Cultural Context

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Since the seventeenth century, Americans have longed for an updated edition of the King James Version. In the years following its publication in 1611, the English language had continued to morph and evolve, yet the text of the KJV had not. In An American Bible, Paul C. Gutjahr explores the many attempts to create a linguistically updated edition of the Bible. In fact, Gutjahr notes that it would take “over a decade to complete” the revised work (Gutjahr 110). “The sixty-seven British scholars who were involved in the revision worked together with a thirty-four member American revision committee” Gutjahr counts, “headed by the German Reformed scholar and devoted ec-umenist Philip Schaff.” The transatlantic involvement in the English Revised Version illustrates a hunger for a more intimate and understandable Gospel than the common King James Version. This tradition continues to the twenty-first century, as Barnes and Noble and independent Christian bookstores alike sell Bible translations like The Message: the Bible in Contemporary Language, a text composed by one author that focuses on idiomatic paraphrase, rather than literal translation (The Message). From colonial America to the antebellum years, Americans craved a better glimpse of their God.

But despite this hunger, American Christians were quick to dismiss Bible translations that were considered inaccurate or not “true” enough. This explains why nearly one hundred specialists worked for over ten years to create the ERV. Gutjahr argues that the significance of the ERV was that it “offered American Protestants a serious choice for the first time about which core text would inhabit their bibles” (110). Much like the Puritans choose between the Geneva Bible and the King James Version for their personal readings, American Protestants choose the older, more familiar “virgin” King James Version. Yet due to the initial fascination with the ERV, the version was not a complete loss; it created the opportunity for publishers to consider more translations, which had not been welcomed before.

One common production of the ERV was in concordance with the King James Version, especially after the growing popularity of family Bibles due to The National Publishing Company’s efforts in the 1870’s (Gutjahr). These Bibles contained not only the scriptures, but also extensive notes and supplemental materials like Bible dictionaries, Cities of the Bible, and family genealogy, imitating “biblical encyclopedias” (Gutjahr). The Cunningham family Bible was printed in Kansas City in 1885, making one of the first rounds of publications with the complete ERV, and one of the few paralleled to the KJV. The antique stands as a culture reference to an influential time period in Protestant culture. The Cunningham Family Bible  would have sold for about $15 U.S. dollars in 1885, or $383.11 today (Gutjahr)(Inflation). Not a terribly expensive investment, family Bibles were an opportunity for the rising lower class to insert themselves into a higher culture that involved literacy, further learning and education. Proverbs from the KJV were frequently quoted, and could give the family a cultural edge. Most importantly, the family genealogy pages promised a remembrance of themselves, a class of common people, traditionally considered historically insignificant. 

In addition to promoting literacy and elegance, the family Bible gave importance to the lives of the owners. Thomas and Margaret Cunningham’s history are described in detail on the Memoranda page. The marketing strategy of family Bibles was that they were a treasure to be passed down to future generations. In writing one’s life story within it, each family member became immortalized, to be remembered long after their children and grandchildren perished. A strong mourning culture emerged in nineteeth-century America during the Civil War Era and expanded with the influence of mourning culture in Victorian England. Americans became interested in death and morning, which also encouraged remembrances. Just as the ERV temporarily quenched Christians’ thirst for a more palpable and American vernacular scripture, the geneoligically driven family Bible responded to the hope of mortals to be memorialized.