#Nerdlife 2015: A New Year's Almanac Treat

Paul Harvey

#Nerdlife post.
A Divinity for All Persuasions (inbunden)What better way to spend a New Year’s eve/day than perusing an almanac. Or a survey of almanacs from the colonial era to the early nineteenth century, of the kind wonderfully presented in T. J. Tomlin’s new book A Divinity for All Persuasions:Alamanacs and Early American Religious Life.

This is one of the books that seems such an obvious and fruitful topic that it would have been thoroughly covered a long time ago. After all, as Tomlin points out, the almanac was “early America’s most affordable and widespread form of print,” serving as a “calendar and an astrologically based medical handbook” which also was full of “poetry, essays, moral axioms, and anecdotes.” Moreover, “other than a Bible and perhaps a few sermons and schoolbooks, an almanac was the only printed item most people owned before 1820.” Because almanacs in the 19th century moved to a status of folksy quaintness at best, and caricature at worst, they have become forgotten.

But they weren’t before the mass printing revolution of the 19th century. Before then, “Catering to consumer demand by drawing on the religious works available in their shop or their own familiarity with religious idioms, almanac-makers placed a distilled Protestant vernacular at the center of America’s most popular genre.” Throughout, Tomlin emphasizes a shared religious culture reflecting a “distinctly pan-Protestant sensibility,” but one also shaped by Latitudinarianism and the new science of the English Enlightenment. (They were also shaped, I might add, by some pretty hilarious trash-talking between almanac-makers, who promoted their own products by dissing those of others -- scorning the weather predictions of others was especially popular).

Tomlin sees this pan-Protestantism as more central to the era than the denominational controversies and religious in-fighting beloved by many scholars (present company included), which dominates newspapers and some other ephemeral literature of the era. In the almanacs, New Lights don’t square off against Old Lights, nor Baptists against Methodists, but instead a broad “divinity for all Protestant persuasions” dominates. Market forces shaped this too – almanac makers wanted everyone to buy their products, so they shied away from the controverted in favor of the shared: “Attuned to pubic taste, printers and almanac-makers disseminated a widely shared version of Protestantism they knew would sell.

I don’t want to issue any spoiler alerts, so I’ll just point you to the book, which in 164 briskly and clearly written pages leaves you with a wealth of knowledge. Just one story (of many) to whet your appetite. In 1807, an almanac from Virginia and North Carolina printed the last will and testament of Alexander Campbell, a lawyer from Richmond. Campbell insisted that his physical body, “being material and not having a soul, would simply deteriorate and eventually become part of some other living organism.” As for an afterlife?: “I hope for nothing as I fear nothing.” The printing of the last will and testament gave the almanac-maker the chance at once to titillate the audience with some wewy scawy views (“we publish his will merely on account of its extraordinary singularity”) while providing a chance to remind readers “that their earthly lives and decisions would determine their eternal destination.” Stories like these remind us of the constant variety and world of religious doubts which embedded themselves even within this world of a pan-Protestant sensibility.

And the wonderful images reprinted in this book – like a 1778 almanac cover featuring a drawing of the solar system, placing the comet of 1680 as well as “Jupiter and his Satellites,” gave Daniel George the chance to quote Psalm 8: “I consider the Heavens the work of thy fingers, the Moon and the Stars which thou has ordained.” What strikes the contemporary reader more, though, is the small scale and comfortable symmetrical circles of the solar system, a visual that goes along with the “cheerful and comfortable faith” of a good many eighteenth century Americans.

We’re still early in the New Year, so still a good time to catch up on your almanacs, and no better book than this one to do so. 


esclark said…
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esclark said…
When I was an M.A. student at Mizzou, I got to read the introduction of Tomlin's dissertation. I've been looking forward to the book ever since. Paired really well with David Hall's Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement.