American Revelations: Biblical Interpretation and Criticism in America, Circa 1700-1860

Doctoral Dissertation


My dissertation examines the evolving methods of biblical interpretation and criticism in America from the beginning of the eighteenth through the first half of the nineteenth century. During this time, Protestant thinkers in the Anglo-American colonies faced unprecedented theological and epistemological challenges. The received understanding of the Bible as divine revelation and as a historically accurate account of the past faced challenges from deism in the eighteenth century and then from German ‘higher criticism’ in the nineteenth century. I argue that the Bible’s theologically conservative defenders appropriated the interpretive tools of their opponents and adapted their conceptions of revelation to preserve their beliefs in light of changing philosophical standards. The first three chapters examine Cotton Mather, Jonathan Dickinson, Jonathan Edwards, and the community of pastors around Harvard. They defended revelation by selectively appropriating aspects of the new empirical epistemology. However, the battles against skepticism altered the traditional understanding of the Bible. Protestants still affirmed that the Bible was accurate, but they transformed revelation into an object of scientific, historical, and empirical examination. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Bible faced threats from German historical critics, who argued that the Bible must be interpreted as an amalgam of myth and history. Joseph Stevens Buckminster and Andrews Norton, two of the most erudite American biblical scholars, defended the traditional view that the New Testament was an accurate record of the past. However, they did so by appropriating the linguistic, historical, and empirical tools of the German critics. What becomes apparent in their defense is the scientific and naturalistic manner of their discussion. In the early eighteenth century, most Christians could not imagine that the Bible was anything other than supernatural revelation from God. By the early nineteenth century, American Protestants could most effectively defend Holy Writ by following Spinoza’s dictum to examine it almost ‘like any other book.’


Attribute NameValues
  • etd-07172009-141702

Author Michael Jeehoon Lee
Advisor James Turner
Contributor George Marsden, Committee Member
Contributor Brad Gregory, Committee Member
Contributor Mark Noll, Committee Member
Contributor James Turner, Committee Chair
Contributor Thomas Slaughter, Committee Member
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline History
Degree Name Doctor of Philosophy
Defense Date
  • 2009-06-29

Submission Date 2009-07-17
  • United States of America

  • American religion

  • Biblical interpretation

  • Unitarian

  • Moses Stuart

  • Dudleian Lectures

  • Hermeneutics

  • Joseph Buckminster

  • Biblical criticism

  • Bible

  • Early America

  • Jonathan Edwards

  • Andrews Norton

  • Cotton Mather

  • Jonathan Dickinson

  • University of Notre Dame

  • English

Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

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