In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Bible and American Literature

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Surveys, Overviews, and Collections
  • Old Testament: Adam, Eve, Moses, and Esther
  • New Testament: Christ, Mary, and Satan
  • Apocalypticism and Millennialism
  • African American Writers
  • Puritan, Colonial, and Revolutionary Era

American Literature The Bible and American Literature
Jonathan A. Cook
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0193


It is a critical commonplace that the King James Bible served as the moral and cultural foundation for the Reformed Protestant community—a People of the Book—that developed in Puritan and colonial America and then continued in this role in the newly established United States well into the twentieth century. Yet the contemporary student of American literature and the Bible is initially confronted with a paradox; for although commentators have long recognized the central role of the King James Bible in the development of the American literary tradition (as in the culture at large), the subject has long occupied a marginal position in the academy. As an interdisciplinary endeavor, the study of American literature and the Bible ideally requires competence in two academic realms, as manifested in the work of such past masters as Northrop Frye, Frank Kermode, Robert Alter, and Harold Bloom. Having developed in tandem with the growth of literary approaches to the Bible, the study of the influence of the Bible on American literature is now an increasingly recognized area of scholarly interest. Initially a field dominated by Christian scholars, it currently includes all those who recognize the Bible as a culturally authoritative source text for Western culture and tradition. The field has markedly expanded in recent years, with the appearance of key reference books, general surveys, and author studies. Major American writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Flannery O’Connor now have a substantial body of critical commentary on their work in relation to the Bible, while many others have received varying degrees of attention from this vibrant academic discipline.

Reference Works

As a pioneering work in its field, Jeffrey 1992 offers an extensive annotated list of alphabetized biblical motifs found in English and American literature, along with other useful reference materials. Wimbush 2000 provides an equally vast and detailed compilation of contributors chronicling the Bible’s central role in the African American community over three centuries. Setzer and Shefferman 2011 presents a concise and informative narrative of the multiple uses of the Bible in American history within various cultural contexts. Gutjahr 2017 features forty-two essays covering a wide array of topics, with useful coverage of the different versions of the Bible available within contemporary American culture.

  • Gutjahr, Paul C. The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190258849.001.0001

    Includes a substantial collection of essays under headings of Bible Production, Biblical Interpretation and Usage, The Bible in American History and Culture, The Bible and the Arts, and The Bible and Religious Tradition; there is limited coverage of the Bible and American literature, but the collection is strong in the overall range of cultural impact, with a continuing presence of the Bible today in such areas as digital media.

  • Jeffrey, David Lyle, ed. A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992.

    An extraordinarily rich storehouse of information offering detailed entries on biblical motifs in English and American literature, a general guide to biblical studies for students of literature, a history of biblical interpretation with attendant bibliographies, and extensive bibliographies of general studies on the literary influence of the Bible on English and American writers as well as studies devoted to single or group authors.

  • Setzer, Claudia, and David Shefferman, eds. The Bible and American Culture: A Sourcebook. New York: Routledge, 2011.

    A comprehensive roster of historical texts documenting the role of the Bible in American history, including debates over various types of social reform (abolitionism, civil rights, feminism, and sexual freedom) and presence in popular culture and literature; the editors supply useful introductions and bibliographies for each chapter.

  • Wimbush, Vincent L., ed. African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Textures. New York: Continuum, 2000.

    A substantial encyclopedic compendium of information from sixty-eight contributors outlining the dominant role of the Bible in the evolution of African American culture from slavery to modern civil rights, demonstrating its key role in the shaping of Black cultural identity. This rich storehouse of information is an essential resource for research.

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