Volume 43 - Issue 2

Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture

by Jonathan M. Yeager

Interest in print culture history begins with the Annaliste movement, which traces the longue durée by finding “tracks” left from material culture and epigraphy, while understanding humanity’s mentalité by working at the cross-section of multiple social science disciplines. The heritage of print culture monographs begins with Lucien Febvre and Henry-Jean Martin’s, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450–1800. In the spirit of this kind of historiography, Jonathan M. Yeager, Associate Professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, has contributed a new study on print culture.

Yeager aims to “fill an important lacuna in the history of the book and early American religious history” by studying the print history of Colonial America’s most important 18th century theologian, pastor, and writer—Jonathan Edwards (p. i). A vital component of Yeager’s thesis is that historians have overlooked the multiple players who assisted in disseminating Jonathan Edwards’s ideas and kept them alive and in print throughout the 18th century. Yeager boldly asserts: “If it had not been for their efforts, we might never have heard of Jonathan Edwards” (p. 26). Furthermore, the material quality of Edwards’s books—paper size, quality, binding—along with price, subscription records, and print runs evidence the popularity and reception of Edwards’s writings. This study spans the print life of Edwards first publications to the end of the 18th century.

Most of Jonathan Edwards’s first editions (20 of 28) were printed from Boston by Samuel Kneeland. Chapter two fills the dearth of knowledge on Boston printing and Samuel Kneeland in order to illuminate our cognizance of Edwards, his readership, and how he was understood. Historical moments like the revivals and theological controversies like the communion controversy were of interest to readers. Edwards’s publications stimulated conversation on these issues and mitigated these controversies, all of which he accomplished from the remote location of Northampton. Nonetheless, his evangelical relationships in Boston, like Samuel Kneeland, helped bring his ideas to print. Kneeland, though a supporter of evangelicalism, was not a profitable businessman. He died in poverty and insolvent, a story perhaps set against Benjamin Franklin’s opportunistic approach to printing (p. 49), and suggestive that Kneeland valued spreading piety more than accruing profit (p. 50–52). Valuable elements in this chapter include reflection on the role of newspaper advertisements, pricing, paper selection, and binding—influential factors for creating a desirable print product for readers. Samuel Kneeland, with Edwards’s input, controlled these factors and “helped create the image that readers formed” of Edwards (p. 52).

Authors and printers cannot print without funding. Chapter three recovers the contribution of Daniel Henchman, a wealthy merchant and bookseller in Boston. Henchman appeared to be a principled publisher, who “patronized the writings of evangelicals and catered to orthodox Calvinists” (p. 61). However, he could only fund projects that garnered substantial subscriptions. Henchman funded Edwards’s most successful publication, The Life of David Brainerd, an inexpensive octavo yielding the interest of 2,000 subscriptions. Besides Henchman’s backing, Edwards relationship with prominent clergy and particular congregations was decisive for the spread of his thought. According to Yeager, “Relationship formed the backbone of the book trade” (p. 146). Bostonian clergy, Thomas Prince and William Cooper, recommended God Glorified in the Work of Redemption in its preface. Members of the Northampton congregation sponsored the sermon, A Divine and Supernatural Light. Hatfield community members likewise sponsored the funeral sermon, The Resort and Remedy. Yeager proposes that “in the case of Edwards, most of the people involved with his publications can be linked by their religious interests” (p. 74). This is so on both sides of the Atlantic. The printing of A Faithful Narrative in London, which advanced Edwards’s reputation in Europe, is credited to John Guyse’s and Isaac Watts’s interest in seeing London revival akin to Edwards’s recount of Northampton’s revival.

Chapter four recognizes the indispensable role that literary agents and editors played in the publication process. These people provided advocacy and quality control. Benjamin Colman acted as a literary agent, who put A Faithful Narrative in front of Guyse and Watts, without which Edwards “would have achieved anything beyond a fleeting regional fame” (p. 99). However, after seeing his work edited and published irresponsibly by others (notably Guyse and Watts in London and Yohann Adam Steinmetz in Germany), Edwards kept his publications close to home in Boston and in the hands of trustworthy associates. In a correspondence letter with Thomas Foxcroft, Edwards says that he could not trust anyone else to see Freedom of the Will to the press. Foxcroft, both carefully proofed Edwards’s publications, and represented his interests to the printer, particularly concerning paper size and quality. Edwards appreciated wide margins for marginalia and quality paper. Foxcroft negotiated these matters with Kneeland on Edwards’s behalf.

Chapter five relates how Edwards’s books stayed in print. This chapter discusses Samuel Hopkins’s and Joseph Bellamy’s challenge to bring The Two Dissertations into print, how John Erskine kept Edwards’s works in print in London and his partnership with William and Margaret Gray to do so, the obsession of John Collett Ryland to have Jonathan Edwards Jr. bring new works from his father’s sermons and notebooks to publication, and translation of Edwards writing into Dutch by Cornelis Brem. Without the efforts of these people behind the scenes, Edwards’s Reformed theology might not have ensured the endurance of the New Divinity movement and Edwards might have been a historical footnote. Yeager concludes that the material evidence and the stories of Edwards’s supporters suggest that profit was secondary and religious interest was the primary motivation for propagating Edwards’ thought.

This work includes images for readers to see the physical quality of Edwards print publications. Appendices contain records of each work, its print run, price, format, and a subscription record of The Life of Brainerd. Similar to other print culture studies, page 134 provides a geographical scatter plot; this one comparing print subscriptions for The History of the Work of Redemption in 1786 and Religious Affections in 1787. Ultimately, this work demonstrates the positive contribution that social history and print culture studies provide to the construction of evangelical history.

Joseph T. Cochran

Joseph T. Cochran
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Deerfield, Illinois, USA

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