How Billy Sunday Handled the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

sunday

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….”

Out of the Zoo: “World War III”

World War IIIAnnie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie challenges us to take war seriously.  -JF

About a month and a half ago, after President Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and the Iranian government promised retribution, the internet briefly exploded with fears of a third world war. I remember opening twitter on my computer to see that  “#WorldWar3” was trending worldwide. American teenagers were the primary culprits of the trend, for they (in true Generation Z fashion) took to social media to express angst about their “impending doom.” They posted memes comparing Soleimani to Franz Ferdinand, and filmed tik-tok videos joking about how they and their peers would respond to a draft. It took me a few minutes of Google searching to be assured that the possibility of a third world war was rather unlikely; yet I was struck by how quickly young people like me turned to social media to craft fears of World War III into a budding internet trend. It was curious to me that my peers could so easily make light of an escalating national crisis, even one with a potentially devastating outcome.

This semester at Messiah College I’m taking a class on Europe in the twentieth century. Over the past week we’ve been reading All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, a fictional story which details the experience of a World War I soldier through the eyes of its twenty-year-old narrator Paul Bäumer. Not much older than most culprits of the “#WorldWar3” social media trend, Paul witnesses the gruesome tragedies of war first-hand as a volunteer in the German army.

In one chapter Paul describes a man crying out from no-man’s land for days on end, never to be found despite several search parties. In another chapter Paul stabs a Frenchman who falls into his shell-hole. He is unable to escape his hiding place in the daylight and is thus forced to watch him die a slow, agonizing death. Later still, Paul gets injured and makes his way to hospital nearby, where men with amputated limbs, tetanus, lung wounds, abdominal injuries, and a host of other atrocities are carted off to the “death room.”  They never return. Paul and his comrades hearts’ are quickly hardened by the horrors of war—poisonous gas, trench rats, exploding shells and meaningless death after meaningless death. 

Did teenagers growing up in 20th-century Europe joke about World War I? Did they make light of international crisis by laughing about it with their friends? They didn’t have twitter or tik-tok, but did they too cope with wisecracks about their impending doom? There are several instances of humor woven throughout All Quiet on the Western Front, but for the most part the book reminds us that war is no laughing matter. It reminds us that World War I brought fear, death, and destruction on a scale wider than anyone expected. What went through the minds of nineteen-year-old boys when they volunteered for the war, or were drafted? Did they laugh? Were they hopeful, or were they just plain terrified?

I don’t have answers to any of these questions, nor do I quite know how to reconcile my peers’ naive response to threats of world war with the actual experiences of young men and women whose lives were turned upside-down by global conflict just over a hundred years ago. But comparing the two certainly helps put things in perspective.

Trump and The True Meaning of Sacrifice

Trump rain

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

In Flanders fields.

—Canadian soldier John McCrae,
remembering the sacrifice of fellow
World War I troops.

We’re getting drenched.”

—President Trump, noting his own
sacrifice during World War I centennial
observance Sunday.

Read Dana Milbank’s piece at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

On Veterans Day, Americans recall the sacrifices of those who served our country.

We think of the bayonet charge of Maine’s 20th Regiment on Little Round Top, the young men battling through rain and poison gas in the Argonne, the soldiers in the frozen Ardennes Forest in the Battle of the Bulge.

And we think of President Trump, battling rain for not one but two days in France this weekend.

Other presidents had made sacrifices. George Washington camped with his frozen troops in Valley Forge. William Henry Harrison died after a two-hour inaugural address in the rain.

But these were as nothing compared with the elements Trump battled in Paris.

Read the rest here.

The National Endowment for the Humanities Funds “Dialogues on the Experience of War”

Dialogues-Web

Donald Trump’s current budget proposal will eliminate government funding for the humanities.  This means that local communities and American citizens will need to come up with other ways to fund programs like this:

This month  Auburn University is ending six-month program called “Dialogues on the Experience of War.”  Veterans and community members have been invited to participate in conversations on World War I and the Vietnam War in six different Alabama communities.

Here is a taste of the program:

The Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts & Humanities is proud to announce the launch of “Dialogues on the Experience of War,” a reading-discussion program on World War One and the Vietnam War, in six communities throughout the state. The Center was one of 17 recipients of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for programs that bring perspective and context to the experience of war through the study of literature.

The six Alabama communities participating are Auburn, Collinsville, Ozark, Phenix City, Valley, and Wetumpka. The program will begin September 2016 and end March 2017. Veterans and community members are invited to sign-up for the free program by finding their community representative at aub.ie/dialogues. Recent veterans of the global war on terror are particularly encouraged to participate.

The program provides an opportunity to discuss the experience of war in World War One and the Vietnam War from the perspective of memoir writers and fictional characters in stories and film. World One War resources include the memoir of Congressional Medal of Honor winner John Lewis Barkley, a short story anthology, and the popular 1925 silent film The Big Parade. Vietnam War resources include Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, journalistic account Dispatches, and the Academy Award-winning film Platoon.

Dialogues on the Experience of War is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of the Standing Together initiative, which emphasizes the innovative ways in which the humanities can engage military veterans and communities. “Because veterans account for only 7 percent of our country’s population, there is a pressing need for community programs that bring veterans and nonveterans together in conversation,” said NEH Chairman William D. Adams. “NEH’s Dialogues on the Experience of War grants will allow veterans and community members to explore together the experiences of war using humanities texts as the means of deeper understanding.”

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at http://www.neh.gov.

For more posts in this series click here.

The Author’s Corner with Cara Burnidge

APeacefulConquest.jpgCara Burnidge is Assistant Professor of Religion at University of Northern Iowa. This interview is based on her new book, A Peaceful Conquest:  Woodrow Wilson, Religion, and the New World Order (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write A Peaceful Conquest?

