Enlightenment and Elections

by Bob Schoone-Jongen.

About the time when Spring Break arrives I hit the line in the HIST 152 syllabus calling students to consider the 18th-century Enlightenment and its offspring. Of course this leads to political liberalism and the notion that we should trade kings and queens for politicians who won their place through innate ability rather than inheritance. The will of the people shall choose the rulers, not DNA. In the salons where these ideas were hatched it was assumed this would go smoothly, once the historical detritus had been swept away by waves of reform and optimism. And we’d all live happily ever after.

Painting of a politician speaking to a crowd

Stump Speaking, George Caleb Bingham (1853-54)

Every semester when I teach this topic I can’t help but take a mental inventory of how far the mirror of reality has dusted over the periwigged musings of the 18th-century philosophers and their muzzle loader toting revolutionary followers.  During the 1850s the American painter George Caleb Bingham immortalized a Missouri canvass’s exuberant messiness on three canvasses: “Stump Speaking,” “The County Election,” and “The Verdict of the People.” From a politician in a white cutaway appealing to the sleeping, bemused, befuddled, and distracted, Bingham moved to the voting of the drunken, comatose, and bribed, and on to the revels in the aftermath of the announced results. It’s Voltaire and Montesquieu meeting the Age of Jackson on the American frontier and leaving with punctured illusions.

Now we begin another presidential election cycle, with two Republicans already openly running, and the presumptive Democratic candidate already on the hustings. Already the rhetoric has turned to one candidate’s snarky attitude toward reporters, another’s opening his campaign before a dragooned student body, and the other gearing up for the struggle by amassing a pack of attack dogs set to pounce on all but the true believers. Voltaire’s wig is lying on the floor, as he hangs his bald head in shame, while wondering “is this really the best of all possible worlds?”

Left image shows a man eating a hotdog with a fork; right image shows a different man eating a sandwich and grimacing.

David Cameron eating a hotdog with a fork (left), and Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich with a grimace (right)

For those who might hope for better things from our mother country, a UK’s parliamentary campaign most recent social media flap arose over the vital question of “Does eating a hot dog with a fork prove that Prime Minister Cameron is a snobbish, elitist stiff?” So much for hope. It appears that Cameron might have been avoiding the pained expression his opponent, Ed Miliband, displayed during his confrontation with a bacon sandwich, a grimace likened to a character from Wallace and Gromit. From such visions came the conviction “all men are created equal?”

Remember John Kerry? Remember his blue-blooded attempt to be a blue-collar kind of guy by walking into an Ohio bait shop to inquire with a muted Harvard accent, “Can I get me a hunting license here?” After which he borrowed a set of camouflage togs for a goose hunting expedition into a cornfield. For his efforts he was likened to another Massachusetts-based candidate (no, not John Kennedy), Michael Dukakis, and his ill-fated ride in a tank, the one that left him looking like a macho Pee Wee Herman. Both Kerry and Dukakis lost to an opponent named Bush. Is this what the philosophes meant by ‘natural aristocracy?’

Would Jeb and George W. be known nationally if they were Bosch instead of Bush? If Hillary had remained Rodham without the Clinton, would she be the favorite? Would Jeb or George or Hillary be worthy and welcomed for an afternoon of witty conversation with Madame de Stael and her fellow salonnieres? How long would a candidate with a headful of focus-group tested one liners last in such a space? Or how about Ted or Rand matching bon mots with Benjamin Franklin?

Painting depicting a politician speaking to a crowd of men, many drunk or distracted, in a small town.

The County Election, George Caleb Bingham (1852)

Instead of the salon and its badinage, Ted and Rand and Hillary and Jeb and Chris and Marco and Scott and host of others will repair to an Iowa coffee shop or Pizza Ranch to engage in chitchat over sinkers and fried chicken (it beats the pizza, trust me). In scenes echoing Bingham’s election canvasses the would be high and mighty will confront the ordinary folk, the earnest ones Bingham generally consigned to the side but clearly within the frame. And maybe, just maybe, every once in a while, the white suited façade will fall long enough to reveal the human being behind the boiler plate. The candidates’ handlers will strive to keep Bingham’s drunks and comatose from intruding. Who would want Mayberry to stumble into Utopia with Otis Campbell boozily draping his happy arm around the shoulder of a would-be president? Bingham would approve. Madame de Stael might not, unless Otis had written a worthy pamphlet. Even a Rousseau could be tolerated in upper crust Paris, if not in Cedar Rapids.

