Volume 5, Number 2, February 2002

["As I See It" is a monthly electronic magazine compiled and edited by Doug Kutilek. Its purpose is to address important issues of the day and to draw attention to worthwhile Christian and other literature in order to aid believers in Jesus Christ, especially pastors, missionaries and Bible college and seminary students to more effectively study and teach the Word of God. The editor's perspective is that of an independent Baptist of fundamentalist theological persuasion.

AISI is sent free to all who request it by writing to the editor at: DKUTILEK@juno.com. You can be removed from the mailing list at the same address.

All articles are by the editor (unless otherwise noted) and are copyrighted but may be reproduced for distribution, provided the following conditions are met: 1. articles must be reproduced in unedited, unabridged form; 2. the writer must be properly credited; and, 3. such reproduction must be for free distribution only. Permission to distribute in any other form must be secured in writing beforehand. Permission for reproduction in Christian print periodicals will generally be given.]


One of the wonders of the internet is how easily it facilitates the dissemination of utterly false and fictitious, or at best highly dubious, information. Whole books have been written about such "urban legends" (you know--the alligators reportedly in the sewers of New York City, and the supposedly "Satanic" nature of the venerable Proctor & Gamble "man in the moon" logo).

Well, not to be out-done by the "children of this world," Christians also have their "urban legends." One of these that has been circulating in cyber-space involves the great British playwright William Shakespeare and the famous King James Version of the Bible. The story goes as follows:

The KJV translators reportedly (so this legend has it) consulted Shakespeare, a renowned master of English style, as they were doing their translation work, and to acknowledge surreptitiously, not openly, his part in the work (it would have been scandalous to have a mere actor and author of stage plays participating in the important and sacred work of Bible translation), they translated--or perhaps allowed him to translate (depending on which version of the legend is being told), his complete ignorance of Hebrew notwithstanding--a part of Psalm 46 in a particular way. If one turns to that Psalm, he will discover that the 46th word from the beginning of the Psalm (ignoring the title, which does in fact form a part of the inspired text) is the word "shake." And if one counts words from the end of the Psalm, the 46th word from the end (ignoring the final word of the Psalm, the Hebrew word selah--again a part of the inspired text) is the word "speare." So, the 46th word from the beginning and the 46th word from the end of the 46th Psalm are "shake" and "speare." An apparently remarkable coincidence, to be sure. And the unstated implication is that this somehow adds to the prestige, dignity and authority of the KJV over all other English Bible versions.

But against the theory is the apparent complete absence of any contemporary positive evidence associating the bard of Stratford-on-Avon with the KJV translation committee and its work. Certainly the lengthy account of Shakespeare in the authoritative Dictionary of National Biography, authored by the editor of the work, Sir Sydney Lee, betrays no such knowledge. Nor can I find any reference to the same in several other works on Shakespeare consulted, nor indeed in various standard histories of the English Bible. This is not to say that it is thereby absolutely disproved, though the happenings in Shakespeare's life in the period 1604 to 1611 (when the KJV was in preparation) are fairly well-known to history, and any part the most famous of English authors might have had in the production of the most famous of English Bible translations could scarcely have gone unnoticed and unreported.

The novelty of the coincidence of the "46s" and "Shakespeare" is not quite so remarkable as it might seem at first blush. The Geneva Bible of 1560 (published 4 years before Shakespeare's birth and therefore certainly uninfluenced by him in any way--indeed, he was influenced by it) was the Bible most commonly used in the English-speaking world during the far greater part of Shakespeare's active writing career (he died in 1616, having virtually retired some years earlier; all but 3 of his many plays and the whole of his poetry being commonly ascribed to the years before 1611). It was also the English Bible version most closely followed by the KJV translators in their revision work.

