Moody, Evangelicals, and the “Personal Relationship with God”

guaranteed pureThere has been a recent spate of books about the historical roots of American Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. I posted here about Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God, which describes the postwar eruption of civil religion in the 40’s and 50’s, and Molly Worthen’s excellent Apostles of Reason took a broader look at the evolution of Evangelicalism in the twentieth century. These books are fascinating and helpful to me as I chart my own path through America’s bizarre religious environment. A new book in the same vein, Timothy Gloege‘s Guaranteed Pure, hits home on a number of levels.

Gloege’s book tells two stories: the story of Dwight L. Moody and the founding of his Bible Institute, and the story of oatmeal magnate Henry Crowell who used his advertising acumen to manage and market Moody’s legacy after his death. Both men rejected modern methods of Bible scholarship and theology but embraced cutting edge business practices to sell their unique brand of neo-old-time faith to the masses. Moody’s dream was to convert the middle class American man into a new breed of “Christian worker,” a dream that was never fully realized despite Moody’s fame. Crowell enjoyed greater success by tweaking Moody’s message and targeting Americans as consumers instead of laborers. He (and his many collaborators) crafted the consumer Christian culture we know so well today, wherein true believers can assert their status by spending or withholding their money.

Of particular interest (and bemusement) to me is Moody’s unique and strange form of individualistic Christianity. Utterly eschewing church tradition, history, doctrine, and any form of modern scholarship, he advocated a rugged, solitary, and customized faith for every man under his tutelage. The descriptive label for his religious bill of goods, ubiquitous among Evangelicals today but innovative at the time, was the “personal relationship with God.” This meant that the American Christian man was under no obligation to any denomination, tradition, community, pastor, or scholar to tell him what God expected of him. He could discover it for himself through devotional, “plain meaning” Bible reading and the quiet, internal work of the Holy Spirit. Moody’s Institute existed to “train” men in these practices, but it was careful to never present itself as a school or seminary.

The dangers of a religious program that rejects church and tradition are vividly illustrated in the Bible Institute’s own story, as new fangled trends rushed in to fill the void. In Moody’s case, faith healing and dispensationalism set fires in his organization that he was never able to fully extinguish. Faith healing enjoyed a surge around the turn of the nineteenth century, as a religious response to what Gloege describes as the fairly horrifying state of medical practice at the time. (Of note to my Nyack/ATS colleagues, this is where our founder A.B. Simpson makes a brief appearance in the book, as a healer and a friend of Moody’s.) Moody was never fully comfortable with faith healing as a tenet of his Institute, and it was ultimately the cause of a major scandal that almost destroyed his ministry. (The whole tragic story is laid out in the book.)

Meanwhile, the “dispensationalist” reading of the Bible (based on the teachings of Brit John Nelson Darby) was never a feature of Moody’s own worldview but was a passion for many of his colleagues. These included Cyrus Scofield, whose Reference Bible became the primer for this brand of theology. Dispensationalism (violently) rearranges the Bible into “dispensations” or “ages” in which God interacts with humans based on different sets of rules and expectations. It is especially concerned with an imminent “final dispensation,” in which all Bible prophecies will be literally fulfilled before the return of Christ can occur. As an ideology it lends itself to sectarianism and warmongering. Despite his lack of enthusiasm for the specific teachings of dispensationalism, Moody was content to allow its presumptions and obsessions to influence and characterize the Institute’s Bible study materials.

For generations after Moody’s death, up until our own day, many have regarded his legacy as one of “old time religion” and “back to the Bible” purity. In reality, it constitutes one of the most rebellious and destructive attempts to radically reinvent Christianity according to the secular imperial principles of individualism and capitalism. The underlying assumptions of Moody and Crowell – that the American workforce and buying public constitute the most powerful force for freedom and revolution in the world – inevitably corrupted and mangled the ancient gospel story they were attempting to mass market.