August 06, 2021

Assistant Professor of Religion Ashleigh Elser recently finished a 2021 Short-Term Research Fellowship at the New York Public Library (NYPL).

The fellowships are designed to “support projects that would significantly benefit from research conducted on-site, drawing from specific items or collections unique to The New York Public Library.” During her residency in July, Elser worked in the NYPL archives researching abridged Bibles.

the New York Public Library reading roomElser accidentally came across the shortened versions of the Bible as she began preparing the dissertation for her Ph.D. in religious studies at University of Virginia. She became interested in how literary approaches to interpreting the Bible affect both biblical scholarship and the the ways that laypeople understand the Bible. “In the late 19th and early 20th century, some people thought the way to make the Bible more literary was to cut out the things such as geneology, rituals, and instructions to make it easier to read and interpret,” Elser says.

During her residency this summer, Elser read and documented unique information pertaining to the archives of major publishers Macmillan Company and Alfred A. Knopf, who published Bibles in the early 20th century. These collections contain correspondences with authors and public figures, personal notes, and redacted versions of the King James Bible. The era of these abbreviated versions of the Bible intrigue Elser because at one point they were very popular, but they are all now out of print because the changes made didn’t have the intended lasting impact. “As it turns out, the difficulties of interpreting the Bible weren’t what was keeping people from reading it, and shortening it didn’t cause a momentous change,” she explains.  

Elser plans to incorporate this research into a course that she is designing for H-SC called The Bible in America, which will focus on various interpretations of the Bible throughout American history. Through experiential learning activities and engaging with primary source materials, students will gain an understanding of the forces that have affected biblical interpretation as well as the impact of those interpretations on society. Additionally, she is in the process of writing a book covering the historical contributions and consequences of the interpretations of abbreviated Bibles.

Noting that the experience reinvigorated her passion for researching and teaching on abridged Bibles, Elser says, “I am deeply grateful for this research fellowship.” And we are deeply grateful for faculty members who commit to growing their own knowledge in order to better instruct our students.

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