What!?! Nudity in the Bible!?!

Joseph Slaughter

Every now and then, work in the archives produces moments that jar us out of our misplaced assumptions. The biggest such example for me occurred several years ago during a research trip for my current JER article to pour over the various archives of Harper & Brothers in New York and Boston. While perusing a copy of the 1846 Harper Illuminated and New Pictorial Bible (HINPB), I realized it contained numerous images depicting nude figures. Maybe the fact that an early American Bible would contain nudity is not all that shocking to Pano readers, but as someone who grew up in evangelical spaces, nudity was verboten. Consequently, it was the last thing I expected to find in early North American Bibles, an era which evangelical historian-activists such as David Barton argue was godlier and more pious than today.[1]

Although Americanists know such claims are specious, my expectations about what early American Bible illustrations would contain demonstrate the degree to which such assumptions can unconsciously shape our mindset. Honestly, I had never really given it much thought, I just assumed that the American Protestant church had always shunned nudity, and that is probably why the nude imagery I found in the Harper Bible surprised me so much. Certainly, this reveals the incredible depth of my own ignorance. However, since my “discovery” was not directly relevant to the overall project I was working on at the time, I set it aside.

Since I did not examine any other early American illustrated Bibles on that particular research trip, I did not yet realize how the Harper illustrations were actually restrained in their nudity. When the Chamberlain Fellowship at Wesleyan University gave me a chance to dig through its collection of illustrated Bibles, I realized just how unremarkable nudity (both male and female) was in early American Bibles. This was not simply the typical Adam and Eve with bare buttocks, either. A few Bibles depicted fully nude figures. One such example, found in Swan & Allinson’s 1807 family Bible, depicts Adam positioned in the lower left corner of the illustration. It is a fairly standard Garden of Eden engraving (based on Jan Brueghel’s 1612 rendition); however, this is pre-fall Adam and fig leaves or animal skins are nowhere to be found.[2] Adam has something of a Renaissance anatomy textbook quality to him, but the size of the image ensures Adam’s penis is on full display (the below image was cropped and zoomed):

Courtesy of Wesleyan University Special Collections & Archives, with special thanks to Amanda Nelson and Suzy Taraba for their help with the archives.

I found that Children’s Bibles also contained nudity, even if it was generally limited to female breasts. Here is an example from Francis & Francis’s 1837 A New Hieroglyphic Bible:

Courtesy of Wesleyan University Special Collections & Archives, with special thanks to Amanda Nelson and Suzy Taraba for their help with the archives.

This Bible contains numerous similar images when it depicts the word “woman.” It would have been easy for the artist to fully clothe the female figures, but the decision to repeatedly reveal female breasts suggests this was an unremarkable choice. Isaiah Thomas, Jr.’s 1811 children’s thumb Bible provides yet another example:

Courtesy of Wesleyan University Special Collections & Archives, with special thanks to Amanda Nelson and Suzy Taraba for their help with the archives.

Thumb Bibles are great fun, as the size forced artists and writers to make strategic choices in what to include, what to leave out, and how to scale the text and images. Here, the artist chose to use vegetation strategically, but did not include Eve’s breasts in the cover-up. Instead, they are clearly visible to the children who would have read this tiny Bible.

These types of discoveries are one of the rewarding aspects of the historical profession. We all know archival work can be mundane and tedious, but often archives surprise and amaze. Then, when we stumble upon the unexpected, the archival record forces us to adjust our expectations and assumptions. Sometimes, we even alter our entire research agenda after such discoveries. I feel fortunate to have a position that affords me the opportunity to both teach and research, because the latter so often forces me to rethink my approach in the classroom. At Wesleyan, I teach a course titled “Schemers & Redeemers” that explores capitalism and Christianity in the early republic, and one of our subjects is the North American Bible industry. Although very few of my students grew up in evangelical spaces, they too are surprised at the content of early North American Bible illustrations. Together, we grapple with the images’ implications, debating what, and how much meaning to ascribe to them. In my mind, when we find archival surprises, then bring those discoveries into the classroom, that is about as good as it gets for a historian.


Endnotes

[1] David Barton brands himself as a scholar of the “real” American history and is extremely popular in many evangelical churches and grade schools. For those unfamiliar with Barton, see his organizational website: https://wallbuilders.com, accessed Nov. 10, 2021.

[2] Brueghel’s painting: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jan_Brueghel_I_-_The_Garden_of_Eden_with_the_Fall_of_Man.jpg,accessed Nov. 19, 2021.

16 December 2021

About the Author

Joseph Slaughter is visiting assistant professor of history at Wesleyan University.

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