What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A SERMON, on the Death of the Revs. Mr. GEORGE WHITEFIELD.”
The simultaneous commemoration and commodification of George Whitefield’s death in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 30, 1770, continued six months later in the March 28, 1771, edition of the New-York Journal. John Holt, printer of that newspaper, announced that he “Just published … A SERMON, on the Death of the Rev.d Mr. GEORGE WHITEFIELD, preached at his own Tabernacle in Moor-Fields, &c. by the Reverend Mr. JOHN WESLEY.” A week earlier, Holt attempted to generate demand in advance of publication with a notice that the sermon was “Now in the Press.” Coverage of Whitefield’s death, coverage that likely spurred sales of commemorative items, tapered off by the end of 1770 once newspaper printers throughout the colonies reprinted accounts that originated in Boston and then printed and reprinted news of local reactions. When reports of reactions in England arrived after several months, printers like Holt had new opportunities to continue coverage of Whitefield’s death and to profit from commodifying that event.
Immediately following the death of one of the most prominent ministers associated with the eighteenth-century religious revivals now known as the Great Awakening, printers, booksellers, and others marketed a variety of memorabilia, including poems, hymnals, and funeral sermons. The production and dissemination of these items supplemented other mourning rituals, while also giving consumers opportunities to experience through their purchases events they did not witness. Such was the case with publishing funeral sermons, especially those originally delivered in faraway places. Robert Wells, printer of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, for instance, advertised a funeral sermon given in Savannah in the neighboring colony of Georgia. Holt gave consumers access to a sermon preached much farther away when he reprinted Wesley’s sermon. This enhanced the sense of collective mourning. Colonists were not alone in honoring Whitefield’s life and grieving his death; instead, they were the first to express their sorrow, eventually joined by counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic. Reprinting and selling Wesley’s funeral sermon was not merely a matter of honoring the departed minister. Holt also provided a proxy for participating in commemorations in England, thus making American consumers feel like part of a transatlantic community of the faithful who mourned Whitefield.