Vanity Fair and the Celestial City

Dissenting, Methodist, and Evangelical Literary Culture in England, 1720-1800

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Isabel Rivers
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     480 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Vanity Fair and the Celestial City: Dissenting, Methodist, and Evangelical Literary Culture in England, 1720–1800 begins with an introduction that establishes the contours of this study. Isabel Rivers—a premier scholar of 18th century literary culture—is an able guide to this exploration two decades in the making. She reveals that her agenda is “how they [i.e., the books] were published, disseminated, read, and interpreted; what were the principal influences that determined the choices made by their authors and editors; and what were the most important and popular genres” (5). Rivers reminds readers of the paradoxical nature of her title. Vanity Fair derives its name from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The earthly journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City passes through the town of Vanity. This reflects a contemporary western preoccupation with consumption. While Christian and Faithful—his traveling companion—recognize their dissonance in Vanity, the reality of the many challenges a person faces as they journey towards heaven remains. Rivers observes that while Pilgrim’s Progress advocates an attitude of contemptus mundi, this time period was dependent upon many worldly factors including the expanding print trade, population growth, and increased travel and commerce.

Due to the book’s capacious nature, this review can only summarize key topics of the rich milieu of 18th century literary culture examined. Part 1 considers the critical nature of book printers, sellers, and publishing networks. It also explains that the role of religious societies developed to expand the distribution of religious literature. The most engaging chapter of this first section considers the actual process of reading with John Wesley’s “Directions How to Read This and Other Religious Books with Benefit and Improvement” (78). Religious leaders often provided recommendations on various topics to guide others in the important selection process. This section concludes with a discussion of church libraries and other sources that provided access to religious literature. 

The second part of the volume focuses on the ecclesiological classifications of the published sources. Nonconformity is well represented by Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Richard Baxter’s prolific output of practical writings. While Episcopalians produced many authors and valuable texts, the most significant contribution was the volume by Henry Scougal, The Life of God in the Soul of Man. Scougal exerted an influence on many, including George Whitefield who attested to its transformative nature. While Protestants were quick to condemn Roman Catholicism, that didn’t deter them from borrowing or adapting Catholic devotional writings from Thomas à Kempis, Madame Guyon, and others. The final chapter of this section is devoted to the British editing, publishing, and interpretation of the works of Jonathan Edwards and David Brainerd.

Part 3 examines various genres of writing including the reading and interpretation of the Bible, sermons and devotional handbooks, letters and diaries, and poems and hymns. Rivers includes a helpful summary of Henry Venn’s guidance for reading Scripture and his 1776 wisdom encouraging a Cambridge student to focus on shorter rather than longer texts, and to include the use of prayer which has a contemporary ring to it. This places emphasis on devotion and transformation rather than a critical exegesis of a passage. The Wesleyan Methodists employed the use of Bible playing cards as a way to stimulate spiritual conversation though in 1800, Adam Clarke, the highly respected Methodist biblical scholar, condemned their use (225). Also popular were biblical commentaries, including Matthew Henry’s An Exposition of All the Books of the Old and New Testament completed in 1721. This classic of biblical devotion is still widely used among evangelical readers today. 

The readers discussed in this volume were not only people of the Bible, but also people of the books derived from Scripture. This literature was used both personally and for the family. While preaching was restricted to males, females exerted great influence in their contributions to prayer and devotional works. Elizabeth Rowe’s Devout Exercises of the Heart, that appeared posthumously in 1738, was one prominent example of this. Rivers provides an extended review of the three dominant devotional handbooks of this period: William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, Philip Doddridge, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, and Henry Venn, The Complete Duty of Man. Letters of spiritual counsel were also significant for providing practical guidance and authors such as John Newton and Anne Dutton were held in high esteem. Additionally, the diaries and journals of both clergy and prominent lay people received an eager reception. Poetry, whether read or sung as hymns, exerted a formative influence on the people of this period and, according to Rivers, hymns were used in numerous contexts including letters, journals, sermons, and personal and group devotion. Furthermore, they provided hope for those preparing for death.

Vanity Fair and the Celestial City will appeal to literary critics, church historians, and those interested in the nature, creation, and importance of devotional texts and their use in other contexts. In addition, Rivers provides valuable insights within her footnotes. For example, in her treatment of Phillip Doddridge’s correspondence she notes that John Doddridge Humphreys, the great–grandson of Phillip Doddridge, was sharply criticized by early reviewers for his inaccuracies and spurious additions to the letters. As a corrective, Rivers directs readers to a trustworthy source that provides reliable treatment of these insightful epistles. Also, the extensive and carefully developed index is invaluable when searching for items in this massive collection. With its emphasis on reading, the third chapter in part 1 would have created a better entry point into this study and also assisted in the development of ideas. That minor quibble aside, this is a welcomed resource that deserves a broad reading across many disciplines.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tom Schwanda is Associate Professor of Christian Formation and Ministry at Wheaton College.

Date of Review: 
February 26, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Isabel Rivers is Professor of Eighteenth-Century English Literature and Culture at Queen Mary University of London. Her main interests are in the relations between literature, religion, philosophy, and the history of the book in the long eighteenth century, and she has published widely on these subjects. She directs the Dissenting Academies Project hosted by the Queen Mary Centre for Religion and Literature in English.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.