Abstract: Creating a Civilized America: Harper & Brothers’ Illuminated Bible

Joseph Slaughter


The role of evangelicals in capitalizing on new printing technology is well-documented.  Paul Nord’s Faith in Reading and Peter Wosh’s Spreading the Word explain how non-profit organizations such as the American Bible Society utilized market principles to transmit evangelical theology and morality throughout early nineteenth century America.  Less acknowledged is the role played by commercial firms such as Harper & Brothers.  Although they became the largest publishing house by midcentury, the Harpers were only one of many religiously minded commercial publishers in the early nineteenth century.  Not content to leave the American publishing “Wild West” of the 1830s and 40s to the irreligious, the Harpers sought to shape American society in their vision of a proper, virtuous civilization through the publication of what Candy Gunther Brown has termed “functionally sacred” words that could “penetrate every space on every day of the week.”

Raised by devout Methodists, brothers James, John, J. Wesley, and Fletcher Harper saw no conflict between entrepreneurialism and religion – in fact, they saw it as their duty to use their business to translate moral and religious truths to Americans through popular, educational, and religious texts.  The pinnacle of Harper & Brothers in the first half of the nineteenth century was their Illuminated and New Pictorial Bible (published in serial from 1843-1846).  When the Harpers contracted with Joseph Adams in April 1843 for “original designs and woodcuts…for each chapter of the Bible,” they envisioned the Bible as a work that reinforced the ideal of American civilization, more than a tool of evangelism.

Historians Karen Halttunen, John Kasson, and Stephen Nissenbaum describe the emergence of the middle class culture of New York and other cities from 1830-1860 as characterized by a consumerist blend of sentimentality, religiosity, and gentility.  Harper & Brothers helped create this new vision of the civilized American middle class through products such as the Illuminated Bible, which transcended the realm of sacred wisdom and assumed the status of a prized possession every middle-class urbanite needed to display in the heart of her civilized home:  the parlor.