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Building the Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era.

Building the Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era. By Priscilla Pope-Levison. (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2014. Pp. ix, 270. $49.00.)

The author of this book seeks to fill the gap between the female evangelical itinerants of the antebellum period and the followers of Aimee Semple McPherson. She connects these two groups by examining twenty-four women evangelists who built religious institutions in the Progressive Era. These were some of the first women in mainline Christianity to lead mixed-gender institutions. Largely made up of women connected to the Holiness movement, Priscilla Pope-Levison focuses on four kinds of institutions that they created: evangelistic organizations, new denominations, religious training schools, and rescue homes and missions. She argues that these institutions became one of the primary expressions of American Christianity in the Progressive Era.

One of the best examples of female-led religious institution building in the Progressive Era was the evangelistic meeting. Although the revivals of Billy Sunday are well known, Pope-Levison wants to recover the Catholic Truth Guild and the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Women ran all aspects of these organizations, from the planning of the meetings and collection of offerings to the giving of altar calls. Pope-Levison argues that these revivals were indistinguishable from the male-led Gospel meetings of the turn of the twentieth century with one important difference. The women leading these evangelistic revivals had to deal with all of the same material concerns that organizing evangelistic meetings presented their male counterparts, but they also had to manage the home front. Taking care of children, supporting their spouses, and overseeing domestic affairs all had to be organized alongside commitments to their new religious institutions.

The churches and denominations founded by these female evangelists fit comfortably within the growth of voluntary associations during the Progressive Era. Explicitly connecting the efforts of women like Alma White and Mary Tate to Jane Addams and Hull House, Pope-Levison argues that these women gathered converts, formed multiple churches into denominations, demanded financial support, required discipleship, and held close control over all aspects of the churches' organization. This unfettered authority often came at a cost. Not ignoring the warts of these evangelists, Pope-Levison examines how their institutional decisions often resulted in domestic strife or personal loss.

Besides worship-driven institutions, Pope-Levison examines the creation of religious training schools and rescue homes. Founded and established by women, coeducational religious schools appealed to people with little formal schooling. At these institutions of learning, students acquired both Biblical and vocational training. Attending to the domestic sphere showed how these women evangelists used maternal rhetoric to call for the sanctification of one's entire life. Pope-Levison sees their efforts to form rescue homes for orphans and prostitutes in the context of Progressive Era settlement houses. Infused with Social Gospel theology, humanitarianism became a way to attract the least of society to hear the Gospel.

Pope-Levison wants her subjects to represent Progressive Era Christianity. The fact that most of her women came from the Holiness movement may temper this claim, but her rich and detailed history of these religious institutions has brought to life an understudied set of female evangelists who had a significant influence on American religious history by building lasting but sometimes forgotten religious organizations.

Nathaniel H. Wiewora

University of Delaware
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Author:Wiewora, Nathaniel H.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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