Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture

Jonathan M. Yeager. Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 256 pp. $74/£47.99.

YeagerJE&TransatlanticPrintCultureHundreds of books and articles have been published on Jonathan Edwards since the birth of the Yale Edition of his Works. Yet we still know very little about how Edwards’ varied publications actually came to print. We know little of Samuel Kneeland, Edwards’ go-to printer in Boston. We know little of Daniel Henchman, Edwards’ bookseller there (and, thus, his publisher as well). We know little of the shift to British publishers of Edwards’ works shortly after he died, the roles of Jonathan Edwards, Jr., John Erskine, and John Ryland in facilitating this shift, and thus the mechanisms by which Edwards’ writings played a major role in undergirding the rise of British evangelicalism.

In Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture, Yeager (an Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, who has appeared here before) addresses this deficit in a manner that will fascinate everyone interested in American social history, the history of the book, or the book trade in the eighteenth-century transatlantic world. Inspired by Richard Sher’s The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and America (2006), but convinced “that much more work needed to be done on early evangelical authors” and the publishers who moved their work from manuscript to market, Yeager undertook a study of “how Edwards’s works came to print, the various people who were involved, and the role that the formation of these texts had on early evangelicalism” (pp. ix-x).

The book has five chapters: an introduction on the reception of Edwards’ writings through the end of the eighteenth century; a chapter on Samuel Kneeland and the business of printing in Boston; a chapter on Edwards’ publishers; a chapter on Edwards’ editors; and a chapter on the people who assumed these roles between the time of Edwards’ death and the end of the eighteenth century.

Yeager’s two main arguments are that “evangelicals like Edwards cared how their books appeared in print, even if they seemed more concerned about disseminating their particular beliefs than profiting from publications” (p. xv), and that “Edwards’s printers, publishers, and editors shaped the public perception of him in the way that they packaged and marketed his publications” (p. xi). This will sound like common sense to all who publish books themselves, those who work in the book trade, and those who pay as much attention to the production and the buzz surrounding books as to their contents. But, strangely, no one has made a case like this before regarding the work of Edwards himself.

This is an outstanding monograph, the best so far this year to treat the mundane realities that shaped Edwards’ life and historical significance. The author overreaches when he claims in conclusion that “the favorable reception of [Edwards’] books had just as much to do with the way that they were packaged and marketed as with the content that they represented” (p. 149). But I am glad that he has made a strong case for the importance of this packaging and marketing, and I hope that this is just the first of many more studies of the people and the businesses that shaped public perception of Edwards’ work and its legacies.

N.B. Yeager gave a public lecture at our Jonathan Edwards Center on this topic last year. Click here for the recording.

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