Evangelical Print Culture, the Public Sphere, and the Disordering of the Union in Missouri, 1837–60

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 12:10 PM
Colorado Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Lucas P. Volkman, University of Missouri-Columbia
This paper investigates how evangelicals in Missouri aggressively exploited the emerging public sphere of print communications in ways that contributed fundamentally to the mob violence over slavery that plagued the state after the abolitionist postal campaign in 1835-37. With the rise of town-based churches, Missouri evangelicals turned quickly to circulating a variety of printed materials, including tracts and books, designed to educate youth, enlist new members, and propagate the faith, an enterprise in which evangelical women played a central role. The evangelical print campaign partook of the larger print revolution organized by the affluent middle class in the three decades preceding the Civil War. By the 1830s, evangelical publishing efforts had generated “imagined communities” of the faithful in both town and country. Evangelical leaders in Missouri had traditionally eschewed direct involvement of the churches in politics. But with the advent of editorial pieces in denominational papers that declared contentious positions on the question of slavery, editors of these organs wrote purposefully for an audience that included both church members and the general public.

Given the various conceptual incongruities undercutting coherent discussion of divisive issues and the inflamed passions surrounding them, evangelical print culture did not work to promote rational deliberation of pressing political problems in an orderly “public sphere” as libertarian proponents of a free market place of ideas professed.  But evangelically-driven print culture spawned antagonistic understandings of what it meant to be a Protestant Christian, an American, and a Missourian. The volatile mix of spiritual and political issues in the public prints played a central role in ratcheting up conflict over slavery. Unrestrained exploitation of the public sphere by the evangelical presses roiled the raw emotions of partisans and fueled the bloody vigilantism and anti-press mob violence that occurred in the western counties of Missouri and in Kansas.

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