- Print, Predestination, and the Public Sphere:Transatlantic Evangelical Periodicals, 1740–1745
In part 5 of his 1742 Some Thoughts Concerning the present Revival of Religion in New-England, Jonathan Edwards advocated the wide circulation of periodical accounts of the revival as the best way to ensure its success: "It has been found by experience that the tidings of remarkable effects of the power and grace of God in any place, tend greatly to awaken and engage the minds of persons in other places. . . . [A]n History should be published once a month, or once a fortnight of the progress of it" (The Great Awakening 529). Edwards's promotional advice pithily encapsulates several of the paradoxes surrounding eighteenth-century evangelical periodicals and their participation in the development of the public sphere. How can a monthly or fortnightly publication, self-consciously circulated through the temporal milieu of lived human history and geography, claim to report on the transcendent, eternal, and inscrutable workings of "the power and grace of God"? And how can humans, exercising their agency through the worldly actions of printing and circulation, presume to promote or have any impact whatsoever on that power and grace?
Such a contradictory experiment in print, as Edwards knew, had been ongoing for about two years. In September 1740, the London printer John Lewis began publishing The Christian's Amusement: containing Letters concerning the Progress of the Gospel both at Home and Abroad,1 a four-page penny periodical featuring collected and reprinted letters written from Britain and the American colonies, by itinerant preachers, converts, and other participants in the transatlantic evangelical revival. Less than a year later, in April 1741, The Christian's Amusement became The Weekly History:or An Account of the most Remarkable Particulars relating to the present Progress of the Gospel, also four pages, also costing one penny.2 The late seventeenth-century "transatlantic Puritan Republic of letters" (277) that [End Page 93] Alison Searle has recently delineated had been expanded by the broad appeal of the revival to include not only educated ministers but also thousands of lay, less-educated converts whose experiences were circulated through Lewis's religious publications. In the pages that follow, I describe how these first evangelical periodicals defined and shaped an evangelical reading public within the framework of the developing public sphere during the early decades of the eighteenth century. Examining the apparent paradoxes of this process, which I briefly touched on in the previous paragraph, raises questions about the relationship between religion and secularity and the concept of publics—questions this essay places productively in dialogue with current accounts of how publics and the public sphere developed during this period.
The Christian's Amusement was initially conceived by Lewis as an attempt to unify a transatlantic evangelical community riven by controversy over the nature of salvation (Jones, "'The Christian's Amusement'" 54). Its successor, The Weekly History, was conceived to define an evangelical public made up of the Calvinist branch of that community. The individuals who made up this public followed itinerant preacher George Whitefield and his Calvinist-evangelical colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic: Gilbert Tennent, William Seward, Howell Harris, and others. From the earliest years of the revival, Whitefield had disagreed with John and Charles Wesley over the issues of predestination, election, and free grace. Whitefield advocated the doctrine of election and the absolute primacy of faith over works; the Wesleys' Arminian position advocated free grace and gave works more of a role in salvation (Rack 168, 199). By early 1741, their argument had gone public with the publication of Wesley's incendiary sermon Free Grace and Whitefield's letter in answer to it. From then on, the evangelical movement split into Calvinist and Arminian factions (Noll 121–23). Under White-field's supervision, Lewis retitled The Christian's Amusement as The Weekly History in April 1741, and turned its focus to the evangelical progress of Whitefield and his followers only. As both M. H. Jones and Frank Lambert have argued, the change in title reflected a change in orientation; White-field and Lewis saw the periodical's potential as a vehicle for promoting and sustaining Calvinist evangelicalism...