In the summer of 1916, an Ohio farm boy had an encounter with God. What he experienced on a quiet country road one evening was so powerful that he would build his entire life and career on trying to recreate it. And his efforts would influence the way Americans understand faith to this day. 

The long-neglected but important story of Eugene Exman is told in the new book God the Bestseller: How One Editor Transformed American Religion a Book at a Time, by Stephen Prothero, a Boston University professor of religion. It was quite by accident—through a chance encounter with Exman’s daughter—that Prothero discovered Exman’s library in an old house on Cape Cod, full of first editions and personal letters signed by prestigious authors. 

He was like a man trying over and over to recapture the first ecstasy of falling in love instead of learning to make a marriage work. 

He found that Exman had spent nearly four decades as head of the religious book department at Harper & Row, and that his shocking and unexpected encounter with God as a teenager—Exman described it as being “invaded” by a force that lifted him out of his body—had shaped everything he did in that position. 

Raised a Baptist but introduced to modernist ideas about Christianity in college, Exman would remain a churchgoing Protestant but would keep pushing the boundaries of what that meant. Throughout his life he explored all kinds of religions, both Western and Eastern, and worked with authors from those various traditions to get their ideas out to the American public. The quest for God, as he saw it, must not be based on doctrine, dogmas, or institutions; rather, he promoted “the religion of experience.” He wanted to have that direct experience of the divine again, and he wanted others to have it too, in whatever way they could.

In tracing his subject’s path over the course of this biography, Prothero does something fascinating. What starts out sounding like a wholehearted celebration of Exman and his work slowly evolves into an incisive critique—sometimes subtle, but occasionally quite pointed. He notes the tension that Exman perpetually felt between his pursuit of a holy life and his embrace of the well-heeled corporate lifestyle. Even more pertinent, he explores the ways in which Exman’s open-minded liberal Protestantism could sometimes blind him to significant aspects of the human experience.

Exman’s pursuit of God, and his related career in publishing, read like a microcosm of 20th-century religion, along with several 21st-century ideas and trends. (If you think cancel culture is brand new, read Prothero on the rise and fall of medical missionary Albert Schweitzer’s reputation during his own lifetime). Exman worked with preachers from Harry Emerson Fosdick to Martin Luther King Jr. He experimented with communal living in California and traveled to India to meet a well-known guru. He even tried LSD in the late 1950s, when it was being touted as “a quicker and easier route to God.” At one point, Prothero tells us, Exman wanted to sign up C. S. Lewis as a Harper author, but it didn’t work out—at least, not during Exman’s or Lewis’s lifetime.

That was just as well. As ecumenical as Lewis could be in Mere Christianity and other works, he and Exman no doubt would have clashed over the latter’s consistent de-emphasizing of religious doctrine. Prothero’s account of Exman’s work with Catholic activist Dorothy Day, one of the most intriguing chapters in the book, gives us a hint of how such a relationship might have turned out. 

Exman published Day’s autobiography and agreed to publish her next book, a biography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. But Exman’s close friend and colleague Margueritte Bro, a spiritual seeker like himself, recoiled from the project as if it were a boa constrictor, calling the manuscript “religiously psychotic” and saying some pretty vehement things about Roman Catholics in general. Exman persisted for a while, but the project was killed in the end. 

“Bro did have Exman’s ear,” Prothero writes, “and though he did not always follow her advice, it is hard to imagine that her characterization of Saint Thérèse’s piety as ‘sadistic’ and ‘psychopathic’ had no effect.” Thérèse may have experienced her own divine encounters, but they were too entwined with suffering to hold much appeal for the team at Harper. 

Day, for her part, “rightly resented how Exman and his coworkers worked to recast her story in the image of Protestantism.” Prothero notes dryly, “Despite their love songs to pluralism, liberal Protestants in the United States have rarely found their way to doing anything kindlier with Roman Catholics than agreeing to follow Jesus’s commandment to ‘love your enemies.’”

It’s hard to say whether Bro, and to some extent Exman, were more bothered by Day’s Catholicism, or (and this is where the comparison to Lewis comes in) just by her strict observance of her church’s tenets, which triggered their dislike of organized religion. But both these factors undoubtedly played a role. 

The incident was all of a piece with Exman’s dedication to navigating a path to God based on personal experience rather than church doctrine. Prothero makes a convincing case that Exman was the forerunner of the “spiritual but not religious” movement. Exman probably would have been fine with that. But he might not have been quite as satisfied with Prothero’s ultimate verdict:

Exman’s [publishing] project succeeded because its native habitat is the ecology of consumer capitalism. The religion of experience preaches the habit of the never-ending search. That search produces not finding but longing. And the object of that longing is displaced by degrees—from God to the experience of God to the experience of whatever you understand to be God. Seekers then search for experiences that seem to have nothing at all to do with God or religion or spirituality. They set their hearts (and make their bets) on a lifetime of experiences. Make memories is their mantra.

As much as Exman revered the quest itself, he did believe that it was a quest for something—something that could and should be found. He never quite felt that he achieved his goal, but if his biographer has it right, his chosen method of pursuit carried within it the seeds of its own failure. He was like a man trying over and over to recapture the first ecstasy of falling in love instead of learning to make a marriage work. 

As a religious publisher, Exman did a great deal of good, giving faith a voice in literature when many of his fellow intellectuals felt it had no right to be there, and doing what he could to break down racial and ideological barriers in his field. But his obsession with chasing an “experience” of God led him—and with him, much of American culture—down a path that ultimately leads not to God, but to self-gratification.