Invisible Censor


3. Billy Sunday, Salesman


Before I heard Billy Sunday in Philadelphia I had formed a conception of him from the newspapers. First of all, he was a baseball player become revivalist. I imagined him as a ranting, screaming vulgarian, a mob orator who lashed himself and his audience into an ecstasy of cheap religious fervor, a sensationalist whose sermons were fables in slang. I thought of him as vividly, torrentially abusive, and I thought of his revival as an orgy in which hundreds of sinners ended by streaming in full view to the public mourners' bench. With the penitents I associated the broken humanity of Magdalen, disheveled, tearful, prostrate, on her knees to the Lord. I thought of Billy Sunday presiding over a meeting that was tossed like trees in a storm.

However this preconception was formed, it at least had the merit of consistency. It was, that is to say, consistently inaccurate in every particular.

Consider, in the first place, the orderliness of his specially constructed Tabernacle. Built like a giant greenhouse in a single story, it covers an immense area and seats fifteen thousand human beings. Lighted at night by electricity as if by sunshine, the floor is a vast garden of human faces, all turned to the small platform on which the sloping tiers from behind converge. Around this auditorium, with its forest of light wooden pillars and braces, runs a glass-inclosed alley, and standing outside in the alley throng the spectators for whom there are no seats. Except for the quiet ushers, the silent sawdust aisles are kept free. Through police-guarded doors a thin trickle fills up the last available seats, and this business is dispatched with little commotion. Fully as many people wait to hear this single diminutive speaker as attend a national political convention. In many ways the crowd suggests a national convention; but both men and women are hatless, and their attentiveness is exemplary.

It is, if the phrase is permitted, conspicuously a middle-class crowd. It is the crowd that wears Cluett-Peabody collars, that reads the Ladies' Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post. It is the crowd for whom the nickel was especially coined, the nickel that pays carfare, that fits in a telephone slot, that buys a cup of coffee or a piece of pie, that purchases a shoeshine, that pays for a soda, that gets a stick of Hershey's chocolate, that made Woolworth a millionaire, that is spent for chewing-gum or for a glass of beer. In that crowd are men and women from every sect and every political party, ranging in color from the pink of the factory superintendent's bald head to the ebony of the discreetly dressed negro laundress. A small proportion of professional men and a small proportion of ragged labor is to be discerned, but the general tone is simple, common-sense, practical, domestic America. Numbers of young girls who might equally well be at the movies are to be seen, raw-boned boys not long from the country, angular home-keeping virgins of the sort that belong to sewing circles, neat young men who suggest the Y. M. C. A., iron-gray mothers who recall the numbered side-streets in Harlem or Brooklyn or Chicago West Side and who bring to mind asthma and the price of eggs, self-conscious young clerks who are half curious and partly starved for emotion, men over forty with prominent Adam's apple and the thin, strained look of lives fairly care-worn and dutiful, citizens of the kind that with all their heterogeneousness give to a jury its oddly characteristic effect, fattish men who might be small shopkeepers with a single employee, the single employee himself, the pretty girl who thinks the Rev. Mr. Rhodeheaver so handsome, the prosaic girl whose chief perception is that Mr. Sunday is so hoarse, the nervously facetious youths who won't be swayed, the sedentary "providers" who cannot open their ears without dropping their jaws. A collection of decidedly stable, normal, and one may crudely say "average" mortals, some of them destined to catch religion, more of them destined to catch an impression, and a few of them, sitting near the entrances, destined resentfully to catch a cold.

Very simple and pleasant is the beginning. Mr. Sunday's small platform is a bower of lovely bouquets, and the first business is the acknowledgment of these offerings. As a means of predisposing the audience in Mr. Sunday's favor nothing could be more genial. In the body of the hall are seated the sponsors of these gifts, and as each tribute is presented to view, Mr. Rhodeheaver's powerful, commonplace voice invites them to recognition: "Is the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company here?" All eyes turn to a little patch of upstanding brethren. "Fine, fine. We're glad to see yeh here. We're glad to welcome yeh. And what hymn would you like to have?" In loud concert the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. delegation shout: "Number forty-nine!" Mr. Rhodeheaver humorously parodies the shout: "Number forty-nine! It's a good 'un too. Thank yeh, we're glad to have yeh here." Not only immense bouquets, but gold pieces, boxes of handkerchiefs, long mirrors, all sorts of presents, mainly from big corporations or their employees, are on the tight platform. One present came from a mill, a box of towels, and with it not only a warm, manly letter asking Mr. Sunday to accept "the product of our industry," but a little poetic tribute, expressing the hope that after his strenuous sermon Mr. Sunday might have a good bath and take comfort in the use of the towels. Every one laughed and liked it, and gazed amiably at the towels.

