Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism
The University of North Carolina Press, 2015
328 pp., 36.45
A Modern "Old-Time Religion"
Some preachers serve as religious brand-names, standing in for entire movements. A North Carolina farm boy played that role in postwar evangelicalism. As Billy Graham was to late 20th-century America, so Dwight Lyman Moody was to the decades following the Civil War. Moody was the grandfather of both modern evangelicalism and global ecumenism, and his offspring continue to shape the trajectory of American Protestantism.
What role did a 19th-century evangelist play in the making of 20th-century evangelicalism? How did a new religious movement rebrand itself as the "old-time religion"? These questions and more are addressed in Timothy E. W. Gloege's fine new book, Guaranteed Pure. Like George Marsden and Joel Carpenter before him, Gloege provides an owner's manual for contemporary evangelicals. An intellectual genealogy for a forgetful people, Guaranteed Pure explores the creation of America's most influential religious movement.
As a fourth-generation evangelical, I grew up hearing stories about my great-grandfather's visit to the Moody Church. Symbolizing a profound shift in religious orientation, his conversion marked a turning point in our family's history.
Raised in the Norwegian Bible Belt, my great-grandfather was baptized into a world of Lutheran sacramentalism. This religion of font and altar was transplanted to Meeker County, Minnesota, by the same clergyman who started St. Olaf College. Devoted to the Nicene Creed and the Augsburg Confession, Meeker County's Lutherans were unimpeachable in their orthodoxy. Shaped by the dual inheritance of Lutheran confessionalism and Norwegian Pietism (especially the legacy of the revivalist Hans Nielsen Hauge), they followed a religion of both head and heart.
What led my great-grandfather to exchange the faith of Luther and Melanchthon for the religion of Moody and Sankey? What led his descendants to regard the latter as more orthodox than the former? After reading Guaranteed Pure, I realized my great-grandfather was part of a sea-change in American religion. Over the past 150 years, millions of Protestants traded the structures and rituals of "churchly Christianity" for the experiential religion of American revivalism. For many Scandinavians, Pietism primed the pump. As evangelicals created a "modern 'old-time religion,' " European confessionalism became the "lost soul of American Protestantism."
Exploring the "making of modern evangelicalism," Gloege traces "the changing locus of religious authority from corporate bodies (churches) affiliated with denominations … to a radically individualistic basis of religious authority, with believers loosely corralled by religious organizations structured like corporations." Far from an expression of ancient orthodoxy, such individualistic religion is a product of modern times. In The Heretical Imperative, Peter Berger writes that modernity involves a "transition from fate to choice." Sociologist Christian Smith concurs, noting that "Moderns authenticate themselves through personal choice." By emigrating from Norway, my great-grandfather moved from fate to choice. By walking the aisle of the Moody Church, he entered the world of American evangelicalism.
Born and raised in the United States, the young D. L. Moody followed a similar path. Baptized a Unitarian in rural Western Massachusetts, Moody's encounter with Trinitarian Christianity came at the Mount Vernon Congregational Church on Boston's Beacon Hill. Despite his evangelical conversion, the young shoe salesman failed the church's theological examination. According to Gloege, "The experience made Moody suspicious of religious institutions and the barriers that theological traditions posed to uneducated believers."
Moody's early ministry with the YMCA focused on converting the urban masses. Preaching in the vernacular, he "assumed that the Bible should be read plainly, like one would read a newspaper." While starting numerous charities (including an employment agency), he was leery of organized labor. When the Haymarket riot roiled Chicago's working classes, Moody sided with the city's business establishment, preaching individual conversion over social reform.
An itinerant plasterer who helped build Minnesota's State Capitol, my great-grandfather cast his lot with the American labor movement. In 1915 he joined the local board of the Operative Plasterers' and Cement Masons' International Association. Reporting on the Minneapolis chapter, The Plasterer noted, "There is not much work here; only about one-half of the members are working." The same issue included a reference to Mother Jones. While Jones told workers to "Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living," Moody declared that "God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, 'Moody, save all you can.' "
My great-grandfather eventually made his way to the Moody Church. Suffering from prostate cancer, he needed a lifeboat. Returning home to Minneapolis, he died on December 19, 1927. He was 64 years old.
