The Secret History of American Religion

Roundup
tags: religion, Christian fundamentalism, evangelicalism



Daniel Silliman is an instructor of American religion and culture at the University of Heidelberg. He is currently writing his dissertation at Heidelberg on secularity and faith in contemporary evangelical fiction. He worked as a crime reporter in metro Atlanta for several years before moving to Germany with his wife in 2008.

Christian fundamentalism was invented in an advertising campaign, according to a new book by historian Timothy Gloege, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism. The all-American brand of “old-time religion” was developed by an early captain of consumer capitalism—who wanted to sell pure Christianity like he sold breakfast.

In his fascinating narrative of the origins of modern evangelicalism, Gloege traces its close relationship to modern marketing back to the founder of Quaker Oats, Henry Parsons Crowell.

If you asked people for a short list of the most important religious figures in the early 20th century, Henry Parsons Crowell probably wouldn’t be on it. Who was Crowell and why was he important?

Henry Parsons Crowell was a purveyor of oatmeal. He is best known by business historians as the president and founder of Quaker Oats, one of the pioneers of the branding revolution. He used a combination of packaging, trademark and massive promotional campaigns and transformed oatmeal from a commodity into a trademarked product.

Crowell took oatmeal that used to be sold out of large barrels in your general store, put it into a sealed package, slapped a picture of a Quaker on it and guaranteed it pure. Now it no longer mattered who you bought your oatmeal from, only what brand you chose.

A company’s reputation was once rooted in its owner, but the trademark created this virtual relationship with consumers that was pure fiction. The trust that is engendered by a Quaker has no relationship to the company itself. There are no Quakers involved in that. Crowell was a Presbyterian. He bought the trademark, a very small mill had the trademark and he said, “oh, this engenders trust, so I’m going to use this to sell my oatmeal.”

This was quite controversial at the time, though today that’s just how things are done. Quakers sell oatmeal and friendly animated lizards sell us car insurance.

One of the key arguments in the book is that he is using similar strategies in religion as well. As president of Moody Bible Institute, Crowell pioneered the techniques of creating trust in a pure religious product, packaging and trademarking, as it were, old-time religion. ...




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