How a Pioneer of Branding Invented Christian Fundamentalism

Christian fundamentalism was invented in an advertising campaign, according to a new book by historian Timothy Gloege. The all-American brand of “old-time religion” was developed by an early captain of consumer capitalism—who wanted to sell pure Christianity like he sold breakfast.

In his fascinating narrative of the origins of modern evangelicalism, Gloege traces its close relationship to modern marketing back to the founder of Quaker Oats, Henry Parsons Crowell.

If you asked people for a short list of the most important religious figures in the early 20th century, Henry Parsons Crowell probably wouldn’t be on it. Who was Crowell and why was he important?

Henry Parsons Crowell was a purveyor of oatmeal. He is best known by business historians as the president and founder of Quaker Oats, one of the pioneers of the branding revolution. He used a combination of packaging, trademark and massive promotional campaigns and transformed oatmeal from a commodity into a trademarked product.

Crowell took oatmeal that used to be sold out of large barrels in your general store, put it into a sealed package, slapped a picture of a Quaker on it and guaranteed it pure. Now it no longer mattered who you bought your oatmeal from, only what brand you chose.

A company’s reputation was once rooted in its owner, but the trademark created this virtual relationship with consumers that was pure fiction. The trust that is engendered by a Quaker has no relationship to the company itself. There are no Quakers involved in that. Crowell was a Presbyterian. He bought the trademark, a very small mill had the trademark and he said, “oh, this engenders trust, so I’m going to use this to sell my oatmeal.”

This was quite controversial at the time, though today that’s just how things are done. Quakers sell oatmeal and friendly animated lizards sell us car insurance.

One of the key arguments in the book is that he is using similar strategies in religion as well. As president of Moody Bible Institute, Crowell pioneered the techniques of creating trust in a pure religious product, packaging and trademarking, as it were, old-time religion.

How is the story of American capitalism also the story of modern American Christianity? 

They’re cultural twins. They’re both drawing from the same set of ideas about the nature of self and society that was, frankly, new in the days after the Civil War. These are the idea of the individual being the basic unit of analysis, that individual choices are really what matters, that’s how you create yourself.

Whereas older ideas would see society as more of an organic unity, they see it as a collection of individuals.

One of the main points of my story is that the particular arrangement we see today of evangelicals’ alignment with business is not a new phenomenon. It can be traced back, specifically to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. It was not there before. And it did not start after World War II. It really started here.

I’m also arguing against the idea that American Protestantism has always been guided by the logic of the market. That’s not true. There was a shift in American Protestantism which is connected to this other shift in economic history.

What shifts in the business world is there’s an underlying assumption that I make my economic decisions out of my own self interest, that everybody is doing that, and society is better off as a result, rather than have to make business decisions in light of how it might affect society—that’s not the question. It’s all about me and my rational choices and other people’s rational choices, which makes it into a game of sorts. And this isn’t always the way that it was.

In the same way, religious experience is re-conceptualized as individualistic.

In the traditional, “churchly” model—if I can make a generalization here—when you had individual Bible reading, the person who is superintending your interpretation of the Bible and saying whether you’re believing the right thing or the wrong thing is your minister. And your minister knows what’s correct based on going to seminary. That belief is then superintended by a theological tradition that precedes that credentialing. All these things bear on what the proper interpretation of the Bible is.

But in the evangelical context, it is all about you and God.

This is the fiction evangelicalism is predicated on: there is this plain reading of the Bible and anyone who sincerely sits down and reads the Bible, regardless of their education, regardless of their background, can get it. But you end up getting problems. People end up interpreting the Bible in ways that disrupt society. They start thinking that miracles are a common occurrence, so they decide they don’t need to take medicine, don’t need to give children medicine. And children end up dying. They read the Bible and see that men are married to more than one women, so they are challenging established family norms.

And you have people who are reading the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus’s talk on money, and they say modern capitalism is evil and abhorrent to God.

There is an ideal of what will happen when evangelicals read the Bible, but it doesn’t always work out. There’s a dynamism that comes with plain reading, but in tension with that is the threat of disorder. So it’s vitality versus disorder.

