Following Up: Micah 6:8 in American Rhetoric

Last week my Anxious Bench colleague John Turner drew our attention to America’s Public Bible, a new project by Lincoln Mullen. A leading digital historian who works (like John) at George Mason University, Lincoln describes APB in this way:

Lincoln MullenAmerica’s Public Bible uncovers the presence of biblical quotations in the nearly 11 million newspaper pages in the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America collection. Using the techniques of machine learning I have identified over 866,000 quotations of the Bible or verbal allusions to specific biblical verses on those newspaper pages. For now, the project has looked only for quotations to the King James Version (or Authorized Version) of the English Bible, by far the most commonly used Bible among American Protestants during the nineteenth century. For over 1,700 of the most frequently quoted verses, this site offers a way to explore the trend in how frequently a biblical verse was used, with links to each quotation highlighted in the pages of Chronicling America. The site thus uncovers two contexts for each verse: the context of the newspaper article in which it was used, and the broader chronological context of quotations from that verse and the Bible as a whole.

Eventually, Lincoln plans to add other English versions of the Bible (including the Douay-Rheims, favored among American Catholics at the time), bibles used by Americans who spoke other languages, and the Book of Mormon.

It’s a brilliant project, drawing on the interest of digital humanists in “tracking the reuse of texts” in order to contribute to what’s already “a deep scholarly literature on the Bible as a cultural text in American life.” At least for the time period currently covered by Chronicling America (1836-1922), “we can see how the Bible was a contested yet common text.” (On the public use of Scripture earlier in American history, see Mark Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word, whose study of the years 1492-1783 kicks off what’s meant to be a multi-volume project.)

All of this is well outside my fields, but it did strike me that I could use America’s Public Bible to revisit a question I asked here back in November 2011:

Micah 6:8 displayed in the Bethel Business department
Another public use of Micah 6:8 (this time from The Message) – in the Business & Economics Department of Bethel University

When did Micah 6:8 become “so prevalent as a proof-text, a T-shirt slogan, an element of liturgical prayer… or the inspiration for groups like this global coalition of Christians seeking to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015″?

In case you don’t have this one memorized, or it’s not quite as ubiquitous as I seem to think it is…

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

That’s the NRSV. Since Lincoln’s research is focused on the King James, here’s how it renders the prophetic requirement: “ do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?”

What I tentatively concluded, on the basis of “a few semi-sophisticated Google searches” was that “the Micah 6:8 fad is of a recent vintage, and that earlier Christians, when they focused on that one verse at all, didn’t necessarily stress the ‘act [do] justly’ part of it.”

But I wasn’t focused on American references to that verse, and I had little to say about the 19th century. So let’s see what we can learn from America’s Public Bible about the public use of Micah 6:8. If you go to the “Explore Biblical Quotations” page and enter that verse in the “References” search bar, here’s what you get:

Screen shot of graph showing Micah 6:8 references in American newspapers between 1837 and 1922
Reproduced by permission of Lincoln Mullen

Micah 6:8 is among the 1,700 most-quoted verses that Lincoln included with this graphic. But for the whole period, there are only five years when Micah 6:8 shows up 2+ times per 100 million words: 1837 (3.11), 1842 (2.84), 1843 (3.19), 1921 (4.87), and 1922 (5.49).

To put that in context… The most popular verse of the early 1920s (“But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” — Luke 18:16) pops up 6-7 times per 100 million words, and Micah 6:8 is not far behind at #8. But during Micah’s other brief burst of popularity, the 1840s, the single most popular verse (see if you can guess it) was being used up to 4 or 5 times as often.

So not hugely popular at any point, but not unusual either. Let’s look at those two brief eras and see how newspapers were employing our verse.

What’s most notable from the late 1830s and early 1840s is that the authors quote Micah 6:8 and really do mean it in a way that would resonate with social justice Christians today. (Whereas most of the 19th century uses I found for my 2011 post tended to replace “justly” with “righteously.”) A spring 1842 mini-sermon published in both The Radical of Bowling Green, Missouri and The [Canal Dover] Ohio Democrat could have appeared in the pages of Sojourners:

What is Religion?… Not that which can reject the widow’s petition, the orphan’s cry. Not that which deceives in bargain, deals closely with the poor, withholds the just requital of labor, breeds jealousies, alienates friends, embitters enemies, betrays confidence, promotes sectarian strife and renders evil for evil. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father, is this: to visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction, and to keep ourselves unspotted from the world.

…Pure religion teaches us to love our enemies, to pray for them, and in all things to render good for evil. It requires us to [act on] principles of perfect justice. All things whatsoever we would that men should do unto us, to do so to them. To do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before God.

In my original post, I’d wondered if Micah 6:8 was popular with the most famous social justice movement of that era: abolitionism. Apart from noting that it’s not quoted in the collected letters of William Lloyd Garrison, I didn’t have the wherewithal to research that question further. But indeed, multiple abolitionist papers did urge their readers to “do justly” with regard to slavery.

In January 1843, a resident of Brandon, Vermont announced his intention to quit the local Methodist Society: “I have no particular difficult with the members in this place, except their connexion with slavery. My views of slavery are such that I can not consistently continue in christian fellowship with it any longer. I am as strong in the belief of the christian religion as I ever was, and intend to deal justly, love mercy and walk humbly before God.” (He concluded by quoting James 1:27, as had the 1842 piece mentioned above.)

