Vanity Fair and the Celestial City: Dissenting, Methodist, and Evangelical Literary Culture in England 1720-1800

Isabel Rivers is Professor of Eighteenth-Century English Literature and Culture at Queen Mary University of London. Her book Vanity Fair and the Celestial City: Dissenting, Methodist, and Evangelical Literary Culture in England, 1720-1800 will be published by Oxford University Press in July 2018. Here she describes the questions she set out to answer.

When I’m asked to give a label to myself I usually say that I’m a literary and intellectual historian and that I’m particularly interested in the history of religion and philosophy and the history of the book. Over the years the periods in which I’ve been most interested have ranged from the sixteenth century to the early nineteenth, and I’ve done quite a lot of looking back to classical literature and philosophy. One of my main interests is the relationship between ideas and the languages and forms in which they are expressed. This is the subject of my two-volume study, Reason, Grace, and Sentiment: A Study of the Language of Religion and Ethics in England, 1660-1780, (1991, 2000). Another of my main interests is the relationship between books and their readers in the eighteenth century, the subject of two collections of essays by various hands that I’ve edited (1982, 2001). For the first collection, I wrote a chapter about dissenting and Methodist books of practical divinity, which I researched in tandem with my chapter on John Wesley for Reason, Grace, and Sentiment. I had come to see that it wasn’t possible to write about the history of religious thought without understanding that religious books were in a perpetual process of transformation by their editors and interpreters for transmission to different groups of readers, and that this process needed thorough exploration. In some ways that chapter is the germ of my new book, which I have been working on for many years, and to which various shorter pieces I’ve published all contribute.

I have tried to find answers to the following: who or what determined what was published, distributed, and read? How large a proportion of eighteenth-century publishing was religious? To what extent was the motivating factor of religious publishing commercial? How important was not-for-profit (in modern parlance) publishing and distribution, and how influential was the work of religious societies founded for this purpose? What formats were religious books usually published in? What proportion of religious books were published in cheap duodecimo format as opposed to more expensive octavos and quartos? What problems does the fact that some have not survived create for historical interpretation?

What about the texts and authors that were chosen for publication? Who made the decisions, and why were certain texts and authors repeatedly reissued and re-edited? By popular I mean works that were written or edited not exclusively for clerical or ministerial readers but for educated lay or family audiences who could afford them, as well as cheap works specifically directed at the poor, some of whom received them gratis. And what about the readers—how did they acquire or obtain access to religious books, and how did they respond to them? How should we compare advice about how to read such books, whether provided by the books’ authors and editors, or by those who were recommending them, with the accounts that readers themselves provided about their experience of reading? When a reader discusses a well-known book such as Pilgrim’s Progress, how do we know what version of that book is meant, with what theological or denominational bias? What happened to the texts of previously published books on their journeys through the hands of different editors, abridgers, and interpreters? How do we interpret a literary culture in which religious books and manuscripts, with both lay and ministerial authors, were regularly edited, abridged, and distributed to new audiences for different purposes? What did Anglicans do to Catholic books, Arminians to Calvinist books, or Unitarians to Trinitarian books?

My focus is primarily on the following religious denominations and groups in England: Protestant dissenters from the Church of England, especially Congregationalists and Baptists who looked back to their puritan forbears and in the second half of the century came to see themselves as evangelical dissenters; members of the Church of England who formed Methodist societies, both Arminian and Calvinist, from the 1730s onwards, some of whom at different stages broke away from the established Church and joined dissenting churches or formed their own Methodist churches; evangelical members of the Church of England who disapproved of many Methodist practices and of the theology of the Arminian wing of Methodism, but who shared with Methodists the view that the Church should return to its sixteenth-century founding statements; and, to a lesser extent, dissenters from the Church of England who consciously differentiated themselves from orthodox dissenters: notably Quakers, and rational or liberal dissenters, Presbyterian in origin, including some who were explicitly Unitarians.

I have explored a very large number of books written or edited by over 200 authors. The most prominent are the dissenting ministers Isaac Watts and Philip Doddridge, and the Church of England clergymen John Wesley and John Newton, but there are many others who are less well known or scarcely read now. I have arranged my material not by chronology or authors or denomination or theological position, but within the overarching subject of literary culture, divided into three parts, Books and their Readers, Sources, and Literary Kinds. Throughout, my concern is with the books themselves—how they were published, disseminated, read, and interpreted; what were the principal influences that determined the choices made by their authors and editors; and what were the most important and popular genres.

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