The Religious Roots of Print Revolutions

Robert D. Woodberry, Baylor University

Printing is one of the most important inventions in human history, but was as much a religious as a technological development. Religious groups pioneered printing in both the East Asian wave (8th – 19th centuries CE) and in the European wave (1450 – the present). In both waves, the earliest printed texts were religious, and religion influenced both where printing spread and how it was used. In the East Asian wave (8th – 19th century) only Mahayana/Tantric Buddhist societies printed, and the earliest printed texts were created for ritual purposes – not for reading. It often took hundreds of years for printing to shift from a ritual function to a literary one; and longer still to print non-Buddhist texts (e.g., 200 years & 800 years in Japan). East Asian Confucian/Buddhist societies also printed secular texts and thrived economically, but non-Mahayana/Tantric Buddhist society never copied East Asian printing of books. Similarly post-Gutenberg European printing spread to most Christian and Jewish communities, but for hundreds of years did not spread to other communities. In Protestant societies and societies with active Protestant minorities, printing expanded rapidly. But in communities without Protestant competition, printing expanded far more slowly. Moreover, although Catholic missionaries, Orthodox Christians, Jews, and European trade companies printed texts throughout Asia and North Africa, only fellow Christians and Jews copied them. Prior to the 1890s, only when Protestant missionaries arrived and began printing thousands of texts designed to convert people did Muslims, Hindus, Theravada Buddhists, and others begin printing (with two partial exceptions). Religious beliefs shaped whether elites considered printing a valuable technology, and how they used the technology, with profound consequences for later social outcomes.

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 Presented in Session 84. Concrete Circuits of Ideational Power, Print and Digital