Where Have All the Bible Salesmen Gone?

Michael Pasquier 

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)?  


Randall said…
"Only to find Gideon's Bible"

That's a terrific question from a student. I usually get: "do we need to know this stuff?"

My uncle in the Ozarks has been heavily involved with the Gideons. He's a medical doctor, so I don't think he's doing the door-to-door routine.

It's been a long time since I saw Salesman. Thanks for bringing that up. Will have to use that for my next Rel and Am. Culture class.

Did Gil Gunderson, nebbish sadsack from The Simpsons, sell Bibles for a spell? If not, he should have.

Anonymous said…
I'm sorry that I don't have a comment for this particular post, but I do have a question for you all. I am looking for a couple of good books on the overall history of religion in America (particularly during the colonial era, but also a history of religion from colonial times to now). Could anyone reccomend a few books? I would really appreciate it.

By the way, keep the postings coming. This blog is simply incredible! Thanks for taking the time!
DEG said…
Don't they all work at Crossway Christian bookstores now?
Randall said…
This one is a very short, manageable text: Religion and American Culture, by George M. Marsden. He's retired from Notre Dame, but will be a visiting prof at Harvard this coming year.

Of course, the standard for years and years was the massive, doorstopper: A Religious History of the American People, by Sydney E. Ahlstrom. It won a national book award when it came out in 1973. There's a 2004 edition.

For a broader, updated take, see: America: Religions and Religion, by Catherine L. Albanese.

I have always used: Religion in American Life: A Short History, by Jon Butler, Grant Wacker, and Randall Balmer.
Randall said…
Are Bible salesmen/women failed pastors? I recall that a number of staff people at the Nazarene college I went to in the Midwest were ministers for whom ministry was a bad match. A Barney Fife campus security guard had a gravel-throated voice, wanted to carry a firearm, and was a little too eager to turn the campus police dept into the gestapo. Before he became a Nazarene security agent his congregation had given him das boot.
JKC said…
Maybe they were pre-empted by Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses and didn't want to be confused with such "cults."

Actually, it might have more to do with the widespread availability of air conditioning---now people just drive to a bible shop.
Mike Pasquier said…
Keeping in mind that I know very little about bible salesmen, I was surprised to find that most of the men in the documentary "Salesman" were Catholic. I was under the impression that Protestants had a corner on the market. Perhaps this was the case in the South, but I guess it just depends on the local population. My surprise might also have to do with me falling for the rule of thumb that Catholics just don't read the bible as much as Protestants. Could it be that Colleen McDannell's argument in _Material Christianity_ for Protestant devotion to the bible has somehow limited the way we conceive of Catholic bible readership?
Bland Whitley said…
I wonder if the whole idea of a "family Bible" has become less common, thus making the work of a traveling salesman too unremunerative. I have no way of proving this guess but will speculate that perhaps it would have something to do with the ready availability of Bibles in most churches, something less true in the past. Perhaps that might also offer some explanation for the Catholic/Protestant dynamic. In any event, it's bad news for future genealogists.
Anonymous said…
I suspect the disappearance of bible salesmen/women has to do with the decline of door-to-door sales in general.

I was born in the 1970s, and I have no memory of anyone ever selling much of anything door to door. No encyclopedias, Great Books collections, vacuum cleaners, etc. Just Girl Scout cookies.

I suspect it has to do with the rise of malls and telemarketing. In fact, here's a Wisconsin Radio piece about states with "no call" lists for telemarketers seeing a corresponding resurgence of door-to-door sales:

Now why early 20th century bible salesmen don't wind up in the history books? That's a super question.
Anonymous said…
My guess on the decline of door to door salesmen after having knocked doors is that there are very few people home during the day anymore. Everyone has a car and is mobile. People get freaked out if you knock after dark. People are often suspicious of strangers showing up at their door regardless of how nice and clean cut you look.
Unknown said…
I realize this is an old post on your blog, but I wanted to comment on how interesting I found it. My dad is an 1960s University of Oklahoma graduate and during the summers he went door to door as a bible salesman through out the south. His stories are great.

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