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2005-2006 Visiting Fellows

Michael Lee
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 America, 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.

In my 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 their opponents.

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.

Because 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.


27 September2005


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