Businessman’s Religion

In Chicago, in the early years of this century, great wealth and business know-how were seen by some as the best means of doing great things for God. Evangelism and social reform went hand-in-hand with hard-nosed business practice. Were these rich philanthropist laymen properly promoting the cause of the Gospel, or were they confusing Christianity with the Corporation?

THE EARLY DECADES of the twentieth century reveal a distinct aggressiveness on the part of leading laymen in urban churches who banded together to accomplish specific religious tasks. In the course of “making religion efficient,” these laymen shaped evangelical Protestantism more powerfully than most ministers and theologians of the time realized.

Historical accounts of the collapse of the Protestant consensus in America usually focus upon the theological debates between conservative and liberal ministers and seminary professors (most of which began in the 1890s and continued up through the 1900s). Frequently overlooked are the subtle and not-so-subtle adjustments made by laymen that served to undermine the Protestant ethos of the 19th century. Whether one calls this process the modernization, secularization, accommodation, or domestication of Protestantism, it would appear that the flock was often one step ahead of its shepherds.

Chicago Presbyterians

The Presbytery of Chicago made gallant efforts to respond to the host of urban ills resulting from the period of tumultuous population growth. Presbyterians were in the forefront of local temperance campaigns, anti-vice crusades, public school battles, and community welfare efforts. The Presbyterian Hospital was a favored charity of the Social Register set, as was the Chicago YMCA. By the end of World War I, the Presbytery had established its own Social Service Commission to deal with “social questions in the light of Christianity.” One of the Commissions first studies was the 1919 race riot that rocked the city and belatedly awoke the white population to the mushrooming black communities on the south and west sides.

Spiritual concerns remained at the top of the Presbytery’s agenda, however. The salvation of an individual soul continued to be the only lasting solution to any social problem. Thus, traditional evangelistic approaches were rarely questioned. In fact, Presbyterian ministers were intimately involved with the Gipsy Smith campaign in 1909, the Wilbur Chapman crusade in 1910, and the Billy Sunday crusade in 1918. These urban revivals were in fact sophisticated business operations (Sunday estimated that it cost $3.95 to save a soul in Chicago) but they still aimed to win allegiance to Christ above all else. Those within the fold required continual spiritual nurture; to this end, the educational agencies of the Presbytery poured their energies into more effective Bible instruction. A Presbyterian Training School was launched in 1908 to prepare church workers. Christian Endeavor societies, Young Men’s and Young Women’s Bible classes, and Presbyterian Brotherhood chapters all received strong support from ministers.

Neither the clergy nor the church members in the Chicago Presbytery were to any degree isolationists. They carried a sense of responsibility for the larger society in which the Church operated and periodically entered the public arena on behalf of higher values and noble ideals. They consciously applied their faith, however under stood, to the exigencies of the world. This can be observed in the examples of several leading Presbyterian laymen.

Wealthy Laymen

Charles Holt, a lawyer and active member at Second Presbyterian Church until his death in 1918, exemplified a loyalty to his denomination. Holt pioneered the Presbyterian Brotherhood, a loose national affiliation of men’s societies that had begun to emerge in Presbyterian churches in the 1880s and 1890s. For Holt, “the church is a worthy place for the investment of our life and influence in the service of humanity.” The Church was especially a context for men, because it appealed to their “sense of the heroic,” and it was “a useful instrument for the adjustment of antagonisms.” In the Church, religion could be infused with the ethical and philanthropic spirit. The ideals of righteousness could be put into practice.

In 1911, the Brotherhood under Holt’s leadership endorsed and actively supported the Men and Religion Forward Movement, an interdenominational campaign to arouse men in urban churches to engage in evangelism and social service. The campaign lasted for about a year, with speakers like Charles Stelzle and Raymond Robins traveling from city to city conducting rallies and advertising the ideals of Christian service. Holt noted that the dominant theme of the Forward Movement was “More men in the Church, and more efficiency in the men.” Not only was the Forward movement a lay phenomenon, it was a public relations campaign conducted by men who attempted to apply the best of sales technology on behalf of the Church.

Another layman of similar dedication was Henry Parsons Crowell, one of the founders, and by 1901, president of Quaker Oats. Though a somewhat nominal Church member in his earlier years, Crowell underwent a personal religious awakening at the age of 43 and became an ardent Church leader. He served as an elder at fourth Presbyterian Church, strongly supported the Presbyterian Church Extension and Missions committees, and added his name to a variety of evangelistic and municipal reform efforts. But he reserved the bulk of his energy and money for the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, over which he maintained a controlling influence for several decades.

