When modern American college students want to look at book reviews, they can generally turn to online databases like JSTOR that provide unparalleled access to peer-reviewed evaluations. In the nineteenth century, however, such criticism was not as easy to come across. That is why one of our recent findings in the library storage facility is so intriguing. The book is called The Spirit of Popery: An Exposure of its Origin, Character, and Results, in Letters from a Father to his Children, and a St. Ignatius College student seemed to have some very strong opinions about it.
On the front pages, the student inscribed the simple yet powerful phrase “This book is full of lies” multiple times. What author could have elicited such harsh commentary? Actually, The Spirit of Popery cannot be attributed to a single author. It is one of thousands of religious tracts published and distributed by the American Tract Society into the nineteenth-century print marketplace.
The American Tract Society was founded in 1825 as an amalgamation of several smaller evangelical organizations. Even in its earliest years, the Society expressed contentious opinions about popular print in the United States. Particularly abhorrent to their adherents were romance novels. One member warned, “To yield to such a hellish charm is like the voluntary sacrifice of one’s body and soul on the drunkard’s altar. Mental delirium tremens is as certain a consequence of habitual intoxication from such reading, as is that awful disease the certain end of the inebriate. Beware of it!” However, while the Society was quick to castigate what it considered sin in contemporary literature, it was equally quick to adopt print as a mechanism in its evangelical designs.
Operations began on a relatively modest scale. The American Tract Society initially published and printed works on its presses, then offered them to local religious organizations at wholesale prices. By the 1840s, though, the Society became more aggressive in its distribution strategy. It was then that it began to employ colporteurs (essentially company sales representatives) to travel across the country promoting and selling their products. This strategy proved incredibly successful. Reports published every year after 1841 celebrated the sale of millions of books and the complementary dispersal of millions more. The Spirit of Popery dates to this period.
Determining when The Spirit of Popery entered the American print marketplace proved a minor challenge. The St. Ignatius College copy, at the very least, does not include a publication date. It does, however, list the American Tracy Society’s address, which actually narrows down the release window to sometime past 1832. A second revelation regarding the book’s publication is that it received distribution in the United Kingdom before the United States. The Spirit of Popery was originally released by the Religious Tract Society, a British precursor to its American counterpart, in 1840. Furthermore, a review for the work first appears in the evangelical Christian Review in 1844. The reviewer praises the tract, stating, “The account of Popery, as it is, is fitted to impart to every reader, old or young, an accurate idea of the vanity of the pretensions of such a scheme to the character of a system of faith, revealed from God, and designed for the suffering and the guilty.” The St. Ignatius College student who scrutinized the same pages did not agree.
The images above demonstrate that the student had a far more strident response to the American Tract Society that simply, “This book is full of lies.” He elaborates that, “This little book is one of infamous lies,” and “such books…are used to poison…young minds.” The cursive is difficult to decipher, but the student’s primary concern seems to be that The Spirit of Popery provides a dishonest interpretation of Roman Catholic dogma. In addition to summarizing his grievances with the work opposite the title page, the student also inscribed footnotes throughout to pinpoint his criticisms.
Some footnotes seem rather superficially heated. On page 242, for example, the author quotes Genesis 48:15-16: “The God which fed me all my life long unto this day, the Angel which redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads.” The student places a strike through the word “which” and replaces it with “who.” The quotation, of course, comes from a King James translation of the Bible. Thus, the student was presumably so offended by his Protestant adversary’s choice of scriptural source material that he felt it necessary to correct its grammar.
Other annotations are more theologically intuitive. On page 261, the author argues, “Purgatory, like many parts of the Romish system, is derived from heathenism.” The student retorts, “This is false. The dogma is derived from the Bible.” Regarding more earthly matters, the author criticizes the Roman Catholic belief in transubstantiation during the Eucharist. On page 206, he asserts that when Jesus spoke of bread becoming His body and wine becoming His blood at the Last Supper, “The mode of speaking thus common, is peculiarly so to the Syriac tongue, in which our Lord most probably conversed with his disciples, and to other eastern languages, which have no term expressive of ‘to signify’ or ‘represent,’ according to our sense of the word.” The student counters that it is “a pure falsehood” that “eastern languages” lacked the capacity to convey metaphor. The student provides longer, more elaborate-looking explanations in other chapters, but after more than a century the ink in these areas has bled enough to render what were likely even most concise criticisms illegible.
It is fascinating to uncover a work so antagonistic towards Catholics in Chicago’s first Catholic college library. Furthermore, it is not the only book of its kind. There is second book published by the American Tract Society listed in the library catalog called Infidelity. What can we conclude from this? Perhaps Jesuit educators believed that if students were to develop the skills necessary to defend their spiritual identities in a secular world, then they should not be insulated from evangelical criticisms widely available in the American print marketplace.
For more on the American Tract Society, I would recommend two articles by David Paul Nord. First, “Systematic Benevolence: Religious Publishing and the Marketplace in Early Nineteenth-Century America” from the anthology Communication and Change in American Religious History (1993). Second, “Religious Reading and Readers in Antebellum America” from the Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 15, no. 2 (1995). The Democratization of American Christianity by Nathan O. Hatch provides an excellent overview of American Christianity’s relationship with the print marketplace.
– Michael J. Albani, Provenance Project Coordinator