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Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Yeager’

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Vanity Fair and the Celestial City

Isabel Rivers, Vanity Fair and the Celestial City: Dissenting, Methodist, and Evangelical Literary Culture in England, 1720-1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Isabel_RiversThose who judge books by their titles may have failed to appreciate that this one deals extensively with Edwards and his world. It explores the publications written, edited, abridged, and promoted by evangelicals in eighteenth-century England. And Edwards was an eighteenth-century Englishman, remember, a colonist who read and even wrote many publications treated in these pages.

A Professor of Eighteenth-Century English Literature and Culture at Queen Mary University of London, Isabel Rivers also directs the Dissenting Academies Project hosted by the Queen Mary Centre for Religion and Literature in English. She is one of the leading authorities on the literary culture that shaped the life and work of Edwards.

The title of her book is taken from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, whose pilgrims have to pass through Vanity Fair, a tourist trap full of commercial temptations, to reach their final destination, Celestial City, the heavenly New Jerusalem. Rivers uses Bunyan’s allegory to indicate a paradox that saturates her book. “On one hand, Pilgrim’s Progress, like so many books of its kind, advocates rejection of this world for the sake of the next, using the metaphor of trade. On the other hand, the phenomenal success of such books in the eighteenth century depended on a number of worldly factors, clearly interrelated, including the expansion of the book trade, the growth of the population, the increase of literacy, and better conditions for travel and commerce, both within the British Isles and Europe and also between Europe and North America” (p. 2). She is interested, of course, in her subjects’ spirituality, but focuses her story on the “worldly factors” instead, asking questions about their bearing on evangelical religion and the literary lives of early English evangelicals.

Her book has three parts. Part I, “Books and Their Readers” (pp. 9-117), treats the publishing, marketing, and reception of religious books in eighteenth-century England. Part II, “Sources” (pp. 121-209), deals with the re-publication of older works in this period. And Part III, “Literary Kinds” (pp. 213-389), catalogues the different genres most important to its book trade (Bibles, commentaries, sermons, devotional guides, exemplary lives, journals, hymns, poems, etc.). Rivers mentions over 200 writers altogether, offering detailed discussions of her subjects’ favorite books. Isaac Watts, Philip Doddridge, John Wesley, and John Newton were the most popular authors in eighteenth-century England. But Edwards and his mentee David Brainerd also proved to be consistent best sellers.

Edwards appears throughout the book, but mainly in chapter 7, “North American Connexions” (pp. 183-209), particularly in the section of that chapter devoted to him (pp. 186-93). Rivers writes of Edwards and Brainerd, “they were the source of considerable disagreement among their British readers, but they were of crucial importance in different ways to the religious and literary heritage of Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists, Scottish Presbyterians, and Church of England evangelicals” (pp. 185-86). They were even more important in the North American colonies.

Rivers does not interpret Edwards in relation to church history, English intellectual culture, or Protestant theology. But she does better than anyone at placing him in the context of the history of the book trade and the reading lives of Christians in eighteenth-century England. Vanity Fair and the Celestial City offers a masterful, England-centered complement to Jonathan Yeager’s Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture.

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.