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Revisiting a Revolution: Puritan Paperbacks 60 years on!

Category Articles
Date May 12, 2021

The twenty-third issue of the Banner of Truth magazine, which appeared in February 1961, carried an article by Iain Murray entitled ‘Revolution in Publishing.’ What was the ‘revolution’ to which he referred? It wasn’t Gutenberg’s printing press of the fifteenth century, although that certainly did revolutionize publishing. Nor was it the advent of digital printing, which in the 1960s was still several decades away. Neither was it the appearance of e-books. Rather, when Iain Murray referred to a revolution, he was speaking about paperback books!

Today we don’t think twice about paperbacks as a format. But when Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books, proposed the idea in the 1930s, many in the publishing world thought the suggestion ‘ludicrous.’ But Lane proved the board room nay-sayers spectacularly wrong. Penguin published its first title in 1935 and the era of the mass-market paperback had begun.

By 1960, what Iain Murray refers to as a ‘second revolution’ was taking place: religious publishers, seeing the popularity and appeal of paperbacks, started producing books in the ‘new’ format. Books which had previously been available to a limited audience as expensive hardback tomes were being produced in small cheap form, aimed at a much wider readership. But there were few evangelical paperbacks available and Iain Murray bemoans that ‘as a result of the “Second Paperback Revolution” error is to be found in popular dress in bookshops and newsagents all over the land.’

After commending Inter-Varsity Fellowship for their work in publishing some paperbacks, picking out Marcus Loane’s Makers of Religious Freedom and Jean Cadier’s The Man God Mastered (a brief biography of John Calvin), Iain Murray goes on to explain the real purpose of his article. We discover that ‘we [The Banner of Truth Trust] commenced six months ago to publish good paperbacks at 2s. 6d. and have now published eight books in this format.’ He goes on to explain that the aim of Banner paperbacks was to reach a wider readership, the hope being that current readers would take the opportunity of the low prices to buy multiple copies to give away to others, hence encouraging them to become readers.

Readers may be familiar with the story of the conversion of Augustine of Hippo, described in chapter twelve of his Confessions, in which he hears a child’s voice coming from a neighbouring house, repeatedly chanting the words ‘Take up and read; take up and read.’ This prompted Augustine to turn to Scripture, and after reading Romans chapter thirteen, he was converted. Iain Murray reminded his readers of this, and exhorted that ‘Every minister of the Gospel needs to make these same words [Take up and read] vibrate in the hearts of his hearers till all who love Christ have awakened to the fact that they have a part to play in the literary “revolution” now being fought out in our land.’

What was he saying? First, that ministers needed to encourage their congregations to be readers; secondly, that ministers needed to encourage the readers in their congregations to buy and distribute paperback books; thirdly, that there was a battle going on among publishers for the hearts and minds of readers, which could be well expressed in the phrase ‘you are what you read’; and fourthly, that there were spiritual repercussions in this battle—the spiritual health and welfare of our churches was at stake.

This is still true today. Ministers perhaps have a greater role to play, but we can all play our part in encouraging fellow Christians to be readers of good books.

By September 1961 Errol Hulse, then business manager of the Trust, wrote in this magazine (Issue 24) that it was expected to have fourteen paperback titles in print by the end of the month. He went on to say, ‘There is a definite purpose in our increasing production of this form of literature. Experience with the first eight titles in the twelve months since August 1960 has confirmed the fact that the paperback by reason of its wider sale is capable of a more far-reaching influence upon the public.’ Those early paperbacks included The Rich Man and Lazarus by Brownlow North, Life of Robert Murray M‘Cheyne by Andrew Bonar, Five English Reformers by J. C. Ryle, The Sovereignty of God by A. W. Pink, The Work of the Holy Spirit by Octavius Winslow, and Redemption Accomplished and Applied by Professor John Murray. Most of them are still in print today, sixty years later.

But looking back over the decades, perhaps the most significant part of that article was the following announcement:

Puritan Paperbacks The first two titles of this new series are scheduled to appear in September. This is an endeavour to popularize in mid-twentieth century format some of the timeless literary treasure given to the Church in the seventeenth century. We hope that Heaven on Earth (a treatise on Christian Assurance) by Thomas Brooks and A Lifting Up for the Downcast by William Bridge will be widely used to introduce people to the riches of the writings of the Puritans. Both books are of a deeply experimental character pre-eminently designed for the heart.

Sixty years ago this year, the Puritan Paperback series was born! As we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century, to ‘popularize some of the timeless literary treasure given to the Church’ remains the purpose which the ever-expanding series aims to fulfil.

Those first two titles are still in print today, as are all subsequent titles, and during this sixtieth anniversary year, it is fitting that we aim to publish the sixtieth title in the Puritan Paperback series. As a point of interest, taking account of inflation over the last sixty years, the 5-shilling price of a Puritan Paperback would equate to nearly eight pounds. A Lifting up for the Downcast retails at £6.25 ($10), so Puritan Paperbacks today are even better value than they were in 1961!

As an organisation, we are not ‘big on’ anniversaries. All too often we lose sight of the God who makes the anniversary possible. But over the next few months, leading up to September, the official sixtieth anniversary of the first ever Puritan Paperback rolling off the presses, we plan to include in the magazine a series of articles considering each of the first four Puritan Paperbacks that were published.

We trust that you will enjoy reading these articles, and if you have not picked up a Puritan Paperback title before, we hope you will be encouraged to make a start in reading this series. It may be that you were once a reader of Puritan Paperbacks but in recent years the series has dropped off your reading list: may the forthcoming articles remind you of what you have been missing. But, above all, we hope that in reading the articles you will be fired up to meet that challenge thrown down by Iain Murray sixty years ago in February 1961—the challenge to encourage your fellow Christians to read the Puritan Paperbacks, and to spread awareness of these spiritually enriching books in your own congregation, for the eternal good of souls, and to the glory of God.


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    Table of Contents ‘My Father is Always at Work’ — Ian Hamilton Elizabeth Bucer (c.1500-1541) — Rebecca VanDoodewaard Revisiting A Revolution: Puritan Paperbacks 60 years on! — John Rawlinson How to Use Books Well: A Pastor’s Guide to Using and Profiting from One’s Library — Ryan M. McGraw Three Deaths: Socrates, Stephen, and Jesus — […]

Originally printed in the May 2021 Banner of Truth Magazine.

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