Set in Stone
America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments
Ever wonder what became of the Ten Commandments?
No, not the version Charleton Heston brought down from Mount Sinai in the 1956 film, but the original tablets themselves, the ones Moses carried down the mountain thousands of years ago. What happened to them?
In search of answers, Set in Stone looks to America where amateur archaeologists digging away in Ohio stumbled across a very ancient relic of the Ten Commandments (or so they thought); politicians proposed them as a test of citizenship; psychotherapists touted them as the perfect antidote to low self-esteem; department stores sold Ten Commandments charm bracelets (one commandment per charm); pop singers set the dos and don’ts to song and Hollywood filmmakers made ancient Israel the stuff of movie magic.
By the time you put down this book, you’ll know exactly what became of the Ten Commandments.
They landed in the US of A, where they were just about everywhere.
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A “wonderfully researched and delightfully written book…I loved this delightfully spry, witty book and I hated to see it end so soon.”
Paul Harvey, Journal of American History, June 2018
“Should Biblical texts shape a country’s legal code? How does the physicality of our monuments guide our understanding of history? To what extent does the way we tell our stories shape our moral judgments?…By placing [these] questions in the context of a country wrestling with its historical self-understanding and vision for the future, Joselit starts a conversation that will be beneficial as we seek to recalibrate our own collective moral compass.”
The Christian Century, January 3, 2018
“Jenna Weissman Joselit has done it again: through meticulous sleuthing and inexhaustible energy, she brings to life in her sparkling prose an issue you simply took for granted. The 10 commandments, written on stone, should have needed little comment. But they have a history, a long one, and multiple stories which will surprise, fascinate, and inform you.”
An Amazon satisfied customer
“Set in Stone is a fascinating tour of forgotten moments in American religious history. Through lively writing and illuminating research, Jenna Weissman Joselit has unearthed the astonishing story of the many times Americans have rediscovered the Ten Commandments and made them their own. With fights over public monuments to these biblical rules still making news, it’s never been more important to understand where the nation’s volatile religious symbols came from, and what’s at stake in our disagreements over where they belong.”
Peter Manseau, Curator of Religion, National Museum of American History
“In this beautifully researched book, historian Jenna Weissman Joselit celebrates the presence and significance of the Ten Commandments in the American experience. She offers a fascinating tour of the delightful variety of ways in which that ancient code is woven into the ordinary fabric of American life — and how its meaning has informed the deepest expressions of the American creed. Surely a ‘Thou Shalt Read.'”
Charles Krauthammer, syndicated columnist
“A brilliant reading of a durable icon, the Ten Commandments, in word and substance. There are many a surprising twist and turn in this imaginatively researched study of a ubiquitous object of material religion, whether in synagogues and churches, comic books and movies, at the Passover table, or in courts of law. The writing sparkles with wit and insight, a delight to read. Set in Stone is simply exemplary in every regard.”
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, author of Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage
“The Ten Commandments—do you know them? Are you sure? Many Americans have been finding them, recasting them, and enshrining them in amazing and dubious ways for over 200 years. With a scholarly dispatch heightened by dry wit, Jenna Weissman Joselit’s Set in Stone explores America’s long-standing Ten Commandment obsession, from 1860 archaeological ‘discoveries’ (dubious) to Cecil B. DeMille’s two blockbuster Ten Commandment movies (dubious and wildly successful)—an incisive, insightful, and wonderfully informative book about America’s surprising passion for ancient religious texts.”
Jon Butler, author of New World Faiths: Religion in Colonial America
“The Ten Commandments have been deeply chiseled into the American religious imagination. With vibrant prose and wry observation, Jenna Weissman Joselit explores the nation’s long-running captivation with the Decalogue—in everything from archaeological relics to Hollywood spectacles to municipal monuments to self-help regimens to synagogue renderings. Set in Stone is a materially rich history of a canonical cultural preoccupation.”
Leigh Eric Schmidt, Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities, Washington University in St. Louis
I’m an historian of American vernacular culture, which is a fancy way of saying that I study the ways in which Americans of the 19th and 20th centuries went about their daily lives: raising a family, attending to their beliefs, shopping, furnishing their homes, getting dressed and goofing around.
To get out the word that history matters, I teach both undergraduates and graduate students at the George Washington University, curate exhibitions, deliver public lectures, maintain a blog and publish as often as I can.