Cover image from Karen Swallow Prior's new book called The Evangelical Imagination

The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis

by Karen Swallow Prior
(Brazos Press 2023)

A new version of improvement literature that emerged in the 19th century centered on personal improvement:
the self-help book. The first work of this kind was titled, appropriately, Self Help, published by Samuel Smiles in 1859.

“Heaven helps those who help themselves,” declares the book’s opening, a line that would become so famous that some would come to think it was the Word of Scripture itself. Smiles continues, “The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual.” And it is entirely toward the individual — largely apart from institutions and community — that the book is focused.

The same economic and other variables that made social mobility possible for the first time in human history made improvement in general — whether on a large or small scale —  more appealing and attainable. Everyone wanted to emulate the lives of those in the superior ranks. While gentility was a status granted only by birth, more and more the ability to be a “gentleman” or a “gentlewoman” evolved into a matter of character and manner rather than inherited class. John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University included a lengthy passage redefining the gentleman as someone who gives ease and comfort to others. While having material and economic means is one of the easiest ways to provide ease and comfort to others, good manners (which are free but must be acquired) can too. By emulating the wealthy, anyone could try to gain respectability in this way. On the other hand, the failure of anyone to succeed could then be attributed to poor character. This idea became common.

Not surprisingly, then, the signs of respectability — which overlapped greatly with the signs of success — became increasingly important.

Evangelicalism’s infatuation with secular notions of social progress and self-improvement is marked throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. While evangelicals initially opposed nineteenth-century movements that emphasized the possibility that human effort could bring physical healing, mind cures, victory over sin  the influence of these popular teachings could not be entirely stemmed: Therapeutic culture snaked its way into evangelicalism. Nineteenth-century revivalists such as D. L. Moody and Billy Sunday were among those whose teachings blended evangelicalism with notions of social progress and transformation through personal purity and piety. In the 20th century, spurred significantly by the popularity of Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, the self-help ethos became “a fully entrenched part of American life.”

As religion became increasingly a private experience, and as the modern age became increasingly oriented toward individualism, “even evangelicals were integrating psychological concepts of self-worth into evangelicalism.” Jesus became “the friend who helps us find happiness and self-improvement.” God became not merely omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent — but he became these things for the benefit of each individual — a kind of personal therapist, benefactor, and ever-present friend. Therapeutic evangelicalism exists so you can “become a better you.” Eventually, it leads to a sense of saving yourself. Or being saved by improvement, a notion Flannery O’Connor skewers with a line delivered in earnest by the antihero of her novel Wise Blood: “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.”

A recent glance at the bestsellers in Christian self-help books on Amazon showed Peale’s book in first place, followed by books on topics such as boundaries, anxiety, hurry, self-discovery, washing your face, and becoming untamed. There’s always room for improvement, I guess.

Evangelical culture is so steeped today in the self-improvement waters that it hardly needs to be stated. But it should also be pointed out that this is the ethos of our age in general. In such a culture, even in the church, it can be difficult to distinguish conversion from self-help, spiritual growth from worldly success, sanctification from self-improvement.

But the converted person isn’t merely “new and improved.” She is a new creature.


This essay was adapted from The Evangelical Imagination by Karen Swallow Prior, ©2023, exclusively for Common Good. Used by permission of Brazos Press.