Today I am interviewing Jonathan Yeager, religion professor at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, and author of the recently released Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture (Oxford University Press).
Kidd: Most studies of Jonathan Edwards focus on his ideas or ministry. What drew you to write about the way his works were printed and disseminated?
Yeager: When I was finishing up my dissertation on the Scottish evangelical minister John Erskine, I read Richard Sher’s wonderful book The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and America (2007). Sher opened my eyes to the world of eighteenth-century publishing, including the importance of booksellers and printers as well as how books were packaged.
After reading Sher, I rewrote my last chapter in the Erskine book to include information on how he helped publish several of Jonathan Edwards’s posthumous works. I had a lot of fun researching and writing on this subject, and decided to do more work on evangelicals and publishing. In my new book, I wanted to show that it mattered how Edwards’s books were printed, edited, and marketed.
You note that it can be really difficult to discern which of a colonial author’s works were the most popular. But in your judgment, what were a few of Edwards’s best-sellers in the 1700s, and why?
When judged by the number of legitimate editions and printed copies, Edwards’s Faithful Narrative (1737), sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741), and The Life of David Brainerd (1749) are among his best-selling works. Their success shouldn’t come as a surprise. Even today, these are some of Edwards’s most cherished works.
His account of a spiritual awakening in the town of Northampton, Massachusetts, in A Faithful Narrative achieved international success because evangelicals throughout America, Britain, and Continental Europe used it to promote revivals in their communities.
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God was published at the height of the American Great Awakening. The vivid imagery that Edwards utilized in this sermon, combined with the spiritual temperature at that time, were two of the major factors that led to its success.
The Life of David Brainerd was a best-seller, not necessarily because it was written by Edwards, but because of what the book represented and the way that it was marketed. David Brainerd had a number of friends who actively sought out subscribers to purchase the book throughout the American colonies. The book itself was priced affordably. Whereas most of Edwards’s published theological treatises were purchased by clergymen and other learned readers, The Life of David Brainerd appealed to a wider group of people because it chronicled the extraordinary life and death of a self-sacrificing missionary to Native Americans. Readers of this book sympathized with Brainerd’s spiritual struggles while at the same time admiring his efforts to evangelize Native Americans.
How widely known was Edwards by the mid-1700s? Did the average Anglo-American Christian know who he was? Did they know what he looked like?
Before A Faithful Narrative was published for the first time in 1737, few people would have known who Edwards was, especially outside of New England. For example, in the first German edition of this book, published at Magdeburg in 1738, Edwards’s name is not on the title page.
Soon after A Faithful Narrative was published in England and Germany, however, Edwards became an internationally-recognized author. In 1740, Edwards’s name was prominently placed on the title page of the first Dutch edition of A Faithful Narrative. Once revivals began breaking out in places like Cambuslang, Scotland, Nijkerk in the Dutch Republic, and in the American colonies during the Great Awakening, Edwards emerged as the leading authority for interpreting revival and spiritual excess.
Edwards’s fame increased as he wrote books, such as Religious Affections (1746), in which he analyzed the revivals and offered guidelines for interpreting the authenticity of conversion experiences. Throughout most of the eighteenth century, however, only a minority of his readers would have known what he looked like.
Most people would not have been able to visualize him until a frontispiece portrait was included in a 1788 London edition of his posthumous History of the Work of Redemption, and in later American copies of the same book. Today, we take it for granted that we can search Google for images of historical figures like Edwards. In the eighteenth century, however, unless people had personal contact with an author, or could see him or her in a frontispiece portrait of a book, readers would have had to use their imagination to form any kind of visual impression.
Was Edwards ever frustrated with what printers and publishers did with his books and sermons? If so, why?
Edwards was a meticulous author, and wanted his books to look a certain way. He was not the best judge on how his books should be printed, if the purpose was for them to sell well. Edwards wanted his books to have wide margins, generous line spacing, and to be printed on fine paper, with good type, and priced affordably. The model for Edwards was his book Misrepresentations Corrected, published in 1752. Ironically, Misrepresentations Corrected was his worst-selling book! A key reason, I believe, was that it was not economically printed. If a printer allows the use of wide margins and generous line spacing, it follows that it would require more pages, and therefore would be more costly.
Edwards vocalized his disgust with the way that his book Religious Affections was published in 1746, probably because it was concisely printed, with tightly cropped margins and line spacing. Despite his complaints, the printer for this book feared that he had not printed enough copies to meet public demand. In an advertisement at the end of the book, the Boston printer Samuel Kneeland remarked that some 1,300 subscriptions had been taken for Religious Affections, at a time when a colonial author would have rejoiced if 500 copies of a book sold.
Edwards was also not happy with the editorial work that the ministers Benjamin Colman, John Guyse, and Isaac Watts did when publishing his revival account A Faithful Narrative in London. After its publication in 1737, none of the first editions of Edwards’s book would be published again from London. Partially because of Edwards’s desire to exercise more control in how his future books would be edited and published, he preferred to have them printed from Boston, where his trustworthy friend Thomas Foxcroft could oversee the presswork. Here again is more irony. A Faithful Narrative was one of Edwards’s best-selling books, and led to his international recognition as a revivalist. Yet if this book had been published in Boston, he might not have achieved international fame within his lifetime.
How does your approach change our common impression of Edwards?
One of my goals with this book is to show the complexity of Edwards’s publications, particularly with the number of people involved in the publishing process. Even though Edwards is admired as a theological genius, the publications that established his international reputation depended on the efforts of an international team of printers, booksellers, and editors. While Edwards should be credited for the ideas within his books, his thoughts would not have been read had it not been for a host of printers, booksellers, and editors who brought his words to life.