Sex-and-marriage manuals and the making of an evangelical market

Presented at the American Historical Association, session No. 6, “Evangelical Loyalties Reconsidered”, on Jan. 3, 2019.

Marabel Morgan shows lingerie to a group of Christian women in the 1970s.

Marabel Morgan shows lingerie to a group of Christian women in the 1970s.

So our topic today is evangelical loyalties reconsidered. In my reconsideration, I want to talk about not just evangelical loyalties but the construction of evangelical loyalties. So much of the scholarship on American evangelicalism is about the objects of evangelical commitment—ye olde Bebbington quadrilateral. Or the scholarship is an argument that other objects are the real objects of evangelical loyalty: the dirty secrets, the bad-bad politics, the social anxieties, and quest for control. We’re seeing, I think, a fracture in the field. One side says evangelicalism is most basically theological and then it has its cultural commitments and politics, which are, depending on your view, faithful expressions of the theology or a deep betrayal. The other side, in this historiographical split, says evangelicalism’s primary loyalties are political, or at least cultural, and the theology is backfill. I think there’s this other question, though, a prior question, which we’ve missed. How are these loyalties constructed? Put it another way: how is the religious identity, which involves the cultural practice of these commitments and the social reality of said loyalties, how is that religious identity organized? What I’m saying is, don’t just tell me what the loyalties are. Tell me how they happened as historical contingencies.

Not to keep you in suspense: I think how they happened is capitalism. Markets sort consumers into groups, or help people sort themselves into groups, and if you track the production and distribution, sales and consumption of “Christian-themed merchandise” you can see the emergence of a specifically evangelical market. You see it in history, in the flow of contingencies. And that evangelical market, which organizes a specific consumer group, “evangelicals,” is itself shaped by material constraints and incentives. In the shape and shaping of the market by constraints and incentives, we can find the construction of loyalties. That’s my argument. That’s the reconsideration I want to offer, here today. 

So let’s talk about evangelical sex in the 1970s, as a case study for this. Before the year of the evangelical and that media phenomenon, there was this thing where all across the country, women—conservative, Christian, white, middle class, married women—were en masse experimenting with sex. 

In 1975, one woman in Oklahoma, for example, dressed up for her husband: a gorilla mask and a raincoat. Naked underneath. A woman in Wisconsin met her husband at the front door in a bikini and ski boots. Another woman, same thing—high heels, hose, and an apron. Nothing else. And then, most famously, there was the woman who just wrapped herself in saran wrap. These were not isolated incidents. These women were not alone. There were 84 women who did this one night in Muncie, Indiana, in 1975. (Muncie is not a town, from what I gather, known for being a hotbed of sexual experimentation. A New York Times reporter, writing about these women, described Muncie as a place where “a lot of canning goes on—also sewing and bowling and barbecuing and churchgoing.” And also, one night, 84 women in ad hoc sexual costumes). There were, similarly, 112 women one night in Waukesha, Wisconsin. More than 200 in Saginaw, Michigan. And town after town—from Florida to Washington, into Canada. (Twenty-five thousand women did this just in Manitoba).

This was the Total Woman phenomenon. It began with Marabel Morgan, a married mother-of-two with a split-level house and a pool in a nice neighborhood in the suburbs of Miami. Morgan was a former beauty queen and Campus Crusade for Christ-worker who married a tax lawyer. She was living the American dream and she was—disappointed. She felt that malaise Betty Friedan talked about in The Feminine Mystique, “a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century.” Just as Friedan said, Morgan went about the daily grind of chores, struggling to articulate how unfulfilled she was, to “ask even of herself the silent question—‘Is this all?’” Morgan could have been the poster child for second-wave feminism. She could have seen herself as trapped by the gender expectations of a patriarchal society. But she didn’t. Morgan decided that the problems with her life were her fault, which meant she had the agency and the power to change things. Change herself and her life.

So Morgan wrote a book. A self help book, a sex-and-marriage manual. Called The Total Woman. The problem in most marriages, according to Morgan’s thinking, was that there were two egos, clashing. There were two opinions, two views, two will too often locked in a struggle for authority. The solution to this conflict was a simple hierarchy. One person in authority, one in submission. A woman who wanted a happy marriage should use her agency to surrender her agency, which would give her the rich, abundant life she wanted. Morgan said the secret was the four As: a wife should accept, admire, adapt to, and appreciate her husband. In one exercise, Morgan told women to write down a list of things they liked about their husbands and a second list of all their husbands faults. They were then told to throw the second list away. In another exercise, women were told to practice telling their husbands, “I crave your body.” 

“Practice,” Morgan instructed, “until it comes out naturally.” 

Another exercise was role play. 

Morgan wrote: “Your husband needs you to fulfill his daydreams. Never let him know what to expect when he opens the front door; make it like opening a surprise package. You may be a smoldering sexpot, or an all-American fresh beauty. Be a pixie or a pirate—a cowgirl or a showgirl. Keep him off guard.” (It’s an interesting mix, here, of agency and abnegation).

So how do we consider these loyalties, these commitments? And if we’re going to reconsider them, as I’ve suggested, to look at not just what the loyalties are but how they’re constructed in their contingencies, how they’re organized by markets, how do we do that?

