Academic journal article Early American Studies

Consecrated Merchants and Midnight Criers: Commercial Evangelicalism and a Jazz Theory of Gender Distinctions in Nineteenth-Century America

Academic journal article Early American Studies

Consecrated Merchants and Midnight Criers: Commercial Evangelicalism and a Jazz Theory of Gender Distinctions in Nineteenth-Century America

Article excerpt

In 1843 the image of William Miller flooded America in tracts, magazines, and books proclaiming the end of the world. Four years earlier Miller had been a regional Jeremiah in the burned-over district of western New York, only one voice in a sea of prophets and exhorters who continued to fire the heartland of the Second Great Awakening. But when the Christian publisher Joshua Himes decided to publish Miller's theories in a semimonthly journal titled Signs of the Times, Miller was transformed in a matter of months from a local celebrity to the leader of a national movement. "Millerism" was made in four million tracts and books distributed across the United States in four years, a religion created, sold, and consumed through its own press, demonstrating the new power of commercial consecration in a rapidly changing America.

Yet Himes and his magazines influenced no one by themselves. Tracts and books were purchased and distributed by converts who volunteered to spend their time and energy warning Americans of the imminent Second Coming. Known as tract sellers or colporteurs, these workers were crucial to the success of both fledging movements such as Millerism and established antebellum publishing empires such as the American Tract Society. Colportage was a term born in the braiding of religion and selling in the nineteenth century. Adapted from the French colporteur, literally a cognate of col (neck) and porteur (bearer), the term entered English parlance by the 1840s to mean a seller of religious tracts and books. Though at first it was used interchangeably with the terms peddler and hawker, gradually it grew into a distinct term for sellers of religious works.1 Millerite colporteurs were referred to as watchers or "midnight criers," terms adapted from the parable of the ten virgins in the Gospel of Matthew. Ten virgins are invited to a wedding and told to wait outside in the night for the arrival of the bridegroom. At midnight, the cry announcing the bridegroom is raised, but only five of the virgins have bought oil to light their way to him. These virgins are welcomed into the feast while the others scramble to find oil sellers.2 Millerites were the midnight criers, traders in oil, and wise virgins who filled and trimmed their lamps: identities written and comprehended in terms of both the Bible and the market revolution. Less concerned with millenarianism, the American Tract Society preferred to refer to its colporteurs as "consecrated merchants," a label that also implied that selling was a mark of election that fused secular markets with spiritual work. Both identities connected the modern world of print and selling to the spiritual romance of sanctification and service as workers in Christ's harvest.

Nineteenth-century colporteurs lived in a fluid world that conflated the metaphorical identities of seller and evangelist. Consecrated merchants and midnight criers, colporteurs and volunteers who sold tracts and magazines were at once militant entrepreneurs and passive servants of Christ. They formed themselves through distinctions that were messy, tangled, and blurred at the edges, combining traits that were conventionally both masculine and feminine. In doing so, they were a group whose identity raises questions about how gender was understood and articulated among many evangelicals in the nineteenth century. The spiritual worlds of colportage and tract selling suggest that, for at least some evangelical Protestants, distinctions of gender remained complex, unclear, and irreducible to the gender binary.

Gender historians have long been interested in how religion has shaped, limited, empowered, or otherwise defined the lives and bodies of women. Protestant religion has frequently been interpreted by feminist historians as an integral piece of the nineteenth-century "cult of domesticity." By the 1840s women were marked as more spiritual and less worldly than men, isolated inside the private sphere along with the feminized Victorian church. …

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