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  • Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America
  • Sally G. McMillen (bio)
Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America. By David Paul Nord. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Pp. 224. Cloth, $35.00.)

In this important and well-written book, David Paul Nord examines America's early religious publishing and argues convincingly that this [End Page 312] effort was something new: the country's first foray into nationwide mass media. Faith in Reading reflects the growing scholarly attention being given to the influence of economics on religious practices. The monograph also provides greater understanding of the role that national religious societies played in disseminating written material and promoting faith through publishing.

Nord, a professor of journalism and associate editor of the Journal of American History, explores the efforts by local and national religious organizations to "spread the word" during the early national and antebellum periods. What began as the distribution and sale of literature evolved into the publishing of tracts, bibles, and books with the goal of putting religious literature into the hands of every American. Through this enterprise, the hope was that Americans would strengthen their faith, move toward conversion, and possibly achieve millennial perfection on earth.

The author's well-informed understanding of journalism and the mass media reveals the profound influence that religious organizations and their publications had on spreading faith across America. Nonsectarian organizations such as the American Tract Society, the American Bible Society, and the American Sunday School Union emerged by the second quarter of the nineteenth century, ambitious and bold in their plans to expand and strengthen the nation's faith. They set up offices in the field to attract donors, distribute materials, and hire local agents to canvass urban centers and venture into the backcountry.

The conflict between religious idealism and practical necessity was apparent from the start. Initially, religious organizations insisted on handing out free material to "deliver the free word as freely as possible" (59). But funds were essential to carry out this effort, and soon officials began to reshape the message. An important lesson could be learned if people paid for materials; their value to customers increased if they had to purchase them. Eventually, religious societies created differential pricing schemes, giving free publications to those in need and charging those who could afford their literature.

Beyond the desire to get religious messages to every family, officials saw the infusion of religious material as a golden opportunity to teach Americans how to read responsibly, sensitively, and attentively. They often wrote about how to absorb words and savor their meaning. They encouraged people to circulate books they bought and to learn to enjoy reading. Nothing pleased a book agent more than to discover a well-worn [End Page 313] volume in need of replacing. An alarming challenge that fueled an even greater commitment to this goal became evident by the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The nation seemed to be awash in trashy literature. Wherever one looked, cheap novels had become the books of choice. Reading tasteless fiction was allegedly sending people on the road to ruin; alarmists claimed insanity could result. Religious publishers insisted that only books of a redeeming nature, with a strong moral message, could uplift the masses. Rather than encourage censorship, these firms renewed their marketing efforts. Only virtuous literature in American homes could offset the vicious literature flooding the market.

As Nord explains so effectively, the greatest irony of these undertakings was the position in which firms found themselves. Trying to instill and strengthen Christian ideals and hold back the tide of secularism meant that firms had to use the latest technology and adopt competitive marketing practices. "They resolved to use the tools of modernity to resist modernity" (149). Their form of "systematic benevolence" had to employ modern business practices to take advantage of a growing market economy. Nord ably captures the paradox of these publishing houses as they took advantage of improved technology and transportation and greater access to capital in order to save the nation from the evils of modernity and the market revolution. These organizations became more businesslike in...


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pp. 312-315
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