History and Presence, Chapter Four: Printed Presence

By February 14, 2017

Our Tuesdays with Orsi series continues today with a look at the fourth chapter. The series is a systematic engagement with Robert Orsi?s important and recently published book, History and Presence. Previous installments are found herehere, here and here.

The fourth chapter of History and Presence explores the relationship between print culture and practices of presence.  Orsi maintains that Catholics in the United States, and elsewhere, use printed things in a distinctive manner.  While they read, and looked at religious texts and images,
?devotional print was not simply a vehicle of ideas in this world, it was itself a medium of presence.?

This chapter opens with the story of a dying woman being fed a small piece of a holy card of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and contrasts Catholic and Protestant approaches to printed matter.  Underscoring the idea that the Protestant/Catholic divide is not always absolute, Orsi demonstrates the centrality of the printed word to Protestant denominations, particularly through the medium of the scriptures and the sermon as well as their relationship to creeds and theology.  By exploring print culture, Orsi states that the fundamental question of this chapter is ?what we learn about modern practices and understandings of reading and writing in the world when we look at them from the perspective of what Catholics did with presence in print.?  This includes an exploration of holy cards which were often transformed into relics.  Orsi probes Catholic religious curriculum, illustrated Bible stories, coloring books, comic books, and popular magazines as sources of printed presence.  He also discusses the role of the unprinted, but textual, presence involved in cursive handwriting as a devotional task.



These work together to create a ?supernaturally realist imaginary? and assist in generating (internal) visualizations of the sacred. Orsi concludes this chapter with the converse side of print culture and presence, the threat of secular texts and images, particularly to Catholic children. Printed presence could be dangerous and corrupting and Orsi explores Catholic opposition to comic books, which included burning them, as well as the nature of Catholic supernatural realism in art, underscoring ?the power for good and evil contained in the acts of reading and looking.?  This chapter leaves us with an understanding of print?s capacity for appropriation and excess as well as it being a powerful vehicle of presence.

By now, your heads should be spinning with the possibilities of studying the relationship of presence, the printed word, and images. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? foundational text, The Book of Mormon can certainly be understood within this context.  Framed within a narrative of delivery in the form of golden plates by an angel and steeped in a supernatural translation process, textuality and presence are deeply intertwined within Mormonism.  Even physical contact with the book could result in a direct sensory encounter of presence.  Zina Huntington Young remembered:

The Book of Mormon had been brought to my Father [?]s. I had been to school. The family ware at supper. I went into the front room, saw a book laying in the window. I opened it, saw what it was. The sweet Spirit of peace was with it. I clasped it?my hands pressed it to me with that childish but pure joy that is one sense not told. [1]


Other sources of print media could include, The Book of Commandments, patriarchal blessings, temple rolls, institutional and personal record keeping, the practice and meaning of hanging a picture of the temple in homes. I have advocated elsewhere that embroidery and other forms of sewing on textiles can be understood as a type of religious document and thus could be understood as a form unprinted but devotional text. These all provide rich fields of inquiry for scholars to test and adapt Orsi?s framework.  While different from the Catholic experience of printed presence, the media of Mormonism offers different ways of thinking about how ?the gods act in space and time?, new ways of understanding material religion and the lived experience of ?abundant events.?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Loved this, Kris (aka: the Orsi of Mormon Studies).

    Comment by Ben P — February 14, 2017 @ 12:31 pm

  2. @Ben – I wish!

    Comment by Kris — February 14, 2017 @ 1:12 pm

  3. Though provoking stuff. I’m thinking even the most banal things, such as handbooks of instruction, because of how they are treated, may yield some surprising insights into Mormon worlds through such an analysis.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 14, 2017 @ 3:48 pm

  4. Great wrap up, Kris. Mormon texts->Mormon iconography.

    Comment by wvs — February 14, 2017 @ 10:53 pm

  5. Thanks, Kris!

    Comment by Jeff T — February 15, 2017 @ 10:18 am

  6. I was also struck by Orsi’s observations about the curricular material that Catholic teaching sisters had students produce (or color, or learn, or modify). It reminded me of the voluminous stuff made on and out of paper that comes home with kids from preschool, school, and Primary. What is the status of these objects? Part mnemonic device, part individual artistic or emotive expression (sometimes, rebelliously so as when kids scribble over or draw mustaches on things that are “supposed” to be sacred and reverential), etc. I also thought a lot about the uncorrelated “supplements” that get published to support children’s learning – it’s not quite curricula, and it’s not quite folk art, and yet it approaches the level of folk doctrine. The strange nursery-lesson visual aid of a child with his/her “Heavenly Family” but it’s Jesus and the Father, so it looks like two dads and no mom… things like that. Mormonism is supposedly visually impoverished compared to Catholicism (fewer sacred heart cards, okay), but I’m not sure that’s always the case. It’s intriguing how the Church tries to get a handle on controlling Mormon visual culture, and never quite manages it – the individualistic and entrepreneurial streak is too wide and the changing aesthetics (and doctrinal implications thereof) are just fascinating to trace.

    Comment by Tona H — February 20, 2017 @ 9:14 am

  7. […] Our Tuesdays with Orsi series continues today with a look at the fifth chapter. The series is a systematic engagement with Robert Orsi?s important and recently published book, History and Presence. Previous installments are the Intro, Chapter 1, Chapter 2 and Chapter 3, and Chapter 4. […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » History and Presence, Chapter 5: The Dead in the Company of the Living — February 21, 2017 @ 6:49 am


Recent Comments

Ben S on CFP at BYU Studies:: “Some clarifying comments here. https://benspackman.com/2019/10/23/byu-studies-evolution-and-faith-some-clarification/”

Smb on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Armand is a wise and lovely man who deserves these kind words. I absolutely agree that his books were key entries in the scholar’s library…”

J Stuart on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Armand, your response made me unexpectedly emotional. Your work has shaped me as a scholar in many important ways, but your legendary willingness to engage…”

Ardis E. Parshall on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I've enjoyed these three discussions -- crowned by this response by Armand Mauss himself. It is so representative of his ability and willingness to interact…”

Blair Hodges on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thank you for your lasting contributions to Mormon Studies, Armand.”

Mirror on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “These have been interesting posts about a major work in Mormon Studies. If I may boil down my understanding of Mauss' thesis to a…”