Timothy E.W. Gloege’s Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism chronicles the rise of “corporate evangelicalism” in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America. It investigates how a network of American evangelicals used the logic of modern consumer capitalism to package and promote a “pure” form of the Christian faith. Though Gloege admits that he could have approached this investigation from numerous angles, he selects the Moody Bible Institute (MBI) as his point of entry. On one level, then, Guaranteed Pure is simply the account of MBI’s emergence and influence. At the same time, the book’s rich historical narrative serves a more fundamental goal: it illustrates the confluence of evangelical Christian content and marketplace methods, which helped make American evangelicalism into the conservative “brand” that still thrives today.
Gloege’s work is especially interesting in light of Pew Research Center’s recent study on the shifting religious landscape in America. The Pew study discovered that over the past eight years in the United States, the rise of religious “nones” (no religious affiliation) has led to a sharp decline in the overall number of individuals who identify as Christians. Yet despite the considerable decrease in Christians as a whole, the number of evangelical Christians has actually increased over the past eight years—by more than two million people, in fact. So while widespread public respect for Christianity may indeed be diminishing in this country, the evangelical “brand” remains strong.
Gloege’s Guaranteed Pure looks at the development of this evangelical brand in two parts. In Part One he examines the life and work of Dwight L. Moody. He demonstrates how Moody, ever suspicious of theology and the many disagreements it can provoke, employed modern business tactics to spread the basic Gospel message. Moody’s “commercial conception” of evangelism built toward a climatic moment of decision, a moment when the audience could choose—or “buy”—a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Moody and his contemporaries deemed this personal relationship as the crux of authentic Christian belief. Its purpose was to turn individuals into “Christian workers” who might change the world one soul at a time. Realizing the need to train others in his techniques, Moody later founded MBI to help Christian workers sell the evangelical faith effectively—with “the largest results” possible.
In Part Two Gloege explores the second phase of MBI’s leadership under Henry Parsons Crowell. He first considers Crowell’s founding and management of the Quaker Oats Company, which took place prior to his tenure at MBI. Crowell’s genius at Quaker Oats was a business strategy based on the company’s trademark—a grinning Quaker with scroll in hand, and the single word “Pure” written on it. This strategy had a simple objective: to make consumers imagine Quaker Oats as wholesome and safe for consumption, as breakfast food “guaranteed pure.”
From this, Gloege shows how Crowell applied the same corporate business methods to MBI’s religious products. Perceiving modern biblical interpretation as the most dangerous competitor to his evangelical brand, Crowell devised a way to make the Bible wholesome and safe for consumption. He did this through The Fundamentals—a multivolume, largely dispensationalist work wherein numerous authors unpacked the “essentials” of Christianity, and in that created an imagined fellowship of conservative Evangelicals who could combat modernism. By virtue of this multivolume project, the name “Moody” became a kind of trademark for conservative evangelicalism; it became synonymous with Christian faith, “guaranteed pure.” Under Crowell’s direction, MBI accordingly transitioned from creating Christian workers to attracting shrewd consumers who could navigate the American religious marketplace.
Since Guaranteed Pure is not just a book about Moody and Crowell, Gloege finally posits that the evangelical marketplace of today is the logical end of MBI’s (and other institutions’) “corporate evangelicalism.” Although a single trademark such as “Moody” no longer captivates the masses, in the current marketplace corporate powers offer endless options from which evangelicals can choose. In Gloege’s view, all this choice and the conditions that support it reveal that present-day evangelicalism is captive to the deep structures of consumer capitalism. Even the notion that an “American religious marketplace” is a reasonable way of discussing matters of deep theological and existential importance shows how plausible it is that, for many, evangelicalism is “something to be consumed rather than practiced.”
The question is to what extent Gloege’s argument has merit. Has evangelical Christianity become a product to consume rather than a faith to practice, as he suggests? And if indeed it has, what are the implications for evangelicals seeking to be faithful in this market-driven moment?
On one hand Gloege is right: American evangelicalism is particularly susceptible to the pervasive logic of the global market. It mirrors the secular economy with its niche theological brands, massive Christian media corporations, and religious celebrities. Evangelicalism is also replete with churches that function as businesses, pastors who function as managers of attractional ministry programs, and congregants who function as consumers of these programs. This susceptibility is due to the fact that evangelicalism, when disembedded from substantial traditions such as Catholicism or Calvinism, can fail to demonstrate its theological depth and structure. As Richard Mouw explains, “The key features of evangelical thought are best seen as theological emphases;” but these features “do not by themselves comprise a rich theological system.” Evangelicalism’s theological deficiencies make it apt to absorb a more robust system, which in the late modern West is the religious marketplace.
Gloege’s ability to underline this fact, as well as its ramifications, constitutes a perceptive and much-needed criticism of evangelicalism. It challenges evangelicals to consider not just what they believe but also how they believe—whether evangelical Christian content operates within the deep structures of consumer capitalism, and in so doing undermines faithful discipleship.
However, Gloege’s Guaranteed Pure does not simply come across as a constructive criticism of evangelicalism. Rather, it reads like a rejection of evangelicalism altogether. Gloege paints the evangelicals of MBI—and evangelicals in general—as naïve individuals who distort the Christian faith entirely. He fails to perceive their well-intentioned efforts and the possibility that those efforts have generated real goods. What is more, he fails to appreciate the real goods of capitalism. One could conclude from Guaranteed Pure that capitalism is a wholly sinful structure that should in no way intermix with the Christian faith. In this, there is a certain nuance—a certain dialectic between criticism and affirmation—that Gloege misses.
Evangelicals should read Gloege’s book and feel the full weight of its criticisms. They should think long and hard about what it might mean to contest the deep, dominating structures of the American religious marketplace. Yet, in my judgment, this does not mean that they should abandon their evangelical commitments altogether, or the goods of capitalism. Rather, they can commit to pursuing conditions and structures that form Christians properly in the midst of modern consumer capitalism—during an age when the wheat and the tares inescapably coexist. Granted, this kind of evangelical faith will never be “guaranteed pure,” but it can be genuinely faithful amidst the complexities of our market-driven moment.