Textual Communities and Religious Networks in 18th-Century British America

AHA Session 208
North American Conference on British Studies 4
American Society of Church History 31
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 311/312 (Hilton Atlanta)
Kate Carté Engel, Southern Methodist University
Kate Carté Engel, Southern Methodist University

Session Abstract

Increasing literacy and circulation of print, Benedict Anderson has suggested, made it possible for early modern readers in North America to see themselves as abstracted participants in a common national project—members of an “imagined community” that transcended local loyalties. Michael Warner has also argued for the crucial role of print in the shaping, not of a monolithic nationalism, but of “publics and counterpublics”—whose mutual negotiations shaped early American identities, secular and religious. In studies of American religious print culture, Candy Gunther Brown and Frank Lambert have proposed, respectively, an “evangelical textual community” and a “religious public sphere.” Trish Loughran has challenged these narratives of coherence by positing a fragmented rather than integrated sense of community in early America, due to uneven circulation networks and the local nature of print cultures. This is a welcome, if complicating, corrective: strong localism could be at odds with imperial, national, or religious identities; and texts could diffuse community as well as ideas.

Drawing upon these and other recent arguments about print and community, this panel investigates this range of relations between texts and religious networks in eighteenth-century British America. By examining the publication and distribution of religious books, we discover that missionary motivations shaped (or were constrained by) the economic and material practices of the book trades. Yet not all exchanges of print were so centralized. The copying and circulating of unpublished manuscript books persisted as late as the Revolutionary era. Whether reaffirming religious orthodoxies or promoting more radical ideas, sharing manuscripts facilitated personal networks and local religious identities. Indeed, the informal exchange of texts, ideas, or news enabled the creation of religious networks that often cut across ecclesiastical structures or denominational affiliation.

Exploring the uses and circulation of texts exposes the diversity of often overlapping Protestant networks. Jennifer Snead demonstrates that evangelical missionary projects among southern enslaved peoples, New England Native communities, and the industrializing cities of Northern England were knit together in an extensive Atlantic network. Jessica Parr studies informal networks in New England and the wider “providential Atlantic,” breaking out of the denominational silos that often structure the region’s religious history. The networks that Keith Grant explores are extended (and perhaps strained) by the migration of New England Congregationalists to Nova Scotia, and then further adjusted by the American Revolution and New Light Revivals.

The panel is interdisciplinary, combining the history of ideas with the history of the book, the study of social networks, and the approach of Atlantic history. Our panelists represent departments of History, English, and Religious Studies. The chair/commentator, Kate Carté Engel, has engaged in a series of studies on Protestant religious networks in the Atlantic world. The panel hopes to stimulate conversations about the circulation of ideas and the creation of networks in the Atlantic world, about the specifically religious (rather than commercial) influences on the book trades, and how religious texts shaped and diversified communities.

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