Week 5: Religion and Consumer Culture

  • McMullen, Josh. Under the Big Top: Big Tent Revivalism and American Culture, 1885-1925. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Josh McMullen engages with America’s shift from Victorianism to a consumer culture through big tent revivals. Responding to the critics who dubbed revivalists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as “anachronistic,” McMullen argues that big tent revivalism actually participated in this shift in meaningful ways. He focuses on revivalists such as Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, Maria Woolworth, “Gypsy” Smith, and others to illustrate both their rejection and adoption of facets of Victorianism that fostered the development of a strong consumer culture.

McMullen’s focus is on addressing these revivalists as a type of semi-cohesive group. His thesis is structured around the impact the big tent revivalists had in fostering a transition to a consumer culture. How cohesive or disparate were these revivalists comparatively? McMullen does highlight moments of overlap, whether it be through the media, through public perception, or actual interactions between these actors. Yet, differences or disparity among the big tent revivalists did exist. McMullen doesn’t dwell on this topic but they were coming from differing denominational backgrounds and disagreed, at times, with each other on different issues. If such disparity exists between he primary actors within McMullen’s narrative, on what does he rest his categorical definition? It would appear that  the category of “big tent revivalists” rests on the method and the style of their preaching. The questions hat follows is “How useful is this category and does it stand up to scrutiny?”

Comparing the previous week’s book, Matthew Sutton’s American Apocalypse, with this weeks highlights an important methodological focus for McMullen’s narrative. From the outset, McMullen frames his argument as a challenge to the “Fundamentalist-Modernist dichotomy in turn-of-the-twentieth-century American Protestantism” [4]. He posits that big tent revivalism cannot be identified as one or the other thus, the dichotomy is not helpful in his analysis. Sutton embraces this fundamentalist vs. modernist dichotomy whole heartedly as he discusses the twentieth-century trajectory of fundamentalists and their doctrine. However, last week’s discussion articulated the various groups (Women, African American, Liberal Evangelicals, etc.) Sutton’s analysis failed to fully engage. McMullen’s text recasts the early twentieth century as more complex than this binary debate. It asks (and answers) “How else can U.S. Protestants be categorized beyond theology?” Largely, the relationship detailed by McMullen between culture and big tent revivals illustrates a broader definition of religion (one that Tweed would endorse).

McMullen’s discussion of “old time religion” mirrors the secularization discussions that take place today. He notes that old time religion was not a “chronology; rather, it was a characterization” [39]. It operated as a standard by which to judge the present state of religion (always illustrating the failure of the present when compared to the past). This reflects the argument made by many Protestants today, that the United States has decreased in religiosity. Thus, the secularization argument has been utilized many times within religion and applied in different ways. Contemporarily, secularization is the decrease in church attendance and adherence while during the turn-of-the-twentieth-century secularization represented a loss of the spiritual  vigor of religious experience.

Finally, to return to the Sutton-McMullen comparison, there is considerable overlap between these texts regarding historical actors. Most prominently is the discussion surrounding Aimee Semple McPherson. Sutton addresses Sister Aimee multiple times throughout his text but always in a cursory or anecdotal way. While Sutton has published a biography on McPherson, she doesn’t figure prominently in his text on  20th century fundamentalism/evangelicalism and has even less of an impact. McMullen’s analysis of Sister Aimee allows for a more nuanced and gendered understanding of her (and Maria Woolworth) as divine healers and as women occupying a largely male sphere. These female revivalists are redefining their gender roles while simultaneously enforcing aspects of the Victorian woman. This type of analysis provides substance to the historical actor.

Week 5: Religion and Consumer Culture

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