FROM THE ARCHIVES: Bible in America: Bible Evangelism to the Crabgrass Frontier

A few years back I stumbled across a remarkable Bible campaign.  Beginning in 1921 and continuing throughout the twentieth century, Bible evangelists based at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute delivered Bibles, New Testaments, and tracts to underserved regions.  This campaign, which began as part of the Bible Institute Colportage Association and eventually became part of the Moody Literature Mission, delivered millions of Bibles and religious literature to the Southern Appalachian region, as well as the Ozarks, western logging camps, Louisianan Catholic schools, prisons, hospitals, and other venues in which missionaries thought people were hungry for the Word. 

            At the time, I focused my study on the missionaries’ use of Appalachian public schools as a distribution network for this religious literature.  I published some of my findings in an academic journal [“The Quiet Crusade: The Moody Bible Institute’s Outreach to Public Schools and the Mainstreaming of Appalachia, 1921-1966,” Church History 75:3 (September 2006): 565-593.] 

            Looking over my notes as I thought about the meanings of the Bible in Fundamentalist America, I came across my collection from this research.  As usual, there was a lot more material than what I could use in the article. 

            For the next couple-few posts, I’ll pull up various pamphlets, brochures, and other materials from this archival collection.  Most of the material is available at the Moody Bible Institute in downtown Chicago.  The people there were very accommodating and friendly on my visits, and the archive is certainly worth a visit if you’re in the area. 

            I won’t argue that these materials somehow capture any single essence of fundamentalist attitudes about the power of the Bible.  That would be far too simplistic.  But I do believe that the attitudes toward the Bible expressed in these materials give a window into a commonly held fundamentalist vision of the nature of Holy Scripture.  As we’ll see, the Bible missionaries from Chicago believed the Word had a unique power.  The Gospels, to them—and, I argue, to many fundamentalists in the 1920s and since—meant more than just a collection of edifying religious messages.  As we’ll see, many of these Bible missionaries held a fundamentalist belief in the saving power of this powerful text. 

For many fundamentalist evangelists, the merest exposure to the words of the Gospel can have a saving power.  It can serve as an inoculant to sinful doctrines and sinful ignorance.  For example, one post-World War II brochure trumpeted its success in exposing students in public schools to the Word.  These students were described as “otherwise unreached boys and girls.”  By giving them Bibles, these missionaries proclaimed they had been “introduced to the way of salvation for the first time, with many of them accepting Christ as their personal savior.”

In the view of these fundamentalist missionaries, the dangers to these students—depicted as white, fairly affluent suburbanites—came from both ignorance and false doctrine.  This brochure warned of other missionaries: “Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Catholics and Seventh Day Adventists,” all of whom were “making devastating inroads among these gospel-hungry communities.”  In the view of these Bible missionaries, young people did not need anything beyond the Bible to be protected from this threat.  If these students could simply be exposed to the “true message of eternal life” from the Bible, missionaries would be able to “capture them for the Lord Jesus before they are ensnared by the evil one.”

There is a good deal here of interest for those who hope to understand Fundamentalist America.  As I write, the 2012 Republican presidential primaries are slogging along, with (Catholic) Rick Santorum fighting (Mormon) Mitt Romney and (Converted Catholic) Newt Gingrich for the vote of the Fundamentalist Faithful.  Romney’s Mormonism sometimes comes up as an issue for conservative Protestant voters.  We don’t see as much, though, about the threat of Santorum’s Catholicism.  We have wondered here about this “Fundamentalist Mystery.”  This brochure from sixty-odd years ago paints a very different picture of the relationship between fundamentalist Protestants and conservative Christians of other groups.  The relationship between the two has long been tense.  Some historians have argued that it was only the “pro-life” movement that emerged in the 1970s that brought the two together.  But there had been other rapprochements, with prominent Catholics such as William F. Buckley Jr. leading a broader conservative movement in the years after World War II that attracted many Protestants as well as Catholics.

In this Protestant brochure, written around the same time that Buckley began his long career as the intellectual darling of Fundamentalist America, Catholics, Mormons, Seventh day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses are not seen as part of a broad conservative coalition, but rather as deadly, aggressive threats to the health of America’s unreached masses.

