The revelation that Jesus Christ was “the founder of modem business,” a powerful executive who “picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world,” came in 1925 by way of the book The Man Nobody Knows by Bruce Barton, a successful adman. Reinhold Niebuhr was not the only one appalled to see Christ thus turned into a “typical Rotarian go-getter,” “a kind of sublimated Babbitt,” but in the first eighteen months after publication, more than a quarter-million copies of the book were sold.
Most American history textbooks mention Barton and his bestseller as risible evidence of Americans’ giddy enthusiasm for business in the 1920s, when, as Calvin Coolidge famously observed, “the business of America is business.” But in The Man Nobody Knows, Barton was seeking less to bless the pursuit of mammon than to boost his notion of liberal Protestantism, as historian Richard M. Fried points out in this brief, fair-minded, and well-researched biography. “[Barton] may have ended by sanctifying business, but he intended to show how religion could be made modern and relevant to contemporary life.”
The advance of science, and indeed modernity itself, seemed by then to have put religious faith on the defensive. “Illusions have been lost one by one,” journalist Joseph Wood Krutch wrote in The Modern Temper (1929). “God, instead of disappearing in an instant, has retreated step by step and surrendered gradually his control of the universe.” For Barton (1886-1967), though, human intelligence and goodness pointed the way to the creator. “If there is a God,” he reflected, “he must be good; for we are good. And he could not have made us better than himself.”
Like many of his contemporaries in advertising, Barton was a minister’s son. “The preacher is really a salesman,” he once observed. By the time he and his partners founded their ad agency in 1918, advertising had moved well beyond simply providing information about a product. Information was not enough when competing products were readily available, often not easily distinguishable from one another, and perhaps not even needed. Enter the “professional” adman with glib patter, catchy phrases, and a willingness to exploit people’s hopes and fears. “Two paths begin at the bottom of the hill of life,” proclaimed a 1921 Barton ad for an “institute” that offered business training by correspondence. One path “winds about the base, thru years of routine and drudgery,” while the other rapidly mounts “into positions where every problem is new and stirring, where the rewards are comfort, and travel, and freedom from all fear.” Testimonials from happy graduates followed. For General Motors, Barton designed ads that offered parables about the noble uses to which GM cars were put. “One two-page sociodrama entitled ‘That the Doctor Shall Arrive in Time,’” Fried notes, “pictured a dying girl, her grief-ridden mother, and the doctor, whose trusty GM car had enabled him to deliver artificial respiration in the nick of time.”