Crowell’s involvement with the Institute reveals a man who combined deep piety with tough business acumen. An admirer of D.L. Moody (whom he never met), he joined the Institute board in 1901, two years after Moody died. When Crowell became board chairman in 1904, he engineered a change in the Institute’s leadership and restructured the school along corporate lines. This involved a power struggle with some of Moody’s handpicked successors; however, Crowell proved more than a match. He had long before learned how to maintain the competitive edge when he outmaneuvered opponents in the milling industry and gained control of the American Cereal Co., the holding company of Quaker Oats. Once in power, the “Godly autocrat,” as associates called him, ruled quietly but ruthlessly.

Moody’s son-in-law, A.P. Fitt, became the Institute’s administrator, as Moody had requested in his will. Fitt’s ally was R.A. Torrey, another member of Moody’s inner circle, who simultaneously pastored Moody’s Chicago Avenue Church, functioned as Institute superintendent, and conducted numerous evangelistic campaigns around the world. Both Fitt and Torrey preferred to rely upon the Moody subculture with its network of evangelists and pastors for support and sustenance. Their goal was quite simple: teach lay people the Bible and equip them to be Church leaders.

Yet the financial pressures upon the Institute allowed Crowell to steer the school’s direction. He enlarged the board from seven to fifteen trustees, almost all of them businessmen and professionals. He centralized administrative control in the hands of an executive committee composed of himself, Fitt, and the man whom he wanted to head the Institute, James Gray. Crowell personally hired Gray at the rather astounding salary of $5,000. Torrey, more interested in evangelistic work, faded from the scene, and by 1908 was gone as well.

In the following years, Crowell and Gray guided the Institute’s development according to a business model. Crowell’s financial stewardship program brought long-term stability, though he occasionally had to underwrite losses.

Probably the most prominent name among Chicago Presbyterians was McCormick. Not only was this family responsible for the presence of a major theological seminary in Chicago, but it controlled one of the larger manufacturing interests in the Midwest, International Harvester. When patriarch and reaper inventor Cyrus McCormick died in 1884, his son Cyrus, who was still a student at Princeton at the time, took over the family firm. McCormick’s widow, Nettie, 27 years his junior, remained an influential figure in the family business, and personally directed the distribution of $8 million in philanthropic gifts (about half of it went to educational agencies).

The McCormicks applied their wealth to a number of religious causes. The salaries of world travelers John R. Mott and Sherwood Eddy, both of whom represented the burgeoning American missionary enterprise, were heavily underwritten by the McCormicks. The International YMCA and Princeton University also received large donations, and the personal interest of Cyrus and Nettie.

The Gospel of Efficiency

Isolating a set of religious beliefs peculiar to these men of the business and professional community may not be possible, but one can detect certain tendencies in their religious perspectives. These tendencies prove to be critical in the formation of the self-styled modern Christianity.

One emphasis that has already been illustrated is their preference for the practical in religion rather than the esoteric. Religion of any significance had to relate to the ordinary concerns of these laymen. This usually implied the ethical dimension of Christianity: it also suggested a religion that worked, that produced tangible results.

Woodrow Wilson (U.S. President, former president of Princeton University, Presbyterian layman), who was highly regarded among Chicago Presbyterians, gave frequent expression to a this-worldly faith rooted in the moral actions of individuals. “Our Christian religion is the most independent and robust of all religions,” Wilson claimed, “because it puts every man upon his own initiative and responsibility.” In Christianity, men discovered the underlying principles of moral action and a vision of a society that could be achieved by selfless Christian leaders. Wilson often depicted himself as orthodox in his faith, but unorthodox in his understanding of the traditional doctrines of the Christian faith. He was able, like many other Presbyterian laymen, to distinguish between two modes of Christian thought, one that operated within the walls of the Church (and seminary), and one that functioned outside the walls. Of course, his sympathies were with the latter.

One obvious product of this pragmatic bias was the keen desire to apply notions of business efficiency to religious activity. Nolan Best, editor of Interior, described a “Gospel of Efficiency,” which attempted to employ the insights of scientific management to the Church. He warned that running a church on business principles was not as easy as it sounded, but it could be done if a church determined to “increase decidedly the average output from each individual worker.” This would require studying each man’s individual fitness, deciding what constituted a fair product to expect, and enforcing any rules and policies that would be developed.