What happened historically in American Protestantism is that you would go in an evangelical direction, you’d have revivals, you’d revitalize the faith. Then things would start to go a little nutty and at least respectable middle class Protestants would swing back in a churchly direction. They would turn back to tradition. They would turn back to church and say these things are important and reimpose order with church.

What Crowell did, and what makes Crowell important to my mind, is that he created a way to continue the evangelical movement without having to resort to a churchly mode of imposing order.

How did he do that?

The first step was to create a new standard of orthodoxy. Traditionally, you had a Presbyterian orthodoxy, a Methodist orthodoxy, an Episcopal orthodoxy, and so on. There is no such thing as just “conservative Protestantism.”

So that was the first job that Crowell had to do, was to create this fictional orthodoxy, this conservative Protestantism, this set of fundamentals that anyone, any conservative of any denomination [could] ascribe to and could use to differentiate themselves from liberals.

The way that he does this is through the publication called The Fundamentals. It is the publication that gives the fundamentalist movement its name—a 12-volume set of theological treatises written by various scholars that claim to put forward these fundamentals of the faith.

Most people do not read The Fundamentals. When you do, what you find is that there are huge gaps in what would be a traditional creed. There are any number of points of theology that, actually, most of Christians would see as essential—ideas about who God is, what is the nature of salvation, all of these things—are not brought up. Because they would be too controversial among conservatives. And, when you look at the subjects that are brought up, articles regularly contradict each other. There is no unified creed in any sense.

What The Fundamentals is doing, if not laying out a precise creed, is creating the impression of an orthodoxy.

It was successful mostly in bringing together conservatives in all these different denominations who were feeling embattled by liberalism, who were feeling like a minority, and who felt like they were alone. The Fundamentals ended up reaching over 300,000 subscribers, at the height. The publication, as a publication, creates this nation-wide imagined community that cuts across denominational lines.

It is more imagined than real, though. If you were to ask these people what constitutes this inter-denominational orthodoxy, they would come up with very different lists. But for Crowell, his background is in consumer products—”fundamentalism” is a label and functions like a brand.

Crowell does this at the helm of Moody Bible Institute. If we back the story up, how does Dwight L. Moody, the famous evangelist, fit into the history of American capitalism?

The importance of Moody is in making the initial links between economic identities and religious identities. Prior to Moody, those things were much more distinct. These were not models that were really used.

It’s important to remember that Moody was born and raised completely outside of orthodox Protestantism. He was raised a Unitarian. He had a grade school education. He had no theological training whatsoever. He started going to church because he had to as a requirement of his job. He didn’t enjoy it or get anything out of it.

Then a Sunday School teacher came to him at work and told him that Jesus loved him—that was it, he converted.

Moody started to understand his relationship with God using the things he knew best, which was his life in business—in sales, specifically. When Moody decided to become a full-time revivalist—without any sort of theological training, mind you—he was God’s salesman, inviting his listeners to enter into a personal relationship with God.

He started to conceptualize the authentic believer in terms of being a good Christian worker. What mattered wasn’t what you believed, it was, are you submitted to God? Moody gets his idea of the ideal worker from his industrialist friends in the Gilded Age who want their workers to be submissive, hard workers and pragmatic problem solvers: he conceptualizes the Christian worker in those terms. He infuses his ideas about faith with metaphors of work.

You write that the captains of industry, business leaders and town fathers would sit behind Moody on the stage as he preached. Why did they—literally—back his Gospel message?

Those elite men and women sitting behind Moody saw him as the solution to the problem of social disorder and labor unrest because he came from this same class. He was born into poverty, he regularly used bad grammar and mispronounced words, yet he lived in harmony with elite businessmen. He did not begrudge their success or question their ethics. He would say this was because he had this conversion experience and he had a personal relationship with Jesus.

A lot of these business leaders thought this might be the solution to social disorder: If only we could covert the working classes, they would be like Moody and stop being jealous of our success and we could all get along. Some of Moody’s business supporters were very sincere, but there were others who were a little bit less sincere and just saw it as a solution to the problem.

But of course when you have those sort of people sitting on the stage behind you, that’s not going to attract the working classes that you want to convert. Who it ended up attracting, especially as Moody became a celebrity, was the respectable middle classes.

