Apr 30, 2019The eighteenth century is to many historians synonymous with the age of Enlightenment, of Voltaire, Hume, Montesquieu, Rousseau and other great minds of the age. Deism, pantheism and even outright atheism became more openly espoused than ever before in certain circles and publications. But the salience of these emerging beliefs does not change the fact that most people in Europe at this time identified strongly with one religious denomination or another. It's easy to forget how significant a part of the burgeoning eighteenth-century print culture comprised religious books.
The subject of a talk I attended yesterday was precisely on this convergence between the world of print and the evangelical revivals in Britain in the eighteenth century. The classic book-historical questions guide the focus of this project: what religious books were being read by whom? how did they reach their readers? who controlled what was available for reading? What readers did the author envisage? What literary form does the author employ? et cetera.
A particularly interesting component of this study was religious libraries as both tools of textual transmission (and hence inculcation of good doctrine) and organic collections shaped by their keepers, who compiled and made available recommendations for books that would be beneficial to the devout reader. Quakers, for instance, would require meetings to create catalogues of desirable books and pamphlets written by fellow Quakers. A more inclusive, general library was run by the Anglican priest David Simpson (1745-1799). What is perhaps most striking about Simpson's library is its collection of books by 'heterodox authors,' including Hobbes, Hume and Voltaire. No one knows what the role of this collection was for Simpson, the same man who had written that the only books worth reading were divinely-given ones, not ones penned by mere men. But it would be interesting to conduct further investigation on this front, by way of examining Simpson's own reading practices and correspondences mentioning some of these 'heterodox' texts to flesh out why an Anglican priest thought it necessary to provide access to such potentially dangerous books to his audience.