We Too Must Write Bibles

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  • 30.11.2021
"We Too Must Write Bibles": The Search for American Prophets and Sacred Scriptures in the Early United States

In the tumultuous decades of rapid expansion and change before the Civil War, Americans confronted a cluster of overlapping crises whose common theme was the difficulty of finding authority in written texts. Arrayed around this issue were several disruptive developments: rising challenges to the traditional authority of the Bible; persistent worries over America's lack of a "national literature" and an independent cultural identity; the slavery crisis; acrimony over clashing interpretations of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, especially as these "parascriptures" gradually became a kind of quasi-sacred secular canon; and, from the opposite direction, the rapid emergence of "mass media" in the modern sense, a new, industrial-scale print culture that put a premium on information as remote as could be from the sacred -- disposable, mass-produced "news," immediate and dispensed in huge quantities, but often unreliable and meant only for the day or hour. This presentation identifies key features of the writings, careers and cultural politics of several prominent figures as responses to these combined challenges. In their varied attempts to vindicate the sacred and to merge the timeless with the urgent present, Joseph Smith, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Martin Delany, Abraham Lincoln, and other religious and political leaders and men and women of letters helped define American literary culture as an ongoing quest for what Emerson called "a perpetual scripture."

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