Though some churches took up this challenge, the agencies of the churches, influenced as they were by laymen, were more inclined to apply efficiency standards. Local chapters of the Sunday School Association, the Christian Endeavor Society, and the Presbyterian Brotherhood did so with great vigor. Typically, these efficiency campaigns led to detailed statistical analyses of an agency’s work, and to streamlined administrative structures that centralized control in the hands of a few individuals with professional credentials.

Masculine Laymen

If the laymen gravitated toward those aspects that resembled their vocational experience, they also selected elements more suited to their identity as “men on the make” (a phrase popularized by Woodrow Wilson). In other words, they tended to describe modern Christian faith as masculine rather than feminine. Ann Douglas, in her The Feminization of American Culture, argues that through the 19th century, Protestantism became associated with a feminine image, particularly within more liberal churches. Like their women parishoners, liberal clergy became purveyors of a sentamentalized culture. They attempted “to achieve religious ends through literary means.” Douglas further suggests that the old virile religion, especially of the frontier variety, gave way to dignified, unassertive sentimentality that rendered ministers, if not the Church, irrelevant to many people.

By the early 20th century, this feminine image of religion was clearly under attack. Active laymen portrayed vital Christian faith as distinctively masculine and inherently appealing to successful men. Such a vision was the foundation of the numerous male-oriented religious movements, such as the Brotherhoods (by 1909, a dozen denominations had such associations), the Layman’s Missionary Movement, the Layman’s Evangelistic Council, the Men and Religion Forward Movement, and the popular Men’s Bible classes (that often doubled as church baseball teams). The concept of masculinity utilized by these groups was rarely defined. Usually, it was linked with modern business practices, with hard work by dedicated men, and with a militant crusade on behalf of a glorious cause.

Evangelistic work, whether overseas or locally, became a domain of male leadership. [see the previous article, by Karen Halvorsen] “There is something heroic about the task of missions,” wrote William Ellis, an editor of Continent. “It is a job for strong men. Missions thrill men, not only because of its innate heroism and chivalry, but also because they are a mighty enterprise on a sound reasonable basis.” Promoting the Gospel required the same skills as merchandising a product. Argued Ellis, “The essential masculinity of missions propaganda is certain to impress every man who makes a first-hand study of its operation.”

The thrust of this emphasis on masculine Christianity tended to diminish the stature of the clergy. Though ministers participated actively in the men’s organizations, they did so partly because they were men. Charles Holt viewed the Brotherhood as transcending lay-clergy distinctions. Within the Church itself, ministers maintained a priestly status, but they were less able to transfer its authority into other realms. Woodrow Wilson went even so far as to say that the ministry was “the only profession which consists in being something,” as opposed to doing something. Like Levites, the ministers could serve in their tabernacles, but laymen carried the burden of religion into the real world.

Religious Reasons

More recent literature on the Progressive era has shown the prominent role of business and professional leaders in various reform movements. Their interests were not so much to extend democracy and overthrow vested interests, which the rhetoric of the period might suggest, but rather to extend their control over the urban, industrial environment and continue to shape it according to their values. The profiles of the Presbyterian businessmen in this study lends support to this conclusion.

Religion can hardly be discounted as a factor in the business leaders’ motivation to engage in civic betterment. In fact, some studies have shown there is a distinctly religious side to the whole Progressive movement; so intertwined was it that David Johnson claims it is “difficult to discern when progressives were using religion or when they were guided by it.” For some, the traditional view that until an individual became a professing Christian he or she could not be expected to sacrifice their own interests for the societal good continued to be a strong conviction. Others were content with preserving a Christian influence and general acceptance of Christian moral standards.

For the most part, the wealthy Presbyterian laymen in this study could be identified as adherents of an evangelical experience-oriented religion. Few could have been labelled confessionalists. The same could be said of their ministers. But there was a noticeable difference. The laymen were setting the terms for the church’s dialog with the world. They were determining the aspects of the faith that were to be emphasized. They were in fact leading their ministers in applying an updated religion to a modern society. CH

By Paul H. Heidebrecht

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #19 in 1988]

Paul H. Heidebrecht’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Illinois focused on the relationship between faith and economic activity among Protestant businessmen in early 20th-century Chicago. This article is taken, with permission, from Chicago Presbyterians and the Businessman’s Religion, 1900–1920, which appeared in the Journal of Presbyterian History, Vol 64, No 1, Spring 1986, a publication of the Presbyterian Historical Society.
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