Review: Building the Old Time Religion

Katherine E. Rohrer

Katherine E. Rohrer is an Instructor in History at the University of Georgia.

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Katherine E. Rohrer, "Review: Building the Old Time Religion," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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Priscilla Pope-Levison. Building the Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era. New York: New York University Press, 2014. 279 pp. ISBN 978-1-4798-8989-1

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Plowing virtually new ground, Priscilla Pope-Levison contributes an invaluable monograph to the emerging literature in American women’s religious culture. In Building the Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era, Pope-Levison introduces readers to a generation of American women evangelists who, between the 1880s and 1920s, embraced new roles in religious institution building. As opposed to the generation of women who proceeded them—namely those who served as itinerant missionaries—the female evangelists of the turn of the twentieth century founded evangelistic organizations, churches, denominations, schools, rescue homes, and rescue missions throughout the United States. Such institutions, according to Pope-Levison, “exhibited a measure of permanency, complete with official incorporation, administrative structure, worker training, membership cultivation, scheduled activities, fund-raising protocols, and an established location for meetings and services” (4–5). Significantly, Pope-Levison studies both African American and white female evangelists, shedding light on their theological beliefs, professional goals, accomplishments, setbacks, and, to a lesser extent, their personal lives. This study centers on adherents of such denominations as the Apostolic Faith Mission or the New Testament Church of Christ, rather than Mainline Protestants. Consulting an impressive panoply of sources, Pope-Levison focuses particularly on the written word of nearly twenty-five female evangelists—their sermons, books, articles, diaries, letters, speeches and autobiographies—as well as institutional and denominational records.

While scholars such as Richard Douglass-Chin, Susie Stanley, Laceye Warner, and Matthew Sutton have produced important studies on American women evangelists of the nineteenth century, none has fully captured such women as ambitious, capable, and proficient professionals who succeeded as publicists, entrepreneurs, fund-raisers, school principals, and denominational executives to the extent that Pope-Levison does.  Pope-Levison fills this void and, in so doing, draws larger conclusions about the ways evangelical Christianity evolved during the Progressive Era. In particular, she highlights the growing divides in theology, practice, and politics between mainline Protestants (and, to a lesser degree, Roman Catholics) and fundamentalist Christians. The former followed a more flexible interpretation of the Bible and were typically open to the intersection of religion and modern science. The latter, influenced by the Wesleyan/Holiness and Keswick movements, vehemently defended literalist interpretations of the Bible. Perhaps initially contradictory, these women challenged traditional gender roles in faith and society while simultaneously upholding conservative theological beliefs. While the author characterizes these female evangelists as independent and innovative religious figures, administrators, and entrepreneurs, she never deifies or idealizes them. Rather, Pope-Levison also exposes their unrealized goals, interpersonal conflicts, and failed business ventures.  

A strong introduction is followed by four chapters, each addressing women’s roles and participation in a different aspect of religious institution building. These include evangelistic organizations, churches and denominations, religious training schools, rescue homes, and rescue missions. Broadly addressing women’s positions in faith-based organizations, chapter one considers such topics as women’s promotion of, and work in, aerial and automobile advertising for the Catholic Truth Guild (the premier evangelistic organization founded by Catholic laity in the United States) as well as the crucial responsibility wielded by Helen Sunday in organizing and administering husband Billy Sunday’s revivals, lectures, and meetings. Female evangelists’ roles in church planting and denomination founding is the focus of chapter two. Here, Pope-Levison offers her best gender analysis of women’s accepted place in church, Biblical, and professional hierarchy. Next, chapter three examines female evangelists’ commitment to founding, overseeing, and teaching at religious training schools such as the Epworth Evangelistic Institute in St. Louis. At such institutions, men and women enrolled in identical Bible-based coursework and gained similar practical experience in faith-based activities. Pope-Levison convincingly argues that such schools were dedicated to gender equality while they simultaneously championed very conservative theological interpretations. Finally, chapter four explores women as workers and administrators in rescue homes and missions. In particular, she underscores their commitment to evangelism over more immediate humanitarian concerns. Notably, for women engaged in such pursuits, humanitarianism served as “bait on the hook” for evangelism (150). A conclusion posits the ways well-known twentieth-century evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson embodied, yet expanded upon, the religious framework laid down by her Progressive-Era predecessors.

Building the Old Time Religion is a well-organized, well-written and well-researched monograph for an underappreciated topic. Nonetheless, this study would have benefited from more rigorous analysis with regards to geography, class, and gender. Perhaps most lacking is any concerted attention to the role that place played in Pope-Levison’s subjects’ lives. While she proposes “a revision of American Christianity in the Progressive Era” based upon an aggregate of women evangelists from “across the country, from shore to shore,” Pope-Levison never considers, for example, how southern female evangelists differed from their urban northeastern counterparts. Did the southern evangelists hold divergent views with regard to gender roles, race relations, church, and national politics? Other unanswered questions include: 1) How did class and ethnic backgrounds of female evangelists differ across the United States, and how did such distinctions shape their experiences? and 2) To what degree did men and women throughout the country accept women evangelists as religious institution builders? Finally, a small quibble relates to the book’s chronological framework: too often Pope-Levison incorporates evidence from the 1920s, while historians largely accept that Progressivism ended with World War I.

In spite of these criticisms, Building the Old Time Religion is a welcome contribution. Readers with interests in evangelism, women and gender and, more generally, Progressivism should place Building the Old Time Religion at the top of their lists.