Photo by PBFloyd/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by PBFloyd/iStock / Getty Images

Hiding in plain sight 

There are thousands of biblical, religious, and classical place names (toponyms) in the United States, many more than any other nation. Names from the ancient world are found in all areas of the United States, not just the so-called Bible Belt:  Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; Tekoa, Washington; Abilene, Texas; Moab, Utah; Samaria, Idaho; Canaan, Florida; Cincinnati, Ohio (named for Lucius Q. Cincinnatus, a Roman patrician); Mount Hebron, California; Bethel, Alaska and Athens, Georgia to mention just a few.  

They have long been considered, mistakenly, as colonial-era remnants of European naming-as-claiming. If that were the case, why are there not more of them in the other Americas: South America, Central America or Canada?

In fact, most U.S. biblical and classical names place names were conferred in the nineteenth-century, a period when the United States tripled in area and increased in population eightfold.  Classical and biblical names correlate with the violent dislocation of Natives and acquisition of their territories; increasing national investments in slavery and concomitant sectionalism leading up to the Civil War; and a growing industrialized and modernized international identity.    

Biblical toponyms exemplify “scripturalizing,” the processes by which human construct their worlds using canonical terms and texts. [1]  From Ophir, California to Newark (New Ark), New Jersey, biblical names help shore up the construction of human hierarchies.

Place names are not innocent. Hiding in plain sight, classical and biblical names illuminate diverse examples by which white supremacy, inequalities, and other power dynamics can be seen.

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[1] Vincent L. Wimbush, “Introduction: TEXTureS, Gestures, Power” in Theorizing Scriptures: New Critical Orientations to a Cultural Phenomenon, ed. Vincent L. Wimbush (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 10. See also The Institute for Signifying Scriptures. 

 

 

This blog is the project and product of R.C. Rodman, who wonders at the use and politics of scripture in the making of U.S. modernities, from Stone Cold Steve Austin's "I'll 3:16 your ass!," to place naming, to the Second Amendment.