The newly released Oxford Companion to Christian Thought echoes the bias of untold scores who think being religious means being skeptical of media technology: "Religious institutions and churches have responded slowly and grudgingly to … mass media. … Opinions may differ as to whether the press belongs to the world, the flesh, or the devil, but not many Christian voices have been raised suggesting it belongs to the realm of the Spirit, even less that it has a place in building the Kingdom of God." Don't believe it.
Less than a century after Johann Gutenberg invented movable type, John Calvin remarked that the presses in Geneva were able to produce copies of the Bible and his Institutes of the Christian Religion so rapidly that they could be shot out as ammunition. Calvin understood that simple advances in technology could put the full force of the divine Word at the disposal of every individual, so he dispatched emissaries throughout the countryside to distribute Bibles as well as his own writings.
Martin Luther also understood the power of the press, which he used to propagate his evangelical ideas throughout Europe. At Luther's behest, Albrecht Dürer developed a form of engraving that would enable him to communicate relatively complex doctrines in the form of easily accessible illustrations, thereby harnessing technology to the service of the gospel.
In addition to Dürer's woodcuts illustrating biblical themes and evangelical theology, Protestants also put evangelical lyrics to existing tunes, which they printed and dispensed to the masses. In England, people took songsheets like these and made them into a primitive form of wallpaper that, once again, heralded the gospel—even from the bedroom walls.
Centuries later, the Canadian Bible Society, the American Bible Society, and the American Tract Society used the technology of the printing press to spread the gospel in North America. In the antebellum period, as historian Nathan O. Hatch has pointed out, the American Bible Society owned and operated more state-of-the-art Treadwell presses than did Harper Brothers, the preeminent publisher of the day. Once the printed word was available—in the form of Bibles and tracts—then colporteurs, as the traveling salesmen of religious literature were then called, took advantage of the latest available travel technology, the railroad, to spread the gospel.
Several other organizations also took on the challenge of distributing Bibles, including a group that came to be known as the Gideons, which grew out of a meeting of two travelers, Samuel Hill and John Nicholson, in a hotel in Boscobel, Wisconsin, in 1898.
As Americans moved from a literate culture in the 19th century to an aural culture in the 20th century, evangelicals kept pace. Their use of technology shifted away from the written word to electronic media. In 1922 Aimee Semple McPherson, a Pentecostal evangelist, became the first woman ever to preach a sermon over the radio, and her station, KFSG ("Kalling Four Square Gospel") was the nation's first station owned and operated by a religious organization. Charles E. Fuller also took to the air with his Old Fashioned Revival Hour, which drew more listeners than the most popular radio programs of his day.
Many radio evangelists—Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, and Billy Graham, among others—made the transition to television as soon as the new medium became available to them. And once mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Jews lost their cultural monopoly on religious programming in the early 1970s, evangelicals quickly came to dominate the television airwaves—until the televangelist scandals of the mid-1980s damaged the ratings and the revenues of all of the television preachers.
Because of longstanding suspicions of Hollywood, some of them engendered by Joseph McCarthy's "red scare" of the 1950s, evangelicals were a bit slower to pick up on motion pictures as a medium for spreading the gospel.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's World Wide Pictures tried to break that taboo, and Ken Anderson also produced a number of worthy films. But perhaps the most recognized evangelical film came from an unlikely source: a small production company in Des Moines, Iowa, called Mark IV Pictures. Russell Doughten Jr. and Donald W. Thompson combined to produce about a dozen movies—including, notably, A Thief in the Night—that demonstrated to many evangelicals the power of cinema to preach the gospel.
Aside from print, radio, television, movies, and now the Internet, evangelicals have also been quick to embrace communications technology in less spectacular ways: wireless microphones, electronic guitars and synthesizers, overhead projectors, and "canned" music accompaniment. Is there a single evangelical worship service in America today that is not recorded and copied onto cassette tapes for popular consumption?
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Don't miss Christianity Today's related "The Wireless Gospel | Sixty-two years ago, Back to the Bible joined the radio revolution; now it is finding new media for its old message. A case study in evangelicals' love affair with communications technology."
See also "A History of Evangelism and Mass Media," through Google's cache of the now-defunct site.
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