by Tim Gloege
And now, the first of two posts from the best possible scholar to comment on what is going on at Moody Bible Institute.
Tim Gloege is a historian and independent scholar based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He earned his Ph.D. in United States History from the University of Notre Dame in 2007. His first book, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2015. (See Bill’s glowing review of Guaranteed Pure.) Most recently, he contributed an essay to The Business Turn in American Religious History (edited by Amanda Porterfield, Darren Grem, and John Corrigan). Thanks to a grant from the Louisville Institute, he is researching a second book on Protestant liberals in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. You can follow Tim on Twitter @timgloege.
The Moody Bible Institute in Chicago (MBI), a venerable evangelical institution, was hot news last week. Christianity Today, the Christian Post, even Inside Higher Ed reported allegations of excessive compensation for administrators and “liberalism” among its faculty.
The most sensational accusations revolved around MBI board member Jerry Jenkins, author of the spectacularly successful Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels. He apparently has a penchant for poker and was given sole use of a luxury suite in an Institute-owned building. All this came to light amid a financial shortfall that led MBI to close its Spokane campus and cut ten percent of its Chicago faculty.
MBI “is facing what is arguably one of the most serious crises… [of] its 132-year history” declared Julie Roys, a radio personality and self-described whistleblower who publicized these allegations. MBI leadership apparently agrees; both its president and COO resigned and its provost announced retirement (it also summarily fired Roys). The future of accused faculty members remains unclear.
I agree with Roys’ claim of crisis, but for none of the reasons she outlines. Heresy hunters will search in vain for a whiff of liberalism at this hopelessly conservative school. Management costs were 4.19% of expenditures in 2017, historically low for MBI and well-within the non-profit norms for administrative overhead. Her charges of “reverse racism” are bizarre (and particularly troubling in light of MBI’s ongoing struggles addressing white supremacy). Given the fresh, Trump-grade, scandals we are forced to endure each week, I can’t imagine folks remembering any of this in February, presuming MBI simply does nothing.
No, evidence of the real crisis is not found in gossipy blogposts from MBI’s rightwing fringe, but in its annual financial and ministry reports. The numbers they contain suggest a crisis of marketing, not morality. For most of the twentieth century, MBI could claim ownership of a premiere (perhaps the premiere) conservative evangelical brand. Its longstanding tagline touted Moody as the “name you can trust.” Today, it is the name hardly anyone remembers.
MBI was founded in 1889 by Dwight L. Moody: a celebrity revivalist to middle-class Protestants. It began as a training school for men and women who wished to engage in religious work, but were unable to attend college or seminary. (Ironically enough, it offers accredited undergraduate and seminary degrees today.)
If education were the measure, MBI would be long-forgotten; but its real significance came elsewhere. In the 1910s, MBI had been remade into a new type of religious corporation: an unaffiliated producer of religious media. Such organizations are so commonplace today we assume they always existed; but MBI helped create the template. Its techniques, rooted in modern business principles, have been imitated by nondenominational churches and parachurch organizations across the country. It radically transformed American Protestantism.
MBI’s transformation was inaugurated by a man who knew the power of modern media. Henry Parsons Crowell made a fortune by promoting his Quaker brand as the only oatmeal guaranteed pure. At MBI, he redirected its educational mission to promoting his brand of “pure religion” and fighting liberal theology. A wide array of products drew many evangelicals into MBI’s orbit: magazines, radio, books, music, evangelistic meetings, and later, evangelistic films and satellite broadcasts. Education continued, but these “public ministries” were responsible for both the majority of outlays and revenues: most importantly, the steady stream of small donations that kept the lights on. Donors believed in MBI’s mission because they consumed its products.
Crowell brilliantly leveraged the reputation of Dwight L. Moody as a virtual trademark, guaranteeing that their message was neither “liberal” nor “fanatical,” but simple, wholesome, “old-time religion.” Even as people forgot Moody the man, they still associated Moody the brand with trustworthiness.
MBI maintained the Moody brand by studiously avoiding flash, fad, and controversy of any sort. It was stylistically stodgy and corporate by design; controversy was enemy number one. The strategy served them well into the 1990s; its white evangelical constituency might sample the exotic flavors of the fringe—the counterculture of the Jesus People or the new breed of prosperity-oriented tele-evangelists or the cathartic political tantrums of Jerry Falwell. But like oatmeal for breakfast, they considered Moody’s inoffensive products a staple of their media diet. And when push came to shove, Moody was the name they could trust.
With MBI demonstrating proof of concept, innumerable non-denominational churches and para-church organizations imitated its strategies. Many early competitors had direct ties to MBI (its personnel were regularly poached by other evangelical institutions in the mid twentieth century). But by the 1980s, the landscape was thick with competitors from all corners of the evangelical ecosystem. Media-savvy mega-churches and parachurch organizations like Focus on the Family began undermining MBI’s privileged position.