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"Something Different in Science Films": The Moody Institute of Science and the Canned Missionary Movement

From: The Moving Image
Volume 7, Number 1, Spring 2007
pp. 1-26 | 10.1353/mov.2007.0025

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The Moody Institute of Science (MIS) was founded in 1945 by the Moody Bible Institute and Irwin A. Moon as an evangelical group that used science demonstrations to preach to the masses. A California pastor who had been using science experiments in his sermons since the early 1930s, Moon believed that the marvels of science provided visible evidence of a divine plan of creation. In the late 1940s, MIS—with Moon as their director—began producing a series of technologically innovative, often riveting, and always religiously motivated science and social studies films. As James Gilbert in Redeeming Culture and Heather Hendershot in Shaking the World for Jesus demonstrate, these films provided a religious interpretation for science, offering their viewers—in the church as well as in the American military, the public school system, and industry—a glimpse of a natural world so complex that it could only be explained, according to the films' narrators, through the existence of a higher power or an intelligent designer. In fact, MIS's first films—like The God of Creation (1946) and God of the Atom (1947)—were conceived of precisely as "Sermons from Science," a concept Moon developed in the late 1930s while conducting live scientific-evangelical demonstrations, the most famous of which included running a million volts of electricity through his body.

Although Gilbert and Hendershot both offer compelling and useful histories of MIS and of Moon's career as a technologically savvy Christian filmmaker, much of the MIS film catalog remains unexplored and the nature of MIS's infiltration of the mid-century secular classroom has been especially obfuscated. The Moody Bible Institute still circulates some of Moon's films in video format, largely for use in home-schooling environments, and it is these films that have been the primary focus of previous scholarship, largely, we suspect, due to the difficulty, until recently, of accessing reference copies of the vast majority of MIS's educational films that were marketed to mainstream educators in the 1950s and beyond. Although their specific impact on recent ideological and litigious battles over the teaching of evolution and the introduction of intelligent design into the classroom may be difficult to surmise, evidence certainly attests to the staggeringly wide circulation of MIS films in the postwar era of across-the-board escalation in classroom film usage. Gilbert notes that MIS records for 1947 and 1948 indicate an audience of 2.5 million for its three circulating films. In 1950 Ken Hughes, writing for The Chaplain, comments that "here and abroad, almost a million people during one short year crowded into high schools, universities, and military bases as well as churches to glimpse the [MIS] films," and Hendershot claims that "by 1956, MIS films were used in 389 school systems in 46 states."

The wide circulation of these films was at least in part inspired by a larger political context: motivated by anxieties over both communist educational trends and the perceived needs of the atomic age, films entered science classrooms at unprecedented rates in the post–World War II era, which found a surplus of audiovisual equipment making its way into public schools. Articles in Educational Screen (which became Educational Screen & Audio-Visual Guide in September 1956), the industry's leading trade publication, attest to the sense of urgency that inspired the proliferation of film use in the 1950s classroom. An October 1956 article by Henry Chauncey, "Film Is the Answer," proclaims in bold: "Competition for new graduates in science and engineering is tremendous. Even more serious is the very rapid rate at which Communists may be gaining on us in technological fields." Chauncey's answer? "The use of sound films and educational television to take over the basic instructional part of the teacher's task would seem to afford the most satisfactory solution to this problem."

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Figure 1
The image on the MIS educational film title cards merges atomic, scientific, and Christian symbols.

What follows seeks to expand the discussion of MIS beyond the ten or so films that have received scholarly attention by looking closely at three of the films MIS specifically marketed for primary and secondary public education during the 1950s...

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