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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Old Testament: Adam, Eve, and Moses
  • New Testament: Christ, Mary, and Satan
  • Apocalypticism and Millennialism
  • Reference Works
  • Puritan, Colonial, and Revolutionary Era

American Literature The Bible and American Literature
Jonathan A. Cook
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • 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 20th century and even up to the present in attenuated form. 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.

General Overviews

The pervasive influence of the Bible on American literature and culture from the 17th to the 21st century encompasses a vast field of study. Those interested in learning the King James Bible’s sweeping impact on Anglo-American culture and literature through the mid-20th century may consult the older work of Nelson 1945. Gardiner 1958 offers an informative survey of 19th-century writers and historians in traditional Christian and related biblical contexts. The significant but previously neglected role of biblical typology in American literature is given a firm foundation by Brumm 1970 and Bercovitch 1972. Reynolds 1981 anatomizes the development of religious fiction, some of it with a biblical basis, during the era of the Second Great Awakening. Gunn 1983 supplies a detailed review of biblical influences on various aspects of American culture, including poetry, fiction, and drama. Buell 1986 examines the varied uses of the Bible in New England literary culture from the Revolution to the Civil War. The central role of the Bible in the development of African American literature and thought is capably expounded in Callaghan 2008 and Bassard 2010. Alter 2010 provides a model for the close reading of major 19th- and 20th-century American writers responding to the stylistic and rhetorical influences of the King James Bible.

  • Alter, Robert. Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

    Alter presents a lucid series of stylistic close readings of passages from Melville’s Moby-Dick, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Bellows’s Seize the Day, Robinson’s Gilead, and McCarthy’s The Road in relation to the Bible. The result is a consistently insightful study by a master biblical translator and critic who identifies the varied forms and textures of biblical language in a wide range of 19th- and 20th-century fictions.

  • Bassard, Catherine Clay. Transforming Scriptures: African American Women Writers and the Bible. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2010.

    Bassard provides an astute discussion of African-American women writers’ appropriation of the Bible as a means of countering oppression, especially by using two key passages in the book of Numbers (the talking ass) and the Song of Songs (black and beautiful). The volume covers 19th-century antislavery writings as well as 20th-century novels by Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Sherry Anne Williams.

  • Bercovitch, Sacvan, ed. Typology and Early American Literature. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972.

    This essay collection and accompanying bibliography is a key resource for exploring the development of biblical typology in the hermeneutics of Reformed Protest theology, with essays on the use of typology in important Puritan and colonial writers including William Bradford, Roger Williams, Cotton Mather, Edward Taylor, and Jonathan Edwards.

  • Brumm, Ursula. American Thought and Religious Typology. Translated by John Hoaglund. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970.

    Brumm proffers a pioneering work detailing the role of Protestant biblical typology in shaping the symbolic imagination of major writers, with chapters on Samuel and Cotton Mather, Edward Taylor, Jonathan Edwards and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, and Christ and Adam as persistent “Figures” in American Literature. The book provides a basic grounding in the pervasiveness of typological motifs in the national literature.

  • Buell, Lawrence. “Literary Scripturalism.” New England Literary Culture: From Revolution through Renaissance. 166–190. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511570384.007

    Buell surveys the literary adaptation of the Bible within both major and minor literary productions of New England from the late 18th to the mid-19th century, showing the divergent, multivalent uses of scripture as source text, from orthodox mimicry to secularized imaginative appropriation. He includes perceptive extended discussions of Timothy Dwight’s The Conquest of Canaan, Melville’s Moby-Dick, Emerson’s essays, Dickinson’s poetry, and Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

  • Callaghan, Allen Dwight. The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

    Callaghan offers an illuminating overview of the history of African Americans’ complex relationship to the Bible as the “good” book that also reinforces the “poison” of racial oppression by whites; he uses the general headings of Exile, Exodus, Ethiopia, and Emmanuel to give insights into the use of the Bible by political and cultural leaders in the black community, along with key literary figures such as Frederick Douglass and W. E. B Du Bois.

  • Gardiner, Harold C. American Classics Reconsidered: A Christian Appraisal. New York: Scribner’s, 1958.

    This valuable older collection of essays, edited by a Catholic scholar, explores Christian themes, motifs, and perspectives, with attendant biblical sources, in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Fenimore Cooper, Orestes Brownson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman, as well as four 19th-century historians: William Hickling Prescott, George Bancroft, John Lothrop Motley, and Francis Parkman.

  • Gunn, Giles B., ed. The Bible and American Arts and Letters. Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983.

    This informative interdisciplinary collection includes a broad range of essays examining biblical influences over the centuries on American poetry, fiction, drama, architecture, music, painting, and folk arts. Within the realm of literature, Herbert Schneidau explores the “Antinomian Strain” in American poetry; Edwin Cady examines the Bible and 19th-century fiction; Rowland Sherrill surveys the Bible and 20th-century fiction; and William H. Shurr analyze the biblical basis for Eugene O’Neill’s Lazarus Laughed.

  • Nelson, Lawrence Emerson. Our Roving Bible: Tracking Its Influence through English and American Life. Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1945.

    In this older critical assemblage of useful information and curious lore, Nelson offers an encyclopedic guide to the influence of the Bible on English and American culture starting from its first appearance in Anglo-Saxon Britain and continuing up to the mid-20th century; he offers brief impressionistic comments on the Bible’s pervasive impact on a large number of English and American writers, both major and minor, canonical and forgotten.

  • Reynolds, David S. Faith in Fiction: The Emergence of Religious Fiction in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

    Reynolds chronicles the development of religious fiction in the era between the American Revolution and the Civil War when the country was in the throes of the Second Great Awakening and fiction writers sought to incorporate biblical and other religious truths into their writings. Reynolds tracks the appearance of devotional, primarily New Testament–based fiction written on behalf of Calvinists and anti-Calvinists, Protestants and Catholics, and those with satirical or polemical agendas.

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