When it comes to reading the Bible, soothing is better.
That’s one finding that jumps out at us in a new study of American Bible reading by the Center for the Study of Religion & American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
The study found that roughly 48% of Americans read the Bible at least once outside of worship in the past year. Of those who did, just over half — a quarter of the U.S. population — has a favorite verse or story.
The most popular verse is Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
“This soothing chapter, which for centuries has been read aloud at funerals and in other times of trouble across Christian cultures, fits well with another of our findings: more people read the Bible for personal prayer and devotion than for any other reason. (See Section 6 of this report.) Little surprise, then, that they take solace in this extremely well known passage from Hebrew scripture,” the report says.
Psalms in generally were extremely popular, the report notes. Leading Protestants — Luther, Calvin and other reformers — “all held the Psalms up as something special — indeed, elevating it practically to the status of the Gospel.”
After Psalms, the most popular verse is John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son…”), followed by Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”) and the story of David and Goliath.
Stories that aren’t about gaining support or consolation are much less popular. The Nativity story was mentioned by only a handful of people. St. Paul’s letters are even less popular, and the Book of Ruth, another example of consolation and hope, especially for women, is mentioned more often than the Book of Revelation, the study finds.
In other findings, 9% of all Americans read every day. Women were more likely to read than men, older people were more likely to read than younger, southerners were more likely to read than those of any other region, and black people were more likely to read than those of any other race. Even Americans who do not read the Bible tend to have a high view of it, but, not surprisingly, those who do read it have a higher view still—or put another way, those with a higher view are even more likely to read it.
While some religion scholars have argued that the King James Version has been “dethroned,” this study finds 55% of those who read the Bible read the King James Version. Some 19% prefer the New International Version. Only 6% read the New American Bible, which is the most common Catholic version.
And of those surveyed, African Americans reported the highest levels of Bible engagement:
- Seventy percent of all blacks said they read the Bible outside of public worship services, compared to 44% for whites, 46% for Hispanics and 28% for all other races.
- Bible memorization is highest among black respondents, 69%, compared to 51% among white conservative Protestants and 31% among white moderate/liberal Protestants.
“There are no measures, individually or in congregations, where ‘black’ is not strongly correlated with the most conservative, most active, most involved level of scriptural engagement, no matter which other group comes closest,” the report says. “If one wanted to predict whether someone had read the Bible, believed it to be the literal or inspired Word of God, and used it to learn about many practical aspects of life, knowing whether or not that person was black is the single best piece of information one could have.”
One of the most significant findings is that “people read the Bible more for personal prayer and devotions than for the culture war issues we constantly hear about in the news — will add to the media’s understanding of religion. Religion can be political, but it usually is not,” says Philip Goff, director of the Center for the Study of Religion & American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who directed the study.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible. The study asked that 48% of Bible readers memorized at least one Bible verse in the last year. It notes that this has long been a common Protestant practice ” because of their adherence to the dictum of “scripture alone,” which meant that the book, not the church, was the preeminent religious authority.”