Historian and author, Stephen Prothero, believes the problem of biblical illiteracy started not too long after the founding of the United States, and especially after the Second Great Awakening.
That might sound strange, but here’s his reasoning.
Prothero said that colonial Christianity was more focused on Bible knowledge because of Puritan influence and that “religious faith and religious knowledge were inseparable in the colonies and the early republic.”
In Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t, Prothero explained:
Early Americans didn’t just know Jesus; they knew the Sermon on the Mount (often by heart). They believed, as the Reverend John Lathrop of Boston’s Second church wrote, that “the connexion (sic) between knowledge and faith, is such, that the latter cannot exist without the former.” And they were convinced, as historian David Paul Nord put it, that “genuine religion was not about miracles, enthusiasm, direct revelation, human will, or even uninformed faith; it was about knowledge, learning, and reading the word.”Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t, Stephen Prothero
According to Prothero, the change occurred with the rise of evangelicalism. At the time, there was a greater emphasis on the emotional and spiritual aspects of Christianity.
By the end of the 19th century, Prothero said, “what for generations had been shameful — religious illiteracy — would become a badge of honor in a nation besotted with the self-made man and the spirit-filled preacher.”
Others have written about this
In Theological Education in the Evangelical Tradition, Richard Mouw said the “evangelical uneasiness” in the area of theological education is:
an expression of motifs that run deep in evangelical spirituality, [emphasizing] the personal, transforming power of the gospel. We evangelicals worry about the kind of fascination with “head knowledge” that crowds out “heart knowledge.”Theological Education in the Evangelical Tradition
D. G. Hart and Albert Mohler, Jr. added that with its “stress upon the new birth, vital piety, and holy living, evangelicalism has generally been distrustful of formal learning and academic institutions.”
While it is not right to say that evangelicalism is diametrically opposed to education, the overall emphasis has been more on experience and emotion rather than knowledge and study.
Biblical illiteracy is an old problem
Biblical illiteracy is a 21st century problem.
Biblical illiteracy was a 20th century problem.
Biblical illiteracy was a 19th century problem too.
Biblical illiteracy in the United States is a problem as old as the United States.
Christian ministers and academics have been warning and complaining about biblical illiteracy for two centuries .
After all this time, perhaps the “what now?” is to pause, step back, think, and explore biblical literacy from a different perspective.
The first step in solving the problem of biblical illiteracy is asking:
1. What does it actually mean to be biblically literate?
A Serious Look at Biblical Literacy