An examination of the Geneva version of Psalm 46 reveals that both words "shake" and "speare" occur in the relevant verses (3 and 9), as in the KJV, though with a slightly different word count. "Shake" is the 48th, rather than 46th, word from the beginning of the Psalm (ignoring the title) and "speare" is the 44th word from the end of the Psalm (or 45th, depending on whether "selah" is excluded from or included in the count). It seems quite probable that the KJV picked up its use of "shake" and "speare" in the 3rd and 9th verses respectively from the prior Geneva Bible (the precise wording of Psalm 46 in the Geneva and the KJV is usually identical, with a relative few differences). Further it is entirely within reason that by merest accident these words ended up 46th from the beginning and end of the Psalm (ignoring the problem counting "selah" causes for the hypothesis).

Since the "official" basis for the KJV revision was the Bishops' Bible of 1568, a check of the wording and word counts in that version of Psalm 46 would be of interest for comparative purposes, but unfortunately I have no access to it, and must remain in the dark for now as to its precise wording.

If it could actually be established with certainty, or with at least a high degree of probability that the Shakespeare really was "honored" by the translators in the KJV of Psalm 46 in the manner suggested, whether or not he had any part whatsoever in the actual production of that translation, it would make for an interesting footnote. However, until such proof is forthcoming, it is best to leave this with the other "urban legends" of our time.

---Doug Kutilek



"Are you afraid that preaching the gospel will not win souls? Are you despondent as to success in God's way? Is this why you pine for clever oratory? Is this why you must have music, and architecture, and flowers and millinery? After all, is it by might and power, and not by the Spirit of God? It is even so in the opinion of many."

"Brethren beloved, there are many things which I might allow to other worshippers which I have denied myself in conducting the worship of this congregation. I have long worked out before your very eyes the experiment of the unaided attractiveness of the gospel of Jesus. Our service is severely plain. No man ever comes hither to gratify his eye with art, or his ear with music. I have set before you, these many years, nothing but Christ crucified, and the simplicity of the gospel; yet where will you find such a crowd as this gathered together this morning? Where will you find such a multitude as this meeting Sabbath after Sabbath, for five-and-thirty years? I have shown you nothing but the cross, the cross without flowers of oratory, the cross without diamonds of ecclesiastical rank, the cross without the buttress of boastful science. It is abundantly sufficient to attract men first to itself, and afterwards to eternal life!"

"In this house we have proved successfully, these many years, this great truth, that the gospel plainly preached will gain an audience, convert sinners, and build up and sustain a church. We beseech the people of God to mark that there is no need to try doubtful expedients and questionable methods. God will save by the gospel still: only let it be the gospel in its purity. This grand old sword will cleave a man's chine [i.e., spine], and split a rock in halves."

"How is it that it does so little of its old conquering work? I will tell you. Do you see the scabbard of artistic work, so wonderfully elaborated? Full many keep the sword in this scabbard, and therefore its edge never gets to its work. Pull off that scabbard. Fling that fine sheath to Hades, and then see how, in the Lord's hands, that glorious two-handed sword will mow down fields of men as mowers level the grass with their scythes."

"There is no need to go down to Egypt for help. To invite the devil to help Christ is shameful. Please God, we shall see prosperity yet, when the church of God is resolved never to seek it except in God's own way."

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892)
Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 1888, vol. 34, p. 563



No true Christian, I feel confident, could voice the least objection to the professed noble purpose of the many and varied "Bible societies" which are found at home and abroad. That purpose is to propagate and distribute the Bible far and wide, in all languages and to all peoples in an inexpensive and therefore affordable form. There is no greater or more important work in this world than to widely, yes universally, distribute the written Word of God to people in their own native language via reliable and trustworthy translations.

I myself was saved at 17 because someone put an English New Testament in my hands at age 11. I have heard that 60% of the converts to Christianity in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Iron Curtain have been evangelized by reading the Bible for themselves. As a result of what I have experienced and witnessed, I make it a point to regularly ask missionaries or national pastors if they have a specific need for printed Scriptures in their work, and if such exists, I bring it to the attention of our church leaders so that this need can be immediately met. I have also lugged or shipped Scriptures to Eastern Europe, or taken sizeable financial contributions there from believers in the States to purchase locally-available Bibles for free distribution. The best thing we can do for the souls of men is to flood the world with the printed Word of God. Let us get the Bible into the hands of people.

