The evangelist Billy Sunday wasn’t afraid to try something new. He would jump on top of a pulpit if he thought it would get attention. He would sell shares of a revival tabernacle, complete with “stock certificates” guaranteeing the bearer a portion of the proceeds, if he thought it would bring in enough money to fund the business of preaching the gospel.
He was a man who believed in innovation. But this was surprising even for him.
In 1934, Sunday was deciding who would publish his next book. He had two publishers, William Eerdmans and Pat Zondervan, come meet him at the same time. Each man was surprised to find the other in the meeting. Then Sunday asked them both to pray out loud. In a prayer competition. Which he would judge. The two men did pray, Sunday judged that Zondervan’s extemporaneous prayer was best, and he awarded the 25-year-old’s company with the contract for Billy Sunday Speaks!
The story is kind of a parable of American evangelicalism. As a parable, it raises a question: Which of these men acted out of faith and which from commercial interest?
Daniel Vaca, an American religious historian at Brown University, offers a clear answer in his new book, Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America. He says all three. All three were acting out of faith. All three were acting out of commercial interest. In fact, when looking at the history of contemporary American evangelicalism, it doesn’t make sense to distinguish between the commercial and the religious.
“Evangelicalism exemplifies what I describe as ‘commercial religion,’” Vaca writes. “Religion that takes shape through the ideas, activities, and strategies that typify commercial capitalism.”
Leaps of Commercial Faith
Evangelicalism is not unique in this regard, according to Vaca. It’s the nature of spirituality in a consumer society. When “virtually all aspects of social life involve commodification and consumption,” then our social identities—including our sense of belonging, our obligations to others, our rational self-interest, and our sense of what it would mean to flourish—all are formed “within and through the marketplace.” The marketplace, however, tends to reward innovation, individual choice, and celebrity, and evangelicalism has long embraced those values. Not every evangelical has been as eager as Sunday to jump up on a pulpit, to be sure, but more often than not, evangelicals haven taken that leap of commercial faith.
Vaca argues this is critical to understanding the history of evangelicalism. He wants to focus readers on social organization and the production of authority, to show how “contemporary evangelicalism took shape and steadily expanded through commercial efforts to generate new media markets and build successful media corporations.”
Religious historians have divided over the definition of evangelicalism in the last few years. Some are arguing that evangelicalism is essentially theological. Others, that politics are primary. Vaca is joining a third group, who say that evangelicalism is defined by its infrastructure. Evangelicals Incorporated makes a sophisticated case that book publishers, in particular, created the commercial infrastructure that made the modern religious movement possible.
The story starts around 1875, when evangelist Dwight L. Moody gave his brother-in-law Fleming H. Revell exclusive rights to publish authorized versions of Moody sermons. There were various unofficial versions floating around, and Moody was concerned about his lack of control over his brand. Revell publications included Moody’s signature, attesting to the authenticity of the product, as well as the explanation that “all former books in Mr. Moody’s name have been mere compilations, issued without his consent.”
After only a few years, Revell went from being Moody’s personal press to something more. Revell started billing itself as a “Publisher of Evangelical Literature” in 1880. It published texts that appealed to a swath of Protestants, giving those Protestants a sense of connection and common identity.
“Media objects perpetually invite us to affiliate ourselves with people whom we imagine as the ideal audience for that media,” Vaca explains. “Publics do not take shape through central institutions or subscriptions to any particular criteria. They are the product of active participation, attention, and imagination.”
One early bestseller was a 25-cent hardback titled Jesus Is Coming!, by William Blackstone. The book argued that Christ would return at any moment, and Christians should feel a sense of urgency about spreading the gospel. Revell sold 10,000 copies in a year. The book found an audience in a wide range of denominations—from the Presbyterian church, to the Church of God in Christ, to the Southern Baptists—and made them feel like they were all part of the same movement.
Another bestseller was The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, which sold about 12,000 copies per year for more than a dozen years. Author Hannah Whitall Smith told readers that theology wasn’t as important as trusting in God. She wrote about the practice of trusting God in everyday life, especially doing the day-to-day work of a wife and mother. The book made people feel connected to God, and also less alone.
Commitments in Tension
Commercial religion contains some tensions, however. Even when business practice and religious commitment both reward innovation and expansion, for example, that doesn’t mean the logic of maximizing profit always sat well with everyone. Vaca shows evangelical publishers have had to continually work to account for commercial religion, explaining how religious values and business practices really do align.
Perhaps the most interesting case of this is the story of how Zondervan became part of HarperCollins, which is a subsidiary of News Corp, the Rupert Murdoch-owned conglomerate that does $9 billion in annual business. First the family business went public, incorporating and selling shares on the stock market in 1975. This meant that anyone could own a piece of Zondervan, regardless of whether or not they shared the company’s Christian commitments. Executives argued, however, that the pursuit of dividends would not conflict with the religious mission. The stocks would be sold to people who “wanted to see their money working in two ways: first, to grow in an investment situation, and second, to be supportive of a kingdom cause.”
And, in fact, Zondervan profits increased 50 percent from 1976 to 1979. In 1983, one popular analyst praised Zondervan as the year’s “best stock buy.” But then the company’s value took a tumble, prompted in part by an error in the computerization of the inventory process, and some shareholders experienced a crisis of faith. A British investor launched a hostile takeover bid in 1986, and was only stopped when Zondervan sold itself to News Corp—at a discount of $10 per share.
The company agreed to forego some profits to maintain its identity. In the process, Zondervan became part of a multinational media conglomerate, committed above all to profits. It raises the question again: Religious commitment or commercial interest?
Vaca points out that there is a name for this kind of apparent paradox, where seeming contradictions between conflicting commitments are held in tension. It’s faith. The substance of commercial religion.
Not every reader will be convinced by Vaca’s arguments. He presents evangelicalism as something less solid than people often want it to be. But this book is a well-crafted, thoroughly researched, and compelling account of a dynamic that every observer of American evangelicalism will recognize. Vaca offers the insight to understand what was happening when Billy Sunday jumped on a pulpit or pulled two publishers into a room and said, “let’s pray.”
Daniel Silliman is news editor for Christianity Today. He also teaches humanities and writing at Milligan College in Tennessee.