Douglas Carl Abrams. Selling the Old-Time Religion: American Fundamentalists and Mass Culture, 1920Â?1940. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001. xiv + 168 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8203-2294-0.
Reviewed by Randall Stephens (Department of History, Eastern Nazarene College)
Published on H-South (September, 2004)
Conformed to this World
Fundamentalism has often bewildered its many critics. Scholarly and secular observers are perhaps most confused by the ease with which fundamentalists have conformed their anti-modernist faith to the mechanisms of modernism. Historian Grant Wacker may have best summed up the mix of worldly and heavenly, primitive and pragmatic, with the title of his provocative essay, "Searching for Eden with a Satellite Dish."  Earlier in the twentieth century it was much easier for critics including H. L. Mencken and W. J. Cash to label fundamentalists as hookworm-belt oddities, living on the pre-modern edge of civilization. Yet throughout the twentieth century zealous conservative Christians pioneered the use of mass culture, skillfully employing the mediums of print, radio, and television. The faithful adopted the latest advertising techniques and were quick to embrace a host of innovations in order to spread the "good news." Unlikely stars of the faith, ranging from the Pentecostal celebrity-minister Aimee Semple McPherson to the neo-Evangelical Billy Graham, were known to millions of Americans, both "saints" and "sinners" alike. Just how and why conservative evangelicals were so ill-at-ease with modernism and so comfortable with the tools of modernity has only recently begun to interest academics.
Douglas Carl Abrams adeptly analyzes fundamentalists' ambivalent relationship to modern culture through the 1920s and 1930s in his Selling the Old-Time Religion. The title proves especially fitting in Abrams' first chapters, in which he describes the close association of early fundamentalists with the ethics and imagery of big business. Consumerism and capitalism did not only inspire best-selling religious authors like Bruce Barton, says Abrams. Fundamentalist leaders, who were predominantly Republican, tended to uncritically accept the moral economies of modern capitalism. Christ was "'GOD'S GREAT ADVERTISEMENT' and remedy for sin," wrote one evangelist. Another prominent minister advocated the use of advertising--on trolley cars, billboards, on the radio, and in periodicals--to spread the gospel across the country. "It would do more for humanity than Ivory soap and Lipton's tea," he enthusiastically predicted (29). Such fusions of the sacred and profane were not uncommon among stalwarts like Bob Jones, Sr., John Roach Straton, and Paul Rader. According to Abrams, during the 1920s and 1930s, "fundamentalists energetically embraced the business ethos with its secular values of organization, efficiency, consumerism, promotionalism, and emphasis on size and numbers" (11). With few exceptions, argues Abrams, leading fundamentalist ministers sacralized consumerism and lauded the type of manly independence exemplified by businessmen such as John Wanamaker and J. C. Penney.
For the most part, fundamentalists adopted certain elements of popular culture, while rejecting others. They were quick to accept the value of print culture, advertising, and marketing strategies. Offering social commentary, as well as political and religious advice, publications such as the Moody Monthly and King's Business developed large subscription bases. This was certainly not new. Evangelicalism, according to historians Nathan Hatch and George Marsden, owed much of its growth and development to print culture. Yet, as Abrams points out, during the 1920s and 1930s fundamentalists greatly expanded their publishing empires. The faithful also took advantage of the new medium of radio, which they used to great effect. Colorful evangelists including Paul Rader, Charles Fuller, and Aimee Semple McPherson reached millions of listeners. They had no trouble rationalizing their decisions to go on the air. Echoing the great commission, Rader commented that the church had to go to the world. What better way to do that than to enter the world of broadcasting, they asked.
Other aspects of popular culture proved more troublesome to believers. They lashed out against an array of worldly evils: dance, secular novels and magazines, liquor, tobacco, movies, and divorce. Oddly enough, in other areas, according to Abrams, fundamentalists were relatively open to once-taboo forms of expression and entertainment. Bob Jones College (now University) developed a strong drama department, to the chagrin of more conservative believers. Bob Jones, Sr. deemed cultural enlightenment a critical element in higher education. For many believers, though, theater, as with the new movie industry, was too closely associated with the many vices of urban life and the sinfulness of the new morality.
Surprisingly, while most fundamentalist leaders came from large urban areas, they were united in their opposition to the "wickedness" of the city. Abrams suggests that fundamentalists perceived the city as a threat to republican virtue. It may have been. However, Abrams could have paid much more attention to the possible anti-immigrant, xenophobic, and anti-Catholic element underlying such convictions. Certainly, figures such as Bob Jones, Sr. and others couched their fierce attacks of Al Smith in rabid anti-Catholic terms. And while this was not incredibly unusual at the time, especially in the South, some comment on it would have been helpful. Additionally, Abrams might have offered some critique of fundamentalist leaders' unified attack on jazz music. Did it, for instance, reveal their deeply held notions of race and deviance? Jazz, Abrams contends, "betrayed a primitive, savage, and heathen foundation" to its fundamentalist foes (101). At points like this race seems much too important to be bracketed out of the discussion. Indeed, though Abrams does spend some time analyzing fundamentalism and gender, he does not give the same attention to race. One is left wondering how race fit in. Abrams does comment, "If fundamentalists had not overcome the problem of race, neither had most proponents of the social gospel" (128). While that is undoubtedly true, it dodges the issue. African Americans did not make up any significant part of the movement. What was it that so divided blacks and whites in the conservative Protestant South, Midwest, and West? Moreover, it would be useful to know, especially concerning the South, if race--the threat of miscegenation, the perils of jazz and modern entertainment--played any significant role in the development of fundamentalism. Such questions will be left for other scholars to ponder.
Regardless of any shortcomings, Abrams's work is a significant accomplishment in the field of American religious history. He has shed much light on the interesting relationship of fundamentalism and modernity. In addition, his work offers a great deal of insight on how popular culture informed conservative religion in America.
. Grant Wacker, "Searching for Eden with a Satellite Dish: Primitivism, Pragmatism, and the Pentecostal Character," in Religion and American Culture, ed. David G. Hackett (New York and London: Routledge, 1995).
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Randall Stephens. Review of Abrams, Douglas Carl, Selling the Old-Time Religion: American Fundamentalists and Mass Culture, 1920Â?1940.
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