That being said, let me say a bit about Bible societies. The Bible society movement arose at the same time, and indeed for the same purpose, as the modern foreign missions movement, at the juncture of the 18th and 19th centuries. William Carey had gone to India, and begun the arduous work of translating the Bible from the inspired Greek and Hebrew texts into the many languages of India. And this mere plodding cobbler by trade, by dint of unflagging devotion and dedication to his God-given task of taking the Gospel message to India, produced, with the assistance of others, translations of all or part of the Bible into more than 40 languages, and was widely-recognized as the world's greatest living linguist (for an excellent account of Carey's life and labors, see William Carey by Samuel Pearce Carey, reviewed in AISI 1:10).

Naturally one pressing need in the Bible translation enterprise was financial support to cover the cost of type-setting and actual printing of the new mission field translations as they were completed. To meet this need, Bible societies were organized in England, America, and later on Continental Europe. The British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) was founded in 1804 (there were other and earlier though much smaller and less well-known societies in Great Britain organized for the purpose of wider distribution of the Scriptures, especially among the poor; see Schaff-Herzog reference below for the particulars). From the first, it was an inter-denominational body of Christians united in the goal of promoting and supporting the distribution of the printed Scriptures in the widest possible manner. John Hughes, a Baptist minister, was chosen as a secretary of the society. The BFBS met a pressing need for Bibles, first in Great Britain and Ireland, and then focused its attention on Continental Europe (ravaged by the Napoleonic wars). The influence, example and work of the BFBS led to the founding of numerous local and national Bible societies, auxiliaries and branches throughout Europe, and also in America and beyond.

The original harmony of purpose in the BFBS became strained and broken within a couple of decades over several controversies: should the Apocrypha be printed with the Bible (the Society originally said "no"). Should Unitarians be allowed to join the Bible Society and participate in policy-making decisions? (the Society said "yes"). Should the Society fund mission translations (like Carey's) that render the Greek word baptizo by a word meaning "immerse," or should they insist that the word simply be transferred into the language of the translation, as was done in the standard English Bibles? (the Society said "transfer; do not translate").

These controversies led to the founding of the several alternative Bible societies. The Trinitarian Bible Society was founded in 1831 in England in reaction to the latitudinarian policies of the BFBS. The Bible Translation Society was organized in 1843 by Baptists after the BFBS refused to continue to fund "immerse" versions in India and on other mission fields.

The BFBS is no longer so much "interdenominational" as it is ecumenical--true of virtually all the component members of the United Bible Societies (described below).

The American Bible Society (ABS) was formed in 1816 out of numerous local Bible societies in the U.S., and was organized for the same purposes as the BFBS. And like the BFBS, a controversy soon arose over support of mission field versions (in this case Judson's Burmese version) which translated rather than transferring baptizo. The ABS voted in 1836 to not fund any such 'sectarian' versions. Of course, not translating a Greek work whose meaning was not in doubt--Greek scholars of all denominations, including the major Protestant denominations which sprinkled or poured as the mode of baptism, unanimously acknowledged that it meant "immerse," and that immersion was uniformly the practice of Christians in the earliest centuries--could well be labeled 'sectarian' because transferring served to conceal the fact that those who practiced sprinkling and pouring were not in harmony with biblical teaching.

Many of the Baptists (and not a few others) in the ABS, who had heavily supported the ABS with their money, energy and time, thought it not right to refuse funds to Baptist missionaries for Bible publication. Therefore, in good historic Baptist practice, they withdrew and formed a new Bible society more in harmony with their perspective. In 1837, the American and Foreign Bible Society (AFBS) was organized, with the expressed purpose of publishing the best available translation in foreign languages, with particular preference for those which translated as far as possible all the words in the original languages, rather than transferring some. They also agreed to circulate the KJV in the English-speaking world, for the time being.