For those outsiders who hope to understand Fundamentalist America, another interesting lesson from this brochure is the perceived power of the Gospel among these literature missionaries.  This point is so central to this tradition that it usually went unremarked, but if we want to understand Fundamentalist America, we need to explore the meanings of this Biblicism in a little more detail.  First of all, we need to note that this tradition is strongest only in this segment of today’s broad Fundamentalist coalition.  Conservative Catholics, for example, don’t historically place the same emphasis on the miraculous power of Bible text.  For these Chicago book missionaries, however, the assumption was that the words of the Bible, especially those of the four Gospels, had the power to effect soul-saving conversions on anyone who read them.  The challenge, then, for the missionaries was only to get the Word out there.  If these white suburban schoolkids could somehow be persuaded or cajoled into looking at the Gospels, their souls would be saved.  Again, this assumption is so powerful among a segment of today’s Fundamentalist Americans that it usually goes without comment.  But it explains a good deal that is puzzling to non-fundamentalists.  So, for example, when people at sporting events hold up signs with Biblical chapter and verse—either as Broncos’ quarterback Tim Tebow or just as a guy in the bleachers—the hope is the same.  If they can simply convince people to look at John 3:16, the tradition goes, sinful or ignorant people will be eternally saved.  This is the impulse behind much of the fundamentalist effort to Biblicize public space.  If students in public schools can be exposed to the words of the Bible, they will be saved.  If billboards can proclaim the words of the Gospel, readers will be saved.  If court sessions can start with a Bible reading, sinners will be saved.  All of these goals only make sense once we understand the enormous power some Fundamentalists grant to the words of the Gospel.  The merest exposure is presumed to have eternal power.

Another interesting point about Fundamentalist America that this brochure reveals is its presumption about its readers.  This is a fundraising brochure that trades on its readers’ sense of duty.  The duty is to save as many souls as possible.  The public schools, in this brochure, present an “opportunity” to reach many imperiled young souls with only a small effort and expense.  The central point of this public-school campaign is that students in schools are likely to be reading.  Why not help make that reading material Biblical?  At least among this particular postwar Fundamentalist community, the missionaries did not need to explain that their readers should want to save souls.  Instead, the assumption was that Fundamentalists worked in contest with other spiritual missionaries—Mormons, Catholics, Seventh day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses—to capture as many souls as possible.

This Fundamentalist requirement to save souls helps explain some of the puzzle of Fundamentalism.  Many non-fundamentalists have complained about the aggressive nature of Fundamentalist America.  In the 1920s, for instance, famous atheist Clarence Darrow put it something like this, “I don’t mind them going to heaven their way, but I don’t want them to stop me going to hell my way.”  Other non-fundamentalists, these days, say they don’t understand why fundamentalists care if other people do things like marry same-sex partners.  Once we see the centrality of soul-saving outreach to the Fundamentalist tradition, we can get a better sense of the reason for this aggressive insistence on the morality of everyone, not only the Fundamentalist community itself.

Finally, this brochure shows us the ways some Fundamentalists starting seeing whitebread suburban America as the newest “mission field” for their outreach work.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a lot of this outreach was directed away from mainstream middle-class American life.  Earlier fundamentalists assumed that the core of American middle-class culture was safely aware of the Gospels, safely educated and inoculated from the spiritual dangers of life.  Of course, some of those folks might still choose a life of sin, but at least they knew the saving message of the Gospels.  After World War II, some fundamentalists—like these Bible missionaries—began to see their role in American culture differently.  Their missionary outreach no longer had to be only to “outsider” groups, whether that be in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Asia, among immigrant communities in big American cities or among isolated mountain families in places like the Southern Appalachians.

Instead, some fundamentalists started to see themselves as surrounded by a vast mission field.  Even in affluent white communities they began to see their role as one of outreach and salvation.  Much as later fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell would complain that they were a minority group, so these postwar evangelists saw themselves as one missionary enterprise among others, competing for the souls of middle-class white kids in suburban public schools.


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  1. Montana

     /  March 31, 2012

    This has been going on too long, it’s a good start but our law enforcement has a long way to go.

    When someone hides behind religion to do or say something that is wrong we should stand up and point it out (right the wrong).

    When I was a kid I lived in Utah, and the Boy Scouts was taken over by Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS Church). This, so called religion, practices underage polygamy, they send the boy s off on missions to divide the underage sisters among the dirty old men of the clan. Now when these underage girls get pregnant, these same dirty old men, send them to the state to get their welfare checks. You should see some of the palace homes that are paid with welfare checks. By the way this is the newest religion that was created right here in United States of America.

  2. I’m right now reading the book Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, talking about this very thing; hadn’t thought about, do they not send girls on the missions?

  1. FROM THE ARCHIVES: Bible in America: Bibles to the Backwoods « I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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