Andrew T. Coates

PhD Candidate in American Religion, Duke University.

Category: Uncategorized

Snake Oil for Sale!

I should have known better than to think the term “snake oil salesman” was just an expression. As it turns out, early twentieth century hucksters really did sell snake oil as a cure-all. In 1917, an advertisement for this product traveled all the way into Zion’s Landmark, a denominational journal of the Primitive Baptists published in Wilson, North Carolina. Containing only text, the advertisement proclaimed snake oil to be “a painkiller and antiseptic combined.” It could be applied topically or swallowed to produce salubrious effects. The ad promised that snake oil’s antiseptic and analgesic powers made it suitable for the treatment of rheumatism, neuralgia, lumbago, corns, bunions, swollen joins, cuts, burns, bruises, sore throats, diphtheria, and even tonsillitis. Not only that, but it “Will Limber You Up.” For all those who need a little limbering today, enjoy.

Snake Oil Advertisement, 1917

Jesus Christ, Ladies’ Man

Came across this excerpt from Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows: A Discovery of the Real Jesus (1924) today. Barton was one of the original “mad men” of early Madison Avenue, an advertising executive who wrote a book to sell people on his vision of the “real,” manly Jesus. After devoting several pages to the muscularity of Jesus’ physique, he goes on to explain that Jesus was a ladies’ man… it’s cringe-worthy by modern standards, but reveals some of the thinking about women behind the “muscular Christianity” movement.

“Men followed him, and the leaders of men have very often been physically strong. But women worshipped him. […] The important, and too often forgotten, fact in these relationships is this–that women are not drawn by weakness. The sallow-faced, thin-lipped, so-called spiritual type of man may awaken maternal instinct, stirring an emotion which is half regard, half pity. But since the world began no power has fastened to the the affection of women upon a man like manliness. The men who have been women’s men in the finest sense, have been the vital, conquering figures of history.” – Bruce Barton, The Man Nobody Knows (1924), p47, 48-49

Blackface Minstrelsy and Early Christian Music

When Malindy Sings, a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Recorded by Billy Sunday’s song leader Homer Rodeheaver, 1916. Rodeheaver popularized such hymns as “The Old Rugged Cross,” but he also had a strong interest in black culture. He appropriated it in the tradition of blackface minstrelsy, drawing on degrading stereotypes. Dunbar’s poem is rich with irony and represents a caricature of his mother, a former slave. Recited by Rodeheaver, a white Southern man, intended for white Christian audiences, it sounds much more offensive to modern ears. The link below has an audio recording.

See also Rodeheaver’s popular temperance song, “De Brewers Big Hosses” (1913).

Broadcasting Fundamentalism: A Telephone Revival

A Telephone Revival, 1912

This excerpt from the industry journal Telephony (Vol. 62, No. 21, p.644) recounts the story of a revival in Anson, Texas. The revival was broadcast by telephone. Yep, BROADCAST by telephone. In its early days, bold experimenters tried to use telephones as a broadcast medium. It never really caught on like the radio ultimately did, but this article tells a great story. Inclement weather produced dismal attendance for fundamentalist minister D.L. Coale’s revival meeting in West Texas. Few people from the town, and even fewer from the surrounding country, were able to make it to the event. So Coale got creative. He attached a megaphone horn to the receiver of a telephone to capture all the sounds, songs, and words of his sermons. He encouraged people to stay home and listen at their telephone. About 500 subscribers to the local telephone service listened to the revival each day at home. According to the article, “While this novel arrangement caused a lessening of the attendance at the revival it is said to have been productive of good results.” The author further speculates that this mode of address might soon become common practice in small towns across the country.

For your listening pleasure, three fundamentalist classics featuring female vocalist Virginia Healey Asher. Stay tuned for more thoughts on the role of gender in fundamentalist recordings.

