“A Pandemic Billy Sunday Could Not Shut Down”

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Religion News Service is running my piece on Billy Sunday.  I absolutely love the title they chose and the images they added!  Here is a taste:

(RNS) — As the United States deals with the social effects of COVID-19, several states with stay-at-home orders have exempted religious services. Some evangelical churches, claiming their First Amendment right to worship, held religious services on Easter with the full knowledge that the virus spreads through close human contact.

History will do little to sway the pastors of these churches. Nor should we expect history to provide definitive answers as to whether it is a good idea for churches to remain open during pandemics.

But history can serve as a moral guide in times of crisis. Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” In that spirit, it is worth remembering evangelist Billy Sunday’s face-to-face encounter with the great influenza pandemic while conducting a revival crusade in Providence, Rhode Island.

Read the rest here.

I also did a brief video interview about the piece with Brad McKinnon of Heritage Christian University in Florence, Alabama.

How Billy Sunday Handled the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

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One of the first things I ever published was a journal article on evangelist Billy Sunday’s 1918 crusade in Chicago. The title played-off a line from a popular Frank Sinatra song about Chicago: “The Town That Billy Sunday Could Not Shut down: Prohibition and Sunday’s Chicago Crusade of 1918.” Here’s Frank:

But I digress.

Chicago was the town that Billy Sunday could not shut down.  But Providence was the town that shut Billy Sunday down, at least for three weeks.

During his Chicago crusade, which ran from March 10 to May 20, 1918, Sunday fought the city’s prohibition forces. He preached his now-famous sermon “Get on the Water Wagon.” He always began this sermon by describing a conversation he had with his wife: “Nell, when I am dead, send for the butcher and skin me and have my hide tanned and made into drum heads, and hire men to go up and down the land and beat the drums and say, ‘My husband, Bill Sunday still lives and gives the whiskey gang a run for its money.'” Sunday described the “booze interests” as a “rattlesnake that wriggled its miserable carcass out of hell, where there was a jubilee when the lager beer was invented.” When it came to the “liquor trade,” Sunday said, “I’ll fight them until freezes over than I’ll buy a pair of skates and fight ’em on ice.” For all Sunday’s sensational rhetoric, the “wet forces” in Chicago won the day, at least for the moment. Despite Sunday’s efforts, Chicago did not manage to get Prohibition on the ballot during the April 2018 election.  In the long run, however, the “dry” forces in Illinois contributed a national Prohibition amendment (the 19th), which was ratified in January of 1919.

Later in the year, Sunday conducted a revival in Providence, Rhode Island. As was his custom, Sunday (his advance men) built a temporary tabernacle in the city.  He held seventy meetings in that tabernacle between September 21 and November 17, 2018.  The Congregationalist and Advance, a religious journal of the era, noted that Sunday preached to a “quarter of a million listeners” during the course of the crusade. But he could have reached even more. Sunday only had seventy meetings in this three month period (he usually preached every night) because during the crusade the influenza epidemic hit Providence. Sunday did not preach for three weeks.

The influenza hit Providence hard. In October, 6000 people in the city got sick. 814 died of pneumonia in 1918. On October 5, the Board of Alderman closed schools, theaters, dance halls, and most religious services.  Prior to this, Providence newspapers ran stories about the death of Providence citizens alongside reports of Sunday’s crusade. The Congregationalist and Advance claimed that 10,000 people “grasped Mr. Sunday’s hand” during the crusade. Newspapers described people collapsing with the flu as Sunday preached.  As we look back today, during this time of “social distancing” during the coronavirus, one can’t help but wonder how much the Sunday crusade contributed to the spread of the epidemic.

