It is exciting to see the many new studies of the impact of book technologies on histories of religions. In some cases, history is recast in new ways and what we thought happened ends up looking a little different in retrospect. In other cases, attention to the materiality of books bolsters already argued histories, but shows the origins of an event to be not so much intellectual as physical: ideas are constrained and disseminated in printed and bound forms, just as the ideas would have been impossible without the resources of writing and print.
Kathleen Lynch has recently published an essay at the Martin Marty Center's Religion & Culture Web Forum with the provocative title, "How does the fixity of print become a problem for religious identity?" Lynch is Executive Director of the Folger Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library and knows a few things about the power of books. Her 2012 book, Protestant Autobiography in the Seventeenth-Century Anglophone World, (Oxford UP) argues that the genre of Protestant autobiography was bound up with print, and with the trans-Atlantic book trade.
Lynch's recent essay on the fixity of print supplements Protestant Autobiography, and focuses on Sarah Wight's 1647 publishing "sensation," The Exceeding Riches of Grace. Because of its existence as a bound book, the conversion story becomes fixed, in spite of any future doubts and questions Wight might have had. Even with new editions published over the following two decades, addenda were relegated outside the narrative proper, leading Lynch to suggest: "Despite the multiple opportunities and anecdotal prompts, the continuation of the story is resisted, with the material constraints of the number of sheets at least bolstering, if not precisely establishing, a conceptual boundary."
Print itself makes it seem that religious identity is secure, "the physical properties of the book helped shape the model of godly selfhood that was being advanced in this narrative." Stories of conversion are fixed in print, while the personal early-American gospel of an interior-focused religiosity is spread through thoroughly external, material means.