Editors’ Choice: America’s Public Bible: Biblical Quotations in U.S. Newspapers

For most of its issues in 1902, the Ellensburg [Washington] Dawn featured a quotation from Benjamin Franklin prominently on its front page. “A Bible and a newspaper in every house,” the masthead proclaimed, “are the principal support of virtue, morality, and civil liberty.” Though the quotation from Franklin was doubtless spurious, the combination of newspapers and the Bible would have been familiar to readers. Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, newspapers in the United States—even newspapers which were not published by a religious denomination or organization—had frequent recourse to the Bible. Newspapers printed sermons and Sunday school lessons, and ministers offered lessons through newspaper Bible clubs. Newspapers featured jokes whose punchlines required familiarity with the Bible. They aired political commentary that cited the Bible on all sides of a given issue. They ran features on Thomas Jefferson’s edited Bible and Abraham Lincoln’s use of the Scripture. On Good Friday, Easter, and Christmas they reprinted long portions of the Scripture. They opined on revisions to the English Bible, and offered word-by-word comparisons of the changes in new translations. They made money from advertisements for Bibles of every kind, and some newspapers even sold Bibles directly as a way of raising revenue. But most of all, newspapers quoted the Bible.

America’s Public Bible uncovers the presence of biblical quotations in the nearly 11 million newspaper pages in the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America collection. Using the techniques of machine learning I have identified over 866,000 quotations of the Bible or verbal allusions to specific biblical verses on those newspaper pages. For now, the project has looked only for quotations to the King James Version (or Authorized Version) of the English Bible, by far the most commonly used Bible among American Protestants during the nineteenth century. For over 1,700 of the most frequently quoted verses, this site offers a way to explore the trend in how frequently a biblical verse was used, with links to each quotation highlighted in the pages of Chronicling America. The site thus uncovers two contexts for each verse: the context of the newspaper article in which it was used, and the broader chronological context of quotations from that verse and the Bible as a whole.

Source: America’s Public Bible: Biblical Quotations in U.S. Newspapers