JF: What led you to write Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism?
TG: It began, ironically enough, when I was taking a break from religious history. I had done a lot of research on conservative evangelicalism and, for a change, had taken up a more systematic reading in the history of The Gilded Age and Progressive Era, especially business and consumer culture. I was immediately struck with how this literature assumed a conservative evangelicalism that was at odds with the rise of modern capitalism, when I had seen the opposite at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and elsewhere. But even more striking to me were the many parallels that I saw between new ideas and techniques in business and conservative evangelical (or “fundamentalist”) belief and practice. I had been taught that fundamentalism was a reaction against modernity; now I wondered whether it might, in fact, be a product of modernity–modern business to be exact.
I’ve always been drawn to work that brings disparate historiographies into conversation with each other (like Lisabeth Cohen’s combination of labor and consumer culture in Making a New Deal). I thought that combining the histories of capitalism and religion held similar promise.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Guaranteed Pure?
TG: Guaranteed Pure explains how two generations of evangelicals at the Moody Bible Institute created a modern form of “old-time religion” using new business ideas and techniques. This smoothed the advent of consumer capitalism in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and transformed the dynamics of Protestantism in modern America.
JF: Why do we need to read Guaranteed Pure?
TG: I think my book offers a new way for us to understand conservative evangelicalism that better explains not only why it has survived in twentieth century America but also thrived. In so doing, it also lets us interrogate some of the categories that structure our histories of Protestantism: terms like “evangelical,” “fundamentalism,” “conservative,” “liberal,” and “modern.” And then finally, I think it demonstrates how entwined religious systems are in their social and cultural milieux. If fundamentalists–the supposed culture rejecters–cannot escape being profoundly influenced by this environment, it seems difficult to suggest any other group could do better. So then it’s also a call for religious historians (perhaps especially, historians of evangelicalism) to take these broader contexts into consideration.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
TG: I decided I wanted to become a historian when I was an undergraduate–and at time when my study habits suggested I had no business pursuing it. Still, I was attracted by two core tenets of the profession. First was empathy: the requirement (for me, it was the permission) to refrain from passing judgment on anything that I could not first explain on its own terms. Second was the idea that everything is capable of changing over time–from our most mundane habits to our loftiest ideals–and most likely has.
Having grown up in a largely ahistorical context, I found history to be liberating and slightly dangerous. Empathy allowed me to enter into the worlds and lives of people far different from myself. It gave me a safe space to try on new modes of thinking. Change over time simply gave me a framework that made better sense of the world we live in. The world became less Manichean–a starkly divided world of good and evil–and something more subtle and wonder-filled. It was like the introduction of color to a black and white world: both breathtaking and disorienting.
I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be in a situation where I can continue these pursuits, both in my writing and in teaching when opportunities arise.
JF: What is your next project?
TG: There are two projects I’m pursuing at the moment. One, speaking of historical empathy, is a “life and times” biographical treatment of Reuben A. Torrey, an immensely important, but misunderstood, figure in the history of fundamentalism, pentecostalism, and (I’ll argue) the early social gospel movement in the late 19th century. His life demonstrates the fluidity of Protestantism during that time. The second project is also empathy centered: a reappraisal of the fundamentalist/modernist controversies (and its lead-up) through the perspective of the modernists, critically assessed.
JF: Both sound like great projects, can’t wait to see what you come up with. Thanks Tim!
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner