Review of <em>American Scriptures</em>

Maffly-Kipp, Laurie F., ed. American Scriptures: An Anthology of Sacred Writings. New York: Penguin Books, 2010. 406 pages. ISBN: 0143106198.

In his chapter on “Reading” in Walden, Henry David Thoreau complained, “As for the sacred Scriptures, or Bibles of mankind, who in this town can tell me even their titles? Most men do not know that any nation but the Hebrews have had a scripture.” Thoreau is likely as correct about our day as he was about his own. But teachers of the history of American religion and religious studies can correct the error for American sacred writings at least, thanks to Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp’s new collection, American Scriptures: An Anthology of Sacred Writings.

In this affordable paperback, published by Penguin Classics, Maffly-Kipp collects sacred texts written and published in the United States. These texts capture some of the religious diversity and creativity of American religion. The book contains a bewildering array of religious traditions: rational religion, the Latter-Day Saints, Shakers, Spiritualists, black Methodists, Christian Scientists, Seventh-day Adventists, Theosophists, feminists, traditions influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism. Some of the books were unpublished or virtually unknown in their own day; others were massive bestsellers. The collection contains some well-known texts, helpfully extracted, such as Joseph Smith’s The Book of Mormon, Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible. It also contains texts very difficult to find elsewhere.

But for all the diversity, there are several important similarities across the text. All but one text is from the nineteenth century, beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (1819–20) and ending with Levi H. Dowling’s The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ (1907)—a century or so of religious creativity expressed in sacred texts. But more important, almost all of these texts are an interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth. This collection of texts would work well paired with Richard Wightman Fox’s Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession or Stephen R. Prothero’s American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, to allow students to compare the cultural history of Jesus across religious traditions and over time.

The one limitation of the text is that it is a collection of scriptures written in America, not scriptures used in America. So the most religiously and culturally significant scriptures in America, such as the King James Bible, the Tanakh and Talmud, the Qu’ran, and the Vedas and Upanishads, are unrepresented. This is hardly a fault, since those texts are readily available elsewhere, but in designing a course one would have to take it into account. Then too, the collection can give little sense of the material culture of these texts. There are some intriguing hints: Thomas Jefferson cutting and pasting his revision of the Gospels; John Ballou Newbrough writting OAHSPE on “a novel device called a typewriter” as the angels guided his hands. Again, it would be unreasonable to expect this volume to tackle the material aspect of the texts. But an enterprising scholar, taking a cue from this collection and from Colleen McDannell’s Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America, could do intriguing work on the material culture of sacred texts in the United States.

Full disclosure: At the AHA, Penguin gave me a free book-bag for buying more books than were in my budget, but no compensation for this blog post.