We went by the butcher and greengrocer and at the charity shop near the station I abandoned a copy of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Knox Brothers so that I could buy a scuffed hardback called Bible Readings for the Home Circle, a gilt embossed dove on the front cover flying over a picture of an open book with HOLY BIBLE written across the pages and a banner between them reading THE ENTRANCE OF THY WORDS GIVETH LIGHT.
The pages smelt lightly mouldy, a date on the frontispiece said 1896, and when I checked the title on abebooks I discovered that it was a reprint of a book that had been published for the first time in 1888. Age has not conferred worth. I could buy it again online for a couple of dollars. “London,” reads the lines above the date on the frontispiece. “International Tract Society, Limited. 59, Paternoster Row.”
Most of the chapters are full of questions and answers, and these are arranged around themes, so that a chapter about “Gossiping” starts by wondering, “What does the ninth commandment forbid?” then answers itself, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” (Ex. 20:16.) It continues with, “How is such a man regarded?” and answers, “If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able to bridle the whole body.” (James 3: 2.) Through more questions and answers it advises the reader not to yield her tongue as an instrument of unrighteousness (Rom. 6:13) and explains that the words of a tale-bearer are as wounds (Prov. 26:22.) What is the effect of gossip? “[H]e that repeateth a matter separateth very friends.” (Prov 17: 9.)
Quickly this question and answer format became mesmerising, in the way that an encyclopaedia or any other collection of facts can seem mesmerising. There is such certainty here. I keep opening the book to find out if Bible Readings’ multiple (I imagine several of them) authors (dead now, long dead) were ever stumped for an answer. What influence have kind words upon others? A soft answer turneth away wrath. Does God approve of polygamy? Emphatically no. This point is illustrated with an engraving of The Marriage at Cana and a picture of Hagar being shooed away from Abraham’s tent.
Hagar is one of those points where the book’s voice starts to tense and defend itself. The certainty is still there but the tone rises from calm to bossy, and the answers change from airy single quotations to detailed explanations that seem nitpicking. It’s the tone of a writer searching for any bit of evidence to shore up a point of view they’ve already decided on. Abraham’s wife gave him Hagar “to be his wife” so that he could have a son. Does this make Abraham a polygamist? No it doesn’t, because … and then there is a long paragraph explaining that Hagar was referred to as “wife” only on that one occasion, and afterwards as “maid” or “this bondwoman,” which means that everyone had changed their mind on the whole wife thing and Abraham may have “violated the seventh commandment” but “he was not a polygamist.” The phrasing of the questions starts to grow pejorative adjectives. “Did this shameful proceeding make Hagar the wife of Abram?”
Polygamy takes up nearly ten pages. Gossip, in spite of the fact that it separateth very friends, excited the authors less. It gets a page and a half, no more. Wisdom, “more precious than rubies” (Job 28:18), gets about the same, with a hymn at the end as padding. The importance of wisdom must have seemed beyond debate, so why not the inadvisability of multiple spouses? One of the authors must have been fascinated with the subject for unexplained reasons of his (I imagine a ‘his’) own.
In fact the more I read, the stranger the authors appear, less publicly godly, more privately obsessive. They share odd facts. They find significance everywhere. They arm themselves with cherrypicked quotes from scientific studies and go on the rampage against tea.
Each pound of tea contains enough of this poison [caffeine] to kill fifteen hundred frogs.
The authors took it for granted that Catholics were in league with Satan and that the United States was in danger of succumbing to the National Reform Movement, a group of people who wanted the government to prohibit any kind of work on Sundays. Their sin was that they were willing to collaborate with Catholics. It followed that the US was the two-horned beast of Revelation. Nowadays the National Reform Movement (which is actually the National Reform Association—it looks as if Bible Readings’ authors got the title muddled with the group’s original name, the Christian Reform Movement, or else the Association shifted back and forth before settling) is a website with buttons that don’t work and a man in Pittsburgh who will offer to send you his newsletter free for six months if you write to him. In the late 1800s it had “200 vice-presidents, a recording secretary, a corresponding secretary, a treasurer, seven district secretaries […] and the Reformed Presbyterian Church as a body.”
The book treats two-horned portent-beasts with the same seriousness it shows to gossip and hypocrisy; the pictures of cows and sheep grazing in fields are drawn as faithfully as Revelation’s fourth beast, which looks something like a cross hippopotamus in a landscape of pointy rocks. I think of the way the Nigerian characters in Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine switch easily from the subject of marriage to the subject of the spirit-world, and of the ancient Europeans in Henry Treece’s books weighing up the amount of sacrifice they need to assign to a certain god if they want to obtain the best earthly result. The line between the practical and the fantastic is narrow, and easily crossed. People can live easily on both sides at once, seeing no difference between trying to calm someone down with a “soft answer” and believing that
the downfall of Turkey, which every intelligent person will not hesitate to admit is inevitable in the very near future, becomes the signal for the beginning of the reign of Christ […] the resurrection of the dead, and the end of all things.
I’m moved by the urgency of this, the importance, these writers making sense of the world by collecting up scraps: Biblical ordinances, international affairs, a scientific study of tea, all these people picking a path through the tangle of things, choosing this and that for guidance. Bible Readings for the Home Circle was written to demonstrate the clarity of God, instead, I think, it deepens the mystery of People.
The 1914 edition of Bible Readings for the Home Circle, online. I haven’t read this version, so I’m not sure how much the content changed between 1896 and 1914. If abebooks is any guide then hard copies of the 1914 book are easier to find.