Religion saturates the American marketplace. From the prayer cards of Catholic factory workers to the Gideon Bibles of Protestant businessmen, religious devotions permeate and shape America’s economic life. Exploring this dynamic animates all of my research. In my work I explore the tension-filled, but ultimately symbiotic, relationship between evangelical Protestantism and industrial capitalism throughout the turn of the twentieth century. I aim to understand how ordinary people’s work experiences inflect their religious devotions and thereby shape their political engagement. It is a query that shapes all of my current projects.
Currently I am revising a book-length manuscript for publication titled “The Bible Class Teacher: Piety and Politics in the Age of Fundamentalism.” The project is a microhistory
of a Sunday school teacher from Chicago named Frank L. Wood whose seemingly ordinary life reveals a dramatic story of religion, class conflict, and radical politics in an era of rapid urbanization. Born in 1864 in a revival-filled Illinois village but raised amidst Chicago’s industrial conflicts, Wood went on to self-identify as a fundamentalist in the 1920s while running for political office on the Socialist Party ticket. Through Wood, I demonstrate that fundamentalism’s origins lay in the dynamic details of ordinary people’s encounters with industrial capitalism and not, as some have claimed, in the denominational schisms of the time. For laymen like Wood, the sacred timeless fundamentalist theologians applied to scripture also mapped onto preindustrial notions of manhood, community, and economic citizenship. This transposition not only propelled the Prohibition campaigns and anti-amusement crusades that became the hallmark of midcentury fundamentalism, but also underwrote a support for a number of Progressive economic policies today’s evangelicals find anathema.
“The Bible Class Teacher” significantly revises reigning paradigms in religious studies, labor history, and the historiography of American conservatism. While scholars equate fundamentalism’s emergence with the rise of the Religious Right, I argue the complexities of Wood’s religious, social, and political commitments reveal a more complicated story of American evangelicalism’s political transformation. Drawing on the archives of city Bible class federations, state Sunday school societies, and manuscript sources left by laymen like Wood, I argue that neither Wood nor many of his compatriot’s self-identification as fundamentalists guaranteed they would join some right-wing coalition. Rather, the impetus for evangelicalism’s move toward conservatism lay less in theology, and more in laypeople’s encounter with the increasing diversity of America’s cities. Wood, for example, returned to the Republican Party in 1938 not through fundamentalist critiques of the New Deal, but in reaction to the Great Migration of black southerners into his neighborhood. Indeed, Wood spent the final years of his life leading a local historical society dedicated to preserving, and constructing, Illinois’ mythic preindustrial, egalitarian origins.
Currently, five of the project’s six chapters are completed and await revisions to bring them to publishable form. Over the course of the next year, I plan to undertake these revisions while also researching and writing a final sixth chapter. This final chapter will connect Wood’s leadership of the West Side Historical Society with his increasing involvement in the parachurch organizations of the fundamentalist movement. Both, I argue, reveal that fundamentalism’s appeal to laymen like Wood lay in it ability to reify constructed communities and collective memories. The former recreated an imagined past through archives and commemorations, while the latter defended a constructed “old time religion” in nondenominational societies that were less than five years old. My goal is to have the manuscript and a book proposal prepared for university presses by the end of 2013.
Alongside my own monograph, I am also co-editing a collection of essays that the University of Illinois Press is considering for publication. Titled “Between the Pew and the Picket Line: Working Class Christianities of the Industrial Age,” the collection argues that working people’s religious devotions were instrumental in the triumph of industrial capitalism. By assuaging the traumas of factor work, accommodating the rhythms of industrial production, or enabling individual social mobility, working people’s Christian communities sanctified the new industrial order. But this blessing came with a cost. Christianity’s consecration of industrial capitalism also empowered workers to demand their employers adhere to the church’s more egalitarian strands of thought, such as the Golden Rule. For example, my contribution, “‘One Night I Wandered into the Mission:’ The Pacific Garden Mission and the Inner Histories of Industrialization,” looks at the conversion narratives of itinerant workers recorded by a vice district rescue mission in Chicago. Historians have long ignored these texts as the products of heavy-handed Protestant missionizing, rightly criticizing their obsession with personal sin as the source of economic failure. What scholars have missed, however, is that these narratives almost always situate personal sin within the context of day laborers’ horrendous working conditions. This juxtaposition implicitly critiqued the devastation of industrialization while sustaining the broader prerogatives of industrial production. It is a pattern repeated throughout many of the collection’s essays. Once the manuscript is accepted, I will be writing the volume’s introduction and editing its submissions.
In future projects I aim to continue exploring the tension-ridden relationship between religious devotions and economic life. Of late I have been particularly interested in using the life of famed evangelist Dwight L. Moody to explore how evangelicalism’s symbiotic relationship with industrial capitalism has constituted major themes of the American experience. To this day, Moody remains shrouded in evangelical hagiography. But as an antebellum shoe salesman whose business failure led him to trade in a religious economy of a different kind of souls, Moody’s two careers profoundly illustrate evangelicalism’s interdependence with commercial culture. His determination to simplify Protestant theology into a popular and inoffensive cultural product transformed evangelicalism into a grassroots “religion of the people” while also sanctioning the baser impulses of Protestant culture. For respectability’s sake, Moody refused to address integrated audiences while also intentionally reducing the role of women in Protestant denominations. Moody’s nineteenth century life, in short, was the midwife of twentieth century evangelicalism. Moody, moreover, speaks to my experience in utilizing biography or microhistory to find the most creative and compelling ways to convey historical research. But in contrast to working on individual who left too few records, I am eager to take on an individual who perhaps left too much.