Book

BookCoverWhy do conservative evangelicals walk hand in hand with business interests? And what does this tell us about religion and capitalism in modern America?

Guaranteed Pure takes us to the time before mega-churches and marketing blitzes to trace the intertwined beginnings of modern evangelicalism and consumer capitalism. Their simultaneous development between the Civil War and World War I was not coincidental.

The story focuses on two generations of evangelicals associated with the celebrity revivalist Dwight L. Moody and his Moody Bible Institute (MBI) in Chicago. Among this group were Ivy League seminarians, business leaders like Henry Parson Crowell (the president and promotional guru of Quaker Oats), and a phalanx of middle-class professionals. At MBI these “corporate evangelicals” set about their mundane religious work using business techniques. But even more importantly they reinterpreted their inherited faith using new ideas and practices born of business, law, and engineering.

By World War I corporate evangelicals had developed a modern form of “old time religion” at odds with Darwin-inspired scholarship, but at home in the boardrooms of corporate America. Along the way, they battled numerous competitors: denominational traditionalists, labor activists, Populists, Pentecostals, and liberal Social Gospellers. In these contests they borrowed the techniques that pioneering marketers like Crowell used to broker trust between consumers and corporations. This provided their modern movement with a patina of tradition and bolstered their institutional reputations as arbiters of “pure religion.”

Thus, the cross-fertilization of business and conservative evangelicalism helped transform modern Protestantism and smooth the transition to a modern economy. An individualistic, consumer-oriented “orthodoxy” displaced traditional communal creeds and undermined denominational authority. And at a time when Protestants across the theological spectrum doubted the moral legitimacy of consumer capitalism, this modern form of “old time religion” helped naturalize modern economic ideas. Indeed, the corporate evangelical framework developed a century ago continues to shape the belief and practice of conservative evangelicals today and to facilitate their engagement with the modern world.

Guaranteed Pure is published by the University of North Carolina Press. View a list of reviews and interviews.