. The Old Testament’s importance was suggested by the title of an early draft of laws for Massachusetts, “a model of Moses his judicials.” The first full book published in the English colonies was the Puritans’ Bay Psalm Book, a paraphrase of the Bible’s 150 psalms that was then reprinted more often than any other title in the colonial period. Congregations expected their ministers to prepare lengthy weekly sermons, always based on a passage from Scripture. In New England and then elsewhere, such sermons (along with personal and family study) meant that biblical references, quotations, and allusions peppered every sphere of society.

Yet reliance on Scripture did not necessarily produce harmony. During the first Puritan generation, Anne Hutchinson, who led a popular home Bible study, created a furor by arguing that New England’s leading ministers misunderstood Scripture in their account of salvation. Roger Williams founded Rhode Island after he was banished from Massachusetts for claiming that the Bible condemned the appropriation Native lands and Massachusetts’ union between church and state.

In the 1730s and 1740s, revivals throughout the colonies witnessed fresh emphasis on biblical themes of divine judgment, repentance, and new life in Christ. The Scriptures were the constant study of this “Great Awakening’s” most impressive theologian (Jonathan Edwards), its most influential preacher (George Whitefield), and many of its lay leaders (like Sarah Osborn of Newport, Rhode Island).

Although leaders of the Awakening were not social reformers, their message reached some of the colonies’ marginalized African and Native Americans. When Black Americans began to publish their own works, the Bible played a large role for enslaved authors like Jupiter Hammon of New York, as well as those who had escaped bondage like David George in South Carolina. The Mohegan Samuel Occom was converted through biblical preaching during the revivals, but later drew on Scripture to protest dismissive treatment of Natives.

To strengthen appeals to the public, many writers and speakers relied on biblical rhetoric. During the colonial wars, some called France’s Indian allies “Canaanites” who should be treated as ancient Israel treated her enemies. One Virginia minister contrasted French Catholicism with “the pure Religion of Jesus streaming uncorrupted from the sacred Fountain of the Scriptures.” In the increasing tension between the colonies and Parliament, ministers like Jonathan Mayhew of Massachusetts depicted a conflict between “Liberty, the BIBLE and Common Sense” versus “Tyranny, PRIESTCRAFT and Non-Sense.”

In contrast to mere rhetoric, other colonists drew didactic instruction from Scripture, as when Quakers appealed to the Golden Rule (Matt 7:12) to reject warfare. In the 1760s, an intense debate over settling an Anglican bishop in the colonies featured a wealth of learned biblical arguments pro and con. By the 1770s, opponents and defenders of slavery had also begun to use the Bible to argue for (Lev 25:44-46) and against (Luke 4:18) the system.

Colonial seriousness about the Bible would later evolve into a belief that the United States was somehow a divinely “chosen nation”; in the nation’s early years, the centrality of the Bible made it a key text for politicians, preachers, and their followers.

  • Mark A. Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of In the Beginning Was the World: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783 (2016) and America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794–1911 (2022).