Saturday, June 14, 2014

On Writing a History of the American Bible Society--Update #1

Elias Boudinot: First President of the ABS
I may regret this, but yesterday I announced that I will be trying to keep the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home up to speed on my current project on the history of the American Bible Society (ABS) by offering a daily post on my progress.  (At this point the target date for completion is May 1, 2015 but that could all change once I start talking with publishers).  If you want to follow along from the beginning just click below on the "ABS History Updates" label.

In this post, I will try to get you up to speed on how I am currently working.

First, you should know that I have two research assistants helping me this summer. Katie Garland is a graduate student in public history at the University of Massachusetts. She will be with me on a part-time basis through the entire life of the manuscript. Katie is currently doing research on the history of ABS in the years between the Civil War and World War I.  She is reading Annual Reports and consulting a series of historical essays prepared by the ABS library staff in the 1960s.

My other research assistant is Katy Kaslow.  She is my current Messiah College research assistant (a position Katie Garland held for three years before moving to UMASS).  Katy is continuing into the summer working on references to the American Bible Society in 19th-century newspapers and documents available through the Early American Imprints (Shaw and Shoemaker) collection.

I began dabbling in the primary material (mostly the stuff Katy has collected) this week and have formulated a pretty sold outline for the book's first chapter on the founding of the ABS.  I hope to have this chapter written by the end of the month so that I can use it as a writing sample for initial contact with publishers. More on that process later.

I have also been doing a lot of secondary reading.  Last month I finished Henry Otis Dwight's centennial (1916) history of the ABS and earlier this week I read Creighton Lacy's sesquicentennial history (published in 1977), The Word Carrying Giant: The Growth of the American Bible Society. Lacy's volume surprised me.  It is very thorough and detailed, especially on the international role of the ABS.

In addition to these histories of the ABS, I have been reading (in some cases re-reading), books about the history of the Bible in America.  Yesterday I reread Paul Gutjahr's outstanding An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States. One of Gutjahr's arguments is that the ABS's focus on mass-producing Bibles without "note or comment" prompted other publishers, in order to compete in the Bible marketplace, to produce more ornate Bibles filled with illustrations, fancy bindings, and other marks of middle-class gentility.

I have also been reading a lot on the Federalists and American nationalism.  Most of the founders of the ABS were either Federalists or so-called National Republicans.  Founders such as Elias Boudinot believed that the dissemination of the Bible would go a long way toward producing a strong, virtuous citizenry, the kind of citizens essential to a healthy nation.  (I am looking forward to reading Jonathan Den Hartog's forthcoming book with U of Virginia Press on this topic).  Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought has also been useful in trying to understand the early national world in which the ABS was born.

So far we are off to a good start.  The summer is here and it is nice to be able to devote more time to this. Stay tuned.