CB: A Peaceful Conquest is the result of me thinking about the American social gospel movement as both intimately connected to Christian ideas of proper governance, particularly American democracy, and as an example of American religious movements responding to their global context. 

As a graduate student, my primary research area was on the work of white social gospel ministers and the women of the settlement house movement. I knew from the primary sources that these themes were present, but when it came time to write a proposal for my dissertation, I had a hard time finding a hook that could make this project make sense without being the cliche of a PhD candidate who couldn’t speak succinctly about their own research. While sharing this conundrum in a meeting with a mentor, she asked simply “What about Woodrow Wilson? Have you thought about him?” I hadn’t. I didn’t consider myself a presidential historian and, to be honest, the vantage point of suffragists colored what limited considerations of Wilson I had had at that time. To be fair and start with the most obvious intersection between “on the ground” reformers and politicians, I began reading the The Papers of Woodrow Wilson and the most recent biography of Wilson at the time. I hoped to find a connection that would show that local and regional social gospel efforts made an impact beyond domestic policy concerns. Rather than a connection I could point to then move on, I found a treasure trove of of memos, letters, telegrams, speeches, and policy conversations that demonstrated the pervasive influence of social gospel thought in American foreign relations. The combination of primary and secondary sources convinced me that I had a different perspective to contribute to the existing historical conversation about Wilsonian liberal internationalism and American religion in this era based on my understanding of the social gospel movement.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Peaceful Conquest?

CB: I argue Woodrow Wilson’s religious identity, shaped by both southern evangelicalism and social Christianity, influenced his liberal internationalism and its legacies for American religion and politics in the twentieth century.

JF: Why do we need to read A Peaceful Conquest?

CB: It should come as no surprise that I am not the first person to write about President Wilson and that others have written great works examining the role of religion in Wilson’s presidency. In fact, Wilson is often the go-to example of a president whose religion “mattered.” What makes A Peaceful Conquest different from these works is its intentional placement of Wilson in the greater American religious landscape and its reconsideration of how we think of presidents and their religious identity. Methodologically, I consider Wilson’s religious identity as I would any other historical figure—intersectional. Race, class, gender, and religion are not separate “lenses” to clarify or frame figures, but constitutive parts that must be held together to understand the whole person and their historical context. Some readers may find this approach helpful for understanding recent public conversations about Wilson’s legacy. It also allows scholars to place Wilson in historical perspective as Americans think (and rethink) the place of white evangelicalism in American identity and the role of America in the world.

A Peaceful Conquest should be added to your reading list if you want to know more about how American religion shaped international politics; if you’re interested in how religious identity does (and does not) shape presidents and their policies; if you’d like to think about the peculiar ways religion is both present and absent from American democracy; if you’re wondering how the social gospel could have been central to American culture yet seemed to disappear after World War I; and if you’re wondering how or why the so-called “God gap” became central to the Democratic Party’s identity.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CB: As an undergraduate, I had the good fortune of having professors and mentors who treated me and other history majors as their equals. The History professors at Washburn University impressed upon us that history is a conversation among historians and they treated us as members of the guild well before we earned our credentials. Those conversations—arguments, debates, and more than one pontification on how history can save the world—convinced me that I was an American historian. More good fortune, generous mentors, and hard work helped me get to the position I am in now.

JF: What is your next project?

CB: My next project examines the King-Crane diplomatic mission, which surveyed residents of mandated territories of Palestine, Syria, and Transjordan to determine who they preferred to oversee their development toward democracy. I am considering how the State Department approached the role of residents’ religion and race in its commitments to advancing national self-determination and democracy in the Middle East.

JF: Thanks, Cara! Sounds like some good stuff.

2105 *Christianity Today* Book Awards

Congratulations to all of this year’s winners, but especially the winner and runner-up in the field of history.

Winner: Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Award of Merit: Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade

Want to learn more about Marsh’s book?  Check out our Author’s Corner feature on him.  (In other words, he and this book were famous well before this award!).

The War for Righteousness

On the suggestion of Russ, one of our loyal readers, I just finished Richard M. Gamble’s The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation (ISI Books, 2003). Russ is right. This is a fascinating and revealing look at liberal Protestantism and the American involvement in World War I.

Gamble argues that “progressive clergy…played a vital role in turning at least their side of the Great War into a ‘war for righteousness,’ an ultimate spiritual battle to rid the earth of a pagan nation that impeded the progress of God’s righteous kingdom.”

Gamble shows how the Federal Council of Christian Churches, the leaders of the movement known as the Social Gospel, and prominent liberal clergy from across the country, pushed hard to get Woodrow Wilson to bring the United States into the War because they perceived it as an opportunity to, as one progressive Protestant put it, advance America’s status as a”Christ nation to the other nations of the world.”

They even chided Wilson in 1916 and early 1917 for trying to pursue a policy of peace in Europe, claiming that Germany needed to be punished by God for the sinking of the Lusitania and the invasion of Belgium. The United States would be God’s agent in carrying out that punishment.

I read The War for Righteousness shortly after I reread George Marsden’s classic Fundamentalism and American Culture. Though some Fundamentalists such as Billy Sunday were strong supporters of American involvement in World War One (and occasionally even joined with some of these Protestant liberals in the cause), and most Fundamentalists eventually supported American intervention, Marsden shows that their decision to follow Wilson into war required some soul-searching. If Gamble is right, liberal Protestants were seldom as cautious. It was the Modernists, not the Fundamentalists, who were most effective at fusing patriotism and Christianity.

Gamble’s presentation of the liberal Protestant commitment to internationalism makes George W. Bush and the neoconservatives look like Ghandi and today’s Christian nationalists look like Anabaptists This is a great book–a real hidden gem.