Throwback Thursday – Vintage Advertising – Dr. Price’s Cream Baking Powder, 1898

This is without a doubt the most bombastic advertisement I’ve ever seen for an unromantic product. I, for one, would take great comfort in knowing that my cookies contained World’s Fair award-winning cream of tartar. I’m also curious, since I’m in the business, why it has to be DR. Price’s cream of tartar… and why someone with a PhD would misspell the phrase “whole grane.” All such aside, it’s interesting to note that this product pitches itself as a heritage brand–“40 years the standard.” This is pretty remarkable, given that 40 years before 1898, nothing really like the modern brand existed. If you’re pitching cream of tartar, you’ve got to get creative.

Dr Price's Cream of Tartar, 1898

A Fundamentalist Temperance Song

Homer Rodeheaver served as song leader for the famous fundamentalist revivalist Billy Sunday. “Rody,” as friends called him, was one of the first people ever to record gospel music. Believe it or not, this was once controversial behavior for a Christian musician. The Library of Congress lists his 1916 Victor recording “Molly and the Baby, Don’t You Know?” in a catalogue of temperance songs. Their description states it “is a song of a father promising not to drink for the sake of his wife and child.” Certainly, temperance crusaders like Sunday and Rodeheaver saw liquor as a threat to family stability–hence the overt message of the song. But to students of American religious history, the song’s religious undertones are unmistakable. “Molly and the baby” is a play on Mary and Jesus. Giving up liquor wasn’t just about being a responsible husband and father, but also about being a good Christian. The success of prohibition laws proved the broad appeal of fundamentalism’s unique style of religion in the 1910s and 20s.

Throwback Thursday – Vintage Ads – Lysol Shaving Cream, 1919

Finally, a shaving cream that contains Lysol! Just what I’ve always wanted! This ad reminds its viewers of the dangers lurking in daily routines. Unsanitary strops, moldy shave brushes, and dirty razors cutting into men’s faces. Buffeted by germs all day, those poor faces needed relief. Lysol to the rescue! Just a little Lysol in a shaving cream offers “a protection to the shaver from countless dangers of infection.” My favorite part of the ad comes near the bottom, where it suggests that Lysol saved untold thousands from infection during the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918. Therefore, it needs to be in your shaving cream. This deft move leverages people’s fear of another epidemic into brand confidence. I can’t wait to see how someone leverages Ebola. Hazmat suits contain plastic… buy Ziploc to keep Ebola out of your fridge?

Lysol Shaving Cream - Feb 1919

Vintage Advertising – Quaker Oats, 1898

Visual culture shapes our world in pretty surprising ways. It’s amazing how some advertising images have managed to persist for a century, structuring our lives in ways we wouldn’t expect. Today I stumbled across this vintage Quaker Oats ad from 1898, touting it as “The Easy Way to a Good Breakfast.” While Quaker Oats today doesn’t emphasize its lack of “bitter, oily taste,” it is still synonymous with a healthy breakfast. What’s most interesting to me about this piece is that it suggests eating Quaker Oats for supper. My grandmother, who was a teenager during the Great Depression, remembered eating oatmeal for breakfast and fried oatmeal for supper when no other food remained. People probably got tired of eating it twice a day. It’s no wonder we don’t eat it at night.  My own students were somewhat surprised to learn that Quakers were a religious movement prominent in colonial Pennsylvania, not just a breakfast logo.

Quaker Oats Ad, 1898

Dispensationalism Images…

Millerite Prophecy Charts

Working on a history of prophecy charts to understand Clarence Larkin better, I’m taken back to this stunning Millerite chart of 1843. (Larkin was not a Millerite or Adventist, so you’ll have to read my dissertation to learn how this chart relates to his). The chart is by Joshua V. Himes, officially titled “A Chronological Chart of the Visions of Daniel and John.” For its original viewers, seeing the chart revealed the harmony of apparently disconnected Bible prophecies. It offered nothing more or less than the truth of scripture. The figures, numbers, and texts demonstrated the “one undeviating path” of Bible prophecy. David Morgan writes, “the viewer was meant to see in the chart a systematic reading of prophecy across image and text as if the two merged seamlessly into a self-evident act of scripture reading itself. The Millerites sought to make their argument by visualizing the coherence of their interpretation as a system, in other words, by displaying the ‘beauty and harmony’ of the Bible properly interpreted.” David Morgan, Protestants and Pictures, p.133 (New York: Oxford, 1999).

