He is the author of The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling and The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice, and coeditor of the journal Material Religion.
Morgan applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Forge of Vision: A Visual History of Modern Christianity, and reported the following:
On the ninety-ninth page of my book appears an engraving [below right] portraying an event that took place in 1842 at Champlain, New York, a few miles from the border of Canada. In the fall of that year, a zealous French brother from Quebec found Catholics in Champlain had been given copies of the King James Bible, a venerable Protestant version of Sacred Writ, which had been distributed by a local Bible Society. Outraged by this subversion of Catholic practice and authority, the itinerant friar organized a public burning of the bibles. No doubt he felt justified in doing so since official proclamations by a series of nineteenth-century popes in 1816, 1824, 1825 had expressly forbidden reading the scriptures in the vernacular, and castigated Protestant Bible Societies for subverting the Catholic faith by distributing the Bibles. The bishop of Montreal denounced the action when it hit the press, but in 1844 and 1846 popes Gregory XVI and Pius IX reiterated the Vatican’s contempt for Bible Societies as Protestant means of assailing the Catholic faithful.Learn more about The Forge of Vision at the University of California Press website.
The incident has been detailed by historians of the period. My interest situates the event within a longer historical narrative of what I call competing sacred economies. Late medieval Catholicism had relied on an economy of intercession, in which devotees sought the favor of the saints through pledges and prayer, and made use of indulgences as checks drawn on the treasury of the Church in reparation for sins, resulting in the purchase of time spent in purgatory after death. The Protestant Reformation famously rejected this idea, putting in its place the idea of “free grace.” But Economics 101 assures us that there is no free lunch. With the gift of grace comes the duty to spread the word, which meant putting the Bible into languages everyone could read. Protestants developed a new sacred economy of “paying forward” rather than paying God back. So in 1842 a Catholic missionary responded by destroying the “coin” of the Protestant economy, burning the Bibles Protestants had distributed. The action was a way of re-asserting the Catholic sacred economy of sacramentalism and penance.
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My book seeks to trace a number of strongly visual themes running through both Protestant and Catholic Christianity since the 16th century. The use of images was of primary importance to both versions of the faith.
Writers Read: David Morgan.