The hymns were disappointing. If fifteen thousand people had really joined in them the effect would have been stupendous. As it was, they were thrilling, but not completely. The audience was not half abandoned enough.

Then, after a collection had been taken up for a local charity, Mr. Sunday began with a prayer. A compact figure in an ordinary black business suit, it was instantly apparent from his nerveless voice that, for all his athleticism, he was tired to the bone. He is fifty-three years old and for nine weeks he had been delivering about fifteen extremely intense sermons a week. His opening was almost adramatic. It had the conservatism of fatigue, and it was only his evident self-possession that canceled the fear he would fizzle.

The two men whom Sunday most recalled to me at first were Elbert Hubbard and George M. Cohan. In his mental caliber and his pungent philistinism of expression he reminded me of Hubbard, but in his physical attitude there was nothing of that greasy orator. He was trim and clean-cut and swift. He was like a quintessentially slick salesman of his particular line of wares.

Accompanying one of the presents there had been a letter referring to Billy Sunday's great work, "the moral uplift so essential to the business and commercial supremacy of this city and this country." As he developed his homely moral sermon for his attentive middle-class congregation, this gave the clew to his appeal. It did not seem to me that he had one touch of divine poetry. He humored and argued and smote for Christ as a commodity that would satisfy an enormous acknowledged gap in his auditors' lives. He was "putting over" Christ. In awakening all the early memories of maternal admonition and counsel, the consciousness of unfulfilled desires, of neglected ideals, the ache for sympathy and understanding, he seemed like an insurance agent making a text of "over the hill to the poorhouse." He had at his finger tips all the selling points of Christ. He gave to sin and salvation a practical connotation. But while his words and actions apparently fascinated his audience, while they laughed eagerly when he scored, and clapped him warmly very often, to me he appealed no more than an ingenious electric advertisement, a bottle picked out against the darkness pouring out a foaming glass of beer.

And yet his heart seemed to be in it, as a salesman's heart has to be in it. Speaking the language of business enterprise, the language with which the great majority were familiar, using his physical antics merely as a device for clinching the story home, he gave to religion a great human pertinence, and he made the affirmation of faith seem creditable and easy. And he defined his own object so that a child could understand. He was a recruiting officer, not a drill sergeant. He spoke for faith in Christ; he left the rest to the clergy. And to the clergy he said: "If you are too lazy to take care of the baby after it is born, don't blame the doctor."

It was in his platform manners that Sunday recalled George M. Cohan. When you hear that he goes through all the gyrations and gesticulations of baseball, you think of a yahoo, but in practice he is not wild. Needing to arrest the attention of an incredibly large number of people, he adopts various evolutions that have a genuine emphatic value. It is a physical language with which the vast majority have friendly heroic associations, and for them, spoken so featly and gracefully, it works. Grasping the edge of the platform table as if about to spring like a tiger into the auditorium, Sunday gives to his words a drive that makes you tense in your seat. Whipping like a flash from one side of the table to the other, he makes your mind keep unison with his body. He keys you to the pitch that the star baseball player keys you, and although you stiffen when he flings out the name of Christ as if he were sending a spitball right into your teeth, you realize it is only an odd, apt, popular conventionalization of the ordinary rhetorical gesture. Call it his bag of tricks, deem it incongruous and stagey, but if Our Lady's Juggler is romantic in grand opera, he is not a whit more romantic than this athlete who has adapted beautiful movements to an emphasis of convictions to which the audience nods assent.

The dissuading devil was conjured by Sunday in his peroration, and then he ended by thanking God for sending him his great opportunity, his vast audience, his bouquets and his towels. When he finished, several hundred persons trailed forward to shake hands and confess their faith-bringing the total of "penitents" up to 35,135.

Bending with a smile to these men and women who intend to live in the faith of Christ, Billy Sunday gives a last impression of kindliness, sincerity, tired zeal. And various factory superintendents and employers mingle benignly around, glad of a religion that puts on an aching social system such a hot mustard plaster.


Oyster soup is a standard item in the money-making church supper. The orphan oyster searching vainly for a playmate in an ocean of church soup is a favorite object of Billy Sunday's pity. He loves to caricature the struggling church, with its time-serving, societyfied, tea-drinking, smirking preachers. "The more oyster soup it takes to run a church," he shouts sarcastically, "the faster it runs to the devil."

An attitude so scornful as this may seem highly unconventional to the outsider. It leads him to think that Billy Sunday is a radical. The agility with which the Rev. Billy climbs to the top of his pulpit and then pops to the platform on all fours suggests a corresponding mental agility. He must be a dangerous element in the church, the outsider imagines; he must be a religious revolutionary. And then the outsider beholds John Wanamaker or John D. Rockefeller, Jr., on the platform alongside the revivalist-pillars of society, prosperous and respectable gentlemen who instinctively know their business.