Within the AFBS, some logically and reasonably proposed that if it was right to circulate the best possible version in foreign languages, consistency demanded that this policy also be extended to include the English Bibles distributed by the society. For this reason, many insisted that a revision of the KJV should be made to remove archaic language, infelicitous expressions, and to correct plain and obvious errors in translation, so that believers in America and England could have as accurate a version as Carey, Judson, and others were providing for believers on the mission field.

And once again in good (or bad) Baptist fashion, this led to a parting of the ways. The proposal to revise the KJV was rejected, and as a result many favoring revision withdrew from the AFBS and formed, in 1850, the American Bible Union (ABU). The proposed revision of the NT was complete by 1865, and was consulted by the English translators of the English Revised Version of 1881. In the mid-1880s, these two Bible societies, the AFBS and the ABU, re-joined, and merged into the American Baptist Publication Society (later renamed as Judson Press), and officially decided to distribute the KJV, the ABU revision, and the newly-completed English Revised Version. Baptists thereby became the first ecclesiastical group to officially sanction the use of the ERV. (See Armitage and Kutilek references below for the history of the AFBS and ABU).

In England, the controversy over the admission of non-Trinitarians into the BFBS led to the departure of a group which found this circumstance unacceptable. They therefore formed a new organization in 1831, the Trinitarian Bible Society (TBS). Always much smaller than the BFBS, the TBS almost failed until E. W. Bullinger became secretary of the organization in 1867, a post he held for nearly a half century (see our review of a recent biography of Bullinger in AISI 4:6).

Under Bullinger (who had rescued the TBS from certain demise), the TBS revived and expanded its work substantially. During Bullinger's tenure, Bible versions in various languages were sponsored and published, including a number that were based on the so-called "critical" or Alexandrian Greek text-type. This fact is of note, inasmuch as the TBS, which still exists today, has since reputed the views of Bullinger regarding Greek texts and has become one of the major promoters of the textus receptus Greek text, to the exclusion of all others, even the majority text, a fact which divided the TBS in recent years. The TBS has reprinted in the last couple of decades a 19th century Greek NT, originally compiled by F. H. A. Scrivener, which was based on Stephanus' 1550 edition, but was systematically revised by Scrivener to conform to the KJV (as far as Greek NT editions actually in existence in 1611 would allow; a number of reading in the TBS Greek NT still do not conform to the KJV). Though passed off as a textus receptus edition, it in reality does not conform in all its details to any of the historic Greek NT editions of the 16th and 17th centuries, and is in effect, a separate edition.

This penchant for passing off a "doctored" edition of the Greek NT as though it were something it actually isn't, has passed into the TBS' practice of revising historic Bible versions. For example, the TBS has issued revised editions of the Reina-Valera Spanish Bible of 1602, and of the Louis Segond French version of the 19th century (and likely other versions--these specifically have come into my hands). In both cases, these versions have been systematically revised to make them conform to the KJV, though this fact is nowhere stated on the title page of these editions or in the preface. Now, I have no objection to the TBS making and issuing revisions of these or any other Bible translation. That has long been their practice and is certainly within their rights. But I do object to them passing off a Spanish Bible labeled as a "Reina-Valera 1602" when what they have published is a revision of that version. This borders perilously close to deception, in my opinion.

Returning to the British and Foreign Bible Society and the American Bible Society, it must be noted that in the 20th century, these two--the BFBS and the ABS--become progressively more ecumenical and more theologically liberal. Co-ordination of efforts by the BFBS and the ABS was begun to prevent duplication in various parts of the world, leading to a formal agreement to that end in 1932. A wider net of co-operation was cast when the United Bible Societies was organized in 1946, involving the BFBS, ABS, the National Bible Society of Scotland, the Netherlands Bible Society and many others, originally some 24 societies, but now numbering over 70. Anyone professing Christianity in any form is welcomed, and liberals, modernists, Roman Catholics and Orthodox pre-dominate in all the major components of the UBS, and I would suspect in all the small ones as well.