Sunday’s foe in Providence was much stronger than the “wet forces” of Chicago, but that doesn’t mean that the evangelist did not go down without a fight. Before the Providence Board of Aldermen closed the crusade, Sunday, in his trademark style, informed his audience about the true cause of the epidemic rocking Providence and the nation:

We can meet here tonight and pray down an epidemic just as well as we can pray down a German victory. The whole thing is a part of their propaganda; it started over there in Spain, where they scattered germs around, and that’s why you ought to dig down all the deeper and buy more Liberty bonds. If they can do this to us 3000 miles away, think of what the bunch would do if they were walking our streets. There’s nothing short of hell that they haven’t stopped to do since the war began–darn their hides

The epidemic, of course, broke-out during World War I and Sunday was a master at blaming every American problem on the Germans, including German Higher Criticism of the Bible and the influenza. As historian George Marsden writes, “Although Sunday had little interest in the war until the United States joined it, he soon concluded that zeal for the Gospel and patriotic enthusiasm should go hand in hand. It apparently did not strain his principles…to conclude in 1917 that ‘Christianity and Patriotism are synonymous terms and hell and traitors are synonymous.”  Marsden continues:

As the war effort accelerated he used the rhetoric of Christian nativism to fan the fires of anti-German furor and was famous for sermons that ended with his jumping on the pulpit waving the flag. “If you turn hell upside down,” he said, “you will find ‘Made in Germany’ stamped on the bottom.” Praying before the House of Representatives in 1918 he advised God that the Germans were a ‘great pack of wolfish Huns whose fangs drip with blood and gore.”

Today, one cannot help but think about Jerry Falwell Jr.’s recent suggestion that the coronavirus was a North Korean and Chinese attempt undermine Donald Trump and the various conspiracy theories we have heard on Fox News and elsewhere.

But when the Providence Board of Aldermen closed the city’s public venues in early October, Sunday submitted to its authority:

It is up to us to hope and pray. We are always willing to help anything that is for the public good and do it cheerfully. There is nothing drastic in the [Alderman’s] order, and it is issued in an attempt to stamp out this epidemic.

Eventually, the influenza faded, Providence re-opened schools and public places, and the Sunday crusade continued. The Christian Advocate, another religious paper, quipped: “We are not sure but that influenza is preaching to more people than Billy Sunday ever did….”

Interpreting the Billy and Helen Sunday Home

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 Billy and Helen Sunday Home, Winona Lake, Indiana

Since Messiah College started the Digital Harrisburg Initiative a few years ago, I have developed a real appreciation for digital and public history projects at small colleges and universities.  In 2011, I spent a day at Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana.  I was there to deliver a lecture, but I also spent some time touring an on-campus museum which would eventually become the Winona History Center.

Winona Lake was a popular vacation resort and Bible conference for evangelicals and fundamentalists in the 20th century largely because it was the home of the revivalist and former baseball player Billy Sunday.  The nation’s most popular preachers and speakers passed through Winona Lake every summer, including William Jennings Bryan and Billy Graham.

Recently, Grace College and the Winona History Center won a grant to create an interactive digital tour of the Billy and Helen Sunday Home.  Here is a taste of InkFreeNews’s coverage:

WINONA LAKE — The Winona History Center in Winona Lake, was one of 18 libraries, schools, and museums to receive grants from Indiana Humanities and Indiana Landmarks this spring. The History Center, which is owned and operated by Grace College, has received an Historic Preservation Education Grant of up to $1,700 to create an interactive digital tour of the Billy and Helen Sunday Home for those unable to access the building.

“Funding a wide range of thoughtful and creative programming that connects so many Hoosiers to the depth and breadth of the humanities is core to our mission,” said Keira Amstutz, president and CEO of Indiana Humanities. “We are encouraged every year by the innovative programs proposed by the grantees and the opportunity to touch the lives of residents all over Indiana.”

The project, which is being developed by museum director Dr. Mark Norris and museum coordinator Karen Birt, will produce an interactive map on an iPad of the layout of the second floor of the Billy and Helen Sunday Home, making it accessible to the mobility challenged. Users will be able to click on the artifacts pictured in each room and receive an audio, visual or textual provenance of the artifact.

The project will allow Sunday Home visitors to interact with the home, which is located at 1111 Sunday Lane, about four blocks from the Winona History Center in Westminster Hall on the Grace College campus.

Read the rest here.  Congratulations!

Billy Sunday

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I used to have a friend who occasionally wore a t-shirt with a picture of Billy Sunday and the caption “Evangelical with an Attitude.” (Hi Fred!).

I thought about my friend and his shirt when I read Liva Gerson’s latest at JSTOR Daily: “Pop-Culture Preaching in the 1910s.”  The piece draws on Margaret Bendroth’s  Religion and American Culture essay “Why Women Loved Billy Sunday: Urban Revivalism and Popular Entertainment in Early Twentieth-Century American Culture.”