Fond as his friends are of comparing Billy Sunday to Martin Luther or John the Baptist, none of them pushes the comparison on the lines of radicalism, and Sunday himself waives the claim to being considered revolutionary. "I drive the same kind of nails all orthodox preachers do," he says in one of his sermons. "The only difference is that they use a tack hammer and I use a sledge." No one supposes that Martin Luther could have said this. Sledge-hammer orthodoxy was not exactly the distinguishing characteristic of Martin Luther. The conservatism of Billy Sunday's message is the first fact about him. Where he differs from the orthodox preacher is not in his soul but in his resolution. He has the mind of Martin Tupper rather than of Martin Luther, but it is combined with that competent American aggressiveness which one finds in a large way in George M. Cohan, Theodore Roosevelt, even Ty Cobb. Theology does not interest Billy Sunday. He compares it to ping-pong and compares himself to a jack-rabbit and says he knows as little about theology as a jack-rabbit knows about ping-pong. What he cares about is religious revival. He knows the church is in bitter need of revival. He is out to administer digitalis, in his own phrase, instead of oyster soup.

For many years the church has been waning, and Billy Sunday scorns the effeminate, lily-handed efforts at resuscitation that the churchmen have employed. To put pepperino into a religious campaign, to make Christianity hum, requires more than cushioned pews, extra music, coffee and macaroons. Had Billy Sunday been in the regular theatrical business he would not have fussed with a little independent theatre. He would have conducted a Hippodrome. To rival the profane world's attractions he sees no reason for rejecting the profane world's methods. So tremendous an object as curing an institution's pernicious anæmia justifies the most violent, outrageous experiment.

If Jesus Christ were a new automobile or an encyclopædia or a biscuit, Billy Sunday would have varied the method he has employed in putting Him over, but he would not have varied the spirit of his revival-enterprise in any essential particular. His object, as he sees it, is to sell Christ. It is an old story that from its economic organization society takes its complexion. The Sunday revival takes its complexion from business enterprise without a single serious change. There is one great argument running all through Billy Sunday's sermons-the argument that salvation will prove a profitable investment-but much more clearly derived from business than the ethics preached by Billy Sunday is the method he has devised for promoting Jesus Christ. Even the quarrel between "Ma" Sunday and the man who has lost the post-card concession is an illustration of the far-reaching efficiency of the system. The point is not that money is being made out of the system. "An effort to corrupt Billy Sunday," to use a paraphrase, "would be a work of supererogation, besides being immoral." If Billy Sunday has a large income, $75,000 or $100,000 a year, it is not because he is mercenary. It is only because a large income is part of the natural fruits of his promoting ability. Left to himself, it is quite unlikely that Billy Sunday would care a straw about his income, beyond enough to live well and to satisfy his vanity about clothes. It is Mrs. Sunday who sees to it that her promoter-husband is not left penniless by those Christian business men who so delightedly utilize his services.

The backbone of Billy Sunday's success is organization. When organization has delivered the crowd, Billy is ready to sweat for it and spit for it and war-whoop for it and dive for base before the devil can reach him. He is ready to have "Rody" come on the programme with his slide-trombone and to have any volunteer who wishes to do it hit the sawdust-trail. But he does not let his success depend on any programme. His audiences are, in great measure, contracted for in advance. It is in grasping the necessity for this kind of preparedness, in taking from the business world its lessons as to canvassing and advertising and standardizing the goods, that Billy can afford to jeer at oyster soup. As his authorized biographer complacently says, "John the Baptist was only a voice: but Billy Sunday is a voice, plus a bewildering array of committees and assistants and organized machinery. He has committees galore to coöperate in his work: a drilled Army of the Lord. In the list of Scranton workers that is before me I see tabulated an executive committee, the directors, a prayer-meeting committee, an entertainment committee, an usher committee, a dinner committee, a business women's committee, a building committee, a nursery committee, a personal worker's committee, a decorating committee, a shop-meetings committee-and then a whole list of churches and religious organizations in the city as ex officio workers!" In New York on April 9th there was a private meeting of 7,000 personal workers, "another step in the direction of greasing the campaign."