It's no accident my great-grandfather was converted under the preaching of the Reverend P. W. Philpott. Dubbed the "Blacksmith Preacher," Philpott founded the Hamilton Christian Workers' Church in Ontario, Canada. Hoping to build a congregation "where all classes would be welcomed and made perfectly at home," he brought the same approach to the Moody Church. Trained by the Salvation Army, Philpott never abandoned his working-class roots.
The same could not be said for the Moody Bible Institute. Founded to educate working-class "gap men," the Institute soon targeted the professional middle class. Adopting a fusion of Keswick theology and dispensational pre-millennialism, Moody's faculty made "evangelicalism safe for middle-class consumption." Rejecting populist appeals to the Sermon on the Mount, dispensationalists argued that in some respects the Gospels and Acts did not apply to contemporary believers. As Gloege notes, these were "breathtaking departures from traditional Protestantism." Breaking with early Pentecostalism, the Institute's faculty also condemned R. A. Torrey's use of faith-healing.
The looming threat of theological modernism led to the creation of The Fundamentals, an influential set of essays that served as a touchstone for the fundamentalist movement. Funded by oilmen Lyman and Milton Stewart, the set was shaped by a committee that included several key Moody personnel. Chief among these was Quaker Oats founder Henry Parsons Crowell, the president of the Institute's board. An expert in marketing and promotion, Crowell played a key role in branding modern evangelicalism.
Creating an "imagined community of Protestants," Gloege writes, The Fundamentals gave a "patina of historicity" to a 20th-century movement. While defending the virgin birth and Christ's bodily resurrection, the essays paid little attention to the sacraments, ecclesiology, and other mainstays of Protestant confessionalism. Later doctrinal statements made premillennialism a "necessary tenet of orthodoxy."
Ironically, the Institute soon distanced itself from the fundamentalist label, embarrassed by the histrionics of Baptists William Bell Riley and J. Frank Norris. Adopting the label of "evangelicalism," Moody helped create the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Religious Broadcasters. Launching a successful radio ministry, the Institute turned its official magazine into a mass-circulation periodical.
That is how my grandmother encountered the Moody brand. Remembering her father's visit to the Moody Church, she listened to the Moody Radio Network. A loyal subscriber to Moody Monthly, she owned a copy of Breakfast Table Autocrat: The Life Story of Henry Parsons Crowell (1946).
According to Gloege, Crowell was the mastermind behind corporate evangelicalism. After creating Quaker Oats, he worked to trademark the Institute's name (much to the consternation of Moody's sons). The fact that Crowell's authorized biography found its way into my grandmother's library is a measure of his success. The fact that her grandson is reviewing Gloege's deconstruction of Crowell is a sign that evangelicalism has changed.
Bringing things up to date, Gloege's epilogue traces the segmentation of evangelicalism's media market, noting the proliferation of "magazines for every segment of the evangelical population." Alongside periodicals targeting men, women, and pastors, he cites the "New York Review of Books-inspired Books and Culture."
Gloege's discussion of this publication raises some interesting questions: Can evangelical magazines transcend the influence of market forces? What about works of evangelical history? Does Books & Culture represent a market niche within corporate evangelicalism or a vehicle for evangelical self-criticism? Is it possible to be both?
For twenty years, Books & Culture has helped evangelicals read the signs of the times. A masterful work of cultural analysis, Guaranteed Pure has accomplished a similar purpose. Both publications deserve a wide readership. Long may their market share increase.
John Schmalzbauer is Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies at Missouri State University.
1. See J. C. Pollock, "Dwight l. Moody—Grandfather of Ecumenism," Christianity Today, November 13, 1962, pp. 189-9.
2. See Joseph M. Shaw, Bernt Julius Muus: Founder of St. Olaf College (Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1999).
3. The first quote is from Gloege. See also D. G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002); Phillip Gollner, " 'Evangelize-Americanize:' White Religion and Chicago's Immigrants, 1884-1889," American Studies/Amerikastudien (Fall 2015); David Gustafson, D. L. Moody and Swedes (Linköping, Sweden: Linköping Studies in Arts and Science, 2008).
4. Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation (Doubleday, 1980), p. 20; Christian Smith, American Evangelicalism: Embattled Yet Thriving (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 104.
5. "From Minneapolis, Minn.," The Plasterer, February 1915, p. 8.
7. Kenneth L. Draper, "A People's Religion: P. W. Philpott and the Hamilton Christian Worker's Church," Social History, Vol. 36, No. 71 (May 2003), p. 110.
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