Curtis Dahlgren
The rain dance of the elites (God and man at Charlotte's Web)
By Curtis Dahlgren
September 7, 2012

"You will hear more good things on the outside of a stage from London to Oxford than if you were to pass a twelve-month with the undergraduates, or heads of colleges, of that famous university." — Wm. Hazlitt (1778-1830), from "The Ignorance of the Learned"

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A CENTURY MAKES. An ex-basketball player travels around the country speaking — mostly to college audiences (almost every day). In 1914 an ex-baseball player travels around the country speaking, and the apex of his career is a single day at the U. of Pennsylvania.

I've been reading "Billy Sunday; the Man and His Message" by Wm. Ellis (Moody Press, 1959). Sunday was born two years before Lincoln died; he played for the Chicago White Sox in the 1800s but retired early; his biggest "scores" were hundreds of thousands of conversions in the 20th century.

"Billy Sunday had many great days in his life — mountain-top experiences of triumphant service; exalted occasions when it would seem that the climax of his ministry had been reached. Doubtless, though, the greatest day of his crowded life was the thirtieth of March, 1914, which he spent with the students of the University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia."

The university provost had invited Sunday due to concern over a rash of student-suicides the previous year. The more things stay the same, eh? How many students kill themselves every year (inadvertently and/or intentionally)? Meanwhile, the Democratic convention took God out of the platform and then — on a voice vote of 51.5 to 49.5% — put Him back in ("BOO"). But:

"Back of the visit of the evangelist to the University lies a story, and a great principle. The latter is that materialism has no message for the human soul or character . . . the character of young manhood needs to be fortified by spiritual ideals.

"In his role of religious leader of the University, and counselor to the young men, Provost Smith had heard confessions of personal problems which had wrung his soul. None knew better than he that it takes more than culture to help a man win the battle of life."

To a gymnasium packed to the rafters and window sills, Sunday gave three addresses that day. The lines at the doors were probably longer than outside a store selling the iPhone 5. As one of the newspapers remarked, in the title it gave to a section of a page of pictures, "Wouldn't think they were striving for admittance to a religious service, would you?" Sunday said:

"Say boys, are you fellows willing to slap Jesus in the face in order to have some one come up and slap you on the back and say you are a good fellow and a sport? That is the surest way to lose out in life. I am giving you the experience of a life that knows. Pilate had his chance and he missed it . . .

"Some people think they are not good enough to go to Heaven and not bad enough to go to Hell, and that God is too good to send them to Hell, so they fix up a little religion of their own. [But] God isn't keeping a
half-way house for any one."

From the outset the students (no more critical hearers alive) were won by Billy Sunday's sermons, including "Real Manhood":

"I don't care if you have brains enough to fill a hogshead or little enough to fill a thimble, you are up against this proposition: You must begin to measure Christ by the rules of God instead of the rules of men. Put Him in the God class instead of the man class . . .

"The conditions and the opportunities are so much greater in these days, that a real superman should be the product IF education, society, business, politics [etc] could produce such an one . . . Don't swell up like a poisoned pup and say that 'it doesn't meet with my stupendous intellectual conception [of God]' . . . God should have waited until you were born and then called you into counsel, I suppose."

Sunday talked about the assassination of President McKinley and the burial ceremony in Canton, