FROM THE ARCHIVES: Bible in America: The Power of Books

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 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. 

The most powerful book, fundamentalists agree, is the Bible.  Among conservative Protestants, the Bible is often considered to have supernatural power on its own.  The Chicago book missionaries of the Bible Institute Colportage Association and Moody Literature Mission were no exceptions.  They believed the Bible could transform lives.  But the Chicago book missionaries also believed in the power of non-Biblical literature.  Especially as a counterweight to an expanding pulp press, Bible-friendly fiction could be an important way to save souls.  In this post, I’ll describe an example of each type of book that the Chicago book missionaries distributed.

First, the Bible.  The most commonly distributed Bible book wasn’t the entire Bible, but rather a special edition of the Gospel of John.  This edition was edited by TC Horton in 1922.  At the time, Horton was at the peak of his career.  He was a minister and organizer in the Los Angeles area.  He was best known in 1922 as the editor of the Kings Business, the magazine of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University).

Horton’s attitude toward this little volume was clear from the verse on the front cover.  Sorry, it’s hard to read in this photo, but the verse says,

  Here is a little book for you!

                        Just take it, now, and read it through.

                        Page sixty-six, verse thirty-one,

                        Believe it, and the work is done!

If any curious reader followed this clue, he or she would find the following verse: “But THESE ARE WRITTEN, THAT YE MIGHT BELIEVE THAT JESUS IS THE CHRIST, THE SON OF GOD; AND THAT BELIEVING YE MIGHT HAVE LIFE THROUGH HIS NAME.”

In case readers didn’t follow the cover clue, Horton repeated the message on the inside cover.  Horton insisted that the Gospel of John was “the incomparable piece of English Literature.”  But it was not only good literature.  It was inspired by God in order specifically to convert people to Biblical Christianity.  If only people would read these words, Horton believed, their lives would be transformed.  As Horton insisted, this supernatural power was the reason why this Gospel “should be placed, as far as possible, in the hands of every man, woman, and child in the world.”

As we’ve seen, fundamentalists in America have embraced this mission.  In a campaign that sometimes seems bewildering to non-fundamentalists, Bible missionaries have worked to get people to see these Gospel words.

The files of the book missionaries shed some light on this attitude toward the saving power of Gospel words.  The first director of the Bible Institute Colportage Association, William Norton, told stories of the instant power of the words of the Gospel.  In 1921, Norton told a story of a man given a Gospel tract.  At first, the man ignored it.  “Coming to a hedge,” Norton related, “he stuck the tract into the hedge.”  However, thanks to the awesome power of the words of the Gospel, “it was too late; his eyes had caught a few words of the tract which led to his conversion.”  In another story from 1921, a vicious murderer found a copy of a Gospel tract.  “Through reading the Gospel of John this man saw the error of his way, changed his manner of living, and moved to the Bear Creek community in Scott County, Tenn.”

For Bible missionaries like the ones from Chicago, this power of conversion came from the power of the Gospels.  The words were inspired by God to lead to this kind of conversion.  It only made sense, then, to distribute those words as widely as possible.  This attitude toward the words of the Gospel has informed the outreach of Fundamentalist America in ways that remain bewildering to folks who don’t understand the impulse.  But if we can understand this book, these words, as inspired by God to lead people to salvation, we can understand something about the Fundamentalist desire to get these words in front of as many people as possible.  For the Chicago book missionaries, this meant delivering hundreds of thousands of copies of these tracts and Gospels to children across the nation.

Among fundamentalists, only the Bible had the kind of supernatural power that could lead people to instant conversion, merely by seeing the words.  But other kinds of books, too, could help.  The Chicago book missionaries also distributed hundreds of thousands of copies of short novels.  These books weren’t as powerful as the Bible, but they could still work to combat the trend toward sin in popular literature.  As one missionary warned in 1937, they needed uplifting books “during these difficult days when much pernicious literature is being widely distributed by religious cults, atheistic organizations and anti-Christian societies, whereby many are being deceived and destroyed.”

Back in 1921, William Norton had called these books “true-to-the-Bible literature.”  One of the most popular was Rosa’s Quest, originally published in 1905.

In this story, a poor girl is lost in a big city.  Her Christian mother had died, and just before she died she told Rosa to find her in the “beautiful land.”  Unfortunately, the girl lacked any Christian education.  She wandered around the city, rebuffed by nominal Christians who did not reach out to her.  Finally, a missionary on a city bus explains the Word of God to Rosa.  Rosa is converted, then adopted by a wealthy secular family.  In the end, Rosa converts all of her new family using the Gospel.

In the eyes of Bible missionaries, books like this did not have the same supernatural power as the Gospel itself.  They could not change lives simply by being read or heard one time.  But missionaries still reported that the books could help save souls.  One missionary in 1921 reported that the children she worked with were “very enthusiastic” about Rosa’s Quest.   One child from Madison County, Kentucky, wrote to the BICA to thank them for the free books, and noted that he felt “like little Rosa in Rosa’s Quest.  I have found the way to heaven.”  Another recipient wrote in 1937,

“FROM KENTUCKY: ‘In the year 1929, one of my friends loaned me some of your books entitled “Little King Davie,” “The Way Home,” “The Robber’s Grave,” “A Peep behind the Scenes,” and others.  I was thirteen years of age.  God definitely spoke to me through the books and gave me a peep behind the curtains which hid my heart.  In the same year I received a heart-felt experience from God, and also a call into His service.  I am now a missionary in the mountains of Kentucky.”

For the conservative Protestant missionaries of the Moody Bible Institute, books had power.  Some of them, if they contained the actual words of the Gospels, could have supernatural power.  Those words, distributed in books, tracts, and leaflets, emblazoned on billboards, eventually printed on Tim Tebow’s face, could change a life in an instant.  Other books, like Rosa’s Quest, merely provided information about how such change could happen.  They did not save lives the same way the Gospel could, but they kept young people from reading literature that could confuse them or lead them into sin.

 

 

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.