Religious Books in Prison Libraries Declined in Share

face of a prisoner

The share of religious books in U.S. prison libraries declined from the early nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. A prison library scholar has described books purchased for prisoners in the Walnut St. prison in Philadelphia in 1809 as “nearly all … religious works of one kind or another.”^ Excluding bibles and periodicals, 75% of books purchased for prisoners in the Walnut St. prison in Philadelphia in 1809 might be classified as religious works. Within that religious classification, however, would be six copies of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a allegorical tale, and six copies of Doddridge’s Life of Colonel Gardiner, a spiritually themed account of a soldier’s life.

A substantial share of works in the Philadelphia prison library in 1809 can be meaningfully grouped in a separate fiction, literature, and poetry class. That class would include the two copies of Young’s Night thoughts on life, death, & immortality, highly acclaimed poetry of the time, and two four-volume sets of Hannah More’s Stories for the Young Or, Cheap Repository Tracts: Entertaining, Moral, and Religious. The Philadelphia prison library included 24 copies of “Pratter.” These probably were The Prater, a book published in London in 1757. It collected two-penny weekly issues of The Prater. That was published in London in 1756 under the name of the imaginary editor, Nicholas Babble. Modeled after The Spectator, The Prater offered non-pious civil-society guidance in an entertaining style. If these copies were included in the collection statistics under fiction, the share of fiction would be 37% and the share of religious works, 51%.

Classifying books is a cultural exercise, not merely a empirical fact. The catalog of Thomas Jefferson’s library from about 1810 and the classes that Ralph Waldo Emerson used in recommending books to his cousin in 1832 show that types and categories of books were not rigidly divided early in the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, for understanding changes in library book distributions over time, the Philadelphia prison library in 1809 can be reasonably interpreted as having about a 50% share of religious books.

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the share of religious works in prison libraries was only about 10%. Fiction, literature, and poetry then accounted for perhaps 30% of prison library collections. Biography, geography, history, and travel accounted for perhaps another 25% of the books. The libraries included scientific books of the time, as well as literary and philosophical essays. To the extent that prisoners in the late nineteenth-century U.S. had access to prison libraries, they had access to a wide range of reading material. By 1933, an authoritatively recommended book catalog for prison libraries included only 1% religious works.

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