Abstract: Selling the Sacred: Church Advertising and Public Relations in the 1940s

John C. Hardin


As Christianity expanded in American life in the postwar era, its primary retailers, local churches, embraced the popular promotional methods of the broader market. While industries diverted more and more resources to advertising and the burgeoning field of public relations, a few of its experts turned their attention to churches.They provided a conduit for religious retailers to adopt and adapt the methods of the marketplace to compete with other businesses for customers. In so doing, these experts of the 1940s laid a new foundation for the industry of religious retail. This paper considers the work of three principal church promotion experts, their careers, and their instruction guides: Roland E. Wolseley, John L. Fortson, and Willard Pleuthner. It examines how these secular consultants broadened the scope of church promotion by training ministers as journalists. It also explores the Religion in American Life campaign and how church promotion encouraged the pluralization of American Christianity by providing a platform for churches to cooperate. Finally, it considers how religious promoters used the concept of "dignity" to wrestle with the tension in selling the sacred. In the books they wrote, the speeches they gave, and the classes they taught, the church promotion experts of the 1940s set the basic patterns, dialogues, and issues that would shape the church promotion industry until new practices in church marketing would change the game in the mid-1970s. In their work, one can see the growth of a church promotion industry built on publicity and cooperation, proliferated through education, and uncertain about the "dignity" of its methods.