Pen, Print, or Pixels: A Short History of Christian Publishing

Jack Smith
Sunday, July 1st 2018
Jul/Aug 2018

I used to think that the mild euphoria I experienced while visiting antiquarian bookstores was induced by my fascination with the artistry and craftsmanship that came from an era when book publishing was an art form. I still marvel at the well-preserved leather covers, illuminated pages, well-rounded Smyth-sewn spine, and marbled fore-edge of these old volumes. After reading Ellen Warren’s Chicago Tribune article “Could It Be That Old Books Are Really, Uh, Mind-altering?” (September 21, 1996), I realized there might be another source for that “buzz.” In her article, Ms. Warren notes:

Experts on the various fungi that feed on the pages and on the covers of books are increasingly convinced that you can get high—or at least a little wacky—by sniffing old books. Fungus on books, they say, is a likely source of hallucinogenic spores.

Dr. R. J. Hay, one of England’s leading mycologists (fungus experts) and dean of dermatology at Guy’s Hospital in London, confirmed that “fungal hallucinogens” in old books could lead to “enhancement of enlightenment.” Dr. Hay quips, “The source of inspiration for many great literary figures may have been nothing more than a quick sniff of the bouquet of moldy books.”

As pleasant as the “bouquet of moldy books” may be, it was the potential for ministering to others through books that led me to a thirty-six-year career in the Christian book and publishing industry. It’s no small thing that one of the primary ways God chose to disclose himself is through the written word. The Gospel of John says, “These things were written that you might believe” (John 20:31), meaning that the word has to be read or heard in order to be believed and preserved. The idea of selling print material that contained life-altering truths about the nature of God was irresistible. Five or even seventy-fifty dollars seemed like a small price to pay for a book that would transform your understanding of God. In 1978, as a new Christian, I was drawn to authors and titles that were unfamiliar to me but that filled the shelves of my local Christian bookstore. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Bavinck, Kuyper, van Til, and Machen all presented the God of the Bible in a way I suspected he might be but couldn’t articulate for myself. Where did these guys come from? How did these theological savants know so much about God?


Like most new converts, I thought the church began when I became a Christian. As a novice, I had no sense of how God worked through the apostles, church fathers, apologists, Reformers, and Westminster divines to point to Christ, preserve the gospel, and advance his kingdom. Not only that, but God had ordered all of history, industry, and commerce to preserve his word and the work of these men to nurture the faith of his people. These men had hammered out and refined the theological essentials of the Christian faith that would sustain the church as it grew in the face of great opposition. Throughout the history of the church, anonymous and unknown “others” did the hard and sometimes dangerous work of reforming the church as they recovered and protected these truths. We are heirs of their efforts and have been made guardians of the doctrines they so carefully and cautiously preserved. As custodians of those truths, the question is, will we follow in their steps and walk in those old paths? The answer to the question is “apparently so,” even if we stumble along the way. From the apostolic period to the spread of liberalism and decline of the church in the late nineteenth century, there have been heretics, schisms, apostasy, and opposition to the gospel.

From the beginning, the gospel was often met with hostility, the letters of the apostles moved slowly through the churches, and the development of orthodoxy took time. It took decades—sometimes centuries—for the well-developed doctrines we take for granted to be refined, codified, and formed in the life of the church. In the monastic period, scribes or copyists played an important role in the church. Responsible for the handwritten transmission of religious documents, from the sixth to the mid-fifteenth century, monastic scribes would wake before sunrise to take their place in the scriptorium where they would hand copy various texts of the Christian faith. Working during daylight hours, every day but the Sabbath, it would take fifteen months or more to make a single copy of the Bible. Working with limited lighting in crude conditions (no MacBook Pro or PC), the scribe’s rigorous commitment to accuracy made the process intensive, time-consuming, and costly—which meant that books were hard to come by.


In the fifteenth century, Gutenberg’s introduction of a movable type press to the European market made books of various kinds available to the masses, and it was as revolutionary then as the Internet is today. From the apostolic period to the Reformation and eventual decline of the church in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, God’s word would be preserved in writing so that others might believe. In 1929, J. Gresham Machen—along with John Murray, Cornelius van Til, and others—founded Westminster Theological Seminary as a bulwark of Reformed theology against the rising liberalism in the academy. The following year, Samuel Craig and Machen established Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, and in 1955, Jay Green founded Sovereign Grace Publishers. Through a series of events—catalyzed by a common interest in Reformed literature—Jack Cullum and Iain Murray (at the urging of Dr. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones) founded The Banner of Truth Trust in 1957. For the next thirty years, the Western church experienced an almost unimpeded spread of faithful Reformed literature and Puritan reprints.


