The recent success of the Left Behind book series, which sold over 50 million books, points to an enormous readership of evangelical Christian literature that has not gone unnoticed by the mainstream publishing world. But this is not a recent phenomenon; the evangelical publishing community has been growing for more than two hundred years. Candy Gunther Brown explores the roots of this far-flung conglomeration of writers, publishers, and readers, from the founding of the Methodist Book Concern in 1789 to the 1880 publication of the runaway best-seller Ben-Hur. Brown shows how this distinct print community used the Word of the Bible and printed words of their own to pursue a paradoxical mission: purity from and a transformative presence in the secular world. Although scholars usually claim that religious publishing fell prey to the secularizing engines of commodification, Brown argues that evangelicals knew what they were doing by adopting a range of strategies, including the use of popular narratives and beautiful packaging. An informal canon of texts emerged in the nineteenth century, consisting of sermons, histories, memoirs, novels, gift books, Sunday school libraries, periodicals, and hymnals. Looking beyond the uses of texts in religious conversion, Brown examines how textual practices have transmitted cultural values both within evangelical communities and across a larger American cultural milieu. An epilogue conveys crucial insights into twenty-first-century ties between religion and the media.
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About the Author
Candy Gunther Brown is professor of religious studies at Indiana University.
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The Word in the WorldEvangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880
By Candy Gunther Brown
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhat Is Evangelical Print Culture?
The opening passage of Kate M'Clellan's children's book Two Christmas Gifts (1866), published by the Protestant Episcopal Society for the Promotion of Evangelical Knowledge, provides a window onto the tension-ridden world of evangelical print culture:
The man with the huge basket moved away at last, and Johnny Lee slipped into his place before the bright store- window, which was unlike any other in the long street; for it contained only Bibles, Prayer-Books, and markers; but never before had Johnny seen such elegant book-marks nor such handsomely-bound books. The one that pleased him most was a monstrous Bible in rich morocco binding, with very large, clear type. If he only were rich enough to buy that, what a beautiful present it would be for him to give to his lame brother Willy, and surely no person's eyes ever could ache while looking at such large letters, even if the lamp-light were very dim. And the Bible was opened at one of Willy's favorite chapters: "The Lord is my shepherd." If he only were rich! Then the poor boy drew the thin scarf over his red ears, rubbed his cold hands, and looked far into the store. How full it seemed, and no wonder; for wasn't it Christmas Eve? and was not the book that contained the tidings of great joy brought to earth on the first Christmas night, the best possible present to make whenever that time came round?
The passage captures a number of the hopes and contradictions that characterized the entrance of evangelical writers, publishers, and readers into the print marketplace of nineteenth-century America. The elegance of the Bible-store window attracts Johnny's attention; he eyes the brightness and fullness of all the shops lining the long street on Christmas Eve and the unique products in this particular shop. What first catches his attention is not the content of the Bibles and prayer books; he doubtless would have seen these kinds of books before. He notes the books' handsome bindings and quality type and fantasizes about being rich.
Johnny's interactions with the open Bible suggest the close connection between religious and commercial meanings. Johnny at first perceives worldly riches as requisite to the possession of the otherworldly wealth contained within the Bible's pages. Johnny does not neglect to notice that the Bible is opened to a favorite chapter, but the passage is ironic in this context. "The Lord is my shepherd," begins the Twenty-third Psalm, the next line of which reads "I shall not want," implying that the Lord provides for every need. Reading this passage does not lead Johnny to rest content but causes him to long for riches. Yet Johnny does not simply equate worldly and otherworldly wealth. After adjusting his thin scarf and rubbing his cold hands, he refocuses his attention on the power of the Word itself, incarnated by a full range of more and less expensive packaging into the world of human relationships.
Johnny's longing to give his brother a Bible, even if not a fancy one, on Christmas Eve reflects the campaign of Victorian evangelicals to Christianize Christmas, formerly celebrated as a secular holiday, and to reshape popular literary markets, like that for giftbooks. Evangelical giftbooks not only sentimentalized relationships between givers and recipients and expressed middle-class standards of taste and status, as did secular giftbooks, but also invoked participation in a textual community inhabited by all Christians (figure 1.1). The Bible occupied a privileged position among a dense constellation of evangelical texts, such as Two Christmas Gifts, that writers, publishers, buyers, recipients, and readers used to influence one another's spiritual progress from this world to the next. M'Clellan purportedly aims not to replace Bible sales or reading but to promote Bible study. Even as the text explicitly encourages the buying and giving of Bibles and advertises its own suitability as a Christmas gift, it concludes by urging its "dear reader" to receive "that most precious of all Christmas gifts," Jesus Christ. The language of the text simultaneously embraces its own market participation and claims to transcend mere consumerism by offering its readers the most precious gift of all, Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word.
