Graduate student in History,
University of Notre Dame,
South Bend, Indiana
I would like to
thank the Friends of the Princeton University Library for generously funding my
month of archival research at the Firestone Library in July of 2005. I am also
grateful to the staff and librarians who were so helpful and courteous during my
visit. In particular, I want to thank Meg Rich.
I went to
Princeton to conduct research for my dissertation, titled "American
Revelations: Biblical Interpretation and Criticism in
America 1700-1860." In early
few people would have dared to dispute openly the authority of the Bible.
However, Americans did not agree on its meaning. Biblical interpretation became
the battleground on which competing communities utilized the most potent
rhetorical weapons they could muster. In the development of biblical
interpretation in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, one finds a
field to which the best minds brought the cutting-edge intellectual
developments of their day, and the combatants fought with passion and
conviction, for they believed the souls of their fellow Americans and of their
nation were at stake. My work explains how Americans read, interpreted,
discerned, and debated the "authentic" meaning of the Scriptures in an
environment when the standards of interpretation were in flux.
dissertation, I examine the evolving methods of biblical interpretation and
criticism in America
from the beginning of the eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. The
understanding of the Bible as divine revelation and as a historically accurate
account of the past faced challenges from the deists in the eighteenth century,
and then German higher criticism, transcendentalism, and comparative religion
in the nineteenth century. I argue that,
in responding to unorthodox challenges, the Bible's conservative defenders
ironically shared and, in some cases, appropriated the interpretive tools of
I posit that in
defending Christianity against its critics, "conservative" churchmen
transformed their theology to maintain its viability in light of the temper of
modern ideas or to withstand the attacks of critics. Ideas that were once
considered threatening were adapted and integrated into the prevailing
orthodoxy. Cultural and intellectual forces strained, challenged, and ultimately
transformed hermeneutics. My dissertation examines the changing and evolving
standards of what constituted "proof" or "plausibility" within the context of
biblical interpretation in early America.
Princeton was the capital of intellectual life for
Presbyterians in early America,
the institution and its leaders play a critical role in my dissertation. I was
able to consult the papers of several professors including John Witherspoon,
Samuel Stanhope Smith, and John S. Hart. I also found numerous lecture notes taken
by students in theology and philosophy classes that were enormously helpful.
Though the professors at Princeton maintained
a broadly orthodox and conservative theological confession, I was fascinated to
discover the thoroughly naturalistic and Newtonian inflection of their
arguments by the late eighteenth century.
Thanks to the
staff and generosity of the Friends of the Princeton University Library, I
enjoyed a productive month of research, and I could not imagine a more lovely
or pleasant environment to work away from home.