What Moody’s message did for the middle class is to make people feel real and alive in a way the older, churchly Protestantism did not. Moody used analogies from their business experiences that made sense to them. He actually changed the definitions of key theological terms, putting them in business terminology. So, for example, he says, “I have faith in God in the same way I have faith in the stock market.” It made their faith feel real to them in a way it might not have before.

Also, what it does is to naturalize these very new economic ideas and practices.

How does Moody Bible Institute come to be led by a captain of industry, this oatmeal man who is an expert at branding?

Crowell started at Moody Bible in 1901 and was basically in charge starting in 1904, 1905—a time when the Institute was in crisis. The major problem was that Moody Bible Institute was not converting the masses and restoring social order. It was reaching a very small portion of working class people, and, at the turn of the 20th century, those working class people who were reached were not becoming respectable members of the middle class—instead they were getting involved in the Populist movement, which was using the Bible to critique capitalism and critique professionalization.

These working class people were also getting involved in the Pentecostal movement and transgressing racial boundaries. There is even an earlier incident where Ruben A. Torrey, the most prominent evangelist working with Moody, got involved in faith healing because of his “plain reading” of the Bible.

Torrey has a similar business-metaphor interpretation of the Bible to Moody, but he gives it his own particular spin. Torrey said very boldly that prayer is a God-ordained way of people getting things—the Bible becomes a catalog, a practical catalog of God’s promises.

The big problem, of course, is that answers to prayer don’t happen consistently. For Torrey, there was a tragic event where one of his daughters had diphtheria and he believed God was calling him to pray for her healing. This was in 1898 when there was a well-known anti-toxin for the treatment of diphtheria, but he refused to call a doctor and instead relied solely on prayer. He had a change of heart, but was too late and his child died. What do you do with that? This becomes the problem.

Throughout the 1890s amid growing populist discontent, groups of working class and lower middle class evangelical radicals were using beliefs and practices similar to Torrey’s to challenge the rising professional classes and in some cases the entire capitalist order.

So, this message of Moody’s and Torrey’s that was supposed to bring social order starts to bring disorder.

By 1901, everybody was bailing on Moody and they were losing their financing. They needed new business supports and eventually brought Crowell in, who had been influenced quite a bit by a teacher who was teaching at Moody Bible at the time.

What Crowell did—and what makes him so important to my mind—is that he solved the problem that had plagued individualistic, evangelical religion since it first emerged during the First Great Awakening in the eighteenth century. (When things started to go a little nutty, respectable middle class Protestants swung back to an emphasis on church and tradition.)

Crowell figured out a way to impose order on evangelicalism, but without having to resort to churchly guardrails. He used the techniques of consumer capitalism that he knew so well, packaging and trademark and massive promotional campaigns.

How has Crowell shaped the modern religious landscape?

The Moody Bible Institute pioneered a means of generating a reputation of being a purveyor of pure religion. Today these business techniques are everywhere. The biggest churches in America have no denominational affiliation, and they are filled with respectable, middle-class people. This would not have been the case in the early 19th century, where a denominational identity was a normal part of a middle class identity.

In Crowell’s business experience, purity is at the foundation of his business success. Quaker Oats became what it was because he was able to make people suspicious of the oatmeal you would shovel out of a barrel, and his sealed box with the picture of a Quaker on it was the pure alternative. In every single advertisement that he created in the first 30 years of the company’s existence, the Quaker was always holding a scroll and the single word “pure” was written across it. That was a central idea, for Crowell.

He looked at religion in the same way. There is pure religion and there is impure religion. His question was “how do you make the religion I know is pure appeal to the consuming public?”

The solution he found, to promote modern evangelicalism as “old-time religion,” has worked for a century.


  •' Whiskyjack says:

    “I have faith in God in the same way I have faith in the stock market.” Wow. If faith in the stock market is your standard, it’s built on a might shaky foundation. I was also interested to see that the prime motivation for business leaders to back Moody confirmed Marx’s observation that religion is indeed the opiate of the working classes.
    I was somewhat surprised to see a discussion of The Fundamentals without a mention of Lyman and Milton Stewart. They were the money behind the production and wide distribution of the series.

