Uses and Abuses of the Bible

Image: Absent Thoughts. Walter Langley. 1889. Penlee House Gallery and Museum.
What does Mott mean by the "abuse" of the Bible? What does she suggest instead as the appropriate "use" of the Bible?
Would Mott appreciate the attempt taken by Amy Eilberg, for example, to combine a feminist interpretation of the Bible with a respect for religious tradition? Why or why not?

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From a young age, Quaker Lucretia Mott (1793–1880) was raised in a household where she was encouraged to think for herself and to follow the leadings of her Inner Light. Mott’s conscience led her to become an outspoken abolitionist and advocate of the “free produce” movement, an attempt by northern consumers to boycott all goods grown by slave labor. Mott was recognized as a Quaker minister in 1821; she not only spoke regularly at her home meeting, but traveled to other gatherings of the Society of Friends.

This sermon, preached at the Cherry Street Meeting in Philadelphia, is typical of Mott’s work in that it links the orthodox Christian view of the Bible as the Word of God (that is, as the full and final revelation of the divine will) and the traditional doctrines and ceremonies derived from that belief with cultural stagnation, oppression, and violence. In contrast with such “superstition,” she urges her auditors to embrace the Hicksite Quaker notion of the “word” of God as ongoing revelation of truth within the individual soul by the Spirit of the divine, or the Inner Light. Doing so, she argues, is the only way humanity will be able to achieve either equality or liberty for all.

—Sarah A. Morgan Smith

Source: Michael Warner, American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King, Jr., (New York: Library of America, 1999), 630ff.

What are the abuses and what the proper uses of the Bible . . . ? This question is of some importance for us to seek to answer aright less we should fall into the popular error that prevails upon this subject. Mingling as we do in religious Society generally, adopting some of its forms, and some of its theories, we have need to be upon our guard lest we fall into the superstition and error and before we are aware, become bigoted in our opinions and denunciatory in our conduct. We know well that in Christendom generally it is assumed that the Bible is the word of god, while we from the earliest date of our religious Society have declared and believe we have been sustained by Scripture testimony in the view that the word of God is a quickening spirit. . . . A portion of this blessed, this divine and all-pervading spirit of which there is an acknowledgment to a greater or less extent everywhere is found wherever man is found, darkened to be sure and clouded by very many circumstances. This divine and holy spirit which is a quickening spirit and has ever been believed to be by this Society the word of God and the only word of God; that it has been through the operation and inspiring power of this word that the testimony to the truth has been borne in various ages of the world; that this testimony, wherever it be found either in scriptures or out of them, is but a corroboration of the word and not the word itself; and that word of God, which is quick and powerful which shows the thoughts and intent of the heart, that engrafted word which is able to save the soul, we find spoken in the scriptures, but we nowhere find the scriptures called the word of God by themselves. . . . The great error in Christendom is that the Bible is called the word, that it is taken as a whole, as a volume of plenary inspiration and in this way, it has proved one of the strongest pillars to uphold ecclesiastical power and hireling priesthood. What has been the power of this book? Is it not uniformly taken among all the professors to establish their peculiar creeds, their dogmas of faith and their forms of worship, be they ever so superstitious? Is not the Bible sought from beginning to end for its isolated passages wherewith to prove the most absurd dogmas that ever were palmed off upon a credulous people; dogmas doing violence to the divine gift of reason with which man is so beautifully endowed; doing violence to all his feelings, his sense of justice and mercy with which the Most High has seen fit to clothe him? The Bible has been taken to make man from his very birth a corrupt sinful creature, and to make his salvation depend upon the sacrifice of Jesus in order that he should be saved. When his understanding has been imposed on by a Trinity and atonement in the manner that it has, well may we say that the abuse of the Bible has been a means of strengthening priest craft, and to give sanction to sectarian ordinances and establishments. . . . But also, my friends, has there not been an unworthy resort to this volume to prove the rightfulness of war, and slavery, and of crushing woman’s powers, the assumption of authority over her, and indeed, of all the evils under which the earth, humanity has groaned from age to age? You know as well as I do, how prone the sectarian has been to flee to the Bible to find authority for war, and indeed, in the very existence of war, and there is a disposition because of the undue veneration of these records, to regard our God even now as a God of battles. We do not duly discriminate between that comparatively dark age, when they set up their shouts of victory for their successes in their wards whether aggressive or defensive, and the present. There is not sufficient allowance for the state that they were in at that time. Because of the veneration paid to the Bible, we find, even down to the present time, the overruling providence of God is claimed as giving countenance to the most barbarous and horrid wars, that are even in this day, cursing and disgracing the nations of the earth. Slavery: you know how ready the apologists for slavery and these apologists, to the shame of the church be it spoken, have been abundantly found in the pulpit, have screened themselves behind their imagined patriarchal institution and what sanction has been given to this greatest of all oppressions, this most wicked system which the English language furnishes no words where with rightly to depict the enormity of its cruelty. . . . We may rejoice that truth has been stronger than all these, that thus the great efforts that have been made in our day for peace, for human freedom, for temperance, for moral purity, for the removal of all oppressions and monopolies that are afflicting mankind, have been to a considerable extent successful notwithstanding such obstacles as a popular priesthood, a popular clergy, and a popular belief and the use of the Bible, have placed in the way of these great reformations. . . .

