People don’t read their Bibles like they used to, right?
In the 1940s and 1950s, before the liberal 1960s, nearly everyone read their Bibles regularly, of course, but we have now gotten away from regular Bible reading and are paying the price for it.
You can find lots of fundamentalist preachers hawking this idea.
Turns out, U.S. adults are reading the Bible at about the same rate that they were reading it in the 1940s and 1950s, and the percentage who are reading the Bible daily has likely increased, according to the only poll-based analysis spanning a wide time-frame I found—an analysis conducted as part of a unique, large-scale investigation of the Bible titled The Bible in American Life which was published in 2017 by Oxford University Press.
The Number of People Reading the Bible Has Doubled
The number of U.S. adults reading their Bibles has certainly increased dramatically since the 1940s. The surveys noted by the investigation suggest that about 80 million U.S. adults read the Bible in 1942 while about 164 million will likely read it this year. This is mostly because the U.S. population has more than doubled over that time frame.
I expected to find lots of reports that the percentage of adults reading the Bible regularly had fallen off dramatically. I saw lots of declarations along those lines, but none that backed up the declaration with evidence or substantive analysis. Instead, the two in-depth reports on the issue I located indicated the opposite of what I expected to find.
The Percentage Reading the Bible Has Probably Stayed About the Same
Professor Corwin E. Smidt, in a chapter of The Bible in American Life, analyzed polls and surveys conducted by a variety of entities from 1942 to 2012 and found little meaningful decline in levels of Bible reading among U.S. adults from 1942 to 2012. Somewhat counterintuitively, he found a substantial increase in daily Bible reading.
The poll data analyzed by Professor Smidt showed 59% reported reading the Bible in 1942 while 50% reported doing so in 2012. The percentage reporting doing so in the intervening years ranged from 58 to 68%.
He reasoned that the 9% decrease is not particularly meaningful for several reasons. Many of the surveys had margins of error of 4% (thus the 68% might just as well have been reflecting 64%, etc.). There is less social pressure to report “socially desired” responses today than there was in earlier years, so some part of the decrease is likely attributable to that lessening of social pressure. Similarly, he noted, the levels of Bible reading reported by people in the 1940s and 1950s (and possibly in the 1970s) may have been high due to this social pressure. Also, the polls from 1940s and 1950s were conducted at war-time (WW II and the Korean War), which likely increased Bible reading above other years.
The Percentage Reading the Bible Daily Has Increased Tremendously
The poll data showed 11% reported reading the Bible daily in 1942 while an impressive 24% reported doing so in 2012. The percentage reporting doing so in the intervening years ranged from 11 to 19%.
This is an astounding increase in daily Bible reading—this could be due to the availability of computer-prompted daily-reading applications (via e-mail, mobile-telephone applications, etc.).
The data studied by Professor Smidt is somewhat comparable to data analyzed by the editors of the book, Professors Philip Goff, Arthur E. Farnsley III, and Peter J. Thuesen. They found that 48% of the U.S. population read the Bible outside of services within the past year (it appears that the data Professor Smidt analyzed did not differentiate between inside and outside of services). The Bible in American Life included the first major investigation of Bible reading outside of services. The investigation found that 9% read the Bible daily outside of services. This latter number is substantially different from the number found by Professor Smidt in his study. It is unclear why it is so different. It may be because the outside-services investigation appears to have asked if the person had read the Bible daily over the last 30 days. A person asking themselves if they have done something daily over the last 30 days might take that question more literally than a person asking themselves if they have read the Bible daily over the past few months (so missing a few days here and there might not cause them to answer no). Still, approximately 1 in 10 U.S. adults reading the Bible daily is about the same as the percentage reported in 1942.
In sum, the report suggests the possibility of a slight decrease overall in Bible reading in the United States among adults from the 1940s to today, but possibly no actual decrease, and highlights a likely increase, possibly a very large increase, in daily Bible reading over the past 70 years.
Pew Research Center Study: More Than 1 in 3 Read Scripture Weekly
This 2017 publication is echoed by a 2014 survey conducted by The Pew Research Center. It found that 53% of American adults read scripture at least several times a year (whether the Bible, the Koran, or other scripture). It also reported that 35% read scripture at least once a week.
Pew obtained approximately the same results with this survey in 2007 and 2014.
People Are Reading Less and Less: 1 in 4 Read No Book at All
While I could not find data on book-reading in the 1940s and 1950s, a 2016 Pew Research survey revealed that 26% of adults in the U.S. had not read any part of any book in the prior year, up from 19% in 2011. People seem to favor other kinds of media over books, and this likely negatively impacts Bible reading, too.
Bible Readers: We Are Not Alone
So, read your Bible!
Talk about it with people!
People around you are probably reading it, too. And there is a good chance they are reading it often— 1 in 4 daily, 1 in 3 weekly. They would probably like to talk about it.
Not a Bible reader, but interested in starting or starting again? I recommend starting with the Book of John. The parts of the Bible are called “books” but they are the length of chapters or less.
You can find John online here.
If you read the first few paragraphs and think “what?”, don’t worry, that is normal. Even now, when I read it, I still think, “what?” Keep reading!
Sources & Notes
The Bible in American Life (Oxford University Press 2017)https://books.google.com/books?id=xHgLDgAAQBAJ&pg=PA210&lpg=PA210&dq=survey+bible+reading+frequency&source=bl&ots=I12DSblYJU&sig=mqCquSW3dowORy58_nt87FprX10&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwicsfHlvdPZAhXskOAKHYBjCYQQ6AEIZjAG#v=onepage&q=survey%20bible%20reading%20frequency&f=false
I checked The Bible in American Life out of the library, too. The first part of the book presents the result of its unique survey on U.S. adults Bible reading outside of services. Aspects of it are very interesting. I hope to find time to write a blog post on some of the analysis offered there.
See this article for the 9% and other lower reports of daily Bible reading. The difference might lie in the way the question was asked, as I mentioned in the article: https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2014/march/most-popular-and-fastest-growing-bible-translation-niv-kjv.html
Pew Research Religious Landscape Study: http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/frequency-of-reading-scripture/
2016 Pew Research on reading less: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/23/who-doesnt-read-books-in-america/