The Human and the Digital   /   Spring 2018   /    Book Reviews

The Jack That Won’t Stay in the Box

God’s Businessmen: Entrepreneurial Evangelicals in Depression and War Sarah Ruth Hammond, edited by Darren Dochuk

Paul W. Gleason

Detail. Herbert J. Taylor, circa 1954–55; courtesy Rotary International.


n textbook histories of the United States after the Civil War, religion, like a jack-in-the-box, typically pops up every few decades or so. Everything is going along as it should in business and politics in its ordinary and steadily more secular way, when BOING! It’s the evangelist Billy Sunday! Everyone’s a little shaken for a while, but things get back to normal before BOING! The Scopes trial! BOING! Civil rights marchers! BOING! Billy Graham! 

This jack-in-the-box approach to religion, so named in 2004 by the historian Jon Butler in an article for the Journal of American History, “rarely connect[s] American religious figures and events between 1870 and 2000 to larger enduring patterns in American life. Figures and events appear as momentary, idiosyncratic thrustings up of impulses from a more distant American past or as foils for a more persistent secular history.” And it’s not just historians. In the popular imagination, too, religion often comes as a surprise. For evidence, look no further than last year. The religious right was spent. Dead. Buried. The new, secular “alt-right” was all the rage. 

Then came Election Day 2016, and support from 81 percent of white evangelicals helped put Donald J. Trump in the White House. BOING!

If only Sarah Ruth Hammond’s God’s Businessmen: Entrepreneurial Evangelicals in Depression and War had come out earlier. In the book’s introduction, the historian Darren Dochuk sells Hammond’s book as “absolutely vital” for understanding a country that just elected “a Presbyterian, Republican businessman to the presidency.” This is true, but in a roundabout way. Hammond, who died tragically in 2011 before she could put her manuscript in book form (a task taken up by Dochuk), belonged to a generation of historians who have rejected the jack-in-the-box approach to American religion. Where an older generation saw gaps in evangelicals’ public engagement, Hammond and others have discerned continuity. The trick is knowing where to look for it.

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