For example, in Serbia, the Bible society there, which I have personally visited, is a very small concern operating out of a two-room, back-of-the-building second floor office in downtown Beograde, with a small amount of warehouse space rented a number of kilometers away. It is under the control of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which, typical of the Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church, is not "zealous" for Bible distribution, to put it mildly. In nearby Macedonia, the Bible society is a co-operative concern of Orthodox, Catholic, and ecumenical Protestants.

The theological drift and latitudinarianism of recent days is clearly evident in the works published by the UBS, ABS, BFBS, et al. The ABS has been the chief sponsor or distributor of numerous modernist/liberal translations: the Good News Bible/Today's English Version of the 1960s and 1970s was the work of ABS employee (and apostate "Baptist") Robert Bratcher. The TEV being now largely passe, the dumbed-down Bible version of choice for the ABS is the Contemporary English Version (CEV) which is just about as awful as any version I have ever examined. Naturally, they sell the old RSV of the apostate National Council of Churches and its new revision, the NRSV, especially in forms sporting the so-called "Deutero-Canonicals," which is simply the 13 books of the Apocrypha by another name. Yes, the ABS does sell some editions of conservative versions (KJV, NASB, and perhaps others; I have purchased many cases of a conservative Spanish version at very low prices from the ABS), but these are not where its emphasis lies.

Prominent among the Bibles distributed by UBS members are the standard Orthodox Bible translation in Romanian (this is a poor choice because, first, the OT is based on the Septuagint Greek version, not the original Hebrew; second, it contains the Apocrypha; and third, repeatedly in the NT it falsifies the word for "elder" by translating it as "priest"; the standard Protestant version by Cornilescu is very much superior). In the Czech Republic, they have sponsored a revision of the archaic Reformation era version of Kralicek, in itself not necessarily blameworthy. But this new version has numerous notes that propagate destructive higher critical views of the OT (I cannot speak from personal knowledge of the accuracy of this translation itself). Whatever happened to 'the distribution of the Scriptures without note or comment'? (I am convinced that there are far too many "study Bibles" in print today, but that is another subject).

The ABS and its various UBS partners are also publishers of numerous scholarly editions of the Bible in the original languages of Hebrew and Greek, and ancient versions of the Bible in Syriac, Latin, Old Church Slavonic, etc., plus many works on translation theory and practice (strongly favoring "dynamic" or "functional " equivalence over formal equivalence), plus some lexicons, works on textual criticism, helps for translators and such like. I have acquired many such volumes from the ABS, but must object to the often-exorbitant prices they charge--very much beyond the cost of production and distribution (I have found identical volumes for sale in Romania at regularly one-fifth the price, or less). Is this not contrary to the very spirit with which the Bible societies were originally founded?

A Bible society that has come to the fore in the past three decades (though it was founded much earlier) is the International Bible Society (IBS), originally organized in 1809 as the New York Bible Society. It served as the sponsoring organization for the New International Version (NIV), which has become the most widely-sold of 20th century Bible versions. The society, now based in Colorado Springs, has also sponsored NIV-like Bible revisions in Spanish, Romanian, and probably other languages. They distribute at low prices conservative Bible versions in several languages, though chiefly in English and Spanish. I have purchased Bibles, Testaments and Gospels from them in these languages, always with satisfactory results.

The Gideons were formed in 1899, with a view to the free distribution of the Bible in public places. I suspect that everyone who has ever stayed in a hotel or motel in America and most of Europe has seen a Gideon Bible in a bedside drawer. Formerly, before an anti-God bias was imposed on public life in America by the U. S. Supreme Court, the Gideons also distributed New Testaments free of charge to school children in the public schools. I received one myself in the 5th grade, and used it for years until I read it apart in Bible college. Today, the Gideons must stand out on the sidewalk to distribute their New Testaments to school children. They also are actively distributing the Scriptures in the former Soviet Bloc nations of Eastern Europe, among many other activities.

The Pocket Testament League was formed in 1916, with a goal for each member to carry a NT with him everywhere and to read it regularly. Along with this personal commitment to the Bible, there was an organized effort to distribute the Bible to those who were without it, an effort that has extended itself to numerous mission fields of the world.

