Which book in the Bible was President Lincoln’s favorite?
D) The Psalms
(A) Social and technological
How a poor farm boy from a poor family in rural New York came to have access to a King James Bible in the home illustrates yet another aspect of the story of the KJB in America. Through most of the eighteenth century, Bibles were still too expensive and too scarce for common folks in the hinterlands to own. But this all changed by the turn of the century. Two developments lay behind what would become a veritable deluge of KJB editions worldwide: one was technological, the other social.
The technological development had to do with the introduction of cheap paper, power presses, and most of all stereotype printing. The latter in particular opened the way to print Bibles cheap enough for those of very limited means to purchase.
Just as important, if not more so, were social developments that set in motion vast forces in the human landscape. The eighteenth century saw the rise of enthusiastic evangelical movements like Methodism and remarkable figures like Wesley and Whitfield, who mobilized great numbers of people and stirred in them the desire to read the Bible. The same evangelical forces lay behind the emergence of the Sunday school movement, missionary societies, and, above all Bible societies, whose nondenominational purpose was to flood the world with Bibles “without note or comment”—which meant King James Bibles in English-speaking countries. The British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) was organized in 1804 as the result of a request of a poor girl from rural Wales named Mary Jones, who walked many miles barefoot to purchase a Welsh Bible. The American Bible Society (ABS) was organized in 1816. The success of these societies in placing Bibles staggers the imagination. Within three years of its founding, the BFBS had distributed 1.8 million bibles or portions of Bibles! The ABS was equally active. In 1829, the normal print run for books was only 2,000. The ABS was printing over 1 million Bibles a year by the 1860s. As Daniell writes, America was in the midst of a “Bible-buying phenomenon, beyond anything seen anywhere else in the world. . . . The Bible [was] the most imported book, and then the most printed, most distributed, most read text in North America. . . . If any book touched the lives of Americans, it was a Bible,” the King James Bible.
Given the explosion of Bible distribution in America, it is scarcely surprising that a KJB was in the home and touched the life of Joseph Smith in 1820. Indeed, this is entirely consistent with the massive proliferation of KJBs in America, which would continue throughout the nineteenth century and beyond,, immensely abetted by groups like the ABS and later by the Gideon’s, a nondenominational organization begun in Wisconsin in about 1900 by two Bible-loving American salesmen. Nor is it surprising that Joseph Smith turned to the KJB to seek guidance for his religious questions. In an America brimming with religious enthusiasm, individuals were encouraged to seek answers directly from their own spiritual encounters with God through reading “the Bible alone.” That Joseph Smith felt inspired by reading the Bible to ask God is not unusual. What is unusual is the experience he had when he followed James’s counsel to ask God, who giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not.
Tanner, John S. The King James Bible in America; Pilgrim, Prophet, President, Preacher, BYU Studies, 2011 Vol. 50, No. 3, pg. 13-14.