The ancient and medieval Church understood the Bible at several levels. Allegorical, typological, moral, and mystical interpretations flourished alongside historical-literal readings. The hand of the Church kept the reins taut enough to prevent the Bible from becoming Babel. The Protestant Reformers rejected this traditional control; they left the meaning of the Bible in individual hands (in principle, at least) and at the same time exalted it as the sole foundation of faith. This mixture was potentially explosive -- indeed, religious radicals like the Anabaptists touched it off. From the beginning, therefore, the cautious founders of Protestantism looked with a wary eye on readings that wandered very far from the obvious meaning of the text.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this suspicion hardened into outright literalism. By 1800, Protestants in general and Evangelicals in particular read the Bible with a flat-footed literalness unparalleled in the annals of Christianity. Any apparent statement of act, however incongruous with experience, was taken as fact, and fact stamped with divine authority.
This literalism was not obscurantist or simple-minded, as it sometimes appears in retrospect. On the contrary, it developed form an effort to make the Bible fit common sense: to insist on the rationality of the divine revelation and to quash mystical exegesis that could be neither controlled nor clearly understood. Protestant literalism insisted that the ordinary human being could grasp the Word of God in ordinary human terms. As such, literalism formed part of the larger drive to secure religious belief by making it comprehensible, by keeping it within the bounds of human experience and understanding.
In this case, the effort backfired, for literalism put the authority of the Bible at risk. Literalism implied that the Bible's truth depended on its factuality, but scientific developments in the early nineteenth century made Biblical "facts" increasingly questionable. Usually unintended, this scientific subversion came from several directions. Moses's account of the creation of the world in six days, detailed in the first chapter of Genesis, did not square with Pierre Simon Laplace's nebular hypothesis, which required a good deal more than six days for the formation of the solar system and was, to boot, uncomfortably vague as to God's role in the whole business. (Laplace distinctly did not regret his subversion.) But Laplace's theory, though broached at the turn of the century, roused little interest in America before the 1840s.
In that decade, the Bible also ran into trouble from the "American school" of anthropology. These writers, some motivated mostly by racism but all invoking scientific evidence (principally cranial measurements), argued for "polygenesis," the separate creation of several distinct human races, as opposed to "monogenesis," the descent of all human beings from one primal pair. The most eminent American naturalist, Louis Agassiz of Harvard, lent his authority to their hypothesis. Polygenesis frankly declared that Genesis was seriously deficient: Moses had neglected to mention several other Adams and Eves. And most of the opposition to polygenesis arose because of the apparent slur on Scripture. Josiah Nott, one of the leading polygenesists, snarled that he needed "just to get the dam'd stupid crowd safely around Moses & the difficulty is at an end." The crowd did not budge easily: it had too much invested in Bibilical literalism. Neither the nebular hypothesis nor polygenesis raised a real storm, however, primarily because by the 1840s another disturber of the peace, geology, had already made a shambles of strict literalism.
Ominous rumblings were heard among natural historians in the last years of the eighteenth century, but it was Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830-1833) that delivered the crushing blow to Biblical literalism. Lyell convincingly demonstrated that millions of years of slow working of natural forces, not the six thousand years allowed by a strict reading of the Old Testament, had shaped the present face of the earth. If Lyell were right, the entire Creation narrative lapsed into mythology. The implications for Biblical authority -- and for a Christian natural theology -- were potentially devastating. Geology suddenly obsessed American theologians, and they began vigorously to backpedal on the issue of literal exegesis. In the 1830s, even Evangelicals softened their insistence on reading literally every single word; by the 1850s, the Mosaic chronology was rapidly becoming an antique. It took a while for the dust to settle, but by 1860 rigid literalism was largely left to the uneducated or uneducable. A friend of Chauncey Wright recalled Wright's encountering a woman who "believed implicitly that the world was made in six days. He looked at her as if she were a new order of being, and I shall never forget the tone of his exclamation, 'Is it possible?'" Wright was no Christian, but many a Christian minister shared his attitude toward literalsim. The veracity of the Bible was rescued only by repudiating its total factuality.
James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America, pp. 143-4