Thousands greeted evangelist Billy Sunday upon his arrival in Spokane 100 years ago, and eagerly awaited his effect on our ‘evil’ city
One hundred years ago this Christmas Day, evangelist Billy Sunday arrived in Spokane to launch a thundering, pulpit-shaking battle for this wicked city’s immortal soul. Welcome to Spokane’s Culture Wars, 1908 version. Billy Sunday’s revival was not only the city’s biggest religious gathering ever, but probably the biggest traveling show of any kind:
• 8,000 showed up at that first day’s revival meeting.
• 35,000 turned out on one subsequent day alone.
• The revival continued almost every day for six weeks.
It all began when a group of Spokane preachers and upright businessmen enticed Sunday to venture out of the Midwest with his populist, entertaining brand of fire and brimstone.
The city’s moral future was at stake, the local preachers believed. Which Spokane would prevail in the 20th century? Evil Spokane or Righteous Spokane?
“There was the working-class culture, with all of those younger men in mining and timber,” said Dale Soden, a Whitworth University history professor. “They were all looking for some fun. The brothel, the saloon and gambling house arose to serve those people.”
In opposition was Spokane’s rising middle class culture: religious, sober and with stern Victorian values.
“In essence, this was an attempt to wrest control of Spokane’s social life away from Dutch Jake Goetz (who owned a huge gambling house and saloon) and toward the institutions of church life and education,” said Soden, an authority on the influence of religion on Northwest history.
Sunday was the perfect choice, because he already had a reputation for reaching working-class men.
He had been a professional baseball player before discovering Jesus. He was a staunch union man. He peppered his exhortations with the slang of the era: calaboose, blacklegs and lobster (his all-purpose expression for a fool).
Sunday had never launched a major revival outside the Midwest – later, he would cover the nation – but he saw a fertile field in Spokane for at least three of his favorite topics: drinking, gambling and sex.
Spokane in 1908 had about 101 churches and about 211 saloons.
“I have sized up Spokane,” he told one of his crowds. “… It seems you combine New England conservatism, Eastern shrewdness, Southern hospitality, Western push and plain devilism.”
To handle the expected crowds, a local ministerial association had built a vast wooden “tabernacle” at Second and McClellan (which served double-duty the month before as part of the National Apple Exhibition).
An advance team built pine benches, a pulpit and a backdrop reading “Spokane For Christ.” The words “Billy Sunday Tabernacle” were painted in gigantic letters across the exterior.
The tabernacle seated 8,000, and that’s how many showed up on that first day. The lead story in The Spokesman-Review the next day was, “Billy Sunday Smites the Devil; 8000 Listen.”
Ministers from 25 of Spokane’s churches were in the audience. Even if they liked the message, some of the must have been startled by the style. Sunday was a combination preacher, vaudeville comedian and circus acrobat.
“He hits the pulpit tremendous blows with his fists and performs feats of balance on that piece of furniture that lay the ordinary preacher by the heels,” said The Spokesman-Review.
“ … His patent leather shoes twinkled up and down with incredible speed and endurance. It is not unlikely that Billy Sunday, in the course of the day’s preaching, covers the distance of a Marathon race, and all the time talking at the top of his voice.”
And what talk!
Here are a few of Sunday’s observations, taken from some of his Spokane sermons:
On dancing: “The dance is the hotbed of immorality. Dancing is one of the greatest evils on the face of this earth. Dancing is simply a hugging match set to music. Dancing is a sexual love feast.”
On theater: “It is almost impossible to find decency or purity in the play. Crude melodrama, foolish musical comedies and plays of literary tommyrot form the staple of the productions of the average theater today … it’s the leg show that attracts, not the drama.”
On card-playing: “Somebody says: ‘What’s the difference between a game of checkers and a game of cards?’ Just as much difference as heaven and hell. And from the day a pack of cards were invented to satisfy the whims of an idiotic king, down until now, they haven’t been used for much but gambling.”