"A Chronological Chart of the Visions of Daniel and John." 1843 Millerite Chart. Joshua Himes.

Clarence Larkin Ad from Moody Monthly, September 1920.

Finding this from 1920 is what dissertation research is all about. Clarence Larkin’s Bible prophecy charts never looked so enticing. “The Greatest Book on Dispensational Truth in the World!” Now with pictures!

Civil religion and baseball

Here I am preparing a class on civil religion on a warm April evening, thinking about baseball. I remembered that Americans haven’t always sung the national anthem at sporting events. Like everything religious, this cherished practice of American civil religion has a history…

Chicago: September, 1918. Comiskey Park. Cubs vs. Red Sox in Game 1 of the World Series. The Red Sox started their star pitcher, Babe Ruth. This was the only world series in history played into September: the military draft meant many major leaguers were set to report right after Labor Day. People had become accustomed to patriotic displays at ballgames since the war started. Players marching in formation, flag waving, that sort of thing. But folks usually didn’t sing The Star-Spangled Banner unless a flag was being raised. The game turned out to be a 1-0 snoozer and the crowd was quiet. During the 7th inning stretch, however, a military band started playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” When they started the tune, the Red Sox’s 3rd base player–an active-duty sailor named Fred Thomas–snapped to attention and saluted the flag. The other Sox players followed suit, saluting with their hands over their hearts (in civilian fashion). The crowd saw this and did the same. Then, they all started singing together. The moment proved so powerful that they repeated it for the next two nights. Soon moved to the beginning of the game, it has become a standard practice.

How is this “civil religion”? With America at war, the act tied the national pastime to the war effort. More than that, however, singing the national anthem at ballgames started a civil religion practice. This practice created–and creates–powerful collective emotions. It generates shared experiences of transcendence, a sense of belonging to the greater national body. Durkheim would call that religion.

Religion and World War II

I recently taught a class on religion and World War II in America. Though the acts of chaplains and soldiers certainly matter for the study of religious history, I focused on the ways that religious ideas and practices helped people justify, explain, and understand the war at home. This image from the Nazi-occupied Netherlands provided a fruitful point of discussion. It contrasts nicely with Norman Rockwell’s well-known painting Freedom of Religion (1943).  To Americans, pluralism and freedom of religion were central values worth defending. To her enemies, these were the very things wrong with the USA–pluralism and freedom of religion made America monstrous.


Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), “Freedom of Worship,” 1943. Oil on canvas, 46″ x 35 1/2″. Story illustration for “The Saturday Evening Post,” February 27, 1943. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.

ABD At Last!

I just passed my dissertation proposal defense with flying colors. The title of my soon-to-be dissertation is now official: “Fundamentalist Aesthetics: Sensation and Scripture in Early Twentieth-Century American Fundamentalism.” David Morgan said he wants a first draft by August. Yeah, right.

Publication news: I wrote a short essay for Yale’s Initiative for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion website. Many thanks to Sally Promey and the staff for putting together this project! You can find my essay here:


I passed my prelims. Thanks for reading! This blog will undergo some retooling in the coming weeks and months as I start my dissertation.

Arjun Appadurai, “The Thing Itself” (2006)

Arjun Appadurai, “The Thing Itself,” Public Culture 18.1 (2006): 15-21.

Appadurai uses the phrase “the thing itself” to describe “the stubbornness of the materiality of things, which is also connected to their profusion, their resistance to strict measures of equivalence, and to strict distinctions between the maker and the made, the gift and the commodity, the work of art and the objects of everyday life. . . . chaotic materiality… that resists the global tendency to make all things instruments of representation, and thus of abstraction and commodification” (21).