And so we are in for another year and a half of the perennial confrontation between the dreams of the past and the realities of the present. We will see what will happen when the salon’s habitues retreat to the unkempt streets, when refinement confronts the world of Bingham, or James Hogarth. And from it all, inexplicably, something will result, a new leader.

Maybe there was something to monarchy after all. A potential for tidiness, if nothing else. Except even monarchs ain’t what they used to be in tabloids and twitter feeds. It’s enough to make one seriously consider the viability of Voltaire’s conclusion, that we should simply tend our garden and eat citrons and pistachios. Except the noise of Bingham’s world would scale the fence.

Robert Schoone-Jongen is in his eleventh year at Calvin College, working with student teachers who hope to become high school and middle school social studies teachers. His historical interests are immigration, American social history, and the presidency. 

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Ask the Author: Tim Gloege on Guaranteed Pure

by Kristin Du Mez.
book cover

Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism, the new book by Timothy Gloege, is available April 27 from UNC Press.

Several years back, I heard Tim Gloege give a conference paper on Henry Crowell, Quaker Oats, and American Fundamentalism at a meeting of the American Society of Church History. To this day, that talk stands as one of the smartest, most engaging papers I’ve heard presented at an academic conference. I know I’m not alone in looking forward to his book Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism, out this month with UNC Press. Tim is an independent scholar based in Grand Rapids, and he is currently teaching an online course for Calvin’s History Department. Here’s a sneak peek at his new book.

KDM: In a sentence or two give us your elevator pitch for Guaranteed Pure.

TG: Guaranteed Pure explains how evangelicals at the Moody Bible Institute created a modern form of old-time religion using business ideas and techniques. This smoothed the advent of modern consumer capitalism in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and transformed the dynamics of Protestantism in modern America.

What first led you to bring together evangelicalism, capitalism, and the Moody Bible Institute?

The Moody Bible Institute (MBI) and evangelicalism have walked arm in arm since its founding in the late 1880s. MBI’s founder, the revivalist Dwight L. Moody, was integral to shaping the modern evangelicalism we see today. In the 1910s, after Moody’s death, its leadership was integral in drawing conservative evangelicals into the early fundamentalist movement. And in the interwar years it served as the institutional template for numerous parachurch organization devoted to “old time religion”—the alternative to liberal mainline Protestantism. So, MBI’s DNA pervades conservative evangelicalism today, and I thought its early history deserved a more thorough examination.

Connecting this story to capitalism began with the observation that business people were seen everywhere in MBI’s early leadership. Some were lesser lights in the pantheon of Gilded Age business, others were lower level professionals. But a notable number were names familiar to business historians: figures like the president of International Harvester, Cyrus McCormick Jr. and Henry P. Crowell, the innovative president of Quaker Oats. Crowell especially wasn’t merely following the pack when it came to adopting modern business practice, he was leading the way.

This in turn led me to ask why forward-looking business leaders would be attracted to a supposedly backward-looking religious system. Might there be resonances between MBI’s “old time religion” and the new business ideologies pervading America’s corporate boardrooms?

This question challenged the prevailing notion that consumer capitalism was a secularizing force—that it was eroding religious adherence in the modern age. But in the end I was persuaded that the evangelicalism at MBI was not only compatible with modern consumer capitalism, but also uniquely dependent upon it. So, at a time when many Protestants were wary of modern business—Pentecostals, “plainfolk” evangelicals, and Social Gospellers—“corporate evangelicals” at MBI were using its ideas and techniques to transform the face of modern Protestantism.

Quaker Oats ad featuring a kindly looking colonial man holding a scroll that says "pure."

An early advertisement for Quaker Oats features the Quaker man holding a scroll with the word “Pure” on it.

Tell us what Quaker oatmeal has to do with American evangelicalism?

More than you might think. The founder and president of Quaker Oats, Henry Crowell, also served as president of MBI for nearly three decades. Business historians remember Crowell for his breakfast food empire built by transforming oatmeal-as-commodity, sold at the market rate, into Quaker Oats, the trademarked product sold at a premium. The key to his strategy was leveraging concerns over tainted food to prejudice consumers against the traditional open barrel. Then, using colorful packaging and massive promotional campaigns, he offered a sealed box emblazoned with a smiling Quaker as the wholesome alternative.

At MBI, Crowell applied these same strategies to religion. He was concerned by the growing influence of Biblical higher criticism and other liberal “impurities” in mainline Protestantism. To combat it, he used the image of Moody as a religious trademark of sorts to promote a non-denominational Protestant orthodoxy, guaranteed pure. But much like Quaker Oats, this was an “old-time-religion” in name only. On many key points it was a radically modern “orthodoxy,” grounded not in doctrine or creed, but a personal relationship with God, a business-minded approach to reading the Bible, and saving souls.