Two Christmas Gifts exemplifies the struggle of nineteenth-century evangelicals to balance purity with presence as they used the Word and words to transform their world. The book represents one of the largest branches of evangelical publishing, Sunday school literature, and is typical in themes and style of texts produced by several expanding denominational publishing boards. Like many evangelical publications, this one was manufactured and sold in New York, the center of the book trades by midcentury. The book's author, Kate M'Clellan, belonged to an expanding class of prolific women authors who sacralized home and family by portraying pious mothers presiding over fireside religion. In alternating between third-person narrative and direct address to the reader, the text characteristically blends imaginative and didactic styles and blurs the genres of fiction and lay sermon. The book points to the commercialization not only of Bibles but also of a wide range of evangelical literary productions-such as Two Christmas Gifts itself-marketed as Christmas gifts and sold in bright-windowed stores (figure 1.2). In the world of evangelical publishing, print artifacts functioned simultaneously as words, objects, and commodities. Evangelical texts possessed cultural value both because of the purity of their message and because they exhibited qualities such as fine craftsmanship esteemed by those within and without evangelicalism. The two Christmas gifts of M'Clellan's story suggest that the cultural practices of bookmaking, selling, buying, giving, and reading have overlapping commercial and religious significance.
As the story line of Two Christmas Gifts develops, the dialectic of Bibles as sacred texts and as material artifacts plays itself out. Johnny's mother, Mrs. Lee, shares his desire to buy for Willy (her son and Johnny's brother) not just any Bible, but a "nice" one. Indeed, the story makes clear that the lame boy, Willy, already owns a personal copy of the Bible, although the print is "too fine" for him to read it easily. The high quality of the large Bible adds not only to its material value but also to its religious meaning. Mrs. Lee, with a hint of disappointment, selects a smaller Bible with large type and "bound in red," which costs all her remaining money. Every time the author mentions this Bible throughout the rest of the story, she calls attention to its red binding. As the family later gathers to admire the gift, all pronounce the red Bible "the most precious book in the house," even though there is at least one other Bible in the house, and likely more than one, since the Bible with the fine print is described as Willy's. When Mrs. Lee visits the Bible store, she secures not only the red volume for Willy but also a job for Johnny working as a shop assistant; the whole family benefits economically because Mrs. Lee buys and gives a sacred gift to her son.
This first Christmas gift of the story empowers an evangelical priesthood of all believers to contend for the Word in the world. Every night Willy selects a passage in his red Bible, and every morning Johnny turns the leaves of the "great," "beautiful" Bible in the store to that same page. By catching the attention of passersby, first through its beauty and then through its contents, the open Bible does "good" to many. Willy rejoices that he with his cheap red Bible can indirectly exert a moral influence through the great, beautiful Bible: "It was such a comfort to be doing something daily for Jesus, and to feel that, though only a poor lame boy, he might still be the means, under God, of doing much good." M'Clellan depicts the respective values of the red and morocco Bibles as, in one sense, equivalent: both possess the "words of life." The display Bible is positioned to do more good than the red privately owned Bible possibly could, yet the careful selection of passages from the smaller Bible enhances the larger Bible's influence. Paradoxically, the larger Bible is both more and less valuable than the smaller, from which it partially derives its efficacy. The red Bible is more valuable to Willy since it is just cheap enough that his mother can afford it; the morocco Bible's high commercial value makes it useless to him, because it is unattainable.
The second Christmas gift presented in the story is the great Bible itself, which extends poor Willy's influence into the home of his wealthy cousin, Little Marian, the recipient of the Bible. This second Bible, through its fine packaging, sanctifies the worldly domain of high fashion and, by the influence it exerts, unifies diverse members of the church universal. Marian, the child of nominally Christian parents, has previously demonstrated little interest in religion; she rarely opened her own "handsome," "tiny" "blue-velvet" Bible. The morocco Bible begins a spiritual transformation in Marian's life. The great Bible first draws Marian when displayed in the book-shop window; every day she stops to read the passage to which the Bible has been opened. The morocco Bible is "not at all like" any other Bible she has tried to read; its value as a material artifact attracts Marian, inducing her to read it, submit to its authority, and apply its teachings. Although other expensive textual embodiments of the Bible have failed to win Marian or her family to Christian faith, this large, superbly crafted Bible opens "a new home - to Jesus." The episode portrays the Bible's material value as augmenting, even as essential to achieving, its spiritual value; the red Bible could not have produced the same effect. The reader knows, however, what Marian does not: that the great Bible would not have attracted her notice had it not been for the passages selected by Willy from the cheap red Bible. This scene reveals the instability of hierarchies between material and religious wealth exemplified by the contrasts of fine and cheap Bibles and by the distant worlds of the well-stocked shop and the poor lame boy's family. Marian's conversion shows that every Christian, even Willy who seemingly has no power, can influence others to join and grow as members of the church universal.