In the 1970s, the Christian bookstore business took off as brick and mortar stores spread across the country. Even then it was clear that serious Christian books wouldn’t be able to generate the sales and margins needed to give bookstores long-term viability. In order to cover the costs of operation, the revenues generated by the publication of serious Christian literature would have to be supplemented by best-sellers such as Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth and Roland Buck’s Angels on Assignment, anything by Benny Hinn, Christian rock music, and eventually Christian trinkets. But by the mid to late 1980s, there was evidence of a declining interest in the serious things of God. The church seemed to be wearied by the essentials of the faith; surely, there was more to the gospel than the gospel. Christian theology was being replaced by Christian stuff.

As consumer interests changed and sales dropped off, rather than coming up with fresh new ways to present the ancient truths of the faith, the publishing industry began to follow instead of lead. Biblical illiteracy increased, spiritual discernment declined, and with the growing appetite for novelty, most publishers buckled under the pressure of popular demand. Rather than asking “Are the books we’re publishing faithful to the Scriptures?” publishers began asking “Is what we’re publishing relevant to our readers?” The doctrines that safeguard the church were giving way to the felt needs of the readers, and publishers turned their resources and efforts to meeting needs readers never knew they had.

As a result, the market was flooded with books on Christian dieting, Christian sex, Christian aerobics, and self-esteem. At the same time, the Christian Booksellers Association annual trade show expanded the exhibit floor to accommodate an ever-growing variety of vendors and manufacturers who were in a frenzy to get the next new Christian knickknack to market. Scripture Tea, Testa-Mints, bobble-head Jesus, and “This Blood’s for You” T-shirts were all big sellers. The lack of commitment on the part of much of the publishing industry and the absence of discernment among many evangelical consumers came together to create the perfect storm; it’s always the case that if the gospel isn’t the “main thing,” then the center will not hold. The new evangelicals were becoming the old liberals.

The writings of Augustine, Calvin, and Murray were replaced with the music of Evie, Amy, and Stryper. In spite of sweeping changes in the industry, publishers such as The Banner of Truth Trust, Presbyterian and Reformed, and a handful of others remained faithful to their commitment to produce works that would fulfill readers’ most profound needs. Good News Publishers expanded its ministry to create Crossway Books, and new publishers such as Charles Nolan, Canon Press, and Christian Heritage Books in the US and Christian Focus Publications in the UK would eventually emerge.


With the rapid development of technology and the promise to improve every area of life, the Internet took on a recognizable form and outpaced the Christian publishing industry’s ability to adapt. With the development of digital media and online purchasing, the industry as we knew it was in danger of becoming obsolete. All of its expertise, facilities, equipment, and human resources were devoted to the enterprise of paper, ink, and press. A large staff of employees skilled in print publication, warehouses filled with paper stock, newly purchased presses, and large in-house or independent publisher rep-teams were becoming unsustainable. Those who were technology-resistant saw the digital invasion as the coming of the antichrist; others saw it as a way to move the kingdom of God forward.

The boom of brick and mortar retail bookstores that took place in the 1970s was in decline by the ’90s. The independent mom-and-pop operations that had been displaced by the large chain stores in the ’80s would witness those same stores in free fall by 2000. There were casualties, but there were also many forward-thinking booksellers and publishers who made a successful transition. A few denominational, seminary, and independent outlets have adapted and survived, but the recent closure of Family Christian Stores marks one of the last in a long list of bookstore chains to perish under the pressure of online purchasing, deep discounting, and free shipping. From the acquisition of a manuscript to the finished book, the editorial/production process has pretty much evolved from using physical ink and paper to using computers and software programs.

New self-publishing platforms have allowed a host of informed and thoughtful Christians, who had no hope of being published by a major publishing house, access to a resource where their views could be made public and considered by anyone who has a computer. Ancient texts, commentaries, e-books, podcasts, and video lectures have become available to anyone who has the technology. Whole communities now find forums for their interests, thoughts, and views to be shared as the abundance of websites and ever-expanding blogosphere encroach on the printing press. Every life issue and theological topic can now be researched, debated, or discussed in real time on the web. There is as much difference now between print publishing and digital media as there was between the monastic scribes and Gutenberg. New technologies allow anyone and everyone to instantly and anonymously weigh in on the issues of the day.

