Lincoln Mullen, America’s Public Bible: Biblical Quotations in U.S. Newspapers, website, code, and datasets (2016): <http://americaspublicbible.org>. Created 2016. Accessed October 24, 2022.
America’s Public Bible uncovers the intrinsic connection between the Bible and American culture though a large scale textual analysis. Created by Lincoln Mullen, professor at George Mason University, with the assistance of several contributors, this project is an essential tool to understand just how pervasive the Bible was in the United States, particularly through newspapers. The project seeks to “show how thousands of biblical verses were used over nearly a century in some 56 billion words of text, revealing trends that are inaccessible to a single scholar’s reading of these documents, yet enabling a close reading of the ways in which verses were put to use.” (Introduction) In simpler terms, the project identifies quotations, analyzes the data, and visualizes the results for subsequent interpretation. The initial phase of America’s Public Bible resulted in this public website with plans for an expanded version to be published.
Working with the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the website utilizes the nearly 11 million newspaper pages from the Library’s Chronicling America collection. These publications span from nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. Within those pages, the project identifies over “866,000 quotations of the Bible or verbal allusions to specific biblical verses” through “machine learning”, a computer system that uses statistics to look for patterns in data. The site focuses on the King James Version – or the Authorized Version – which likely was the most popular translation around the turn of the century. The quotes are presented alongside “the context of the newspaper article in which it was used, and the broader chronological context of quotations from that verse and the Bible as a whole.” (Introduction) This explanation allows for the quotes to be contextualize within the wider framework of American public life. By the numbers, the content is impressive and not only demonstrates the breadth of the information but the connect explanations underscore the cultural depth. The project employs interactive lists (with links to the digitized Library of Congress archives), web diagrams, line charts, and customizable searches. These visuals displays changes over time and overlapping trends in the data.
The website is well-organized and accessible by computer or mobile device. It is clear from the organization that the audience is primarily scholars and also the general public. Although it is not necessary to know about the Bible prior to exploring this site, it could be helpful. There is a substantial amount of background information and links to further study if they are new to the topic. The site provides this extensive material in one central place to assist the scholar and lay researcher alike.
The menu lists the following categories: Introduction, Explore the Quotations, Topics & Verses, and Sources & Methods. The Introduction offers a comprehensive breakdown of the project itself along with a discourse about the significance of the Bible in American cultural life. This page provides a necessary explanation of the project itself and a brief background on American religious history. An interactive line graph illustrates fluctuations in trends from the Old Testament, New Testament, and the Bible within the collection. That is then followed by a graph of the most popular verses. These two graphs set the tone for the rest of the website. Users can feel reassured that they will not to sifting through 866,000 quotations on their own, but rather, the visualizations will guide their interpretation and shape their understanding of the materials. Users can then explore the quotations by “most quoted verses by decade”, “passages frequently quoted together”, other themes, and individual verses. The two interactive pages – Explore the Quotations and Topics & Verses – provide the opportunity to delve into the materials and conduct their own research. The content “includes the top 1,700 most quoted verses. (If you wish to investigate all the quotations, see the data export)” (Explore the Quotations). This combination allows users to see the collected content and also explore on their own. Users can search for a specific verse or see how one compares to another in terms of usage and trends. It is fascinating to compare some of the most popular verses and see when they rise in American history. For example, there is a significant rise in quotations during the Civil War, which makes sense considering the historical context. Users can also view an expansive web diagram detailing the passages that are most quoted together. Although impressive and informative, some of these diagrams would benefit from being interactive with the ability to click on each point to get more information. This would save time and effort from going back and forth between the pages to get all the information.
One particularly insightful section on the website is the Sources and Methods page. This page details Mullen and his team’s process in identifying and organizing the quotations into interpretive data. The project relied on the concept of machine learning and textual analysis to compile the collections’ data. Then, through computational techniques, the data is processed and displayed through visualizations. The process and techniques is fascinating as it emphasizes the importance of utilizing digital methods within the humanities. This project could not have been executed without the technological assistance. This page includes the codes, data links, and a breakdown of how they labeled and organized the data. By including an in-depth explanation of this process, the website leans into being an educational tool. The process, though intricate, is not necessarily complicated with aided by right methods and team. This work could empower other humanities scholars to utilize similar methods within their own research. An extensive list of the secondary sources and code provides the opportunity for even further research on either American religious history or the technology.
Overall, America’s Public Bible succeeds in combining computational methods with literary interpretation. The website functions as an ongoing tool rather than a closed project; thus, providing ample foundational research for further historical study. The site produces both an analytical result (lists of compiled data) and an interpretive one (examining why the Bible was featured so frequently in these publications). America’s Public Bible presents an organized database for the general public to explore and serves as an important addition to religious history scholarship.