These same dynamics are at work in American evangelicalism today. The movement consists primarily in a network of independent churches and parachurch organizations that are structured like corporations. They advocate for an “orthodoxy” that is impossible to define or homogenize; rather it resides in a malleable set of attitudes, assumptions, and interpretations of religious experiences. This orthodoxy is validated either by charismatic leaders, or caricatures of historical figures and movements. And for every organization that might go under—whether by a change in leadership, irrelevance, or indiscretion—there are always new spiritual entrepreneurs to step in. It was this corporately branded system of “orthodoxy” that I argue MBI pioneered in the early twentieth century.

Tell us about your favorite discovery in the archives.

Hands down it was finding the correspondence files of The Fundamentals project sitting unprocessed in the Biola University archives.

The Fundamentals, of course, was the twelve volume publication in 1910-1915 (funded by Los Angeles oilman Lyman Stewart) that initially rallied conservatives into a national coalition and which gave the resulting “fundamentalist” movement its name. These letters were the smoking gun of my argument. They show significant involvement of business folks, including Crowell, both in determining the function and contents of the publication.

In fact, the whole idea of framing the publication as a non-denominational “orthodoxy” was Crowell’s idea. The project also borrowed from Crowell’s promotional techniques at Quaker Oats. The impression one gets when reading the publication is entirely different from what was going on behind the scenes.

This wasn’t the broad, organically-formed, grassroots coalition of conservative academics and evangelical ministers we once thought. It was a carefully orchestrated project that was corporately structured and controlled.

What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

Well, there were a lot of moving parts in my analysis and so finding where (and how) to begin that analysis was the biggest challenge. Because I drew insights from a number of different historical fields, I had to deal with very different historiographical conversations taking place in the histories of labor, business, consumption, the middle classes, professionalization, social science, medicine, progressivism, and populism…not to mention religion. Negotiating the different terms that dominated these debates was a challenge.

Consider, as one example, whether “modernity” is best characterized as individualistic or corporate. Historians of consumer culture treat individualism as a hallmark of modernity; historians of labor and corporate governance emphasize new group identities. Historians of fundamentalism treat an individualistic faith (i.e. personal salvation) as an old-fashioned alternative to the “modern” Social Gospel; some historians of liberal “spirituality” treat an individualistic faith as distinctively modern. Historians of science consider one of the revolutionary transformations of Darwin to be a shift from individual specimens to statistical populations; economic historians describe the shift to modern neoclassical economics as a new analysis based on rational, self-interested individuals.

Combined, I think, these crosscurrents can be explained by dueling modernities—one rooted in modern consumer capitalism, one in modern science. But figuring out how to integrate these sometimes-incommensurate terms—and to do this without overwhelming the story with historiographical discussion—was tricky.

Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate American Invented Christian America is coming out around the same time yours is. What connections do you see between your work and his?

I’m still reading Kruse’s book, but I’m excited to see the connections. There’s the obvious chronological sense (his book begins where my book ends—at the cusp of the Great Depression). But I think it also applies to subject matter. Kruse’s story is about Protestant libertarianisms creating the construct of a “Christian America” to combat the New Deal. I explain how that Protestant libertarianism came to exist. Kruse rightly focuses on mainline ministers who participated in the project, along with later evangelicals like Billy Graham. But in my story, at least before World War I, it was primarily conservative evangelicals leading the charge to integrate their faith with the new free-market ideology.

So if Kruse’s story is how business did political things with religion, my primary interest is in how business transformed religion.

Your book and Kruse’s are not the only ones to examine connections between capitalism and Protestantism in American history. How do you explain this newfound interest?

I think a lot of it has to do with a broader trend among historians of religion to integrate their stories into broader historical narratives. Certainly Jon Butler’s critique that religion in post-Civil War historiography acts as a “Jack-in-the-Box faith” influenced me in graduate school. And with the hegemonic influence of capitalism in modern society, it is only natural that historians would seek to connect it to their religious subjects.

For scholars of evangelicalism specifically, I think the first wave of scholarship on the Religious Right highlighted the incongruity of associating modern business with secularization. There is a lot of ground left to cover, but fortunately we have some great work to look forward to from Darren Grem, Heath Carter, Darren Dochuk, and many, many others.

You describe yourself as a “dabbler in digital humanities.” What have you been dabbling in lately?

