In 1876, a particular verse from the Bible started turning up over and over in newspapers across the United States.
1 Samuel 3:4. “That the Lord called Samuel, and he answered, ‘Here I am.’”
Why? At first, Lincoln Mullen was baffled. Mullen built a tool that tracks the use of Bible verses in newspapers, and he turned up some predictable favorites. “Thou shalt not kill.” “Give us this day our daily bread.” John 3:16.
So what was this obscure verse from the Old Testament prophets doing in newsprint so often in America’s centennial year?
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Then Mullen figured it out: Samuel Tilden was making a run for president that year, against Rutherford B. Hayes. And the Republican was using “The Lord called Samuel” as a campaign slogan of sorts.
That’s the sort of historical tidbit that Mullen, a George Mason University professor, has turned up since he put the Bible and 11 million pages of old newspapers into a computer and mashed the two together.
Bible verses were once everywhere in newspapers. Nineteenth-century periodicals printed Sunday school lessons, ran Bible clubs for readers and circulated sermons. Editorials alluded to well-known scriptural references, and verses even turned up again and again as the punch lines of jokes.
Mullen didn’t have to read all those newspapers himself. He coded Bible verses into a computer, and sent the computer looking for matches to those phrases in the newspapers archived online by the Library of Congress’ “Chronicling America” project. When the computer came back with results, he trained it how to recognize which ones were true matches.
The tool still gets some false positives, Mullen said, but it’s about 90 percent accurate.
“Any human who’s been to a few Sunday school lessons is going to be a lot better at picking up on these references and allusions,” Mullen said. “But humans are a lot slower.”
He’s a proponent of “digital history” – the idea that computers can let historians make discoveries they never would have made manually, just like mathematicians or physicists. He’s also a scholar of American religion, and plans to use the tool, which he called America’s Public Bible, in his own work.
One verse he has focused on: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
That verse became enormously popular during World War I, often appearing in soldiers’ eulogies to justify their sacrifice, Mullen said.
“Historians have been interested in how religion, Christianity in particular, supports or opposes war or violence. That verse in particular is helping people justify the war to themselves,” he said. He said he found other verses used to proclaim America’s “manifest destiny” to settle the West in the mid-19th century.
Mullen also hopes other scholars will use the tool to answer their research questions. One historian, Chris Gehrz, wrote a blog post about what the tool showed him about Micah 6:8, the verse that tells believers “to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.” He found it was used by abolitionists trying “to do justly” in the 1840s, and by Warren G. Harding in his inaugural address in 1921.
Mullen’s dataset starts in 1837, in the midst of an evangelical revival that made Christianity a much more dominant facet of American culture than it was in the pre- and post-Revolutionary years. It ends in 1922 – after that, printed material is protected by copyright laws. Adding more newspapers to the project could be expensive and legally complex, though Mullen would be interested in seeing the changing use of scripture as Americans’ Biblical literacy changed drastically in the late 20th century.
Overall, Bible verses were about as common in newsprint in 1922, when this dataset ends, as they were at the beginning. Mullen said he was expecting a decline over time. But he finds the overall pattern – “People quoted the Bible a lot; people didn’t quote the Bible a lot” – less interesting than the fluctuating fortunes of individual verses.