This divine word which we believe to be our sufficient teacher, draws us away from a dependence upon books, or everything that is outward, and leads us onward and upward in the work of progress, towards perfection. Were we to come to the light we should have less needs of the ordinances, for it would lead us away from the customs of the religious world. . . .

. . . [W]e see the religious world gone on satisfying itself with its mysteries, with its mere theories of religion. These they regard as useful but which are really anything but true religion. We see them going on satisfied with their forms and devotions, taking comparatively little interest in the great subject of truth and humanity.

But are those all or the only uses that are made of the Bible . . . the expounding of these dogmas and the enforcing of useless forms? Are there not also other uses of these, has there not been another reading of the Scriptures? The proper use of them, I can verily believe has been understood and is increasingly understood by very many. . . . The Scriptures are valuable because they bring together the testimonies of so many ages of the world, but are there not equal testimonies born to the truth that are not bound in this volume? Certainly there are, and we do err not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God when we limit the Scriptures, when we limit the truth or indeed when we set so high a value on these Scriptures as to suffer our veneration to lead us to receive truth more from this source than from any other. There is one source which is higher than this, and when we come to it, we are drawn away, to some extent from all external dependences and from all outward authorities.

. . . Let us then my friends cherish a religion which shall be rational and which shall be reasonable in its observance and in its requirements. Let us keep hold of the faith that is in accordance with reason and with the intelligent dictates of the pure spirit of God. . . . [W]e must trust in the growing light and intelligence which is spreading over the human family and which is marking those who are desirous to obtain the right, who are hungering and thirsting after greater righteousness. That in this growing intelligence, these evils which still cling to sect, will be removed, and one great means of removing these, is the diffusion of knowledge among both male and female. The usurpations of the Church and clergy, by which woman has been so debased, so crushed, her powers of mind, her very being brought low, and a low estimate set upon these, are coming to be seen in their true light, but woman must avail herself of the increasing means of intelligence, education and knowledge, she must rise also in a higher sphere of spiritual existence, and suffer her moral nature to be developed, her mind to be made right in the sight of God and then will the time speedily come when the influence of the clergy shall be taken off of woman, when the monopoly of the pulpit shall no more oppress her, when marriage shall not be a means of rendering her noble nature subsidiary to man, when there shall be no assumed authority on the one part nor admitted inferiority or subjection on the other. One of the abuses of the Bible, for apostolic opinion has been taken, and no doubt false opinion, for there have been abundant quotations and some mistranslations in order to make the Apostle say what the priests declare he did say, has been to bind silence upon woman in the Churches, fasten upon her that kind of degrading obedience in the marriage relation which has led to countless evils in Society and indeed has enervated and produced for us a feeble race. Oh, my friends these subjects are subjects of religious interest and of vast importance. I would that there were successors coming forth in this great field of reform. The Almighty is calling upon both man and woman to open their mouths and judge righteously, to plead the cause of the poor and the needy and many there are thus emphatically called to lift-up the voice and declare the truth of God and these will give evidence of the divinity of their mission, just as Jesus did. The spirit of the highest is upon me, the spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel.[1] . . .

  1. 1. Isaiah 61:1 (also quoted by Jesus in Luke 4:18)
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