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Ari L. GoldmanMarch 14, 2024
(iStock)

Where are the great religious and spiritual leaders of yesteryear—now that we really need them?

Has this question come up in your discussions with friends, family and colleagues? It certainly has in mine. We usually go on to lament that today there is no Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Dorothy Day or Albert Schweitzer or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to guide us. If only there were.

Perhaps it is a small consolation, but while we don’t have these august figures anymore, we do have their writings, letters and speeches that continue to inspire and call us to action.

God the Bestsellerby Stephen Prothero

HarperOne
384p $33

Quite remarkably, the writings of many of these inspirational figures—and these four in particular—were set down and released in book form by one man in the publishing industry: Eugene Exman. Exman is hardly a household name. Even his biographer, Stephen Prothero, admits that he had never heard of him when he first stumbled upon a storehouse of old books and papers at Exman’s old house on Cape Cod.

Prothero, who recently retired as a professor at Boston University, is one of the freshest modern thinkers about American religion. In addition to his prodigious scholarship, he writes important popular books about religion, including the best-selling Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t.

Prothero spent several years poring through the Exman archive and, in this enriching book, God the Bestseller, takes the reader on a journey through the publisher’s life and works. Exman ran the religious books department at Harper & Brothers (later Harper & Row) for over five decades, from 1928 to 1968. He published thousands of books, including hundreds of best sellers. In addition to King, Day, Schweitzer and Heschel, there were books by others so famous that (in religious circles) you don’t even need to include first names: Huxley, Niebuhr, Teilhard de Chardin and Eliade, among many others.

To be sure, the life of a book editor is rarely grist for a book-length biography, but Exman was more than just an editor. Exman, Prothero argues, was an advocate for religion who helped shape the United States into what Prothero calls “a nation of seekers in which spiritual experimentation was something of a national sport, even for self-identified Christians and Jews.” The spiritual books that Exman published—on a variety of Western faith traditions as well as on Hinduism, Zen Buddhism and even on the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous—had a lot to do with making us the religiously diverse and spiritually curious nation that we are.

Exman, Prothero writes, helped Americans move from “Protestantism to pluralism, from dogma to feeling, and from organized religion to the religion of experience.”

God the Bestseller operates on two levels. One is a biography of Exman, who was born in 1900 on a farm in Ohio and died 75 years later at a hospital in Rhode Island. Prothero reviews Exman’s publishing career and his mildly interesting spiritual journeys, including his experimentation with LSD and his failed efforts to establish a religious community with a group of like-minded seekers.

On another, more compelling level, the book is about Exman’s interaction with a hit parade of the great religious leaders of the 20th century. Although many of those books are now legendary, getting the author to write the book—and meet a deadline—was anything but easy. And if you thought you suffered from writer’s block, rest assured that you are not alone.

How did Exman get Day to write The Long Loneliness, her outstanding and enduring autobiography? Well, Prothero tells us, Day needed $1,000 for a down payment for a farm on Staten Island for her Catholic Worker movement. Exman dangled the check before her and she bit. He got a best seller and she got the farm.

In 1950, Exman embarked on a two-month journey to Africa with one goal in mind: to sign up Albert Schweitzer to write a book for Harper. As Prothero notes, history has been unkind to Schweitzer (few young people today know his name) but in his day, he was a living saint. He was on the cover of Time magazine, and Life declared him “the greatest man in the world.”

Exman was on his way to Schweitzer’s field hospital in Gabon to get him working on an autobiography. In the end, the book never materialized, but Exman did publish two books of essays by Schweitzer, Music in the Life of Albert Schweitzer (1951) and The Problem of Peace in the World Today (1954).

History has been much kinder to Dr. King. In 1957, Little Brown, Houghton Mifflin and other publishers were trying to get King to write a book about the Montgomery bus boycott. “Amid a flurry of letters,” Prothero writes, “Exman showed up at his doorstep.” King, who was just 28 at the time, signed with Harper and promised delivery in three months. When King didn’t meet the deadline, Exman got back on the train to Alabama to make sure King finished the book. Later that year, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story was published by Harper.

These are just a few of the wonderful stories we are treated to in God the Bestseller. Prothero gives us artful mini-biographies of these religious figures and shows how they all had one thing in common: Exman. When we return to the question of “where are they now”—when we really need them—we can open one of their books. And we can thank them for putting it all down and thank Eugene Exman for being the midwife to their creativity.

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