Religious Press and Print Culture: Materiality, Community, and Cultural Work

Elesha Coffman

Last month, I previewed the Religious Press and Print Culture conference at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. Here's a recap of that small but wide-ranging conference, highlighting topics that arose repeatedly in papers on subjects as diverse as fraktur, postbellum African American religious magazines, Moravian missionary networks, and Hinduism Today.

Note the array of waters and (eye)glasses.
1. Materiality matters. The German scholars at the meeting were especially attuned to ways the look and feel of texts affected their reception. Conference organizer Prof. Dr. Oliver Scheiding explained how the use of fraktur instead of Roman type reinforced a sense of community among Germans in early America. Andreas Pietsch found evidence of this phenomenon in a list of books for sale in 1772, on which some titles were listed in fraktur and some were in Roman type, depending on the content and intended audience. Gisela Mettele pointed out that even after print technologies became available, Moravians circulated some reports of their missionary work as handwritten copies. The information in these accounts was for insiders only, and the process of copying and hand-distributing the texts strengthened communal bonds across long distances. Conference participants (myself included) expressed fears that the material aspects of texts would be harder for scholars to appreciate in the dawning age of digital archives.

2. Don't forget the means of production. David Paul Nord, in his method keynote and in numerous comments throughout the conference, reminded us of the salience of business concerns in the production and reception of texts. Why did widely circulated magazines gain prominence in the late 19th century? It's not (at least primarily) because of changing tastes or class distinctions, but because that's when it became possible to distribute periodicals via the U.S. Postal Service. Similarly, why were the editors of Hinduism Today so early to adopt Apple's desktop publishing platform? Possibly because they were based in Hawaii, but their magazine was printed and distributed in California, and it was simply difficult to transmit the files otherwise.

3. Consensus and fragmentation. Several papers identified ways that print periodicals created or reinforced group identities while drawing boundaries between "us" and "them." For example, conference organizer Anja-Maria Bassimir argued (using a delightful cartoon from the Oct/Nov 1978 Wittenberg Door) that consumption of periodicals created multiple, distinct communities of evangelicals who nonetheless recognized each other under the "evangelical" banner when it was useful to do so. But community formation could easily give way to community fragmentation. John Giggie contended that African American Methodist and Baptist magazines in the postbellum South endeavored to create broad religious identities, but when the featured pastors mixed their preaching with shilling products, some African American Christians left their over-commercialized denominations for Pentecostalism.

4. Do print materials cause things, or are they just along for the ride? This emerged as perhaps the key question for the whole conference, though I'm not phrasing it well. It's not dissimilar to questions raised about religion, as to whether it causes events or is merely epiphenomenal. Shari Rabin made a pretty strong case that the Occident and the Israelite, two nineteenth-century Jewish periodicals, functioned as religious authorities before other structures were put in place. These periodicals made congregations possible. In Jana Hoffmann's paper, by contrast, the magazine The Christian Home included columns reflecting 1970s trends in marriage, divorce, and parenting, but the magazine itself didn't exert any particular influence.

Often, it was difficult to assess what cultural work the religious press might have been doing because readers were missing from discussion. In some cases, there's just no data available, but in other cases, scholars seem not to have asked. Here again, David Paul Nord had keen advice. Historians, he said, can't control for variables the way social scientists conducting their own surveys can, but historians can at least think like social scientists. What data--subscriber records, letters to the editor, market surveys, inventory lists, etc.--are available to answer questions about the cultural work of texts? Where there are problems with the data, such as the editing involved in published letters to the editor, how can these problems be acknowledged and then worked around? Might the available data function like a focus group, offering a limited but multidimensional look at reader response?

Good stuff all around. It's an exciting time in print culture scholarship.


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