by Julie Kennedy,
Washington University in St. Louis
A recently published book chronicles a time when sermons by African-American clergy outsold recordings by popular performers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.
In the 1920s and ’30s, these African-American preachers spread the word to a mass audience one phonograph record at a time, according to Lerone Martin, assistant professor of religion and politics in the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.
In Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion (NYU Press, 2014), Martin explains that clergy found themselves competing with blues singers and jazz artists for the souls of their flock. So, they took the fight to the recording booth and essentially joined the entertainment industry, where their sermons could reach tens of thousands.
“There was debate within faith communities on how to respond to jazz and blues records, which had what would be considered lewd language and songs, and bragging about drinking during Prohibition,” Martin says.
Some clergy offered alternate entertainment such as opera and classical music at their churches. Others argued that the church is for moral guidance, not entertainment.
“But these preachers say, ‘We’re going to do both (guide and entertain),’” Martin says. “There is a pattern in evangelical religion in America, black and white, where evangelicals tend to take popular entertainment and sanctify it for their own purposes.”
These religious recordings sold in stores alongside jazz and blues records. The preachers participated in the consumer marketplace alongside celebrities of the day and became celebrities themselves.
Martin says the top-selling recording was “The Downfall of Nebuchadnezzar” by the Rev. J.C. Burnett, which sold 87,000 copies.
The most popular preachers went on tour and had a nationwide following. They also drove the same fancy cars as celebrities such as Smith and wore nice clothes because they saw it as a way to authenticate the Gospel and themselves in the eyes of their followers.
“They believed you can live a Christian life and still live the good life,” Martin says.
Phonograph, not radio
In the 1920s and ’30s, radio was broadcasting the sermons of prominent white clerics such as Aimee Semple McPherson. Meanwhile, sponsors shied away from African-American clergy.
“Many of these preachers decided to connect with the phonograph companies,” Martin says. “It was one way to join the pantheon of mass-media preachers.”
Record companies sought out African-American preachers because they recognized there was a large market for the sermons.
During this era, very few African-Americans had a radio in the home, but most had a phonograph. Also, phonographs did not require electricity.
The sermons had to be condensed and concise—the 1920s version of a tweet.
“We are talking about 78 RPM records, so you only have about four minutes on each side,” Martin says.
Between 1925 and 1941, Martin says there were about 100 ministers recording sermons. The first recordings were staid, dry talks, which didn’t sell well. Over the years, they evolved into more popular folk chanted sermons. The recordings were made in studios, not churches, although often musicians and “worshippers” were brought in to make it sound more like a church service.
The records sold for 75 cents each in department stores, mail-order catalogs, shoe-shine parlors, confectionaries, and drug stores all over the United States. Now, many of the sermons are sold on iTunes.
How to have a popular media ministry
Martin says he grew up watching TV evangelists but was surprised in college to learn that others didn’t share this background. Later in divinity school, this aspect of religious life was not reflected in the literature he was reading. He became more interested in religion in mass media and eventually focused his studies on phonograph preachers.
Martin believes that these men (as Martin points out, they were almost all male and deliberately excluded women) helped shape American religion.
“They served as a model for how to have a popular media ministry,” he says. “They shaped it by the way they used popular entertainment—using any popular format to convey one’s ministry.”
When World War II began, the boom in phonograph preachers ended as resources were needed for the war effort and radios became more common in African-American homes.
Martin says he wants his book to show the possibilities—and limits—of religion in the commercial marketplace and in mass media. The record companies helped preachers spread their message to a much larger audience, but not every message made it out of the recording studio.
Martin gave an example of a popular preacher who recorded a sermon called “Stay Out of the Chain Stores.” During the Depression, chain stores were vilified for not contributing enough to local communities. According to studio production logs, that preacher recorded several sermons that day, but the chain store sermon was the only one not issued.
“Mass media shapes the religious discourse we hear, but perhaps more importantly, it shapes the religious discourse we don’t hear,” he says.