Televangelism: The Marketing of Popular Religion

Televangelism: The Marketing of Popular Religion

Televangelism: The Marketing of Popular Religion

Televangelism: The Marketing of Popular Religion


"The electric church is composed of independent, entrepreneurial, evangelical ministers working to 'save souls.' There is, however, another side to its work, namely the creation of many large, complex organizations adept at using modern mass technology and market-oriented techniques to stir 'religious enthusiasms' and sell a political ideology."- Razelle Frankl

When the Reverend Jerry Falwell makes foreign policy statements and the Reverend M. G. "Pat" Robertson can consider running for the presidency, it is evident that the leaders of the electric church have mastered a powerful medium from which to sell their new term of fundamentalism- television. Their programming is slickly produced, smoothly packaged, commercially successful, and ranges from talk-show formats to the more traditional gospel broadcasts. Estimates of the audience for this programming have soared in the past ten years, and as a result more religious programs are being produced than ever before in the history of electronic media. Frankl traces the history of this new form of evangelism from its roots in urban revivalism. She finds that "The revivalist's role was more akin to that of an entrepreneur than to that of a minister or churchman." Beginning with urban revivalists such as Billy Sunday and Dwight Moody, Frankl discusses the development of urban revivalism into the electric church, which she describes as a new social institution. In her description of this process of institution building, Frankl highlights the possible political mobilization of the televangelists as well as the growing commercial investment involved in the programming of the electric church. Analyzing forty-eight programs of the most prominent members of the electric church, Frankl shows the change this new social institution has undergone from its beginnings in urban revivalism to its present incarnation, especially in the nature of the traditional ritual of fundraising. The commercial and political implications of the electric church are important issues in which Razelle Frankl has initiated formal study in this timely book. She has laid the foundation for much additional work in communication, religion, and sociology.


Every now and then someone comes along and examines a problem from a fresh perspective, and with that perspective changes the way we understand the problem. Such is the case with Razelle Frankl's investigation of the phenomenon of televangelism. Her inquiry into the source and nature of religious broadcasting has transformed dramatically the way I think about the electric church. I am confident that the insights developed here will significantly influence how others think about the subject.

Frankl focuses her inquiry on the social organization of the predecessors of the "electric church," tracing the roots of modern televangelism to nineteenth-century urban revivalism. To the student of American church history, this is not an altogether novel idea. In the early days of his revival crusades, Billy Graham was often compared to Billy Sunday, the last of the great urban revivalists. Nevertheless, while this lineage has been recognized, until now no one has ever taken more than passing note. Frankl shows us how the nineteenth-century phenomenon of urban revivalism is linked to late-twentieth-century televangelism; in the process, she demonstrates why this lineage is so important. Through her analysis we witness the gradual unfolding of an organizational form that may well be transforming America.

The major televangelists exhibit important differences in style and in the structures of their organizations, but a critical thread traverses them all: they all stand as autonomous units. Organized on the principles of free enterprise, their hierarchical structures are essentially oligarchic. Supersalesmen all, the televangelists are free to pursue just about any project they want so long as they can convince their audiences that it is worthwhile. They have neither bishops, nor presbyteries, nor general . . .

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