Material Devotion: The Bible as Object in Puritan Devotional Practice
In 1675, Edward Bromfield, a prominent member of Boston's South Church, crossed the Atlantic from Old to New England. Though he left much behind, he chose to bring with him an exceptionally large, ornately bound, and illustrated folio Bible. Just as walking through the door of his house brought him into the presence of his family, as soon as he opened his Bible, Bromfield entered into a new spiritual space where he encountered the direct presence of God. Despite the materiality of this experience, scholars have regularly portrayed Puritans and their Congregationalist descendants as complete iconoclasts. Examining the Bible as a material object shows, however, that images could and did play a significant role in shaping the inner religious lives of Massachusetts’s colonists. Individual Bibles--owned by men and women, elites and middling sorts, ministers and laypeople--reveal that colonists across a wide spectrum of society owned Bibles that acted as doors into a sacred space. Approximately twenty-five years before Edward Bromfield embarked for New England, John White, a dissenting minister in England, wrote a book that urged Christians to think of Bible reading as enquiring “at God’s mouth” in order to “hear what he will say unto us.” White’s treatise was one of many seventeenth and eighteenth-century devotional books that instructed readers to conceive of Bible reading as an auditory experience. The authors of these spiritual guides regularly emphasized the conversational nature of reading Scripture. Profitable Bible reading meant that the reader spoke to God and, in return, heard his voice. However, only by combining these texts with the study of the Bible as object is it possible to demonstrate the full sensory nature of this practice, as well as the widespread cultural belief in it.
Keywords: Bible, Puritans, Reading, Material Culture, Colonial America, New England, Binding
Dr. Alexis Antracoli
Assistant Professor of History, Department of History and Political Science, St. Francis University