Puritan Ministers in Popular Print in Colonial New England

face of a prisoner

In colonial New England, prominent Puritan ministers were well-positioned to attract public attention. Increase Mather and his son Cotton Mather were prominent Puritan ministers. They received a socially ensured audience for their sermons in church. They also had relatively good access to the press. Colonial printers dutifully turned off works such as “The doctrine of divine providence opened and applyed: also sundry sermons on several other subjects, by Increase Mather, teacher of a church at Boston in New-England” (1684).

Even with their highly advantaged position in the public sphere of colonial New England, the Mathers actively distributed their public texts. A historian observed:

By his own account, Mather would hand out “half a dozen books, more or less” on a typical day of pastoral visits, thrusting them into the hands of young and old, male and female alike. Over the course of a year, he would distribute hundreds of pamphlets, mostly the products of his own pen. He would also give copies to ship’s officers for the benefit of their sailors and send bundles of pamphlets to friends in other towns for distribution among local families^

The Mathers’ prominent public positions and public acclaim did not free them from the challenge of attracting attention to their printed works.

The Puritan press did not merely print anything connected to prominent ministers. Cotton Mather in 1681 wrote a Harvard thesis entitled “Hebraic Vowel-Points are of Divine Origin.” Vowel points reduce uncertainty about the meaning of the sacred Hebrew text. Elias Levita, in Massoreth Ha-Massoreth, published in 1538, asserted that the Masorite scribes added the vowel points to the scriptural text about 500 CE. Controversy arose over whether the points corrupt the text or record its true, original vocalization. This controversy became quite heated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.^ Cotton Mather’s thesis, written in Latin, had obvious relevance to that important controversy. Nonetheless, it wasn’t printed.

Execution sermons, a much different type of work that both Increase and Cotton Mather also produced, were among the most popular printed works in colonial New England. An execution sermon initiated Boston’s competition with Cambridge as a printing center in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1674, Reverend Samuel Danforth delivered a sermon, “The Cry of Sodom,” at the “arraignment and condemnation” of Benjamin Goad for bestiality. Goad was excommunicated on March 15, 1674, and hung on April 2. A printer in Cambridge in 1674 printed Danforth’s sermon.^ It was the first execution sermon printed in New England. In 1675, Increase Mather helped to set up the first press in Boston. The first book off the Boston press was Increase Mather’s A Wicked Man’s Portion (1675). Mather dated his preface “To the Reader” February 15, 1675. The text was a sermon associated with hanging two men for murder on January 18, 1674. In his prefatory note, Mather explained that the sermon was printed because “many have desired, that it might be thus exposed to the view of the world.” It provided a successful start for the printing business in Boston.

Printers aggressively collected and promoted execution sermons. In 1686, Increase Mather, Cotton Mather, and Joshua Moodey gave sermons before the hanging of James Morgan. John Dunton, an entrepreneurial London bookseller and author visiting Boston, arranged to have Increase Mather’s sermon printed in Boston. The publication was entitled, “A sermon occasioned by the execution of a man found guilty of murder.” On the title page, the words “sermon and “murder” were printed with the same font, The font size was four times larger than the next largest on the page. Later that year, Increase Mather’s sermon was printed again, along with those of Cotton Mather and Moodey. In his preface, Increase Mather noted that the sermons “are published to gratify some, who have been perhaps too importunately desirous to have it so.” According to Mather, “The Book sold Exceedingly and I hope did a World of Good.”^ Mather thus did well and hoped to do good. The next year, a second edition of the collection of three sermons was published. In this edition, the title page for Increase Mather’s sermon displayed the word “sermon” in smaller type, so that “murder” stood out in a font four times bigger than that of the next largest font used for the title page. In a preface “The Printer to the Reader,” the printer noted:

The general Usefulness & Acceptableness of this Book, together with the Speedy Sale of the 1’st Impression, as also some honest gain to my self & good to others, has enclin’d me to renew the Impression of it.

Back in London in 1691, Dunton arranged to have Increase Mather’s sermon printed again. Dunton appended that sermon to his new book, The Wonders of free-grace, or, a compleat history of all the remarkable penitents that have been executed at Tyburn and elsewhere for these last thirty years. This book, unlike many other of Dunton’s publications, was profitable.^ ^

The “hottest-selling items” from New England presses from 1638 to 1713 were execution sermons and captivity narratives.^ About twenty volumes of execution sermons were printed through 1726, and sixty volumes through 1800.^ Execution sermons were cheap enough to be accessible even to rural laborers.^ They usually appeared in print faster than other sermons and achieved much greater sales:

in 1717, Mather claimed that a local bookseller had sold off nearly one thousand copies of his newest execution sermon in just five days. Later that same year, at a time when published sermons typically appeared in editions of one to five hundred, a printer in Boston reportedly produced no fewer than twelve hundred copies of yet another of Mather’s scaffold orations. That was approximately one for every ten inhabitants of the town, or about one for every two households.^

Some execution sermons went through four or more editions. In at least one case, a Boston newspaper advertised three different execution sermons, published by three different booksellers, all addressing the same execution.^

The central role of execution sermons in popular print illustrates a particular communicative bias. Early in the nineteenth century, the U.S. led the world in suppressing prisoners’ communication with each other and with their family and friends. Nonetheless, selling admission tickets for exhibit of prisoners to the public was common practice in min-nineteenth-century America. Criminals, prisoners, and punishment have long been central to public works. Ordinary personal communication with prisoners, however, has historically been disfavored.

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