The downside to the rise of digital media is that our attention spans began to shorten in proportion to our lack of patience with older forms of communication. With so many platforms and applications available, a serious interest in the slow methodical discipline of reading anything in any format took a nosedive. The digital world’s promise to improve everything came at a cost and with unintended consequences—just as the medium and methods had changed, so had the reading habits of an entire generation.

The good news is that the technology that has brought about a rapid decline has been the same means of providing helpful cautions and correctives. As useful and portable as digital publications may be, research shows there are deficiencies: Fast Company, First Things, The Scientific American, and others have published studies on screen fatigue and a renewed interest in reading the printed page instead of the e-book. These studies show that people read slower, less accurately, and with less comprehension on screens than on paper. In his article “The Persistence of Print” (October 24, 2017), First Things senior editor Mark Bauerlein writes:

When linguist Naomi Baron asked college students which format helped them concentrate and study the most, 92 percent chose the hard copy, not the screen. A story in Fast Company cites more research showing that absorbing information from analog mediums now appears to be better for memory retention. The same material read in a book tends to stay with you longer than when read in digital formats.

But speed, comprehension, and retention are not the only factors diminished by reading in digital format—reading is a human and sensual experience. In his article “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens” (April 11, 2013), Ferris Jabar, associate editor and contributing writer for The Scientific American, says, “Laboratory experiments, polls, and consumer reports indicate that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss.” Readers miss the tangible interaction of texture of the printed page, the pleasant bouquet of moldy old books, and the fact that they never have to recharge a book. Mark Bauerlein also disputes the assumption that

once the Millennials head into middle age, they’ll take with them the screen-reading dispositions they acquired in childhood. Studies indicate that the fascination students and children have for real objects—actual books—is not a generational trend; there may something more natural, congenial, and in some way more human in reading the printed page.


Prior to the Reformation, the Christian community was, for the most part, illiterate. Readers today are becoming increasingly aliterate. Our mental faculties and imaginations have been weakened, because most of the media we consume today provide all the sights, sounds, and pop that our minds are normally required to create as we read the words printed on a page. Whether it’s the literary classics or systematic theology, reading the printed page actually stimulates our readerly sensibilities, curiosity, and imagination in ways that screen reading does not, and there appears to be a return to the reading of actual books.

Each generation enters the world with a high view of their self-worth and contribution to the world around them. It’s the solemn duty of the preceding generation to patiently allow them to think too highly of themselves as they come to maturity and, in turn, become displaced by the succeeding generation. The digital age is no different. For all their valuable contributions, in a few short years, another generation will emerge with new and unanticipated methods of communication that will replace what we are so fascinated by today. The time will come when the tablet and stylus will be as antiquated as the spiral notebook and number two pencil. The very concept of publishing may take on a completely different meaning.

Older is (usually) better, but not always. There are things that improve with age—fine wines, cheese, books, and friendships all mature and increase in value over time. (There are exceptions, of course—a well-kept ’57 Chevy or ’65 Mustang is an artifact; a ’77 Yugo is a novelty.) One thing that should improve with age, however, is the ability to recognize things that improve with age. The “new” can bring amazing improvements to the quality of life, but their value is in the contribution they bring, not in their newness.

The scribes never imagined movable type, and Gutenberg never dreamed of electricity, much less the iPad. It’s beyond our capacity to envision today the forms of communication that will be developed in the future. Whether we use paper and print or pixels and screens, it is the supremacy of the message, not the medium, that matters most. God will continue to use ordinary people to accomplish his extraordinary purposes as he orders all of history, industry, and commerce to preserve his word and the work of the church to nurture the faith of his people. By God’s design, and for most of the history of the church, the Christian faith has been dependent on the preservation of the text of God’s truth and the existence of habitual readers. Whether it is pen and ink or ones and zeros, God’s truth will always have to be heard and read to be believed and preserved.

Jack Smith is associate pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, and has been on staff since 2006. He has also served as manager of the Banner of Truth Trust US and as national sales manager of NavPress/Piñon Press.

Sunday, July 1st 2018

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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