Publishing the Sacred: The Religious Uses of Popular Print in Early America

AHA Session 94
Friday, January 7, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 311 (Hynes Convention Center)
Robert A. Gross, University of Connecticut
Daniel A. Cohen, Case Western Reserve University

Session Abstract

This panel combines book history and American religious history to investigate the process by which religion was articulated in early American culture.  In particular, it will explore the ways in which popular print, including pamphlets, almanacs, and periodicals, brought the sacred to bear on everyday life.  Judging by sales figures, the landscape of early American print was fundamentally religious throughout the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth century. Works ranging from the Bible and primers to sermons and devotional classics were the backbone of the printing industry.  Even popular genres often labeled “secular” by historians, such as almanacs, were replete with religious content and, as this panel will show, historical significance. Uninterested in an escape from the longstanding association between the printed page and a call to moral, spiritual, or social transformation, printers and the audiences they attempted to reach infused the printed world of early America with an array of religious content. By using printed sources to engage with questions from both book history and American religious history, this panel will demonstrate how the dissemination of print reflected, challenged, and shaped understandings of the sacred in the American past.           

The three papers in this session explore a variety of ways in which the religious content of popular print disseminated ideas about the sacred.  Sara Gronim’s paper uses the life and work of an eccentric seventeenth-century Pennsylvania printer named Daniel Leeds to explain how print could foster new links between mystical, unorthodox understandings of the natural world and preexisting, traditional cosmologies.  T.J. Tomlin’s paper relies on the religious content of eighteenth-century almanacs, a ubiquitous popular genre, to uncover how publishers’ efforts to reach the widest possible audience placed an emphasis on interdenominational cooperation at the center of popular print.  Lily Santoro’s paper turns to Christian periodicals printed between 1770 and 1840 to explain how an overtly religious genre made Enlightenment science palatable to its readers. 

The session’s chair, Robert Gross, winner of the 1977 Bancroft Prize, is also a preeminent figure in American book history.  Most recently, he is the co-editor of An Extensive Republic: Print, Culture, and Society in the New Nation (forthcoming, University of North Carolina Press, 2010), volume 2 of the American Antiquarian Society’s collaborative series, A History of the Book in America.  Daniel Cohen, the session’s commentator, has published widely on the history of print, including his first book, Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860 (1993), “Martha Buck’s Copybook: New England Tragedy Verse and the Scribal Lineage of the American Ballad Tradition” (Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 2004); and “Making Hero Strong: Teenage Ambition, Story-Paper Fiction, and the Generational Recasting of American Women’s Authorship” (Journal of the Early Republic, 2010).  The panel will be of interest to historians of early American cultural history, book history, and American religious history.

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