Or is it faith? Or some complex combination of both?
The evangelist Billy Sunday wasn’t afraid to try something new. He would jump on top of a pulpit if he thought it would get attention. He would sell shares of a revival tabernacle, complete with “stock certificates” guaranteeing the bearer a portion of the proceeds, if he thought it would bring in enough money to fund the business of preaching the gospel.
He was a man who believed in innovation. But this was surprising even for him.
In 1934, Sunday was deciding who would publish his next book. He had two publishers, William Eerdmans and Pat Zondervan, come meet him at the same time. Each man was surprised to find the other in the meeting. Then Sunday asked them both to pray out loud. In a prayer competition. Which he would judge. The two men did pray, Sunday judged that Zondervan’s extemporaneous prayer was best, and he awarded the 25-year-old’s company with the contract for Billy Sunday Speaks!
The story is kind of a parable of American evangelicalism. As a parable, it raises a question: Which of these men acted out of faith and which from commercial interest?
Daniel Vaca, an American religious historian at Brown University, offers a clear answer in his new book, Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America. He says all three. All three were acting out of faith. All three were acting out of commercial interest. In fact, when looking at the history of contemporary American evangelicalism, it doesn’t make sense to distinguish between the commercial and the religious.
“Evangelicalism exemplifies what I describe as ‘commercial religion,’” Vaca writes. “Religion that takes shape through the ideas, activities, and strategies that typify commercial …