Well, I did some work in database development before graduate school and so I remain deeply interested in investigating ways to store, share, and analyze historical research digitally. But now that I’m teaching a course online I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about technology and pedagogy. Specifically I’ve enjoyed experimenting with ways of using technology to facilitate a more active learning experience. In my current course, I like to picture myself not at the front of the virtual classroom, but in the back: guiding each student as they learn how to think historically and “do” history for themselves. I become less a content delivery system and more of a coach.

Tim Gloege

Author Tim Gloege

Have you started on a next project?

I have a couple of ideas in the works. One is a biographical study of Reuben Torrey, an understudied but immensely important figure in the early fundamentalist movement (who also appears in the current book). A second project would retell the fundamentalist/modernist controversies from the modernist point of view. That is to say, I want to tell the story in a way that takes their religious beliefs seriously.

Many historians unconsciously absorb the fundamentalist point of view, which considers modernists to be “fake” or hopelessly compromised Christians. On the other side, sympathetic historians treat liberal Protestants as proto-secularists, which tends to separate their ethics and reform from their “religion.” Both approaches distort what the modernists believed they were doing. In addition, my intimate knowledge of the fundamentalist side should also be an asset to tease out some of the nuances of the conflict. I’m especially interested in the ways that members of both groups cooperated before 1900 and understanding how and why this ended.



Many thanks again to Tim for the interview!

Kristin Du Mez is associate professor of history at Calvin and teaches courses in recent America, US social and cultural history, and Gender Studies. Her book A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism was recently published with Oxford University Press. Follow her on Twitter @kkdumez.

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Hella Haasse, Threshold of Fire

by Frans van Liere.

During spring break I was asked by my church friend Phyllis Van Andel to conduct a book discussion for the Calvin Academy for Lifelong Learning (CALL). It could be on any book I wished to discuss, she said. CALL classes are always fun to teach, because of the great enthusiasm of the participants, and the opportunity for Calvin professors to engage the community.

Cover of the book depicting a peacock next to a Roman temple.

Hella Haasse, Threshold of Fire (1996; trans. of Een nieuwer testament, 1966)

I finally settled on an historical novel set in fourth-century Rome, Threshold of Fire, by one of my favorite Dutch novelists, Hella Haasse. I had read the book for my literature exam in high school (a Dutch gymnasium that taught Latin and Greek), and at the time, it made a great impression on me. The CALL class seemed the perfect opportunity not only to revisit this intriguing short novel, but also to get an American audience acquainted with Haasse, the grande dame of Dutch literature. Fortunately many of her works are now translated into English.

Hélène Serafia Haasse (1918-2011) was born in Indonesia, the eldest of two children of the Dutch colonial civil servant Willem Hendrik Haasse. In the 1930s, Haasse moved to the Netherlands to study Scandinavian languages in Amsterdam. After a short while, she switched to theatre. Soon amateur theatre and radio entertainment were demanding most of her time and energy. During World War II, she met her future husband. They married in 1944, and their first daughter (of two) was born shortly afterwards, but died in 1947. After the war, Haasse devoted herself entirely to writing literature, while her husband worked as a judge in The Hague. After his retirement, from 1981-1990, the couple lived in France.

Cover of the book Oeroeg, showing an Indonesian native young man hiding behind green leaves

Oeroeg, by Hella Haasse (1949)

Haasse’s debut was the 1949 novel Oeroeg, reflecting her experiences in Indonesia, the struggle of the native Indonesians against the Dutch colonial regime, and her pessimistic realization that not even personal friendships could bridge the worlds of Dutch colonialism and nativist nationalism. Her magisterial The Tea Lords (2010), a historical novel also set in colonial Indonesia, is based on the private archives of one dynasty of Dutch tea planters. In between these works she produced her most acclaimed historical novels, In A Dark Wood Wandering (1949), and The Scarlet City (1952). Threshold of Fire (original title Een nieuwer testament,  “A Newer Testament”) was published in 1966.

The novel is set within a twenty-four hour period in the year 414 A.D. It consists mainly of the flash-back reminiscences of two men: the court prefect Hadrian, and Claudius Claudianus, a disgraced poet who has been living in hiding in Rome for ten years, after his condemnation by the same Hadrian in 404. The two share an entangled past: both are originally Egyptian (Claudius a slave boy, the illegitimate son of the Jewish owner of a plantation), and both moved to Rome in the 390s in hope of joining the political and literary elite of Roman society. Hadrian took on the role of the young Claudius’s protector and maecenas, until the latter wrote a satirical poem against him, leading to his condemnation and exile. Ten years later, Claudianus is arrested again and brought into the court of Hadrian, this time for being present at a house party of a Roman senator who is suspected of conducting pagan sacrifices. In the newly Christianized Rome, this was a capital offense.