Bearing Precious Seed is a Scripture printing ministry of First Baptist Church of Milford, Ohio (just outside Cincinnati). They have printed Scriptures in numerous languages, and freely distribute them around the world. I myself was provided without cost (other than shipping) with thousands of Gospels of John/Romans in Romanian for free distribution. I know they have done the same with Serbian editions, and editions in other languages.

There are not a few other groups and organizations actively distributing the Scriptures in print, on cassette, and on CD, some as a ministry, some for profit.

As for supporting Bible societies directly, I could not with clear conscience send a single nickel or a dime to any of the Bible societies which are dominated by other than conservatives. In short, I refuse to support the ABS, BFBS or the UBS with any financial gift. In contrast, supporting the IBS, the Gideons, the Pocket Testament League, Bearing Precious Seed or others of similar stripe would create no such crisis of conscience.

Well, if I would not give a gift to the ABS, why would I purchase Bibles from them? Simply put: because at times, they provide the best price for a version that is otherwise acceptable, and I look at buying from them as simply good stewardship, getting the greatest number of Bibles or Testaments for the money available.

In conclusion, let me reiterate that no true believer would object to the professed design and purpose of the various Bible societies, but further, no true believer would approve of the direction several old and famous Bible societies have taken in recent days, particularly their ecumenism and theological liberalism. Nevertheless, not a few such societies, some large, some small, stand true to the original purpose. Let us all stand true to that purpose. Let us be zealous to get the Bible into the hands of every individual. Let us scatter this seed far and wide. And let us be quick about it.

 ---Doug Kutilek

 --- References--

Armitage, Thomas, History of the Baptists, Chapter XVII, "Bible Translation and Bible Societies," pp. 893-918.

Brown, Andrew J., The Word of God Among All Nations: A Brief History of the Trinitarian Bible Society, 1831-1981.

Douglas, J. D., ed., New 20th-Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, "Bibles Societies," pp. 76-7.

Jackson, Samuel A., The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, "Bible Societies," vol. II, pp. 88-93.

Kutilek, Douglas, The Text and Translation of the Bible: Nineteenth Century American Baptist Views. Unpublished masters thesis. Plymouth, Minnesota: Central Baptist Theological Seminary, 1997.

Loetscher, Lefferts A., ed., Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, "Bible Societies," vol. I, p. 133.

McClintock, John, and Strong, James, edd., Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, "Bible Societies," vol. I, pp. 803-808.


"Use of the Bible by the Laity"

"The Word of God is intended for the use of all classes of men. In the early ages of the Church its universal perusal was not only allowed, but urged by bishops and pastors. It was not until the general reading of the Bible was found to interfere with the claims of the papacy that its 'perils for the common mind' were discovered.

As the use of Latin disappeared among the people, the Vulgate Bible became less and less intelligible to them, and this fact was early welcomed as an aid to the schemes of the Roman hierarchy. In the 11th century, Gregory VII thanks God for it, as tending to save the people from misunderstanding the Bible. The reforming and heretical sects (Cathari, Albigenses, Waldenses, etc.) of the 12th and 13th centuries appealed to the Bible in all their disputes, thus furnishing the hierarchy an additional reason for shutting up the Word of God.

In 1229, the Council of Toulouse, in its 14th canon, 'forbids the laity to have in their possession any copy of the books of the Old and New Testament, except the Psalter, and such portions of them as are contained in the Breviary, or the Hours of the Virgin; and most strictly forbids these works in the vulgar tongue.' The Council of Tarracone (1242) ordered all vernacular versions to be brought to the bishop to be burnt. Similar prohibitions were issued from time to time in the next two centuries by bishops and synods, especially in France and Germany, though with little direct effect.

In the 'Ten Rules concerning Prohibited Books,' drawn up by order of the Council of Trent, and approved by Pius IV, we find the following: In Rule III versions of the O.T. may be 'allowed only to pious and learned men at the discretion of the bishop;' in Rule IV it is stated that 'if the sacred books be permitted in the vulgar tongue indiscriminately, more harm than utility arises therefrom by reason of the temerity of men.' The bishop or inquisitor may grant permission to safe persons to read them; all booksellers selling to unauthorized persons are to be punished.