  • This is an incredibly important piece. Fundamentalism represents a basic debasement of religion and involves an even more basic misunderstanding of the nature of the Biblical text and of its interpretation. It has caused a tremendous amount of harm, especially in the US, and thus, it is quite valuable to see what its actual roots are, divorced entirely, as they were, from any real understanding of the Bible or of Christianity.

  •' andrew123456789 says:

    As a serious religion website, it is essential that the difference between “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” be respected here. They aren’t exclusive of each other, but they are not interchangeable terms either. (I am neither, by the way; I’m just a religion nerd.)

  •' J.R. Miller says:

    Agreed. It is an interesting premise worth looking into. However, the conflation of religious terms, “Evangelical”, :”Fundamentalist”, and even “Conservative” make me question the viability of the premise. This seems more of a populist article then one that is scholarly.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    The conflation of those terms is the doing of Christianity. Wanting to correct the definitions might be due to someone wanting to define them in a way that shows how their group is the right one, and the others are flawed. I think Christianity is in way too confused of a state to come up with what is scholarly. It would just lead to more business as usual in Christianity today. But if anyone was ever capable of sorting it all out, that would be RD.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Real understanding of Christianity? That sounds interesting.

  •' J.R. Miller says:

    So using clearly defined terms is a bad thing? Good thing you are not an editor for Webster’s Dictionary 🙂

  •' Jim Reed says:

    The problem is Christianity. Try using clearly defined terms to define things. You might find you have stepped into a mess. Which Christians do which of those terms apply to? And is that the way you would apply them, or the way they would apply them to themselves, or how do they apply the terms to other Christians? You can take the terms and apply them the way you want, but agreement will be harder.

  •' andrew123456789 says:

    Personally, I think populist articles should still use the correct terms. But then, I go nuts when people misuse the term “begging the question.”

  •' andrew123456789 says:

    Steve Waldman’s brief discussion at the beginning of this page here is one way of looking at it.

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  •' seashell says:

    I’m a none, but like you I try to keep terms defined correctly. However, I have to say that more and more it seems like the differences between evangelicals and fundamentalists have narrowed since the 2003 PBS interview with Steve Waldman.

    Part of the reason is that the term fundamentalist became toxic and associated at first with mean spirited and racist and later with the extremes of all faiths. So Fundamentalists took to calling themselves ‘conservative Evangelicals’. But as far as I can tell by looking at voting patterns and views on social issues (like gay marriage), most white Evangelicals are conservative and it’s only because of black Evangelicals that there is any diversity at all (in more ways than one.)

    Even Pew Research conflates the two when measuring ideology among demographic populations. There may still be some technical differences between the whole and the sub-set, but it doesn’t seem worth trying to separate the two in most instances. Just my 2 cents.

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  •' SgtCedar says:

    Today Unitarians might be shocked to read that a Unitarian became the head of Moody Bible Institute. The Unitarians in the 19th century were not as liberal as we are today. The Unitarian movement started as a split in the New England Congregational Church over a theological question. The Congregationals were the descendants of the Puritans. While Unitarians might have been slightly more liberal than their neighbors they were still pretty conservative. There were a lot more uneducated farmers in those days.

  •' SgtCedar says:

    I agree proper terms are important but this article is about religion, not a dictionary. Terms like these have been confused and interchanged for a very long time. It is the people in the movement who interchange the terms.

    Like someone said I am neither an evangelical nor a fundamentalist. In fact, I am a Unitarian Universalist and graduated from seminary a few decades ago.

  • Daniel,

    You are quite right that there is no such thing as orthodox or conservative Christianity. In fact there is a vicious cat-fight going on right now, on YouTube, on television, and in the churches themselves, between neo-Calvinism and its enemy Arianism or Arminianism or, dammit, where’s my program?.

    Roughly speaking this is Evangelicals versus Charismatics, but you would know more about this than I do.

    I appeal to you to write this stuff up so that we can all understand it.

    In particular we have eight or ten Republicans running for the Presidency on the pretence of being conservative or orthodox Christians when there’s no such critter.
    It seem to me important that we develop a press well enough informed to know which of these guys are neo-Calvinists, which are Arminians, and which are any of the other strange breeds running around out there.

    Can you get to work, please?