Things have a social life. What things do, how things interact, where things are, how things work, how we can engage things, and how things can engage us, are, according to Appadurai, “invested with the properties of social relations” (15). A thing is a thing because it has the social properties of a thing. When we encounter a thing today, we’re encountering a snapshot of a much longer “social trajectory”: today’s gift of a postcard is tomorrow’s garbage, tomorrow’s garbage is the next day’s found art, found art becomes worthless junk when no one wants it anymore. We spend millions of dollars to “preserve” the aggregation of paint on a canvas because it is a Rembrandt and we want it to remain an art object for a few more years. As social relations change, things move from singularity to commodity and back again. The “priceless” work of art becomes a commodity at a Sotheby’s auction. Insofar as they are subject to changing social relations, Appadurai notes, people and things are not so different.

Appadurai’s essay grapples with the materiality of things to understand contemporary Indian art. He contends that Indian social life has lately experienced “a profusion of things” (16). Things and bodies blend together in Indian society in “a panorama of piles, stacks, bunches, bundles, baskets, bags among which people appear, as laborers, as shopkeepers, as vendors, as housewives, and as pedestrians” (17). Minimalism does not play much of a role in this context—the profusion of things feeds Indian art. People in India delight in the “promiscuous presence of things” (21). More still, people are hard to distinguish from the things around them, the things they make and give and live among. Fittingly, he suggests, in India it is not easy to differentiate art objects from objects of everyday use. There are just too many things. Materiality reigns.

Appadurai provides a useful lens for thinking about the excessive qualities of materiality. Things resist our attempts to master them. In this essay, materiality is stubborn, chaotic, resistant, and analytically slippery. As a student of materiality in American religion, Appadurai’s discussion of commoditization and gifts in the United States offers food for thought. Market logic has so penetrated American life that Americans enjoy nothing for its “sheer materiality.” Everything is a means to some other end (usually, the end of increasing wealth: your home is your retirement). Everything is convertible to exchange value, nothing is truly priceless. Singularity and commodity are in constant tension in America, where the same object that is my gift today becomes fodder for a garage sale tomorrow.

As I read this section, I couldn’t help but think about mass-produced objects of Christian affection. Here, I am not talking about Jesus t-shirts (necessarily), but more about the beloved objects that acquire their singular status through constant use. Evangelicals take great pride in a tattered, highlighted, coffee-damaged leather-bound Bible. Though certainly a commodity (Rupert Murdoch owns Zondervan, after all), evangelicals usually receive their most prized Bibles as gifts upon baptism. As Bibles have become evermore targeted at niche groups (children, moms, dads, teen boys, teen girls, college students, alcoholics, grandmothers, and Jewish converts), people have started to receive new Bibles at other significant moments like marriage or graduation. But every one of these mass-produced objects is the Word of God to evangelicals. Evangelical Bibles are commodities, but also singularities—every reproduction that finds its way to a believer has descended from Heaven and bears God’s special directions for that person. Such practices highlight the fact that everything is for sale in America, but some objects in American religious life resist the kind of easy commoditization that Appadurai sees in home investment or the obsession with wealth and cost seen on The Price is Right. A good evangelical Bible has to be heavy enough to look like a Bible, small enough to be portable, tough enough to withstand decades of marginalia, and needs to bear an inscription from the person who gave it to you. Once they become so worn that certain sections of scripture are missing, they get replaced with a new Bible—but the old remains on the shelf, its raw material presence bearing witness to the owner’s life of faith.

Historical newspapers on google?

No book review today, possibly not even this week. I’m deep into fellowship application season. But I stumbled onto a goldmine today that I thought I should share. Apparently, Google has quietly amassed an ENORMOUS database of historical newspapers. We’re talking hundreds of titles in dozens of cities spanning most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While there are many glaring omissions (e.g. NY Times, Washington Post… practically anything that’s still publishing), it has lots of material from defunct small-town papers, old city papers, and especially French Canadian papers. Sometimes, it only has one month of a paper. In other cases, it has decades of print runs. I could see this being an especially useful resource for first- and second-year undergrads writing their first history paper. Like I say, I stumbled into this so I’m happy to hear feedback or reviews from others. I was actually looking for a book called “Pathways of the Holy Land,” when Google brought up this page from the 1875 Crawfordsville Star:,6848775


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