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Manifestations of Faith

In April 1815, a Presbyterian minister named William Dickey who lived in Salem, Kentucky, received an exciting delivery. Salem is located at the confluence of the Cumberland and Ohio Rivers, and had been settled by westering migrants from Salem, North Carolina, only fifteen years before. Located near the border of what was then Illinois Territory, Salem was a tiny backcountry settlement, far removed from any centers of publication. Yet Dickey was waiting for books. A lot of books.

Rev. Dickey and his flock were the beneficiaries of the work of Samuel Mills and of charitable organizations dedicated to the mass production of religious books. Mills was an itinerant minister who toured the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys starting churches and distributing tracts and Bibles on behalf of the American Tract Society and other groups. Rev. Dickey wrote to Mills on his receipt of the bundle of several hundred tracts, saying that he had distributed them to his parishioners: “I directed those who received them, to read them over and over, and then hand them to their neighbors. . . . Religious Tracts have been much desired by us, ever since we heard of Societies of this kind. That so many numbers, and 6,000 of each, should be printed for gratuitous distribution, astonishes our people. They say, It is the Lord’s doing, and marvellous in our eyes.

Mills described this exchange in an account of his travels published later that same year, Report of a Missionary Tour Through that Part of the United States Which Lies West of the Allegany Mountains (Andover, 1815). This encounter, and thousands of others like it, points to a profound transformation in American book history: the achievement by Protestant evangelical groups of the dream of mass communication, of giving everybody in the United States access to the same printed message at the same time, no matter if they lived in Boston or Philadelphia or in a tiny hamlet in far western Kentucky. The consolidation of hundreds of smaller missionary and tract societies into national media monoliths—the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, the American Sunday School Union, the Methodist Book Concern—would flood the new republic with cheap (if not free) religious books. The legacy of their work can be found in library catalogs across the United States, including that of the Clements Library.

The American Tract Society published different versions of the perennially popular religious allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan, in different languages and formats, many for low-cost distribution. This ca. 1849 volume is an exception, printed by the Society but directed toward a more affluent audience. According to an advertisement, it “well deserves the neatest style of typography—the choicest engraving and the richest binding that art can bestow.”

The metaphor of the early United States as being a “religious free market” is by now quite tired, but that does not mean that it’s entirely wrong. Compared to the countries from which most European settlers came, the American colonies and then the United States were characterized by a shocking amount of religious variety. The earliest settler colonies in North America reflected this diversity: Catholic Québec and Mexico bracketing Calvinist Massachusetts, polyglot New Amsterdam/New York, Quaker Pennsylvania, and Anglican Virginia. Alongside these various faith traditions existed the varied belief systems of Native American peoples and the many religions of West and Central Africa (including Islam) that survived the Middle Passage and evolved in multiple ways on American and Caribbean plantations. While elements of state religious requirements existed in certain colonies, as in the case of 17th-century Massachusetts, by the First Great Awakening in the mid-18th century variation and denominational division were the salient characteristics of North American religion, and these trends would only accelerate in the 19th century.

Nothing about the United States struck Alexis de Tocqueville as being quite so uniquely American on his travels in the early 1830s as what he called the “spirit of association.” The freedom to form associations around particular interests or beliefs was universal in the new nation, Tocqueville wrote: “Each new need immediately awakens the idea of association. The art of association then becomes . . . the mother science. Everyone studies it and applies it.” This quality particularly applied in the realm of religion, where small groups of like-minded believers would without restriction break away from churches and denominations to start their own. And especially for religious groups, one of the most important markers of legitimacy was having a publication program. These small printing operations functioned at the opposite end of the media spectrum from the huge cross-denominational publishing houses based in Philadelphia and New York, but they had the same goals: solidifying a body of accepted beliefs and winning converts to it. From Strangite Mormons on an island in northern Lake Michigan to Massachusetts Congregationalist missionaries in Maui to frontier Methodist circuit riders, the production and distribution of religious books and tracts often marked the first appearance of print in newly appropriated parts of the American empire.

These two streams of religious publishing—metropolitan mass media and small-scale local print production—are tributaries to the core holdings of most collections of early Americana in the country. As readers of The Quarto will know, the first book printed in what is now the United States is the 1640 Bay Psalm Book, a book of scripture used in worship services in Puritan Massachusetts. Books, pamphlets, and broadsides containing Scriptural exegesis and doctrinal disputation dominated 17th-century North American publishing, and while other genres (politics, philosophy, fiction, natural history) came into prominence, the significance of religious publishing never diminished. In the 19th-century United States, the federal government is generally considered to be the single largest producer of printed material, but its output would be dwarfed if one were to combine the production of all of the denominational and non-denominational religious publishers, not to mention the countless reform organizations dedicated to causes such as abolition and temperance that had their roots in evangelical Protestantism. As the essays in this issue will show, the Clements holds resources that enable the study of American religious experience in all its variety, from theocratic persecution of Quakers in Massachusetts in the 1660s to the eschatological sectarianism of the Millerites in the 1840s.

Lemuel Kelley Washburn (1846-1927) compiled the Cosmian Hymn Book (Boston, 1888) for the Freethought community, with the goal of keeping it “perfectly free from all sectarianism.” The hymns extol the virtues of nature and of freedom from all dogma with lines such as, “No king-craft is dreaded, no priest-craft is feared, our laws, our own making; our counsels, revered.”

To be a Protestant Christian in early America was to by definition be interested in print, since Protestantism of all varieties relied on the individual believer’s reading of the Bible. Further avenues for research remain to be explored in the faith traditions of people who had different levels of access to print, such as Native Americans and enslaved Africans. All too often their belief systems were targeted for destruction by Christian missionaries who circulated print to combat what they saw as heathenism. But, over time, some of these religious traditions (and their syncretic offspring) also turned to print to bind their communities together. Groups who defined themselves by their non-belief and their lack of institutional ties—agnostics, Freethinkers, and Spiritualists—also turned to print, publishing their own periodicals and, in the case of one recent Clements acquisition, even producing their own hymnal.

These groups will pose a particular challenge for historians of the 21st century. According to a 2019 report from the Pew Research Center, 26% of Americans said their religious affiliation was “nothing in particular.” These “nones” represent the fastest-growing “religious” group in the United States. But how will future scholars learn what they believe (or do not) if they don’t write about it? Agnostics in the 19th-century United States published endlessly about what they thought about religion, perhaps in an effort to push back against the overwhelming tide of religious books and pamphlets. Even in their unbelief, they associated with other unbelievers, and left records for contemporary scholars to study. One hundred years from now we may know far less about our current society’s religious or non-religious beliefs. But the rich holdings of materials at the Clements for the study of the history of American religion—“marvellous in our eyes” in their own way—can help explain how we arrived where we are now.

Paul Erickson
Randolph G. Adams Director of the Clements Library