  • Yeah, I do too. BUT in this case many evangelicals also call themselves fundamentalist, assume that means “conservative” (I asked a friend how many Democrats were in her church, and she stared at me as if I’d asked how many Jews were in her church) and actually generally call themselves Christian and assume anyone not in their group is not — i.e. “Christians and Catholics” is a common phrase. So I’d say some elision of the line is not unreasonable. (But then, I studied Christian rhetoric in grad school, and I still don’t understand lots of little differences. It took me weeks to really get the difference between consubstantiation and transubstantiation, and apparently it’s big enough to kill anyone who disagreed.)

  • Seashell,

    If you think it’s not worth trying to separate these guys, you’re missing some real entertainment.

    You should check YouTube and enjoy the number of different ways these guys can say “Wey-yull, I’m not saying that my learned friend is going to Hell, just that his teachings are the work of the Devil…”

    It’s 1950’s Red Foxx brought back to life, wonderful 16th century lunacy, a joy to behold.


  •' Bob Lawson says:

    Christianity is essentially being marketed in the same way you sell a new car.

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  •' Allison says:

    hello fellow religion dispatches readers. as an individual who grew up in a Christian evangelical church and household, i am astounded to learn about Crowell and his mission to market a “pure” theology in conjunction with a branded product, since i had never heard of him previously. you can tie this into the 90s purity movement and the various conferences, workshops, and classes taught to young kids about purity – this idea that you are tarnished by sexual sin and impure thoughts, and the only means to righteousness is through a sexually pure life. so much emphasis has been put on purity that truth has been forgotten in the evangelical world. truth has been rebranded as emotional catharsis and the prosperity gospel. a faith founded on emotion (or, metaphorically speaking, the stock market), is shaky, unpredictable, and quite frankly a rip off to many.the increasing number of Christian sects that exist speak more to human flaw and human inconsistency, which is why Silliman says “People end up interpreting the Bible in ways that disrupt society.”

    i am not sure if others here identify with a belief in God, however, i would like to respectfully ask what other alternatives to evangelicalism one might feel comfortable pursuing. As an individual who believes in God and the message of Jesus Christ, but rejects the evangelical brand and the traumatic/emotional confusion it instills, i am wondering if it is at all possible to search for meaning in any religion without feeling pigeon-holed. May commenters here have identified the “mess” one stumbles upon when trying to sort out Christianity and define its terms – but i believe this is also reducing Christianity to a scholarly philosophy rather than a faith with unanswered mysteries.

    thank you for your thoughts.

  •' J.R. Miller says:

    I appreciate your heart in this pursuit. I am not a fan of the “Evangelical” label either. I would suggest your pursue Christ and serve Him above the labels. When you do that, you will find that you can father in community with a lot of people regardless of the label. I have lived all over the US and known great people who gather as a church under lots of different brands, but the ones that are the greatest put the name of Jesus above any of those distinctions. There is nothing wrong with using those labels, as long as we keep a proper perspective.

    If you ever want a deeper conversation, feel free to email me from my blog. Depending on where you live, I may be able to help you find a good church as well.

  •' Allison says:

    Thank you J.R. I live and work in Boston and have been in an out of Netcast Church and City on a Hill. I agree that no matter what you will run into labels – it’s inevitable. Even not having a label is a label in some sense. But above all we should pursue community, purpose, and identity with an outward, selfless focus. Which is quite hard to do.

  •' dnnlsexton says:

    Reading this article as a fundamentalist, I consider it to be one of the most blatant, twisted, misconceived, and under researched articles I have read on the origins of fundamentalism. I hardly know where to begin with all the half-truths and misconstruments presented. For instance, he said nothing about the modernist-presbyterian controversies in the 1920-30s; he says nothing about the Niagra Prophecy Conferences in the 1890s, nothing about the Calvinists First Great Awakening under Jonathan Edwards, Ashahel Nettleton, et. al.; nothing of the Second Great Awakening; nothing of the fundamentist-modernist controveries on the 1920s-30s in all the major denominations; and how these all had an influence and shaped what is considered modern fundamentalism. He makes it sound like there is hardly anything orthodox about fundamentalism except its “branding.” I suggest for anyone that is interested, to do a search on the five fundamentals, which is an attempt early on in the movement to bring orthodoxy down to its major components. This was especially prominent on the Presbyterian fundamentalist controversies. I will not deny that Crowell made significant contributions to fundamentalist thinking, but he was only a small cog in the movement.

