In 1876, a particular verse from the Bible started turning up over and over in newspapers across the United States.
1 Samuel 3:4.Â âThat the Lord called Samuel, and he answered, âHere I am.’â
Why? At first, Lincoln Mullen was baffled. MullenÂ built a tool that tracks the use of Bible verses in newspapers, and he turned up some predictable favorites. âThou shalt not kill.â âGive us this day our daily bread.âÂ John 3:16.
So what was this obscure verse from the Old Testament prophets doing in newsprint so often in Americaâs centennial year?
Then MullenÂ figured it out: Samuel Tilden was making a run for president that year, against Rutherford B. Hayes. And the Republican was using âThe Lord called Samuelâ as a campaign slogan of sorts.
Thatâs the sort of historical tidbit that Mullen, a George Mason University professor, has turned up since he put the Bible and 11 million pagesÂ 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 didnât 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 Congressâs âChronicling Americaâ 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 itâs about 90 percent accurate.
âAny human whoâs been to a few Sunday school lessons is going to be a lot better at picking up on these references and allusions,â Mullen said. âBut humans are a lot slower.â
Heâs a proponent of âdigital historyâ â the idea that computers can let historians make discoveries they never would have made manually, just like mathematicians or physicists. Heâs also a scholar of American religion, and plans to use the tool, which he called Americaâs Public Bible, in his own work.
One verse he has focused on:Â âGreater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friendsâ (John 15:13).
That verse became enormously popular during World War I, often appearing in soldiersâ eulogies to justify their sacrifice, Mullen said.
âHistorians 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,â he said. He said he found other verses used to proclaim Americaâs âmanifest destinyâ to settle the West in the mid-19th century.
Mullen also hopes other scholarsÂ 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 âtoÂ doÂ justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thyÂ God.âÂ He found it was used by abolitionists trying âto do justlyâ in the 1840s, and by Warren G. Harding in his inaugural address in 1921.
Mullenâs dataset starts in 1837, in the midstÂ 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 endsÂ in 1922 â after that, printed material is protected by copyright laws. Adding more newspapers to the project could be expensive and legally complex, though MullenÂ would be interested in seeing the changing use of scripture as Americansâ 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 â âPeople quoted the Bible a lot; people didnât quote the Bible a lotâ â less interesting than the fluctuating fortunes of individual verses.
You can search for any verse at AmericasPublicBible.org. If you find a particularly interesting pattern, let us know in the comments below.