I feel a bit weird about doing this, like I’m leaving the keys in the ignition or something, but I’ve decided to share with y’all this proposal I’ve just submitted for an ASECS (American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies) 2004 panel on the history of reading. This grows out of research in Manchester that I wrote about earlier this summer and will eventually make its way into my book. I welcome feedback.
ìAn insatiable thirst for knowledgeî: the Bible Reading of Samuel Bradburn, Itinerant Methodist Preacher
I am proposing a paper that will explore a specific case study that contributes to a better understanding of what texts were read, by whom, and how in late eighteenth-century Britain. Samuel Bradburn (1751-1815) became an itinerant Methodist preacher in 1774 and was soon so well known as an orator that he was called ìthe Methodist Demosthenes.î This case study of Samuel Bradburn provides a valuable example of the eighteenth-century Methodist practice of disciplined spiritual reading as well as the oft-overlooked interplay of oral culture (in the form of preaching), manuscript culture (in the forms marginalia and memoranda), and print (in form of the Bible). Immersed as he was in the world of oral culture, Bradburn was still an avid reader, apparently taking advantage of the hours of solitude available to him as he traveled from community to community, as he stayed up late at night, and as he followed Methodist leader John Wesley’s instructions for pre-dawn study. In 1791, he wrote, ìI find an insatiable thirst for knowledge, which drives me to great irregularity in sitting up, and has done so above twenty years.î Unable to carry many books with him, because of their weight, Bradburn focused his reading on one book: the Bible. His copy of this text features a detailed reading calendar handwritten onto the endpapers, a schedule of study broken down day by day for the entire year such that in twelve months he would have read the Old Testament once and the New Testament three times. It is clear from the Bible’s marginalia that he followed this reading schedule for many years; next to Deuteronomy 26.5, for example, he wrote, ìI never remember to have read this Paragraph without receiving a blessing. S. B. Mar 6. 1798,î and there are subsequent notes below this one affirming the recurrence of this same reading experience in later years up to 1810.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that this reading took place in the absence of contact or discussion with others, for as a preacher, Bradburn’s duty was to explicate the Biblical texts he read so intensively. Incredibly, he kept in his ìMemorandumî books a brief record, including text, time, and place, for each of the roughly 13,000 sermons he preached over his multi-decade career, often with a note about how well the sermon was received. Furthermore, his Bible contains marginal notes about how best to present particular texts. At the end of the Book of Esther, for example, he writes, ìThis curious little story may furnish, (somewhat like Ruth’s) many useful observations on a particular providence, and the amazing vicissitudes of human life.î And at the end of the book of Ruth he writes, ìThis little history may be treated in one Lecture as it will, like the book of Esther, furnish some useful observations on a particular providence, &c.î Bradburn felt that the two practices of preaching and reading were productively interwoven, writing in May of 1778, ìIt is well for me that I have to preach so often, as it obliges me to read & study.î