Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture

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Jonathan M. Yeager
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Despite what his notorious sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," might suggest, Jonathan Edwards was a reserved and placid man, a retiring personality most comfortable in the solitude of his ministerial study. It was there that Edwards wrote some of the most incisive and sophisticated works of religious thought ever produced in America, despite never having set foot outside the British colonies. He was, in many ways, a stereotypically reclusive genius. Yet as Jonathan Yeager’s recent book Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture makes clear, this does not capture the whole story of Edwards or his writings. Withdrawn he may have been, but Edwards's theological aspirations thrust him into a busy world—a discursive, increasingly “public” sphere that stretched across the Atlantic and swirled with a variety of personalities, connections, and competing interests. Here, in the emergent world of print and printing, Edwards's most abstract thought met with hard economic realities, was subjected to sequences of textual production, and assumed the material forms by which it would be transmitted and known.

Yeager contends that this whole process, the print publication of Edwards's work, presents important opportunities for understanding both the coalescing print environment and the way that it helped knit the early evangelical movement together. The latter is, admittedly, not new territory. Susan O’Brien, Frank Lambert, Candy Gunther Brown, and many others have been exploring this aspect of evangelicalism for decades. It seems appropriate rather to say that studies of eighteenth-century evangelicalism have approached the textual mediation of the movement with a steadily growing sophistication. What is clear is that few or none of these scholars have applied the tools of book history so methodically and completely as Yeager, who has clearly been reading his Robert Darnton and Peter Stallybrass. For Yeager, Edwards becomes an aperture for observing the circulation of religious writings across the eighteenth-century English Atlantic. Given the conspicuous location of Edwards’s work at the headwaters of early American printing, this framework is sound and the design is promising. This is not the role which Edwards was born to play, perhaps, but it is one he and his writings can fill very nicely.

In assessing Edwards and his corpus, Yeager capitalizes on the central insight of bibliography and the history of the book: that texts cannot be divorced from their material instantiations. Type and technique, bond weight and binding all mediate a text’s reception. As he puts it, it is “impossible for [an audience] to read the author’s words in isolation, without coming into contact with the physical aspects of his thoughts” (27). It makes a difference, therefore, whether Edwards’s work was printed in quarto or octavo. It matters to know when it was gilded or bound in calf. Even the size of the margins has a meaning. These material distinctions reveal more than historians generally realize about authorial intent, audience, and function. So too does attention to social and geographic contexts through which Edwards’s writings passed. Is it significant that that Edwards’s Faithful Narrative was printed first in London? Certainly. That he never published a first edition outside of Boston thereafter? As it so happens, yes. Literary agents of varying quality, scrimping printers, calculating booksellers, unscrupulous pirates—all these have a bearing on the lives of Edwards’s texts and his authorial career and influence. Among the auxiliary agents of Edwards’s publishing career, we come to know Boston printer Samuel Kneeland, Edwards’s “chief printer”; Daniel Henchman, his likeminded printer-bookseller; and Thomas Foxcraft, one of the exceptionally few people that the meticulous Edwards trusted to oversee the printing of his manuscripts.

Yeager can certainly not be faulted for a lack of industry. The minute, bibliographical details he assembles are often very difficult and laborious for the historian to ferret out. Yeager knows very well how many shillings a pamphlet sold for, the size of subscription lists, and the contemporary processes and techniques of print production. He also situates these insights nicely within the historical literature, shows a full command of various interpersonal networks and localities, and provides a generous supply of historical context to put printing in perspective. Still, it seems fair to say that the book struggles to translate these assiduous efforts into broader historical meaning. What are, after all, the stakes and implications here? Yeager's painstaking reconstruction should, he suggests, “prod scholars into thinking more about the complexity of Edwards’s publications” (52). That is certainly true, and indeed, some promising observations are strewn through the text. But eureka moments and takeaways are spare, and consequently the book often takes the bibliographer's tumble into antiquarianism. It does surprisingly little, moreover, with a good opportunity to synthesize the fields of religious and book history.

This is not all Yeager’s doing. Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture seems symptomatic of a larger situation in which analysis of Edwards requires little or no self-justification. Yeager ends his introduction with what is presented as a dire contingency: were it not for a cadre of printers, booksellers, and other middlemen, he observes, “we might never have heard of Jonathan Edwards” (26). But is this truly a sufficient warrant, a licensing fact for historical research? There is no question that the cottage industry of Edwards studies has produced much fine work and has put Edwards’s intellectual accomplishments on full display. But regarding Edwards as an end in himself may preclude other, important questions. For all of Edwards's intellectual firepower, for instance, the scope of his eighteenth-century influence remains uncertain. We know that his Faithful Narrative spawned a popular genre of revival news. But who precisely read The Freedom of the Will, and to what effect? Perhaps more importantly, how was Edwards's Life of Brainerd, the most popular of his very few devotional publications, internalized? Did it become a mainstay of evangelical devotion? What do we make of the fact that Sarah Osborn, a relatively well-read, lay contemporary evangelical in Rhode Island appears to have had minimal interaction with Edwards and his writings? It remains unclear, in other words, how much Edwards's publications truly shaped the contours of eighteenth-century evangelical piety. These are matters of reception history, and they appear only faintly in Yeager’s book, which is primarily a supply-side accounting. They would seem, however, to be some of the most pressing questions about Edwards, questions which studies of print culture and the tools of book history could help us resolve.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ryan Tobler is a doctoral student in American religious history at Harvard Univeristy.

Date of Review: 
October 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan Yeager is UC Foundation Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

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