Book Review: Guaranteed Pure, by Timothy Gloege

Review
09.04.2015

Timothy E. W. Gloege. Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. 307 pages. $34.95.

 

Christians of various denominational stripes who have an appreciation for church history and theology often critique the commercialism of modern evangelicalism. Those of a more liberal bent see rampant individualism and crass hucksterism in the free market of non-denominational churches, media empires, and educational institutions. Conservatives, who otherwise share some beliefs and sensibilities with evangelicals, find an absence of tradition and institutional authority that leaves evangelicalism vulnerable to the latest theological fad or church marketing scheme. These criticisms point to the underlying difficulty of defining evangelicalism. Is it a set of shared theological convictions, a cultural ethos, a common history, or something else?

Timothy Gloege’s history of Moody Bible Institute (MBI) from the 1880s through the 1920s, Guaranteed Pure, makes a signal contribution to the challenge of delineating modern evangelicalism. Gloege argues MBI embraced modern business methods associated with the transition from an older, producer-based economy to the consumer culture that dominated the 20th century. Through assiduously building a brand and cultivating the perception of a safe and sound product, MBI positioned itself as the purveyor of an old-time religion that ironically included several innovations.

MBI has its roots in the efforts of the famous evangelist Dwight Moody to reach the urban masses of the late nineteenth century. The combined forces of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration produced enormous wealth and pronounced inequality and suffering. With financial support from business elites in Chicago, Moody sought to raise up “Christian workers” to preach the gospel and alleviate the hardships of the lower classes. Not attuned to the finer points of theology, Moody based his efforts on a simple, pragmatic reading of Scripture that Gloege terms “evangelical realism.” This approach emphasized a highly personalized Bible filled with tangible promises for the individual believer, while diminishing the corporate dimensions of Israel, the church, the Kingdom of God, and so forth.

Moody’s project failed on two counts. First, urban unrest in the last two decades of the nineteenth century prompted labor strikes and riots, including a violent conflagration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square in May 1886. Individual salvation and morally reformed lives mattered, but the absence of biblical themes like justice left Moody’s message poorly equipped to address the collective problems of working conditions and wages. Furthermore, Moody’s wealthy patrons prized order and sought ways to pacify and neutralize the labor rabble.

Second, Moody’s evangelical realism, infused with Keswick holiness notions of personal spiritual empowerment through the Holy Spirit, lacked theological and ecclesiastical guardrails. Radical evangelicals used straightforward readings of the Bible to promote faith healing, personal revelations from the Lord, and speaking in tongues as evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. These radical claims touched MBI directly through its superintendent Reuben Torrey, whose daughter died in 1898 after he relied on prayer for healing instead of the timely administration of diphtheria antitoxin.

In response to these twin challenges and in the wake of Moody’s death in 1899, MBI turned toward middle-class respectability through the embrace of business and theological innovations. The central figure in the organizational evolution of MBI was Henry Crowell, longtime chairman of its board of trustees and head of Quaker Oats. Crowell built his company by reshaping the oats market from an undifferentiated commodity business to a branded, packaged, and advertised product market. Instead of scooping oats from unmarked bins in general stores filled by wholesalers, consumers reached for the discretely packaged and aggressively promoted brand whose smiling Quaker guaranteed purity. Crowell effectively cut out the wholesaler and diminished the quality oversight role of the retailer, while using modern methods of advertising to enhance consumer demand and build bonds of trust.

Gloege brilliantly relates these economic changes to Crowell’s efforts at MBI to build “conservative evangelicalism.” If retailers were ministers and other religious workers, if wholesalers were denominations, and if the laity were consumers, then the nondenominational MBI sought to bypass denominations by going straight to ministers and especially laity with their religious product, trademarked by the Moody name and promoted as the safe and sound faith once delivered to the saints. The individual as consumer would choose among alternatives, with impure and inferior theological modernism as the primary market competitor against which MBI’s conservative evangelicalism sought to define itself.

Theologically, MBI under Crowell and his ally James Gray strove to differentiate itself from dangerous alternatives that appealed to populist sensibilities but riled the respectable middle class, such as radical Holiness and Pentecostalism at the turn of the century and the firebrand Fundamentalism of William Bell Riley and J. Frank Norris by the 1920s. Key to this effort was MBI’s union of Keswick holiness with dispensational premillennialism.

This combination produced a carefully defined, contractual understanding of both the Bible and one’s individual relationship to God. Keswick holiness provided “power for service” and dispensationalism directed it toward worthy ends. Gloege notes that dispensationalism reflected the modern professionalization that suffused middle-class lives; it viewed Scripture as an engineering problem in need of a systemic solution. Keswick holiness, on the other hand, promoted a therapeutic religiosity that functioned like liberal alternatives. He writes, “Keswick dispensationalists had a different pathway to enlightenment than liberal therapeutic religion, but the destination was virtually identical. For both, God’s day-to-day interactions with believers mirrored a corporation interacting with their customers. God and Quaker Oats alike were assuring from afar, satisfying, and empowering” (148).

Individual autonomy and choice and a therapeutic ethos suffuse much of what passes for Christianity in the United States today, not only the “conservative evangelicalism” of MBI’s descendants. Evangelicals may function like sovereign consumers in some realms, serenely confident that God approves their decisions, but liberals do likewise in others, especially in their approach to sexuality and other issues of personal morality. For the sake of comparison, one wonders if the liberals who promoted professional expertise and management during the Progressive Era also incorporated it into their religious understanding and practice. The approach at MBI was likely more common than it might appear.

Additionally, how did those Gloege calls “churchly conservatives” respond to events at MBI and the larger effort to construct an “old-fashioned” conservative evangelicalism? While Gloege’s work points to how economic and cultural changes shaped theological thought and practice, figures like the Presbyterians B. B. Warfield and J. Gresham Machen call our attention to the ways theological atrophy and democratization opened the door to the influences Gloege describes. Theological traditions like Calvinism that may have provided a bulwark against consumerist ideology had seriously eroded in the American environment by the time MBI applied modern business methods to its identity and offerings.

Timothy Gloege has produced a well-researched, thoughtful, and engaging work of history. Guaranteed Pure raises many challenging questions for scholars and general readers alike, especially concerning the nature and provenance of modern evangelicalism.