Religion and the Culture of Print in Modern America

By Alsdurf, Phyllis E. | Journalism History, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Religion and the Culture of Print in Modern America


Alsdurf, Phyllis E., Journalism History


Cohen, Charles L., and Paul S. Boyer, eds. Religion and the Culture of Print in Modern America. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008. 369 pp. $29.95.

Religion and the Culture of Print in Modern America is a collection of essays that emerged from a 2004 conference by the same name that examined the construction and promulgation of religion through the world of print. It is the most recent collaboration on the historical sociology of print from the Center for the History of Print Culture in Modern America at the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Historical Society. Others in the series addressed topics such as librarians as "apostles of culture," women in print, and censorship in America.

This book's emphasis on religious print culture from 1876 onward aims to correct an imbalance in this area of interdisciplinary historical research, dominated as it has been by a focus on the sixteenth through early nineteenth centuries. And it shifts emphasis away from texts, placing it more deliberately on readers and the communities they form through the power of print.

As Charles Cohen notes in the introduction, the book assumes "scripture's steadfast centrality to religious life in the United States" even as it seeks to reflect an array of religious faiths and literary genres and as it acknowledges religious print culture's capacity to accommodate "wholesale economic, social, and cultural change." Organized in six topical sections, it looks at print culture through a variety of lenses - religious group identity, consumerism, and fundamentalism, for example - with the larger goal of examining print's role in popularizing religion. The subtext here is that the ballooning of religious print media since 1876 correlates with the fracturing of Protestant unity as the dominant U.S. teligious paradigm.

Contributors consider an array of print materials and an intriguing range of religious groups. These include: the role of the Megiddo Message in building community for a small sect headquartered in Rochester, New York; the transformation from 1 92531 of the Hillel Review at the University of Wisconsin from a publicity sheet to a forum for discussing Jewish identity; the influence of pamphlets and cartoons on public opinion surrounding the Scopes trial in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee; the founding of the Religious Book Club in 1927 and its role in creating "an imagined faith community"; and the popularizing of the religious mysticism of Harry Emerson Fosdick and Thomas Merton through the mass marketing of books.

Chapters of particular note include the following:

Paul S. Boyer looks at the "lowly religious tract," which has outranked most other genres of religious literature in terms of quantity and longevity. …

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