Last modified: Tuesday, November 29, 2005
Religious publishing and the origins of mass media
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Nov. 29, 2005
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- "Thousands, if they would confess the truth, might ascribe their mental dissipation and imbecility to the indiscriminate and cursory reading of whatever comes in their way ... We allude to the habit of reading for amusement or excitement. There are multitudes who have no other or higher object in reading ... It is enough that a morbid love of what is wonderful or amusing is gratified."
Some things haven't changed all that much since 1843, when the American Tract Society published that passage.
In Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America (Oxford University Press, 2004), journalism historian David Nord describes the non-commercial religious origins of our modern media culture. His book recently won the Book of the Year Award from the American Journalism Historians Association. Nord is a professor of journalism at Indiana University Bloomington.
From the seeds sown by the Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Indians and Others in North America, and by all the other societies described in his book, a non-commercial religious media industry has flowered. Though much has changed in 200 years, the goal and the strategy have not. Religious publishers still aim to use the media against the media, and to save souls through what the American Tract Society in 1851 called "systematic Christian enterprise."
The managers of Bible and religious tract societies used modern printing techologies and business methods to make themselves into large-scale manufacturers and distributors of printed materials. By mounting massive campaigns to make books cheap and plentiful, they turned them into modern, mass-produced consumer goods.
The American Tract Society still flourishes today, proclaiming itself one of the largest producers of electronic and printed gospel tracts in the world. The American Bible Society is the other major religious publisher still in business after nearly two centuries. Both enterprises are large-scale print publishers in addition to expanding their efforts into digital electronic media, Nord writes.
"At the ATS, Princess Di and the life of football coach Tom Landry have replaced The Dairyman's Daughter and the Life of David Brainerd, but the new narrative tracts tell the same old stories and affirm the same traditional values. At the ABS, some Bibles are now bound in denim, and the Extreme Faith Bible has photos of teenage skaters and rock climbers on the cover, but the Bible is still the Bible. Though dressed in modern fashion, the message is the same message that was carried in the first tracts printed by the New England Tract Society and in the first Bibles stereotyped by the Bible Society of Philadelphia," he writes.
The American Tract Society and the American Bible Society are now part of a vast not-for-profit sector of the mass media industry, a sector that they helped to create two centuries ago, he explains. From the beginnings of Bible and tract work in America, the entrepreneurs of religious print imagined themselves at work in a marketplace of ideas and a marketplace of media.