Unless Billy Sunday had some skill as a performer he naturally could not hold his place as a revivalist. His success consists largely, however, in the legendary character that has been given him by all the agencies that seek to promote this desperate revival of orthodox religion. His acrobatic stunts on the platform are sufficiently shocking to make good publicity. His much-advertised slang, repeated over and over, has a similar sensational value. But the main point about him is the dramatization of his own personality. His virility is perhaps his chief stock-in-trade. No one, not Mr. Roosevelt himself, has insisted so much on his personal militant masculinity. Although well over fifty, his youthful prowess as a baseball-player is still a headline-item in his story, and every sermon he preaches gives him a chance to prove he is physically fit. In addition to this heroic characteristic there is his fame as a self-made man. He is a plain man of the people, as he never fails to insist. He carries "the malodors of the barnyard" with him. But he has succeeded. The cost of his special tabernacle is one of his big distinctions. The size of his collections is another. His personal fortune, in spite of all criticism, is a third. Besides these heroic attributes of strength and wealth there is his melodramatic simplicity of mind. All of his sermons are "canned" and a great deal of the material in them is borrowed, but he manages to deliver his message straight from the shoulder, as if it were his own. There can be no doubt that his shouting, his slang, his familiarity with Jesus, his buttonholing old God, his slang-version of the Bible, do offend large numbers of people. They arrest attention so successfully, even in these cases, that they turn out to be well advised. There is nothing spontaneous about these antics. They are switched on at the beginning of a revival and switched off as it succeeds. They are Sunday's native way of lighting up the strait and narrow path with wriggling electric signs.

Billy Sunday has too much energy to stick completely fast in the mud of conservatism. He is capable of advocating sex instruction for the young, for example, and he permits himself the wild radicalism of woman suffrage. But as regards vested interests and patriotism and war he is a conservative, practically a troglodyte. What he attacks with fervor are the delinquents in ordinary conduct, especially the people who lack self-control. "Booze-hoisters" and card-players and tango-dancers and cigarette-smokers are his pet abominations-genuine abominations. Profanity, strange to say, is another evil that he fights with fire. Honesty, sobriety, chastity-these are virtues that he exalts, illustrating the horror of failing in them by means of innumerable chromatic anecdotes. The devil he constantly attacks, though never with real solemnity. "The devil has been practicing for six thousand years and he has never had appendicitis, rheumatism or tonsillitis. If you get to playing tag with the devil he will beat you every chip." It is more for spice and snap that he introduces the devil than to terrify his public. The Bible is his serious theme, and he feels about it almost the way Martin Tupper did:

The dear old Family Bible should be still our champion volume,
The Medo-Persic law to us, the standard of our Rights ...
It is a joy, an honor, yea a wisdom, to declare
A boundless, an infantile faith in our dear English Bible!
-The garden, and the apple, and the serpent, and the ark,
And every word in every verse, and in its literal meaning,
And histories and prophecies and miracles and visions,
In spite of learned unbelief,-we hold it all plain truth:
Not blindly, but intelligently, after search and study;
Hobbes and Paine considered well, and Germany and Colenso ...
The Bible made us what we are, the mightiest Christian nation
The Bible, standing in its strength a pyramid four-square,
The plain old English Bible, a gem with all its flaws ...
Is still the heaven-blest fountain of conversion and salvation.

One of Billy Sunday's boasts is that the liquor interests hate him. "That dirty, stinking bunch of moral assassins hires men to sit in the audience to hear me, to write down what I say and then try to find some author who said something like it, and accuse me of having stolen my ideas. I know that $30,000 was offered a man in New York City to write a series of articles attacking me. All right; if you know anything about me that you want to publish, go to it. Everything they say about me is a dirty, stinking, black-hearted lie. The whole thing is a frame-up from A to Izzard. I'll fight them till hell freezes over, and then borrow a pair of skates. By the grace of God, I've helped to make Colorado and Nebraska and Iowa and Michigan and West Virginia dry, and I serve notice on the dirty gang that I'll help to make the whole nation dry." (New York Times, April 19th, 1917.)

Assuming these points to be well taken, there is still great room to doubt the deep religious effect of a Billy Sunday revival. Men like William Allen White and Henry Allen have testified on his behalf in Kansas, and he has the undying gratitude of many hundred human beings for moral stimulus in a time of need. In spite of the thousands who have hit the sawdust trail, however, it is difficult to believe that more than a tiny proportion of his auditors are religiously affected by him. The great majority of those who hit the trail are people who merely want to shake his hand. Very few give any signs of seriousness or "conversion." The atmosphere of the tabernacle, bright with electric light and friendly with hymn-singing, is not religiously inspiring, and in the voice and manner of Billy Sunday there is seldom a contagious note. His audiences are curious to see him and hear him. He is a remarkable public entertainer, and much that he says has keen humor and verbal art and horse sense. But for all his militancy, for all his pugnacious vociferation, he leaves an impression of being at once violent and incommunicative, a sales agent for Christianity but not a guide or a friend.

Still, as between Billy Sunday's gymnastics and the average oyster soup, Messrs. Wanamaker and Rockefeller naturally put their money on Sunday. Theirs is the world of business enterprise, of carpets and socks, Socony and Nujol, and if Christ could have been put over in the same way, by live-wire salesmanship, Billy was the man.