Dating back to the sixteenth century, religious publishing has had a long and vibrant history in North America. From the time Juan Pablos arrived in Mexico City in 1539 to set up a printing office under the patronage of Mexico's first Catholic bishop, much of what would be printed in America would have a distinctly religious flavor. A century later, the Puritans continued this linkage between religion and print by establishing the first printing press in the British colonies in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Largely because of the Puritan commitment to literacy, American publishing in general—and religious publishing in particular—went on to establish itself most prominently in the northeastern region during the ensuing two centuries. By the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Puritan-inflected Boston had become a major religious publishing center. In these decades, Philadelphia and New York City also rose to prominence in the area of religious publishing, due largely to their deep roots in the publishing industry more generally and to the fact that both cities played host to a number of Protestant denominational headquarters, major churches, and religious benevolent societies.
By 1755 there were twenty-four printing establishments in ten of the British colonies. A decade later, every one of the original thirteen colonies had an active publishing enterprise. Religion, politics, and printing were so intertwined during these years that nearly all of these mid-eighteenth-century American printers published religious material, but they published other kinds of material as well. At this point, strict specialization in printing rarely existed. The Ephrata cloister of Pietists near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, established a printing enterprise around 1743 and became a rare example of a publishing enterprise almost totally dedicated to religious publishing. Other strictly "religious publishers" hardly existed at this time, and printers took a wide variety of work to remain financially solvent. Perhaps the most famous American printer of the eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin, serves as a useful illustration here. Franklin used his printing presses to produce newspapers, books, pamphlets, and almanacs of a more secular hue. He also printed many extremely popular religious works, including sermon collections originally preached by George Whitefield, the most famous traveling evangelist of the eighteenth century.
To be sure, certain publishers did make a name for themselves by printing religious materials. Prior to the American Revolution, Christopher Sower produced a German Bible in 1743, and his son produced later editions in 1773 and 1776. After John Eliot's translation of the Bible into an Algonquian language in the early 1660s, Sower's was the second Bible edition to be printed in the United States, and its production distinguished him as one of the leading religious publishers of his day. Mathew Carey was yet another publisher who came to distinguish himself as a producer of Bible editions. Until the rise of the American Bible Society in 1816, Mathew Carey was the largest single printer of Bibles in the United States.
The 1770s and 1780s saw the rise of denomination-based publishing. The Methodists took the lead in this area. Before the 1770s, Methodists employed local Philadelphia printers to produce hymnbooks and other works. These printers profited by producing these works, something that outraged the Methodist leadership in England. In 1773 the Methodists determined that only officially approved publications and publishers would be used, and all the proceeds would go toward mission work. This led to the establishment of the Methodist Book Concern in 1789, the first denominational printing enterprise in the United States.
Other denominations followed suit in the nineteenth century. The Baptists established a publication society in 1824, the Unitarians set up a book and pamphlet society in 1827, the Episcopalians began American publishing in 1828 through the New York Episcopal Press, and the Congregationalists set up a tract and book printing enterprise in 1829 to service its loosely confederated circle of churches. By the mid-1830s every major American denomination recognized the need for a publishing enterprise to produce materials for their missions activities and educational curriculums, and to facilitate denominational coherence. Denominations were also largely responsible for the proliferation of religious newspapers in the first half of the nineteenth century. The first newspapers dedicated strictly to religion began to appear in the second decade of the century, but nearly three hundred religious newspapers (most often sponsored by a specific denomination or religious body to help facilitate communication within its ranks) existed by the time of the Civil War.
The opening decades of the nineteenth century also gave birth to a new kind of interdenominational publishing. The American Bible Society (1816), the American Sunday School Union (1824), and the American Tract Society (1825) came to represent cooperation among various denominations, which allowed for a flood of religious material to be released throughout the country. These societies took full advantage of changes in papermaking technology, stereotyping, centralized mass production, and power presses to become the largest publishing enterprises of their day. By the late 1820s the American Bible Society was producing 300,000 Bibles a year, the American Tract Society was producing over six million tracts a year, and the American Sunday School Union was embarking on a 100-volume Sunday school series to help facilitate its Bible class curricula across the country. This spirit of interdenominational cooperation signaled a significant shift from the decentralized religious publishing of the mid-eighteenth century to a more centralized and powerful religious publishing presence in the United States by the 1830s.
Gutjahr, Paul C. An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777–1880. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999.
Nord, David Paul. Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America, 1790–1860. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Tebbel, John. A History of Book Publishing in the United States. Vol. 1: The Creation of an Industry, 1630–1865. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1972.
Thomas, Isaiah. The History of Printing in America. Edited by Marcus A. McCorison. New York: Weathervane Books, 1970.
Paul C. Gutjahr