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  • The Compiler’s Art:Hannah Adams, the Dictionary of All Religions, and the Religious World
  • Toni Wall Jaudon (bio)

It may not be much of an overstatement to say that Hannah Adams began her career by marketing the religious world. Often credited by biographers as the first American woman to earn her living by her pen, Adams started writing in response to financial exigencies.1 Where later women writers turned to fiction or journalism, Adams directed her efforts otherwise: she wrote a reference book. Crouching for hours in bookstores and begging access to the libraries of learned friends, Adams transcribed, excerpted, and edited portions of theological treatises, travel narratives, geographies, and histories into a comprehensive survey of the world’s religions (Schmidt 7). Her labors resulted in the 1784 publication of An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects Which Have Appeared from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Present Day, which would later be reissued in revised form as A View of Religions in 1791 and 1801 and as A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations, Jewish, Heathen, Mahometan, and Christian, Ancient and Modern in 1817.2 Composed of short, synthetic entries, Adams’s book detailed the beliefs and practices of religious subjects on a global scale. The four editions of her work—each bound in a single octavo volume—earned her both public acclaim and, eventually, financial success (Schmidt 43, 51, 115, 295). Contemporaneous newspaper articles and booksellers’ lists referred knowingly to “Miss Adams’ Dictionary” or “Hannah Adams’ Dictionary” as a source for knowledge about the world’s religions; these works, along with her other histories, were read widely enough that one reviewer of the [End Page 28] Dictionary’s fourth edition commented that “the author of this work is in … full possession of publick regard, from the benefit conferred by her writings, and the merits of her several productions are … generally known” (Willard 86).3 Among her work’s distinct merits, for her contemporaries, was its relatively liberal stance toward religious diversity.4 Unlike many others writing in her field, Adams self-consciously avoided the impulse to classify her subjects as true or false, adopting instead a stance of careful impartiality toward doctrinal disputes. When Adams’s readers turned her compilations’ pages, they encountered Pagans and Pelagians, Seceders, and Southcottians, glossed with minimal commentary and coexisting peaceably on the neutral ground of the page. Her Dictionary thus stands as a chronicle of a world of religious plurality, binding a motley array of religious subjects into a form that readers could hold in the palm of their hand.

In this moment, Adams’s Dictionary appears at once as a synthetic account of this religiously plural world and a point of access to it. When scholars in religious studies have addressed Adams’s Dictionary, they have usually taken it in this first sense, treating it as an early example of the detached, dispassionate approach to religion that grounds both secular intellectual inquiry into religious variety and forms of pluralist toleration that integrate that variety into everyday life.5 As scholars in secular studies have noted, this stance is grounded in an assumption about the individuals who populate this plural world: that they are fundamentally detached from, and unaffected by, the religiosity of religious others. From this perspective, Adams’s Dictionary appears to model this detachment—to induct its readers into a religiously plural world in which they are unaffected by religious difference. Yet to take Adams’s Dictionary simply as a template for secular detachment from religious others obscures what is most paradoxical about it: that readers can only acquire this detachment in a moment of tactile engagement with the book in which those religious others appear. To learn detachment from the Dictionary, readers must first engage the book with their bodies, using their hands to open it, to turn its pages, and to find their way through the world of religious variety the volume encloses. My errand in what follows will be to produce an account of this detachment that locates it at the intersection of the hand and the book. To see detachment this way is to recognize this fundamentally secular sensibility as plural and...


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pp. 28-41
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