Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America

Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America

Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America

Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America

Synopsis

In the twenty-first century, mass media corporations are often seen as profit-hungry money machines. It was a different world in the early days of mass communication in America. Faith in Reading tells the remarkable story of the noncommercial religious origins of our modern media culture. In the early nineteenth century, a few visionary entrepreneurs decided the time was right to reach everyone in America through the medium of print. Though they were modern businessmen, their publishing enterprises were not commercial businesses but nonprofit societies committed to the publication of traditional religious texts. Drawing on organizational reports and archival sources, David Paul Nord shows how the managers of Bible and religious tract societies made themselves into large-scale manufacturers and distributors of print. These organizations believed it was possible to place the same printed message into the hands of every man, woman, and child in America. Employing modern printing technologies and business methods, they were remarkably successful, churning out millions of Bibles, tracts, religious books, and periodicals. They mounted massive campaigns to make books cheap and plentiful by turning them into modern, mass-produced consumer goods. Nord demonstrates how religious publishers learned to work against the flow of ordinary commerce. They believed that reading was too important to be left to the "market revolution," so they turned the market on its head, seeking to deliver their product to everyone, regardless of ability or even desire to buy. Wedding modern technology and national organization to a traditional faith in reading, these publishing societies imagined and then invented mass media in America.

Excerpt

“The finger of Providence seems to be pointing this way,” the young missionary Samuel Mills wrote in a letter from New Orleans in the spring of 1815. “Recent events in this quarter at once arrest our attention and elevate our hopes. We refer to the late wonderful deliverance of this country from an invading foe; and to the subsequent distribution of a number of English Bibles and French Testaments. Perhaps there was, in the wisdom of divine Providence, a more intimate connexion between these events, than is obvious to the world.”

In 1815, it was easy to believe, and many Americans did believe, that the defeat of the British expeditionary force by the ragtag army of General Andrew Jackson was an event of world historical importance. Though fought after the peace treaty had been signed, the battle of New Orleans marked for Americans a glorious end to a difficult era of international conflict and an auspicious beginning to an era of economic prosperity, national consolidation, and westward expansion. the smoke of battle had barely cleared before the politicians and ministers of the young republic began to orate the meaning of New Orleans. in speeches, sermons, and patriotic poems, they proclaimed that the battle had revealed a divine plan for America, enacted by the wit and will of Andrew Jackson and his band of backwoods sharpshooters. Victory was simultaneously the teleological outcome of God’s providence and the historical handiwork of human agency. in this mythic account of New Orleans, America stood . . .

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