Did Moody Bible Institute invent the faith and work movement?

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By Jennifer Woodruff Tait

A month or so ago, I got an email from my doctoral advisor (who has some idea which way my life path has gone) saying that I ought to review a book called The Blessings of Business  by Darren Grem. In conjunction, he said, with Timothy Gloege’s  Guaranteed Pure, a scholarly history of Moody Bible Institute.

The Blessings of Business had, at that point, not been released; but Guaranteed Pure had, and so I dutifully got it from the library and dug in (one is often dutiful to one’s doctoral advisor, even when one got one’s Ph.D. 11 years ago).  It is certainly a fascinating book. Despite being an historian of American religion, I knew little of MBI’s  specific story: Moody’s life, his desire to train evangelists for, and from, the working classes, the generation that took over after Moody and their swing towards respectability and a middle-class constituency, and the centrality of MBI personnel to the publication of The Fundamentals (the pamphlet series, originally conceived of as a popular magazine, that essentially launched fundamentalism.)

But Gloege is interested in a bigger question, the same question that Darren Grem is pursuing in The Blessings of Business: how, in the U.S. in particular, evangelicalism and free-market capitalism came to be so identified with each other. Since this assumption of compatibility characterizes the faith and work movement of which I have come to be a part, I was intensely interested in his argument. (Yes, I know there are Catholics who are into free-market capitalism. I just spent a week at Acton. More posts coming on that topic.)

Those in the faith and work movement who have always been a part of the evangelical subculture underestimate, I think, how much those of us with genuine mainline cred have a sense of great unease at doing anything that seems to favor capitalism. (As I said in my last post, I was there in the 1970s mainline. I can’t help it.) Gloege and Grem seemed to be promising the exposé that my subconscious was secretly expecting. At last I was going to find out if I’d been selling out!

Gloege delivers on the historical count. He ably demonstrates that business methods were central to the story of MBI, both in the free-wheeling era of Moody the former shoe salesman and the corporate era of Henry Parsons Crowell, who joined the board of trustees in 1901, becoming president of the board in 1904 and serving for the next 40 years–still walking to MBI every Tuesday to preside over board meetings at age 89, Gloege tells us.

Gloege demonstrates how what he calls a “corporate evangelical” framework–focusing on individualistic conceptions of self and society and an instrumental approach to knowledge–seamlessly characterized MBI leaders’ theology and their management styles. He notes their continual desire to respond to social problems and labor unrest with a “marketable” Gospel. And he shows how Crowell brought the idea of branding to the forefront of religious matters–making Moody, in effect, into MBI’s brand, a claim eventually strenuously contested by Moody’s children. Branding goes a long way towards explaining many of the turf wars of modern evangelicalism, as Gloege’s epilogue notes.

But it doesn’t go all the way. Gloege may have made the historical case, but I found that the book failed on the ideological one. I think it failed because it started from a common but dangerous assumption among scholars: that, since no one could have possibly believed fundamentalist ideas, the economic and cultural issues surrounding the ideas are responsible for the power of the ideas. I know this assumption because I used to share it. I wrote a lovely proposal for my own dissertation (now a book about the temperance movement) which completely explained temperance as a cultural phenomenon, practiced by some dreaded pious tight-lipped “they” who was certainly not “we.”

But as I was leaving my proposal defense, Richard Heitzenrater said to me, “Be sure you take theology seriously.” That sentence transformed my book.

I ended up discovering a coherent theological and philosophical motivation for temperance–a motivation shaped by culture, to be sure, but also shaping it. Ideas are held because we believe them to be true, not only because we believe them to be convenient and productive. I wanted Gloege to do that here. I wanted him to be so far inside dispensationalism, faith healing, and corporate management techniques that he could make his opponents’ case for them.  On that count, I was not convinced.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not a fundamentalist, a dispensationalist, a faith healer, or (as my husband once described my father) a “pious and amiable bureaucrat.”  I agree with Gloege that Crowell, especially, could be horribly sexist and racist, and was terribly focused on respectable middle-class consumers to the exclusion of Moody’s original hope to transform the working classes.  But I still wanted him to get inside Crowell’s head.

Near the beginning of the book, Gloege described the view of Moody, R. A Torrey, Crowell, and the other “corporate evangelicals:”

The world worked consistently, they believed, stretching from shop floor to prayer closet, from legal library to Bible study, from the drafting table to a defense of their faith. God created this “natural order,” chose to operate by its principles, and promised spiritual and material success to believers who did likewise (2).

Maybe I’ve drunk the faith and work Kool-Aid, but except for that last clause–the one about the promise of success–I read that description and thought, “Well duh.” That last clause is still one the faith and work movement needs to wrestle with, for sure: too often we’ve been seen as aiding and abetting material success as a marker of spiritual growth. We need more faith and work messages for the least, last, and lost. But does the world stretch from shop floor to prayer closet? As they say in Minnesota, you betcha.  Or as Frederic Buechner said to the mainline circles of my childhood,

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

(Or maybe Grem will convince me I’m selling out. Stay tuned.)

 Reprinted from Patheos Faith and Work Channel. Image: Pixabay.

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