The Jansenist movement in the 17th century, and especially the publication of Quesnel's N.T. in French (Paris, 1699) gave rise to a new stringency, to which the bull Unigenitus was the organ. In the 18th century there was a reaction, and the publication and reading of vernacular versions was even encouraged by the better class of Roman bishops. The establishment of the Bible societies in the beginning of the 19th century gave new alarm to the Roman hierarchy. Ordinances or encyclicals forbidding the diffusion of Protestant Bibles were issued by Pius VII (1816), Leo XII (1824), and Gregory XVI (1832).

Though the animus of these encyclicals is hostile to the free use of the Bible, they yet do not prohibit it. At this day it is well understood, and admitted by all intelligent Romanists themselves, that the laity are not only not required, but are not expected to read the Word of God for themselves by the Roman Church."

---McClintock-Strong, Cyclopedia, vol. I, p. 808.

[We are reminded of Luther's remark to the effect that the Roman Catholic Church was opposed to the distribution of the Bible because the Bible was not on their side--ed.]



CHASING DIRT: THE AMERICAN PURSUIT OF CLEANLINESS by Suellen Hoy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. 258 pp, paperback, $13.95

I bought this book (at a deep discount) as a Christmas present joke for my wife, who is well-known for her fastidiousness as a house-keeper. So far, she hasn't read it, but I did on New Year's Day, and discovered it to be a not-uninteresting historical study.

Americans have a reputation among Europeans of being obsessively pre-occupied with matters of personal hygiene and cleanliness of house and surroundings, and by way of comparison with many Europeans, that may well be true, but I personally wish at least a few more Americans would join in on this "obsession."

In this scholarly-serious volume, the author traces the rise of the American emphasis on personal hygiene to its roots in the American Civil War era. As a means of controlling and hopefully limiting the spread of diseases (such as typhoid fever, cholera, diphtheria, whooping cough, pneumonia, and others) as well as reducing the infection of wounds, efforts were made both in army encampments and in army hospitals at insisting on proper sanitation and disposal of human waste, prevention of contamination of water supplies, and securing of clean clothes and bed linens for soldiers, as well as frequent bathing. And all of these measures played an important part in reducing both battle and non-battle casualties and fatalities among Federal troops in the American Civil War (1861-1865). Cleanliness may or may not be "next to godliness" (a quote attributed to John Wesley), but it certainly is effective at reducing the spread of infectious diseases.

The lessons learned in the wartime experiences were thereafter applied to the burgeoning cities across America in the latter part of the 19th century, and city sanitation became a high public priority. Sewers were constructed, water supplies were protected from contamination, garbage and animal waste was systematically removed from city streets, alleys and empty lots. All of these measures made American cities healthier places to live. And mechanical aids to cleaning--powered washing machines, and later vacuum cleaners--allegedly gave women (there are hints of a feminist perspective in the book) more time to focus on cleanliness as the ultimate cottage industry.

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, and city sanitation had done most of what it could do to reduce or even eliminate the spread of numerous diseases, the focus in America's love affair with soap and water turned more to the esthetic side: namely, the desire to personally not commit a social, public faux pas of offending others with foul body odor, bad breath, or less-than-perfectly-clean clothes. Though the author sees this trend and focus as having "peaked" in the 1950s, with Americans reportedly less particular about such things today than in the recent past, I question this conclusion; one has only to watch a day's worth of TV commercials and note just how many--surely the great majority--are for products for household cleaning (soaps, detergents, bleaches, etc.) or personal hygiene (soap, shampoo, mouthwash, toothpaste, and such like).

Frankly, I'm all for cleanliness. I personally would like to thank Misters Proctor, Gamble, Colgate, and Clean, as well as the Lever Brothers. Nice work, gentleman.

---Doug Kutilek