Mark Noll is a well-respected historian, specializing in the role of Christianity and the Bible in American history. If you want a thoughtful, non-biased, and well-rounded perspective on Bible’s role in the United States, Dr. Noll is your guy. But he didn’t exactly come across as an optimist when I asked him about the impact the Bible had on American society during the time of the Civil War:
“The strong reliance of United States culture and society on the Bible shrank when people trusting the Bible couldn’t agree on slavery, and Bible arguments defending slavery continue strong after the civil war.”
Living & Effective, a new podcast from Christianity Today and the Christian Standard Bible, was supposed to be a feel-good project. When I first set out to make a podcast about how God’s Word works in the world, I thought I had a pretty good handle on how it would go.
But then I booked our first guest. I wanted Noll to speak to the influence the Bible had in the abolishing of slavery. He started off with a warning: what he had to say was not simple, and it wasn’t going to make me feel good. The story of how the Bible was used by the church during the time of slavery is not an encouraging one.
“If the South had won the Civil War,” he said, “slavery would have kept going. The South was as Bible-devoted as the North.” Even as pro-slavery arguments gained traction, “They were not as powerful as ordinary people reading their King James Bible and saying ‘Look! Abraham had slaves.’”
I tend to be an optimist. I’ve always resonated with the hopefulness of Bible passages like Philippians 4:8 (CSB):
“Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable,whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things.”
So I tried to seek out what was good and true about the church’s involvement in conflict over American slavery. There wasn’t much there to back up my hopeful inclinations.
With my optimism challenged, I leaned into faith instead and looked to Hebrews 4:12 (“For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart,”). I decided to figure out exactly what it meant that the Bible was “living and effective.”
It’s easy to take that truth for granted. Initially, I thought of the effectiveness of Scripture in terms of simple, positive ways it builds us up and makes the world a better place. I associated it with hope, good deeds, and gentle reminders of the gospel.
But the imagery of Hebrews 4:12 is meant to startle more than soothe. It describes Scripture as “sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow.” It prepares us for a confrontation, a moment of deep discomfort that leads to sanctification. The Bible, it turns out, confronts our assumptions and doesn’t play by our rules.
In this podcast, I decided to lean into that confrontation and ask hard questions about how the Bible works in our world, not in abstract ways, but in specific concrete situations.
The impact is not always as clear as we would like, because the point of God’s work isn’t outward appearance or legacy. When we look at historical revivals and the major accomplishments of the church, we can often identify one or two people to credit.
For the Great Awakening, we credit to Jonathan Edwards for preaching sermons like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” We credit Luther for kicking off a firestorm that resulted in the Protestant Reformation. But these stories are usually more complicated than they seem, and their leaders often had more flaws than our simplistic retellings can make room for.
For instance, when it comes to the story of the Bible’s role in the American slave trade, no person stands out as a hero, as someone who spoke out against the trade for biblical reasons. In the end, the simple existence of the Bible within African American communities, passed down through their slave masters nonetheless and the enlightening work of the Holy Spirit gets the credit for bringing an entire people group to Christ.
Major shifts in history are acts of God, attributable to his orchestration and divine plan. And often, we can see both the playbook and the instruments of his work in the Bible.
Read Mercer Schuchardt, associate professor of communication at Wheaton College, argues that the printing press is really the entire story of the Reformation. It may not be the entire story, but it is a very large part of the story. And the printing press, from that angle, seems more like a tool of God than a tool of man. Schuchardt engages in hyperbole when he says, “Luther is sort of the afterthought.”
“Heroes of the faith” aside, in hindsight it becomes clear that the printing of the Bible was more crucial to the Reformation than any man. While humans tend to focus on personal value and legacy, the true story of God’s living and effective Word may not make us feel fuzzy inside, but it will build up our faith nonetheless.
Richard Clark is the host of the podcast Living and Effective.