FROM THE ARCHIVES: Bible in America: Bibles to the Backwoods

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. 

            This will be the last of these collected posts from BICA and MBI. See other posts from this series HERE and HERE.  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. 

The inspiration for the Moody Bible Institute missionaries to deliver Bibles to the Southern Appalachian region came from the apparent lack of reading material of all kinds in the region.  In the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, the Chicago missionaries saw the “mountaineers” as particularly ready for literature outreach.  The reasons to send Bibles instead of humans were many.  First of all, Bibles were cheaper and easier to crate and ship.  Second, the Bible had a supernatural power to convert.  As one missionary proclaimed in 1921, the Gospels formed “the most unique, the most startling, the most compelling, and most unearthly message that has ever commanded God’s attention.”  No matter how talented a human missionary, he or she could not hope to compare with the words of the Gospel itself.  But another reason why Bibles made good missionaries was because the people of the region desperately wanted reading material of any kind.  Folks starved for reading material, the argument went, would eagerly read the Bible if only they could get one.  And by reading the Bible, they would be convinced by its supernatural power; they would embrace Fundamentalist Protestantism.  As one fundraising brochure from 1940 called it, this crusade could preach the gospel to the poor by using the “printed page.”

Many children from the region craved book ownership, it seemed, much more than they craved enlightenment.  Many of the Chicago book missionaries capitalized on that notion to satisfy young people’s lust for books with a healthy desire for the Gospel.  This picture of children in front of their log school was meant to show children’s appreciation for the Gospel.  It also shows, though, how much young people liked to have a book of their own.

These images from the Moody Bible Institute’s outreach tell us something about fundamentalist attitudes toward the Bible.  For many people, especially those without access to many books, the Bible served as both a religious text and a status symbol.  Both the Appalachian schoolkids and the Chicago Bible missionaries accepted this premise.  The Chicago missionaries played up this appeal by instituting a traditional Sunday-school Gospel-memorization strategy.  If schoolkids memorized a certain number of Bible passages, the missionaries would reward them with a Bible of their own.  Missionaries saw the lust for Bibles as a healthy desire for spiritual uplift.  Some of the schoolkids eagerly participated in the memorization program merely out of their desire to own books of their own.  They conflated their desire for ownership with their desire for salvation.

Also, this campaign shows us how evangelical Protestant missionaries in the early twentieth century tended to present their targets as different from themselves.  The missionaries may have been well-to-do—or at least middle-class—urban, Northern whites.  The folks they hoped to reach with their Bible outreach were consistently presented as something else.  Here, that other-ness was the “mountain” aspect of Appalachian life.  The little kids with their tiny log school, the farmers with their ancient wagon technology, or even simply the description of targeted populations as “The Poor,” all of these markers separated the missionaries themselves from those they hoped to reach.  As we’ve seen, by the middle of the twentieth century these Fundamentalist Protestant Bible missionaries had shifted their understanding of their targets.  Instead of consistently distancing their targets from themselves, by the mid-1940s these Bible missionaries presented their targets as white middle-class urban and suburban people.  This shift in Bible outreach tells us a great deal about the changing nature of Fundamentalist America in the twentieth century.  These Bible missionaries came to see themselves as reaching out in their own neighborhoods, to people like themselves. They no longer assumed that the only ones in need of soul-saving work were in far-away locations with exotic cultures.  Fundamentalist America came to see itself as working close to home.


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  1. How Does the Bible Work? Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth « I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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