The twin centers of religious activity, for poor Johnny and Willy's family and for wealthy Marian's, are the bookstore and domestic fireside, the scenes where all the text's actions take place. The shop window is sanctified as a meeting ground for poor and rich Christians, both of whom can at least afford to look at fine commercial and religious artifacts. The worlds of print and commerce mediate between Christians otherwise separated by social difference, allowing the poorer family to influence the richer one for good. Nineteenth-century evangelicals simultaneously narrowed the focus of Christian fellowship from church to home and expanded it out again to encompass all participants in a textually defined community. The textual community invoked by Two Christmas Gifts represents an alternative to the contentiousness of socially and religiously fragmented local communities. Throughout the narrative, no character attends a single church service or meeting or mentions the name of a specific church or denomination, even though a denominational publishing society printed the book. This pattern, too, suggests several key tensions in evangelical print culture at midcentury: between domestic and institutional religion, clerical and lay religious discourse, and evangelical and denominational identity.
Evangelical Uses of the Printed Word
Evangelicals used printed texts, like M'Clellan's Two Christmas Gifts, to enact a set of sometimes competing core narrative structures that envisioned the Christian life as contending for the faith, exemplifying the priesthood of all believers, sanctifying the world, and uniting as the church universal. Each of these story frameworks, discussed at length in later chapters, balanced the goals of maintaining the Word's purity and creating a transformative presence in the world. Evangelicals, though often themselves divided along denominational lines, participated in a loosely organized print culture that constituted an alternative to "unevangelical" uses of the press-those founded upon divergent assumptions about the Word or the world.
As evangelicals used the press, alongside other means, to achieve both purity and presence, evangelical and denominational identities blossomed simultaneously and in tension. Protestants, like Catholics, affirmed that all Christians belonged to one church universal, united under Christ. Yet much as zeal for purity led the early Reformers to break from the Roman Catholic Church, subsequent generations who read the Bible for themselves often felt the need for deeper reformation. Henry VIII's notorious withdrawal of England's church from Roman leadership in 1534, for the purpose of gaining a divorce, left Calvinists dissatisfied with the vestiges of Catholicism they perceived in the reorganized Church of England. These so-called Puritans, named by their opponents for thinking themselves purer than anyone else, used both the pulpit and the press to carry on the work of reformation.
Dissenters from the Church of England developed an ecclesiology, or view of the church, as a single, universal body manifested plurally and locally. Puritan publications crystallized disagreements between the church and dissenters, which erupted in the English Civil War of the 1640s. Puritans such as John Bunyan, deprived of his pulpit and imprisoned in 1660, employed the printed word to articulate grievances against the established church. The resilience of dissent led ultimately to the Glorious Revolution and Toleration Act of 1689, which legally recognized loyal but nonconformist religious groups, namely Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and subsequently Quakers. Print was one factor among many that encouraged such a balance between a lay priesthood's yearning for purity and the needs of political and ecclesiastical leaders to maintain national and religious unity.
By the mid-nineteenth century, purity-minded Christians often thought of themselves as evangelicals, but no less often they described themselves as members of a "denomination." Denominational rivalries cut across the shared fabric of evangelicalism, generating fierce polemics around issues such as baptism and free will. Denominations worked hard to create and sustain a sense of difference, using their own publishing boards or agencies to this end.
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What People are Saying About This
A virtual taxonomy of religious publishing in nineteenth-century America, revealing its significance for comprehending the social history and material culture of the era.Journal of Interdisciplinary History
Brown's careful, abundantly detailed, and beautifully illustrated work is a major contribution to the ongoing enterprise of exploring the close but shape-shifting relationship between religion and American cultural life.American Historical Review
A learned, perceptive analysis of the dynamic efforts of evangelical denominations both to serve and to extend their memberships by means of the press. . . . Simultaneously a study in the history of reading the book and of popular religion. . . . Copiously illustrated.Journal of American History
Every scholar of 19th-century American evangelicalism should read this benchmark study of the material culture that developed between 1789 and 1880. . . . A more authentic account of evangelical print culture than earlier, oversimplified portraits; [Brown] accomplishes this through her painstaking research and perceptive writing. . . . Highly recommended.Choice
The Word in the World succeeds admirably. . . . [It] advance[s] our understanding of the relationship between religion, commerce, and print in nineteenth-century America.Business History Review
The Word in the World makes a very substantial contribution toward answering important historical and cultural questions about nineteenth-century popular American culture. It is a pioneering effort, worthy of the most serious attention, both for its grasp of what Protestants published in that era and how those publications reflected (and shaped) the culture of the time.Mark Noll, McManis Professor of History, Wheaton College