Religion Quiz: So you think you know
How Americans read Scripture: What researchers know because Bible readers tell them so

by David Briggs

January 15, 2015

"Iíve read the last page of the Bible. Itís all going to turn out all right."

-Billy Graham

You had a lot of time to think as a tail gunner in a B-17 Flying Fortress during World War II. Alone in the rear of the plane, where temperatures routinely dropped to 50 or 60 below zero, airmen had from four to five hours from leaving air bases in England to contemplate the dangers lying ahead during the daring daytime missions over Germany.

My father-in-law, like most of the other men in his crew, turned to the Bible during each of the 25 missions when thoughts of mortality were so immediate. In his case, it was a New Testament given to him as a teen by his Sunday School teacher in Georgetown, Conn.

Reading the Bible was "something quite personal between you and God," he recalled some 70 years later. "It gave you some solace."

The Bible speaks no less intimately today to millions of Americans in their time of greatest need, new research affirms.

The recently released national study on "The Bible in American Life" found people are most likely to read the Bible for spiritual reasons such as prayer and devotion and seeking guidance in personal decisions and relationships with spouses, parents, children and friends.

And those most in need, including those with lower incomes and traditionally disadvantaged populations such as black Americans, are the most likely to be frequent Bible readers, according to the study, conducted by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The center commissioned questions that were asked on the 2012 General Social Survey and the 2012 National Congregations Study.

A separate study on the effects of Bible reading during stressful times found participants - black men and women in the Southeast - used Scripture passages for guidance, comfort, strength, and peace during sleepless nights or when feeling depressed.

"In some instances, participants reported a reliance on Godís word as the sole strategy used that helped them through their traumatic life events," researchers from the University of North Carolina, Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, North Carolina State University and Duke University reported in the journal Nursing Research.

The most frequently cited Scripture was the 23rd Psalm, which says in part "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want."

The Psalms, and Psalm 23 in particular, was also the favorite biblical book of respondents to the national study on Bible reading.

Two other of the most frequently cited verses were Philippians 4:13, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me," and the story of David and Goliath, where the underdog is lifted up by God.

"The Bible has historically been a source of great comfort and consolation for those who read it regularly, or who turn to it in times of crisis. This historical usage of Scripture seems to have continued, and with surprising strength, into the present." said University of Notre Dame historian Mark Noll, an advisor to the Bible in American life project.

No. 2 on the most popular list of biblical books was the Gospel of John, especially John 3:16.

The New Testament that my father-in-law carried with him throughout the Second World War sits before him at the kitchen table where he spends much of his time these days. Portions of the black covering have worn away at the edges.

The page from the Gospel of John that he read over and over during his time in the Eighth Air Force some seven decades ago is now loosened from its binding.

Yet at 94, with parts of his memory fading and again with long days to contemplate thoughts of mortality, he can recite unaided the verse that continues to provide assurance to tens of millions of Americans that they are not alone:

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

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