Baskerville’s Religion

Cambridge Bible printed by John Baskerville in 1763
Cambridge Bible printed by John Baskerville in 1763

Truth is not typeface dependent, but a typeface can subtly influence us to believe that a sentence is true. Could it swing an election? Induce us to buy a new dinette set? Change some of our most deeply held and cherished beliefs? Indeed, we may be at the mercy of typefaces in ways that we are only dimly beginning to recognize.

Errol Morris, “Hear, All Ye People; Hearken, O Earth,” The New York Times (Aug 8, 2012)

The author suggests that Baskerville (the irreligious man of the 18th century) created a typeface that has religious pull. Text set in Baskerville (the typeface) is more likely to be viewed as true than text set in other typefaces.

I’m more inclined to say that the typeface has historical and cultural weight that has settled on it like dust on books. It’s the same sentiment of truthiness as the reverence I’d feel in a musty library.

I enjoyed the two-part series about the effect of typography on perception, with it’s religious undertone. Baskerville was antagonistic to religion even in his death. He adjured others in his will and epitaph to turn from religion. But there’s a nugget in this story for Christian preachers:

[I]n a news item in the Birmingham Daily Mail, “Baskerville, who did not believe in eternal life, said, when dying, that if there were any truth in the resurrection, he would revisit the earth again in fifty years.” He was remarkably prescient. Sort of. Forty-six years after his inhumation at Easy Hill, his remains were exhumed and put on display.

Baskerville died in 1775. His mansion was “sacked, gutted and burned to the ground” by rioters in 1791, following which the property (and Baskerville’s grave) were abandoned. A canal was dug through the land, and the body “was found by workmen beneath a pile of gravel.” The coffin was on display for ten years in the canal builder’s warehouse and later in a shop. Baskerville did make his reappearance. Those who could stomach to study his corpse noted how well it was preserved.

There was no one in England willing to purchase Baskerville’s types. A Frenchman named Beaumarchais bought them to publish a 70-volume complete works of Voltaire. It failed and became “a mountain of waste-paper.” The article’s author notes the irony himself: “It is fitting that Voltaire and Baskerville, two infamous atheists of the 18th century, were posthumously connected in this ill-fated publishing venture.”

Voltaire had died just a few years after Baskerville. He was famous for saying, “One hundred years from my day there will not be a Bible in the earth except one that is looked upon by an antiquarian curiosity seeker.” While there’s no evidence for the story that a Bible society moved into his house within fifty years and used his own press to make Bibles (Wax, “Urban Legends: The Preacher’s Edition”), Voltaire, like Baskerville, was wrong in his prediction.

Baskerville’s story makes for a good illustration for preaching or apologetics in favor of God’s sovereignty. His “resurrection” is notably ironic, like Caiaphas the high priest’s inadvertent prophecy in John 11:49–52. It’s not wise to repeat anecdotes without substantiating them (like the story of Voltaire’s house) or take advantage of another’s ignominy, but I do enjoy seeing God’s promises endure. And I enjoy reading Scripture, well typeset.