Calling all volunteers: the Jonathan Edwards Global Accelerated Sermon Editing Project
If you have an interest in the writings of 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards, and if you enjoy editing and are good at it, then the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale has something for you.
The Center has just embarked on a Global Accelerated Sermon Editing Project, inviting scholars, pastors, graduate students and others worldwide to help edit some 750 sermons by Edwards, best known for his iconic “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The project combines work on transcripts of sermons that are close to 300 years old with some of the latest digital editing technology.
Within three weeks of the Center’s June 6 announcement of the project, over 150 persons from 12 countries had volunteered to participate as editors, and some 90 persons had already received their first sermon transcript to edit. Among the volunteers to date are Ph.D. students in English literature, American religious history, and theology; students in seminaries or schools of theology; retired pastors; military personnel; a retired judge; and businesspersons.
“We hope it’s a real intriguing, valuable kind of thing for people to get involved in,” said Kenneth Minkema, executive director of the Center. “The end result will be more sermons, more texts available to the reading public at a quicker rate.”
Minkema works with a very small full-time staff, which includes Associate Director Adriaan Neele, making it impossible to edit all of the material without outside help. So, several years ago Minkema and Neele came up with an idea: Why not tap into the growing popularity of Edwards globally and offer Edwards enthusiasts around the world the chance for hands-on engagement and at the same time distribute the workload?
Approximately 1,200 sermons by Edwards have survived in manuscript form, most of them housed at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript library at Yale. Of those, about 750 have been converted into literal transcriptions—that is, put into typewritten text, while attempting to replicate as much as possible features like original line length, spelling, capitalization, punctuation deletions, and shorthand. That means many elements peculiar to Edwards’s writing style—from uneven margins stemming from use of scrap paper for sermon writing, to archaic spellings like “alwaies” for “always,” to lack of punctuation—remain in the transcriptions, preserving the integrity but making them difficult to read.
The aim of the project is to take the process one step further, to edit the 750 transcriptions so that they are more accessible to the average modern reader. For example, spelling in the edited versions will be regularized to conform with Webster’s Third New International Dictionary; punctuation will be introduced; and annotations will be added to indicate things such as manuscript damage and conjectural readings.
Volunteers worldwide will edit sermons on their own computers. The goal is to edit at least 50 sermons per year, make them freely available to the public online, and publish them in a series of print-on-demand volumes. The process is streamlined through use of the Center’s state-of-the-art workflow management software, online training, and editing tools that embrace TEI XML software, which allows for texts to be immediately searchable once written.
The Center’s staff will review the work of volunteers and decide whether further work is needed. Once the text is finalized, volunteer editors will have the opportunity to draft a head note summarizing the sermon and highlighting its interesting features. The completed text will then be published online, with acknowledgment of the volunteer editor, and possibly reproduced in a print-on-demand edition that will take only five days to publish from the time text is submitted to the publisher.
“This is an opportunity to work with a text that probably hasn’t been looked at since Edwards preached it 300 years ago,” Minkema observed.
Minkema and Neele expect many of their volunteers to come from amongst the 5,000 registered users of the Center’s web site, and also from scholars and students affiliated with the Center’s overseas affiliates in Australia, Benelux, Germany, Hungary, Poland, South Africa, and Brazil.
“It is an opportunity, first of all, to really involve all of our users around the world,” said Minkema, “and it fits in with our educational mission because we want people to be able to appreciate historical sources.”
An important aspect of the project—and one that sets it apart from many other digital “crowd-sourcing” initiatives that enlist the help of volunteers—is the online training that volunteers will undergo once Center staff are satisfied with their competence. Sermon editors will work from digitized, proofread sermon transcripts. Along with these files, editors are supplied with a list of editorial conventions, orthographical assistance, and the guidance of the JEC staff.
The National Endowment for the Humanities has provided support for the Works of Jonathan Edwards since 1981—and a total of about $500,000 over the last six years alone, according to Minkema. NEH is hopeful that the training process for volunteer editors will help avoid some of the pitfalls of crowd-sourcing projects that do not provide sufficient volunteer training.
Lydia Medici, a program analyst in NEH’s Division of Research who has worked with Edwards Center staff, said, “The Global Accelerated Sermon Editing Project, while it has elements of crowd-sourcing, will likely have more scholarly rigor than the typical crowd-sourcing project, because, as we understand it here, those who volunteer, will be trained by the Jonathan Edwards Center.
“Other projects we support have found crowd-sourcing to be unworkable, as project staff has to check all work produced by the volunteers, in addition to their own project work. Here, the training changes the model somewhat. We are interested in the outcome of this experiment, and its possible applicability to other projects.”
Said Neele, “We invite the public to participate. . . at the same, balance it with maintaining the quality.”
Initial inquiries about participating in the project can be sent to the Center at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edwards is recognized by many scholars as America’s most important theologian and by high school students throughout the country as author of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” preached in Enfield, CT in 1741.
The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale was established in 2003 in anticipation of the completion of the 26-volume Yale edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, which contains sermon transcriptions. With Yale University Press’s completion of those volumes in 2008, the Center carried the work of the Edwards project forward with creation of a comprehensive, fully searchable, critical, annotated 73-volume digital edition, WJE Online, including some 100,000 pages of transcripted Edwards sermons, notebooks, letters, and treatises.