The Portable Pulpit: Religious Tracts, Cultural Power, and the Risk of Reading

By Vasquez, Mark G. | ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly), June 2002 | Go to article overview

The Portable Pulpit: Religious Tracts, Cultural Power, and the Risk of Reading


Vasquez, Mark G., ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)


Clerical religious authority in early nineteenth-century New England was transformed by the landmark events of the Unitarian schism of 1815 and the disestablishment of the Congregational Church in Connecticut in 1818. As I have argued elsewhere, both William Ellery Channing and Lyman Beecher strove during this period to promote a new discourse of sermonic authority. (1) As Channing asserted, "the mass of the people" in America at this time were "distinguished by possessing means of improvement, of self-culture, possessed nowhere else"; self-culture as a national phenomenon is both "the care which every man owes to himself, to the unfolding and perfecting of his nature" and the communicating of that process, inasmuch as "[a] man was not made to shut up his mind in itself; but to give it voice and to exchange it for other minds" (2:367). Self-culture thus is not meant ultimately to isolate the individual and his authority, but to connect with others; and the language of self-culture should be motivated toward that same communitarian goal, not just for the improvement of the soul but for the improvement of society. Yet Beecher, for his part, did not want his authority as spiritual leader decentered in the way that disestablishment sought to do. Under the design of "benevolent" reform societies, he looked to create a different spiritual community with himself (and others like him) as the leader. As early as his 1812 address on the "Reformation of Morals," Beecher was calling for a new public discourse of religious authority, a community rhetoric through volunteerism: "The friends of good morals and good government have it in their power to create a public opinion, which nothing can resist" (26). Both Channing and Beecher, in short, understood the battle for the souls and minds of Americans to be a rhetorical and literary one. Dialogic, literary discourse, Channing argued, is wrongly perceived as "impractical"; it is, in fact, potentially the most practical language for the education and improvement of self and society.

Meanwhile, in the literary marketplace, historical romances coming across the Atlantic vis a vis Sir Walter Scott were being adapted to American settings. Such romances provided during this age of rapid national growth and development the paragon of a "simpler" past--a total, idealized society within the pages of a single text--giving readers the illusory notion that widespread social reformation was within reach. Although such romances enjoyed significant popularity during the 1810s and 1820s, the most widely distributed and potentially influential genre of the period was the religious tract. The American Tract Society, for example, printed 470,000 copies of 77 tracts in 1823 alone (Ninth Annual Report 13). Tracts, usually four or five and rarely more than twenty pages long, instructed through tales of self-improvement involving religious conversion. While David Reynolds has distinguished between "conventional" and "subversive" types of New England antebellum reform writing (57), I would like to complicate this division by arguing that "conventional" and "subversive" approaches to reform literature were integrated through the particular discursive choices made by orthodox evangelical or neo-Calvinist writers. Religious organizations employed unprecendented publishing technology to extend the power of the pulpit, but not without risk. The circulation of these texts was seen by tract societies as a way to manipulate what they perceived to be the passive mind of the reader. Yet in many instances mass circulation had exactly the opposite effect--it validated individual readings and interpretation. These effects were in some ways determined by the rhetoric involved. Tract societies, in their attempts to guide the self-culture of their readers, employed what Mikhail Bakhtin has termed "authoritative discourse" in an attempt to diminish the potential of subversive or "internally persuasive discourse. …

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