God's Businessmen

Entrepreneurial Evangelicals in Depression and War

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Sarah Ruth Hammond
Editor(s): 
Darren Dochuk
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , November
     2017.
     240 pages.
     $45.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780226509778.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Scholarship is fundamentally a collaborative endeavor. Though book covers always list one, maybe two authors, the acknowledgments section of a text is often a more accurate reflection of the collegiality and generosity that should define our field. This is true of most scholarly monographs; but it is particularly true of Sarah Ruth Hammond’s fascinating God’s Businessmen. After Hammond’s passing, friends and advocates worked to ensure that Hammond’s work on wealthy, white evangelical laymen in America received the readership it deserved. Her book, edited by historian Darren Dochuk, is a fascinating study of faith, finances, and the nature of American political life that will be of interest to historians of Christianity and scholars whose work mines the symbiotic relationship between economic practice and religious activism. 

Dochuk has done the field a great service in bringing Hammond's work into book form, for it illuminates a subject that has been so far overlooked by the growing body of work on the relationship between evangelical Protestantism and free-market capitalism. While a number of scholars have attended to the economic empires of evangelical moguls like Sam Walton or the faith-fueled protests lodged by labor activists, Hammond’s focus is on the broad swath of middle managers and second-tier entrepreneurs whose theological orthodoxy and fiscal conservatism helped bring many evangelical Protestants into a coalition of “libertarians, anti-Keynesian intellection, and small-government Republicans” who collectively preached “individual initiative in a self-regulating marketplace instead of an activist state” (6). Though often overshadowed by the individuals they funded (like Billy Graham), this loose, semi-coordinated network of upper-class white evangelical activists proved crucial in making pro-business policy a central part of evangelical politics. 

Over the course of five chapters, Hammond charts the rise and impact of this movement. The first two chapters sketch the biographies of two exemplary “evangelical entrepreneurs,” as Hammond calls them: a builder of earth-moving equipment named R. G. LeTourneau who went on to fund numerous evangelistic endeavors; and a sales-savvy CEO named Herbert Taylor whose corporate skill helped bring financial stability to several important religious organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals. Though important in their own right, LeTourneau and Taylor also embody the contrasting, but complementary, camps of America’s upper-class evangelical laity. This is most clearly seen in the book’s third chapter, which focuses on the explosion of lay-led evangelistic movements like the Gideons, the Christian Business Men’s Committee International, and the Business Men’s Evangelistic Club throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The brash, blue-collar credentials of manufacturers like LeTourneau helped rally the support of aspiring evangelical laymen whose funds were then used to great effect by more bookish clerks like Taylor. By the time of World War II, which is the subject of the book’s final two chapters, America’s “entrepreneurial evangelicals” were coordinated and powerful enough to help make the celebration of “Christian America” a centerpiece of American political life by bringing together the plethora of laymen’s evangelistic societies under the auspices of powerful organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals.

Full of fascinating insights about previously unknown actors whose work was often behind the scenes, Hammond’s work will be of interest to scholars of religion, politics, and economic life in America. The book does presume enough background knowledge to make it a potentially challenging read for undergraduates, but particular chapters could serve as standout case studies on the ways that religion and economic life formed and shaped each other in America. It is also a reminder of the community it takes to produce scholarship, and a call to care for those who claim membership in that community.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher D. Cantwell is Assistant Professor of HIstory and Affiliate Faculty in the Religious Studies Program at the Univeristy of Wisconsin, Milkwaukee.

Date of Review: 
April 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sarah Ruth Hammond (1977–2011) received her PhD from Yale University in 2010 and subsequently held a position as visiting assistant professor at the College of William & Mary. Her research focused on American religious history.

Darren Dochuk is associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism.

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