I taught a course on religion in the American South this past semester. We started with Jon Sensbach’s 2007 article in the Journal of Southern History, “Religion and the Early South in an Age of Atlantic Empire.” We ended with Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood (1952). Talk about a wide time span, not to mention a topical (not tropical) gulf between a heavy historiography of the colonial South and a fictional rendering of the twentieth-century South. As you might imagine, we covered a whole lot of material in between, from Afro-Catholicism in colonial New Orleans (more slaves went to mass than whites?) to white evangelical Protestants and the music of Johnny Cash (who’s the man in “The Man Comes Around”?), and from the depiction of women in Gone With the Wind (Scarlett O’Hara was an Irish Catholic?) to the rise of Pentecostalism (who’s this Randall Stephens guy?).
During the final week of class, as my students and I discussed some of the major issues threading the entire course, a confident graduating senior asked a tough, sarcastic question: “Where have all the bible salesmen gone?” She was thinking about our few encounters with "God’s peddlers" throughout the semester: Manley Pointer in O’Connor’s short story “Good Country People” (1955), Big Dan Teague in the Cohn Brothers’ film O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), and Paul Brennan in the Maysles Brothers’ documentary Salesman (1969).
For the life of me, I could not think of a good answer. I still can’t think of a good answer. No bible salesperson has ever knocked on my door. Sure, I’ve kindly declined the little green books from my fair share of Gideons on university campuses, but giving away cheap prints of the New Testament is a bit different from selling expensive family bibles. So, instead of answering the question directly, I did like any stammering professor would do; I asked the class what they thought. Specifically, I tried to facilitate discussion about the representation of bible salesmen in the stories we watched and read in class.
First up, Manley Pointer, bible salesman turned prosthetic leg thief who really knows how to pick ‘em in Hulga Hopewell, an atheistic, nihilistic, skeptical philosophy Ph.D. who thinks she can pull one over on the presumably innocent bible thumper, only to be drawn up into the loft of a barn by the hard-drinking, card-playing Pointer who admits “I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!” and who runs away with Hulga’s leg.
Next, Big Dan Teague, self-described “man of large appetite” with a patch over one eye and a piece of fried chicken in the other who lures Ulysses and Delmar out to an isolated pasture where the robust bible salesman, whilst perspiring through his white linen suit, chooses to thump his companions instead of the bible.
Last (and probably least well known), Paul Brennan, the real-life Irish Catholic bible salesman who friends call “The Badger” and who gets denied at the doorsteps of countless homes across Massachusetts and Florida, thus introducing thousands of viewers to one of the most poignant depictions of the relationship between work and religion in American film. See the film and you can also meet the Gipper, the Rabbit, and the Bull.
I’m left with three questions:
1. Where are all the bible salesmen in the history books?
2. Why the bad rap?
3. Where can a young professor with no summer income get a job selling bibles (or mufflers, for that matter)?