From Sacred to Secular: Visual Images in Early American Publications

From Sacred to Secular: Visual Images in Early American Publications

From Sacred to Secular: Visual Images in Early American Publications

From Sacred to Secular: Visual Images in Early American Publications

Synopsis

This examination of illustrations in early American books, pamphlets, magazines, almanacs, and broadsides provides a new perspective on the social, cultural, and political environment of the late colonial period and the early republic. American printers and engravers drew upon a rich tradition of Christian visual imagery. Used first to inculcate Protestant doctrines, regional symbolism later served to promote reverence for the new republic. Chapters are devoted to momento mori imagery, children’s readers, visionary literature, and illustrated Bibles. One chapter shows the demonization of the Indians even as the Indian was being adopted as a symbol of America. Other chapters deal with propaganda for the American Revolution, canonization of leaders, secularized roles for women, and socialization of sites in the new nation. Throughout, analysis of image and text shows how the religious and the secular contrasted, coexisted, and intermingled in eighteenth-century American illustrated imprints.

Excerpt

This study analyzes early American illustrated imprints for insights into changing religious attitudes and the increasing secularization of culture. “From Sacred to Secular” refers not to two opposing views, nor to a complete transformation of imagery, but to a spectrum of religious, cultural, and political ideas that sometimes reinforce each other, occasionally coexist, and yet at other times are apparently in opposition. It will become clear that religion and the Enlightenment were not antithetical, and that the eighteenth century witnessed not only secularization but the perseverance of religious values and the beginning of a distinctly modern civil religion, all of which continues to shape American society and culture.

Nine thematic chapters are arranged in approximately chronological order. Chapter 1 examines the eighteenth-century American religious imagery found in elegiac broadsides, funeral sermons and portrait frontispieces. The next three chapters are devoted to religious works with targeted audiences: chapter 2 discusses primers, or children’s readers, in English and German, and popular chapbooks; chapter 3 is concerned with accounts of visions and dreams, a highly individualized form of piety, not requiring the mediation of an organized church; chapter 4 examines Bibles and other religious works intended for different denominations, some with typological interpretation. By midcentury, traditional Christian visual imagery began to be employed for overtly political purposes. Chapter 5 deals with stereotypes of the Indian and border warfare between the Protestant English and the Catholic French. Chapter 6 focuses on the American Revolution, during which religious imagery was used in satiric caricature, and the portrayal of military scenes and memorial sites. In the post-Revolutionary period, both Christian and neoclassical images celebrated the new nation: chapter 7 considers portraits that canonized the new political leadership, and also looks at Europeans of stature and at the frontispieces of notable American women; chapter 8 addresses a new understanding of the role of women in the republic and women’s new aspirations; and chapter 9 examines the consecration of the American landscape in the cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, and suggests the origins of civil religion. The conclusion highlights a comparison of the Massachusetts Bay Colony seal of 1675 with the United States Great Seal of 1783, and evaluates the hypothesis of secularization. It will be evident that in the course of the eighteenth century, traditional Christian symbolism was employed first . . .

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