Claudius Claudianus is a historical figure. He is considered the “last of the Roman” poets, and his works (especially De raptu Prosperinae, “On the Rape of Prosperina”) enjoyed great popularity throughout the Middle Ages. The “real” Claudianus was also known as one of the panegyrists of Stilicho, the Goth who served as the Roman Army’s supreme army commander at the time of Emperor Honorius (emp. 393-423). One of the challenges Stilicho faced was the “Gothic problem” – the rebellion of a large contingent of Visigoths within Roman territory. Anti-Gothic sentiment eventually led to the downfall and murder of Stilicho in 407. The result was disastrous: many of Stilicho’s soldiers joined the Gothic rebellion. In 410, roaming Gothic troops sacked the City of Rome. Nothing is known about the historical Claudianus after 404, and historians usually assume that he died shortly after this date. Not much is known about Claudianus’s personal life either. It is debated whether or not he was a Christian; on the one hand, he wrote a laudatory poem on “The Savior”, but on the other, Augustine mentioned him as a staunch pagan, perhaps because of the highly mythological content of his poetry.[1]

Painting depicting Emperor Honorius on his throne with a group of men in togas bowing nearby

The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius, by John William Waterhouse, 1883

In her historical fiction, Haasse creates a different narrative. Claudianus here is disillusioned with the ideals of classical, pagan Rome (now falling into ruins at the hands of the Goths), but he is also weary of the new religion, Christianity. Haasse makes a satirical poem that Claudianus wrote about the (otherwise unknown) prefect Hadrian into the reason for his “disappearance” in 404. In the background she depicts a Roman empire that, since 390, has become officially Christian. Christian bishops compose the emperor’s entourage; pagan rites and games are forbidden, and even the situation of Jews (traditionally tolerated under Roman law) would become more and more precarious – on one occasion, bishop Ambrose of Milan scolded emperor Theodosius for paying restitution to a Jewish community that had seen its synagogue burned by a Christian mob. For social climbers, however, Christianity provides quick access to a world of power and success. Within this world, Claudianus has to come to terms with his past as a provincial outsider, and his disappointments in the search for a father figure (both the Goth Stilicho and the Christian career opportunist Hadrian prove to be false leads). He finally discovers that only by both embracing and distancing himself from his past can he truly start to live, like the Phoenix described one of his minor poems. (The English translation takes its title from this poem.)

In one interview, Hella Haasse says: “We don’t really know what happened in the past. It is up to our interpretation and imagination to make sense of it.”[2] A novelist can do much more than a historian, who is not allowed such liberty with her materials, yet also must use interpretation and imagination to reconstruct the past. But literary authors can inspire historians to see the past with new eyes, and perhaps this is the reason that I always enjoy reading good historical novels. Unlike many other books in this genre, however, Haasse’s historical characters are not mere templates moving against an artificially constructed historical background. The real craft of her historical novels lies in the suspension of the feeling of historical distance, not in the artificial creation of it. This makes the difference between good and mediocre historical fiction. In Haasse’s novels, especially in this one, psychological and historical realities are interwoven; only through the personal reflections of the main characters does the reader gradually come to realize what is going on. All of this makes the book somewhat challenging to read. Haasse herself says about this novel: “I think this is the best book I’ve ever written, because it relates a complex reality in a very short time span. You cannot retell the book; it would become a hopeless tangle. This is really a book you should read.”[3] Or, as most of my CALL students concluded, read twice!


[1] 1902 Encyclopedia (that is, an on-line reprint of the 1902 Encyclopaedia Brittanica), “Claudius Claudianus”, http://www.1902encyclopedia.com/C/CLA/claudius-claudianus.html.

[2] Interview with the author, at the online Hella Haasse Museum, http://www.hellahaassemuseum.nl/objects/290.html

[3] Interview with Arjan Peeters, cited at the Hella Haasse Museum, http://www.hellahaassemuseum.nl/objects/290.html

Frans van Liere is Professor of History and director of the Medieval Studies program at Calvin. He teaches world history, medieval history, and history of the book. He grew up in the Netherlands and studied theology and medieval studies at the University of Groningen. His research interests are medieval biblical exegesis, twelfth-century intellectual history, and the late medieval papacy. He lives in Grand Rapids, MI with his wife, two teenage sons, and a cat named Lancelot.

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