Well, let’s look at the publisher. The Total Woman was published by Revell, a company founded by Dwight L. Moody and Fleming Revell, Moody’s brother in law, in 1872. So, 100 years before The Total Woman. It was started mainly to print Moody’s sermons, and a few other books. It expanded but slowly. In 1903, Revell had 42 titles and 29 of them were authored by Moody. Revell was kind of Moody’s personal press but it grew, as Tim can tell you better than I, into this force that defined fundamentalism. If you wanted fundamentalist literature, this is where you could get it, Guaranteed Pure

Interestingly, and I think not incidentally, those books and that religious identity were marketed mainly to ministers. There were books for evangelistic outreach—published through the Bible Institute Colportage Association—and books for people who worked in churches, mainly preachers and Sunday school teachers. These were published by Revell. 

On the face of it, this might seem like a terrible business decision, to market to ministers instead of church goers. There are obviously a lot more people in the pews than the pulpits. That’s how that works. But this was the norm for publishing in America in the 19th century and into the 20th: religious publishers put out books for professional religious people, not laypeople. 

There was a market-constraint that made this the best approach: the problem of distribution. Distribution is always the problem with selling books. Production is easy. Distribution is a nightmare. You can sell books at bookstores, but for most of American history bookstores have only been profitable in major urban centers (and even then, sometimes just barely). They’re mostly a city thing, inaccessible to most Americans. Other distribution strategies included selling subscriptions door to door, but that only worked for something with very wide appeal, like a Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs. There were also department stores, but there, space was limited. Certainly too limited for a book that might appeal to a Baptist and not a Presbyterian. There was mail order, but where do you get the addresses for people interested in your specific religious publications? The answer, it turns out, is denominations, seminaries, Bible camps, and other institutions that train and certify and organize religious workers.

Religious publishers used these existing organization structures to distribute books, because of the constraints of the market. One of the important effects of this was to keep religious readerships distinct. Whatever theological or cultural similarities a Methodist might have had with a Mennonite, or a Campbellite with a Covenanter, they were in distinct textual communities. Methodists publishers of course might want to sell non-Methodist readers—and we know they did—but they couldn’t reach them. The distribution problem. 

Fundamentalists publishers—Revell but also Zondervan and others—were important innovators, here, finding ways to broaden the market, creating a trans-denominational reading community. But this market, the fundamentalist market, was still mostly ministers and religious workers. If you look at the bookstores, for example, that sold these books, they were at seminaries, Bible colleges, Bible camps. Really these were church supply stores.

A newly opened evangelical bookstore in the 1970s.

A newly opened evangelical bookstore in the 1970s.

This changed—the market changed—in the 1950s. What happened was these bookstores and the publishers organized the Christian Booksellers Association, and distribution got a lot easier, but also broader. Now the denominational distribution channels were replaced with something not quite generic, but not so niche. If a Baptist bookstore was not going to get its books from a specifically Baptist distribution channel, but a “Christian” one, then a Baptist publisher needed to get its books into that channel. Churchly distinctives were a disadvantage. It was better to be broadly evangelical. It was better to sell books about “Christian living.”

This, combined with the postwar economy and a country flush with credit, made it really really easy to start a Christian bookstore. These were family bookstores, Bible bookstores, evangelical bookstores. You didn’t need denominational approval or a connection to a seminary or anything. Just a loan and a catalog from the CBA. Lots of people did this.

In 1950, when the booksellers association organized, there were about 270 connected stores. By the mid 60s, there were 725. By the mid 70s, 1,850. By the end of the 70s, about 3,000. And they were in places like Saginaw, Michigan; Waukesha, Wisconsin; Muncie, Indiana. Places where a lot of canning goes on. Places where conservative, Christian, middle class, married women were struggling, like people do. Disappointed, like people are.

They found themselves in the market for evangelical books. They found they themselves were the market. That’s how their world got organized and sorted.

If The Total Woman was written in 1873—it’s almost inconceivable, but if it had—nothing would have happened. But in 1973, the way religion was organized in America had changed. There was this distribution network and these bookstores, and this religious identity that addressed the spiritual yearnings and daily lives of America’s primary book buyers—middle class white women.

The Total Woman was published in 1973. In 1974 it outsold All the President’s Men, by 100,000 copies. At the end of 1975, it was outselling Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, the classic feminist novel that celebrated the “zipless fuck.” In five years, The Total Woman sold 3 million copies. Not because of new needs, but because it was available.

There was one woman who read it in Muncie in 1975—and I want to close with this—one woman who was pretty sure she’d never had an orgasm. Or she didn’t know if she had and didn’t know if she would know, if she had had an orgasm. It was too embarrassing to ask anyone. She’d never been naked in front of another human, as an adult. She was married for four, five years, but she got changed in her closet. And then she found this book about marriage. Christian marriage. How to have the best marriage. A superlative marriage. It quoted the Bible. It told her to take agency, take control, and submit to her husband. It told her to greet him naked, nearly. Maybe in saran wrap. 

The book, for her, changed everything. 

As she later told a New York reporter, “this Total Woman business is giving women permission to be alive.”

That commitment, that evangelical vision of abundant life and her loyalty, with regard to sex—I’m saying it was available to this woman, because of the book, because of the bookstore, because of the distribution network, and because of the emergence of a specifically evangelical market. That’s how it happened, in the flow of historical contingencies, and that’s critical to the construction of evangelicalism.