On the ways young people are corrupted: “Many a boy and girl trained in their home by their mother to abhor cards have been ruined by going to board in some good-for-nothing, no account, beer-drinking, card-playing, dancing Presbyterian family.”
On the need for a moral rebirth in America: “Why do we need a revival? Because this is a busy age. Men are feeding their muscles and bone and sinew into the commercial mill that grinds out dividends. And the men who get the dividends sit by and watch it – the big, fat, hog-jowled, weasel-eyed pussy lobsters.”
On his critics: “If I can succeed tonight in stopping one man from being a gambler or one girl from being a prostitute, I will thank God for all of the vituperations and malignant epithets that you can belch and pewk out against what I have asserted.”
On God’s wrath: “No wonder God shook that old town (San Francisco) with an earthquake and swept their cussedness with fire. There wasn’t a rottener city on the American continent.”
On booze: “Who makes the money? The dirty gangs of saloon keepers and the brewers and the distillers, and that is the gang that fills the land with misery and poverty and wretchedness.”
Drink was the subject of perhaps the wildest revival meeting of Sunday’s entire visit. On Jan. 24, 1909, he staged a men-only meeting focusing on the evils of alcohol.
The Spokesman-Review reported the next day that 10,000 men had squeezed into the tabernacle. The 5,000 men still outside “surged toward the doors” and “nearly caused a riot.”
Sunday was at his showman’s best, as he acted out a skit in which he pretended to be a former drunkard who has seen the light. His “children” ask him what he has brought home from the store.
“Beefsteak and a sirloin roast, the stuff that rich folks that ride in automobiles have, the stuff that we have been feeding the saloonkeepers on,” said Sunday, acting the part.
“You never had any, but your pa has got a little sense. He has been up to hear Bill (Sunday) and got on the water wagon. And look here, wife, I have bought some cloth for a dress for you, too.”
Alcohol proved to be a hot topic in Spokane, which had been debating the issues of temperance and prohibition.
Because of the enthusiasm whipped up by Sunday, 100 of the city’s temperance-minded politicians, business leaders and preachers chartered a train and traveled with Sunday to Olympia to lobby for the “local control option” (the ability of a county or city to ban alcohol).
When Sunday finally ended his Spokane meetings on Feb. 7, 1909, sympathetic clergymen were quick to declare victory. The Rev. Henry Rasmus of the First Methodist Church said that Spokane “has had an awakening” which will “grow and grow.”
A headline in The Spokesman-Review declared, somewhat hopefully, “Beer Sales Fall; Bibles In Demand.”
So, did Billy Sunday win this particular culture war for Spokane?
“The short answer is no,” said Soden.
Church attendance had a brief spike, but then it ebbed. Little evidence exists that he had converted many rowdy miners and loggers. Even during that incendiary anti-booze meeting, only 200 of the 10,000 came forward to “get on the water wagon.”
That beer vs. Bibles headline was also based on scant evidence. Someone from the Schade Brewery noted that beer sales were always slow in February and, in any case, had not fallen off much at all.
Yet what’s the explanation for that extraordinary attendance?
Maybe Billy Sunday was simply the best show in town.
“There was not that much competition in town for respectable vaudeville entertainment,” said Soden, the author of a scholarly paper titled “Billy Sunday in Spokane.”
However, the forces of reform and respectability started to gain the upper hand around this time.
Spokane historian N.W. Durham wrote that the city was beginning to pass forever from a place of “picturesque” frontier amusements to a “social, educational and amusement center of the better kind.”
Or to put it another way, Spokane went in the next 20 years from a rowdy place for a logger to have fun on Saturday night, to “a nice place to raise a family.”
“I would be hesitant to put too much focus on him alone,” said Soden. “But Billy Sunday’s visit was a part of that larger reform effort.”
So maybe Sunday did smite the devil right out of Spokane. However, even today some citizens are known to persist in one of the greatest evils on the face of this earth: dancing.
Jim Kershner can be reached at (509) 459-5493 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.