Orson S. Murray
Orson S. Murray (1806-1885) – Massachusetts Historical Society

That paper was edited by an abolitionist named Orson S. Murray, who just over five years before had published a petition from Vermont Baptists to their southern brethren insisting that “Slavery is opposed to the teachings of the gospel.” The petition concluded with a rather pointed benediction:

And now, dear brethren, may the Lord give you understanding in all things, and a heart to do his will. The Lord bless you and keep you, and cause his face to shine upon you. The Lord dispose you to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before him; and finally give you an inheritance with all them that are sanctified.

In late 1843, The Jeffersonian Republican of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania reprinted an anti-slavery letter from Quakers in Indiana. Denying any partisan political motives, the authors turned Micah 6:8 into a shared pillar of American civil religion: “It is only as the people comply with the Divine requisition to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, that we can reasonably hope for the Divine blessing in preserving us in harmony, peace, and prosperity.”

The verse continued to be used by abolitionist newspapers in the decade before the Civil War, as well as by a North Carolina editor who supported states’ rights but despised the Know-Nothing movement. (“‘Deal justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before God.’ Are we to take these men as patterns in this respect?” He then quoted James 1:27… Sense a theme?)

But what about that sudden surge in 1921-1922? It’s probably not what you’d think.

It’s fueled primarily by news reports concerning a ceremony that took place in Washington, DC on March 4, 1921. Even if that dates rings some bells, you still might not believe it. Here’s a hint: it involves another Baptist.

1921 presidential inauguration

President [Warren G.] Harding introduced an innovation in inaugural ceremonies today, when he kissed a verse on the Bible selected beforehand. The custom has been for the Bible to be opened at random, and for the new president without knowing what verse his lips touched.

Some time ago, however, Harding made known his desire to have the Bible belonging to George Washington used, and selected…

Well, you can guess it now: Micah 6:8. Harding even concluded his inaugural address by quoting that verse. The only other president sworn in on a Bible open to it was Jimmy Carter.

Probably like most of you, I tend to associate Harding’s presidency with its scandals and mysterious ending. But this very public use of “do justly” brought to mind Ronald Radosh’s argument that Harding, by marked contrast to his rather racist Democratic predecessor, did seek to uphold his party’s historic status as the party of civil rights (most famously in an October 1921 address in Birmingham, Alabama that drew the praise of W.E.B. DuBois).

7 thoughts on “Following Up: Micah 6:8 in American Rhetoric

  1. authors quote Micah 6:8 and really do mean it in a way that would resonate with social justice Christians today…

    the most famous social justice movement of that era: abolitionism…

    Asserting or at least insinuating a necessary connection between opposition to slavery and an affinity for modern progressive-left politics. A tangled web.

    “It is only as the people comply with the Divine requisition to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, that we can reasonably hope for the Divine blessing in preserving us in harmony, peace, and prosperity.”

    A sentiment more likely to find its way into the GOP platform than the Democrat one, if you recall the latter’s 2012 convention.

    Did Democrats really boo God? Not quite. It’s worse than that.

    1. This is silly. I neither assert nor insinuate a “necessary connection” of any sort. As I state in a sentence you replace with an ellipsis, the context is my 2011 post, in which I found that 19th century figures like C.H. Spurgeon and Andrew Murray read the verse as requiring us to “do righteousness” — in other words, they interpreted Micah 6:8 as injunction to personal holiness, not social action. So all I mean here is that abolitionists like those quoted had a hermeneutic more like the one of 20th century self-identified “social justice Christians.” And while I don’t know how you could fail to describe abolitionism, in its context, as a social justice movement, that doesn’t mean that I think (and I certainly didn’t say) that its legacy can only be claimed by the modern-day Left.

      1. FTR, Chris, I didn’t “replace” anything with an ellipsis. Please disregard the … as my point doesn’t depend on it. I was linking two statements about “social justice.” When the same term is used twice, a connection is implied, at least in my view.

        As for abolitionism being “social” justice, the “social” part is not necessary–it’s a question of justice. “Social” justice in common use today is synonymous with the progressive political agenda, so yes, I think a link is necessarily implied.

      2. That’s true: your “point doesn’t depend on” what you took out. But mine does. I’m not actually trying to prescribe a certain way of reading this verse; I’m trying to describe how it has changed over time. And yes, the adjective “social” is important here. Christians can believe in “justice” without also believing that it compels them to seek reform in human society. (I tend to think that’s why some in the 19th century read it as “do righteously” instead of “do justly.”) When I first wrote on this topic in 2011, most of the traffic came from an avowedly fundamentalist discussion forum whose participants leaned strongly in this way: “justice” for them was what God will dispense at Judgment, not what any human being (of any political persuasion — they weren’t fans of Religious Right or Left activism) seeks to bring about here and now. Rightly or wrongly, the abolitionists of the 19th century, like those who would tend to identify as “social justice Christians” today, believed that “do justly” required social action. That’s all I’m saying. FTR, I’m certainly more sympathetic to a view of justice that sees it as both social (now) and divine (and not yet), but as I’ve written in plenty of other posts, I’m equally interested in the “love mercy” and “walk humbly” parts of this scripture.

      3. When I first wrote on this topic in 2011, most of the traffic came from an avowedly fundamentalist discussion forum whose participants leaned strongly in this way: “justice” for them was what God will dispense at Judgment, not what any human being (of any political persuasion — they weren’t fans of Religious Right or Left activism) seeks to bring about here and now.

        This is a context to which the general reader such as myself has no access. Justice is justice. That it should be postponed until Judgment Day is a moral imbecility.

        Surely you agree that to most normal people today, “social” justice is synonymous with progressive politics. Thus my demurral.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.