Sunday, May 4, 2014

Priscilla Pope-Levison's "Building the Old Time Religion"

Priscilla Pope-Levison is Professor of Theology and Assistant Director of Women’s Studies at Seattle Pacific University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Building the Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era, and reported the following:
Portland, Oregon. Nashville, Tennessee. Los Angeles, California. Zarephath, New Jersey. These communities, though far flung across the country, shared one common claim in the early twentieth century: each one housed headquarters for the institution-building enterprise of an entrepreneurial female religious leader. Page 99 in Building the Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era offers the reader a description of the Portland headquarters of the Apostolic Faith Mission, founded by Florence Crawford (1872-1936). This particular headquarters served as hub for Crawford’s multi-faceted transportation collection.

Crawford’s transportation collection began modestly enough with a gospel wagon purchased for $250 in 1908. White canvas stretched tautly over each side provided a surface for religious slogans printed in large capital letters: PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD and TURN YE FOR WHY WILL YE DIE. She quickly transitioned to fourteen automobiles for use in religious work up and down the coast. Then she purchased a 3-passenger Curtiss Oriole, The Sky Pilot, and her son pioneered aerial evangelism, which entailed dropping religious papers from the air, as many as 1000 over rural Idaho and 9000 over Portland. Not content to capitalize only on highways or airways, Crawford bought a 28-foot motorboat to distribute religious literature onboard cargo ships and invite sailors to services at the downtown mission. For ships whose captains prohibited them on board, workers launched “gospel grenades”—waterproof packets of religious papers printed in the language of the sailors on that ship—as high as fifty feet in the air in order to land on deck.

On the other side of the country, Alma White (1862-1946), founder of the Pillar of Fire church, established a utopian-like village named Zarephath, on an extensive tract of farmland in rural New Jersey. Residents ate vegetarian meals, worshipped, exercised, farmed, ran a printing press, went to school, raised families, and were buried in the cemetery. Zarephath had its own third class post office and power plant with engine and boiler. Its dairy farm received the highest marks for cleanliness from state inspectors at their annual visits, and the homemade apple butter and whole wheat bread produced in its kitchens and the sweet corn grown on the farm remained legendary.

These headquarters emblematize the title of the book, Building the Old Time Religion, which features women evangelists who settled down from itinerant preaching to build institutions for gathering in converts and establishing a legacy in brick and mortar. With this key strategic change, these women transformed the quintessential expression of American Christianity—evangelism—from itinerancy into the grand task of institution building.
Learn more about Building the Old Time Religion at the New York University Press website and Pope-Levison’s home page.

--Marshal Zeringue