Summary and Keywords
An extraordinary number of printed words about religion have been produced and consumed in the United States. Religious print media in America encompasses the Christian Bible (a perennial best-seller) and scriptures of other religions; religious books, both fiction and nonfiction; pamphlets and tracts; periodicals; and, more recently, electronic media. The bulk of this output has been Protestant, because the United States has always been a predominantly, though never exclusively, Protestant country, and because Protestants have always been especially fond of print. The main historical trend, however, has been in the direction of increased diversity. The proportion of religious media within the universe of American media, and the proportion of Christian media within the universe of American religious media, both fell from the colonial period to the present. The trajectory of religion as a topic in secular periodicals has been less linear, rising and falling in conjunction with news events and perceived cultural trends. America has come a long way since the early 1740s, when revivalist George Whitefield absolutely dominated the media landscape, but religion remains a potent force in print, especially if one broadens the category to include the non-creedal spirituality of a figure like Eckhart Tolle or Oprah Winfrey.
Three goals have spurred the proliferation of religious print media in the United States. (Religion coverage in secular print media has followed a separate logic, commonly known as “news values.”) The first and perhaps most obvious goal is proclamation, or the transmission of religious ideas. Dissemination of scriptures, evangelistic or apologetic works, sermons, speeches, and educational materials all fit within this category. The second goal is religious community formation and boundary marking. Periodicals have contributed most significantly in this realm, linking co-religionists across often vast spaces, preserving languages and other communal traits, and providing in-group perspective on current events. The third goal is making money. While much religious publishing has been conducted on a nonprofit basis, many Americans have made careers in the trade, and a few have become rich and famous. Because printed materials fill the archives that are foundational for religion scholarship, knowledge of print media history is extremely useful for researchers interested in a variety of topics, not only those working on print culture specifically.
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