  •' dnnlsexton says:

    You disagree with Kirsopp Lake, the noted Modernist professor of Harvard University who is no friend of fundamentalists who wrote in 1925: “It is a mistake, often made by educated persons who happen to have
    but little knowledge of historical theology, to suppose that Fundamentalism is a new and
    strange form of thought. It is nothing of the kind: it is the partial and uneducated
    survival of a theology which was once universally held by all Christians. How many were
    there, for instance, in Christian churches in the eighteenth century who doubted the
    infallible inspiration of all Scripture? A few, perhaps, but very few. No, the
    Fundamentalist may be wrong. I think that he is. But it is we who have departed from the
    tradition, not he, . . . The Bible and the corpus theologicum [body of
    theology] of the Church is on the Fundamentalist side.” This article is a hatchet job on true fundamentalism.

  • Wrong. Neither Roman Catholicism nor Eastern Orthodoxy — the earliest forms of Christianity — take the Bible as Fundamentalists do. They have a substantial, authoritative interpretive literature, in the form of the Fathers, Scholastics, and others. As does Judaism.

    Fundamentalist Christianity also gives no authority to tradition and custom, which all the ancient, orthodox churches do. Fundamentalism is radically individualistic, when it comes to the interpretation of scripture — whatever a person, genuinely “inspired by the spirit” thinks it means is what it means. Never mind what Augustine or Aquinas have said.

    Fundamentalism is modern, through and through,regardless of what Mr. Lake would like to think and regardless of his Harvard affiliation. (I was also taught by a Harvard luminary, Peter Machinist, who was a professor at the University of Michigan, when I was a student there, in philosophy and ancient near Eastern history.) He tells a very different story.

    So, sorry. Do not pass go. Do not collect 20 dollars.

  • Yeah, you know, the religion that emerged between the second and fourth centuries AD, with headquarters in Rome and Constantinople?

  • Of course there is such a thing as orthodox Christianity. It’s just not the religion that American evangelicals practice. But the Cistercian monks I met at the Abbey on Caldey Island, Wales certainly practice it. As do the orders that operate the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

    Just because a vulgarized, modern form of Christianity dominates the US doesn’t mean that there aren’t any real varieties.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    I think they are still working on the understanding, but we probably won’t know the final answer until they finish splitting into different branches.

  • Daniel,

    I think you got it right at the very end, anyway: varieties.



  • D Sexton,

    I just woke up to this trick you’re using the other day, this public relations ploy of calling some current item you’re selling an “awakening.”

    Calvinism was a whole new bag of tricks when Calvin dreamed it up. The various ugly neo-Calvinisms being retailed in the United States today are equally original and un-Christian. “Awakening” implies that you are seeing something that you were asleep to, quite the opposite to the truth, that you are being lulled into a spiel by a golden tongued buckboard medicine man.

    You are right that Crowell was one of many over 400 years. The article is right, however, that he is the one of the generation after your turgid lists.


  • I’ve missed seeing you around, my good man. I am the person formerly known as Aravis. I’d love to see you over at my own blog and hear your always interesting thoughts.

  • Daniel,

    Flattery will get you anywhere, young man, so I’ll look in on you. Nice of you to come out of hiding.

    And I do want the press informed of this deep split within what is incorrectly called “Evangelical” Christianity.

    My impression is that most of them, if they are not pure shams, are standard-issue neo-Calvinists, but I think Ted Cruz might be worth a closer look, and that’s on my to-do list.

    Nothing would make me happier than somebody asking a well-researched question along the lines of “Governor X, according to your Pastor’s sermon in Whitecracker last month, Senator Y’s beliefs are “the blood spattered work of the Devil.” Do you agree with your Pastor?” And of course “Senator Y, Governor X’s Pastor says…”

    There’s gold in them thar shills, boy!



  • The entire Reformation is anti-orthodox. That was the whole point — to reject the accumulated traditions of the church (although Luther loved him some Augustine).

    American evangelicals and pentecostals are anything *but* orthodox Christians. By definition, as well as in terms of substance.

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