Here is a taste:

Evangelical megachurches like Hillsong Church—mainly known outside Christian circles as the spiritual home of Justin Bieber—often come under fire from more traditional Christians for drawing crowds with dynamic rock-star pastors rather than Biblical teaching. As religion historian Margaret Bendroth writes, however, the dilemma of the entertaining, sexy preacher has long been an issue. In the 1910s, for example, a former baseball player named Billy Sunday drew huge crowds of both sexes to blunt, provocative revival meetings.

In the early twentieth century, Bendroth writes, Protestant leaders worried about the “feminization” of their churches that had occurred in the Victorian Era. Sunday presented himself as a solution to the problem of “more feathers than whiskers” in the pews. Decrying “off-handed, flabby-cheeked, brittle-boned, weak-kneed, thin-skinned, pliable, plastic, spineless, effeminate, ossified, three-carat Christianity,” he held services just for men. In these services he railed against vice, supported the cause of temperance, and waved a huge American flag.

Read the rest here.

 

Scholars Tackle White Supremacy and American Christian History

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Alma White founded the Pillar of Fire Church in 1901.  She was associated with the KKK and anti-Catholicism.  This is a 1926 issue of the church’s magazine (Wikipedia Commons)

The Religion & Culture Forum is running a series of posts on the history of the relationship between white supremacy and Christianity in modern America.  A taste:

The June issue of the Forum features Kelly J. Baker’s essay, “The Artifacts of White Supremacy.” Discussions about racism—and white supremacy in particular—tend to treat it as a matter of belief, while there’s considerably less talk of how racialized hate becomes tangible and real. And yet, we know the Ku Klux Klan, the oldest hate group in the U.S., by their hoods and robes. Artifacts signal (and often embody) the racist ideology of the Klan, along with their particular brand of Protestantism and nationalism. Robes, fiery crosses, and even the American flag were all material objects employed by the 1920s Klan to convey their “gospel” of white supremacy. The Klan’s religious nationalism, its vision of a white Protestant America, became tangible in each of these artifacts, and each artifact reflected the order’s religious and racial intolerance. Nationalism (or “100% Americanism”), Protestant Christianity, and white supremacy became inextricably linked in these material objects. Examining the historical artifacts of white supremacy helps us to better understand how white supremacy manifests today and might also help us better identify and analyze the presence and effect of racism in American life and politics.

Over the next few weeks, scholars will offer responses to Baker’s essay. We invite you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.

Responses:

Fred Clark, aka Slacktivist, has written a nice post on the forum.  Read it here.  I was particular struck by his use of a quote from Randall Stephens’s response to Baker.   Here it is:

In the 1920s, America’s most famous crusading fundamentalist, Billy Sunday, made some efforts to keep his distance from the Klan. But Klansmen tended to see the revivalist as a kindred spirit. Without cozying up too much to the organization, Sunday found ways to praise the robed terrorists. Other traveling preachers like Bob Jones, Alma White, B. B. Crimm, Charlie Taylor, and Raymond T. Richey lauded the white supremacist groups in their sermons and publications. Billy Sunday’s ardent prohibitionism, biblical literalism, and nativism made him particularly attractive in the eyes of Klan members. In 1922 a South Bend, Indiana, newspaper cracked a bleak joke about their mutual affection. “Down in West Virginia the other day,” an editor noted, the Klan “slipped Billy Sunday the sum of $200. With Sunday’s O.K., that ought to put the K.K.K. in good standing with old St. Peter.” Sunday returned the favor with kind words about Klansmen who lent a hand in police vice raids. The revivalist would accept other larger-than-average donations from the Klan at revivals in Indiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana between 1922 and 1925. In Richmond, Indiana, Klansmen showed up to give him their donation decked out in all their full regalia. Fittingly, in 1923 a Klan-supporting editor in Texas rhapsodized: “I find the preachers of the Protestant faith almost solid for the Klan and its ideals, with here and there an isolated minister … who will line up with the Catholics in their fight on Protestantism, but that kind of preacher is persona non grata in most every congregation in Texas.”

Again, check out the entire Religion & Culture Forum series here.