The religions of the West propagate themselves through words, not the least of all printed words. This means that since the development of the printing press half a millennium ago in Germany, these religions have been engaged in publishing. Judaism, long given to lettering on scrolls, adapted easily to the world of print, and its leaders used publication to sustain community. The devotion of Jews and Judaism to "the Book" is well known. Catholicism has relied on book publishing of breviaries, devotions, and textbooks to nurture the faithful and then to reach out in apologetics or missionary activity to the non-Catholic world. Most forms of Protestantism, beginning with Martin Luther in the age of inventor and printer Johann Gutenberg, relied on publishing to make their way.
When these religions reached the colonies that became the United States, they found themselves internally divided, their denominations in competition. While steeples and domes beckoned believers to churches and synagogues, publishers and enterprisers had to appeal to individuals, often in isolation from each other. Some did this especially well in their efforts to convert others. Historian Frank Lambert in "Pedlar in Divinity" treated the colonies' most traveled evangelist, George Whitefield, as someone who understood the need to advertise and propagate—through print.
From colonial times into the present, religious publishing has prospered, making "Religion" one of the most productive categories in annual listings of book selling and purchasing in the United States. Most denominations have had their own publishing houses, such as the Methodist Book Concern, whose products were promoted by colporteurs (peddlers) and circuit riders across the frontier and in the new cities. Numbers of what today would be called "trade" houses, which were tied to no religious group in particular—one thinks of the old Harper & Brothers or Charles Scribner's Sons—either developed religious divisions or included religious titles in their general categories and reached millions.
Never has the venture of religious publishing, especially of books, burgeoned as it has in the final third of the twentieth century, a period that was, according to many, to be thought of as "secular" and thus lacking in religious interest. In those sectors of the culture where secularity or religious indifference has reigned, religious book publishing has appeared to be almost invisible. Religious titles—for example, books by evangelist Billy Graham—could outsell every book on the weekly best-seller lists but often go unmentioned. This situation began to change at the end of the century, when religious groups became ever more articulate, appealing, and even demanding. They and their authors and publishers had to be noticed.
One sign of this recognition has been in Publishers Weekly, the most notable book publishing trade magazine. For years it published semiannual "Religion" issues but was otherwise neglectful of the category. Now it offers regular roundups of the trade in religious and spiritual books and includes the impressive marketing situation of religious publishers in its appraisals of economic trends. Evangelicals speak up for themselves in the journal Books and Culture, and their books as well as those of moderate and liberal Protestants are advertised and get reviewed in journals such as Christianity Today and The Christian Century. Catholic publication thrives, and its productions get notice in journals such as America and Commonweal. The only complaint most authors and publishers carried into the turn of the millennium was that there was a general overlooking of religious books in major secular review organs such as The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review.
Most religious books were sold through Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant stores, often on college and seminary campuses. But as evangelicals came to prominence, their large market, once reached through "ma and pa" or "Bible" bookstores, entered the mainstream in mall bookstores. Their books became available on the Internet.
Publishing today proceeds on several levels and through diverse channels. The market for serious religious scholarship, particularly of formal theology, remains very small. For that reason much serious work in religious history, archaeology, philosophy, and sometimes theology itself issues from university presses. As before, many denominations sponsor their own publishing firms to produce literature for church agencies such as Sunday schools, for developing personal piety, or for presenting arguments and calls to action on social issues. In Catholicism, religious orders and independents work through companies such as Paulist Press or Orbis Books, but some general trade publishers such as Doubleday have kept a Catholic line. There is also Doubleday's Anchor Bible series of translations with commentaries on books of the Bible, written by various Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish scholars. Nondenominational Protestant houses such as Eerdmans and Trinity cover the evangelicalto-mainstream scholarly front. And some privately owned companies such as Crossroad publish Catholic and Protestant books alike. However, many of the trade houses have phased out religion departments, though they may issue some religion titles in their general catalogs.
The two strongest trends in the end-of-century decades were the movement of evangelical publishing into the commercial mainstream and the trend toward "spiritual" lines that complemented or supplemented what had been "religious" only.
In the first of these trends, many of the expanding evangelical firms came to be owned by secular houses. Thus HarperCollins has made possible great outreach by Zondervan.
In the second trend, some publishers have catered to a sweeping national impulse to view most religion as institutional, corporate, traditional, and repressive. In its place, many authors and their readerships speak of "spirituality" as a separate domain, its books aimed more at individualists, seekers, and entrepreneurs. Whatever else that trend means, it suggests that in the world of publishing, purchasing, and reading of books, tens of millions of citizens demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the merely secular sphere. They demonstrate that the religious and spiritual searches are as intense as when Martin Luther propagandized through print and George Whitefield peddled divinity.
Edwards, Mark U., Jr. Printing, Propaganda, and MartinLuther. 1994.
Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Press as an Agentof Change: Communication and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe. 1979.
Lambert, Frank. "Pedlar in Divinity": George Whitefieldand the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737 –1770. 1994.
Martin E. Marty