Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 4.1 (2006) 233-270
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Locating Popular Religion in the Evangelical Tract
The Roots and Routes of The Dairyman's Daughter
Kyle B. Roberts
In 1830, a woman wrote to the American Tract Society (ATS) to share an experience she had with one of its publications. At a recent gathering of her sewing circle, she heard one of its most popular tracts, The Dairyman's Daughter, read aloud. She admitted she had not previously been inclined to read ATS publications, "[b]ut the interesting character that is drawn in that Tract, made a deep impression on my mind. I saw my own need of the Saviour, who comforted, supported and saved the dairyman's daughter. These impressions did not leave me, till, as I hope, I found the same Saviour precious to my soul." Wishing to provide others with a similar experience, she forwarded five dollars to aid in the printing and circulation of tracts. In gratitude for her generosity and in hopes of inspiring further conversion and benevolence, the ATS published her letter, one of dozens of testimonials appearing in the annual reports, periodicals, and almanacs of tract societies in the early nineteenth century.1 [End Page 233]
Tracts like The Dairyman's Daughter have long been acknowledged as a staple of nineteenth-century evangelicalism. Published and distributed by denominational, nondenominational, and enterprising commercial publishers throughout the century, a ready supply of free or low-cost pious literature found its way into British and American cities and across the countryside. Despite the space this literature takes up today on the shelves of libraries, churches, and used bookstores, historians (with a few notable exceptions) have been slow to explore the vital function such texts played in evangelical culture. The testimonial above, however, suggests just how important they were. Evangelicals believed a tract could effect the conversion of its reader, or in this case, its listener. It could transform a person reading a tract aloud into a minister exhorting the unconverted, and in the process, turn the confines of a private home into a sacred space. Evangelical tracts fostered a sense of membership in a religious community that in the eighteenth century crossed the northern Atlantic, and by the end of the nineteenth century, spanned the globe. The commissioning and distribution of tracts could be an effective way of fulfilling evangelicalism's distinguishing charge for the converted to spread the gospel. Most important, and least explored, are the ways tracts informed the personal religious practices and belief systems of generations of evangelicals.
Interest in recovering the individual, quotidian experience of religion has flourished over the past two decades, and historians have begun to mine sources as diverse as manuscript writings, hymns, and material culture, looking to bridge the gap between official doctrine and individual belief.2 They have argued that the experience of religion for most men and women is far more popular than previously acknowledged, found less in the unquestioned adoption of official church doctrine, as formulated by institutions and authors, and more in the creation of a rich, personal syncretism, blending the oral and the written, the orthodox and the folk. Drawing from "a central zone of religious symbols, values, and beliefs—many of them provided by official, [End Page 234]
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| Figure 1 |
In the nineteenth century, hundreds of thousands of copies of Legh Richmond's The Dairyman's Daughter were published in major cities, like Londonand New York, and in smaller outposts around the world, seen in this rare survivalfrom Belfast. Publishers sometimes took liberties in their packaging, here changingthe twenty-seven-year-old subject of the story into a child of two or three. Private Collection.
formal, religious traditions," men and women "erect for themselves worlds of meaning, they create identities for themselves, they engage in the age-old task of religion by finding a way to make sense out of their lives."3 Born in revivalism that cut across, and...