- The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880
An insightful study of the emergence of a print culture among U.S. evangelicals, Candy Gunther Brown's work argues that nineteenth-century evangelical Christians created a textual community around the Bible, pamphlets, religious novels, memoirs of godly persons, tracts, and hymns. These various printed media were designed to assist the converted in a purer exercise of the Christian faith while asserting a more tangible evangelical presence in the world. The Holy Spirit, evangelicals believed, would transform the hearts and minds of the unconverted as they encountered these texts. An underlying tension between the sacred and profane underlay this emerging print culture. The business of selling and the confusion about what genres of literature were appropriate for religious people drove an ongoing debate among evangelical leaders about remaining "in the world" without becoming "of the world" (John 17:15–17). In time, an evolving "canon" (80) of evangelical works gained acceptance among the faithful. This canon did not supplant, but was based upon, the Bible, and printed works other than the Bible were considered appropriate if they emphasized and illustrated key biblical precepts. In short, the new genres served to reinforce, not replace, the traditional word of the Bible.
Brown traces this emerging print culture in eight chapters, showing how evangelicals sought to ensure that they were transforming an unregenerate world rather than being tainted by its secular substance. The first four chapters define and chart the progress of and challenges wrought by evangelical print media. For example, evangelical print culture emerged during the age of American Romanticism. Evangelical writers appealed to emotion but were careful to distinguish their appeal from the heterodox religious opinions articulated by New England transcendentalists. The revealed word of the Scriptures and the intercession of the Holy Spirit were the key agencies for evangelicals in their concept of the "Priesthood of the Believer." Evangelical publishers and writers [End Page 310] struggled to focus on their distinct religious mission even as their products sold to both denominational and secular audiences. Increasingly, evangelical publishers made use of literary fiction, but they explicitly defined their efforts as illustrating gospel truths in hypothetical scenes attached to real life, not as appeals to base and sensual instincts. What was appropriate reading and what was morally tempting secular literature became more and more difficult to discern in this era of multiplying evangelical genres. A class of arbiters emerged in the religious press, refereeing matter for its suitableness in promoting spiritual growth or conversion.
The final four chapters show, among other things, the attempt by evangelicals to assert their denominational proclivities while affirming a true church of all believers. Herein lies the most contentious part of the book, and Brown succeeds in part in making this fine point. Students of the religious press have often noted how contentious it was, even on the basic mechanics of salvation. Was baptism a sign of conversion or necessary to effect conversion? What was the proper mode of baptism? And, of course, did the Bible countenance slavery? Given that churches waged theological battle with one another over doctrine and intersectional missionary societies broke fellowship over appointing slaveholders as missionaries, her point seems, on first reading, wide of the mark. Indeed, one recalls how southern religious leaders like John L. Dagg sought to fashion a southern evangelical literature free of the taint of northern publishing houses. But during the Civil War, northern soldiers and southern civilians sometimes worshipped together, suggesting that evangelicals could be aware of and act according to this perceived commonality even amid bloody differences of religious opinion. And in the postbellum era, Dwight L. Moody and other evangelists diminished many denominational distinctives in their popular preaching. Evangelicals themselves seemed to find ways to balance their parochial beliefs alongside an awareness of shared conviction.
In her chapters on evangelical hymnody, Brown is most convincing in her attempts to posit...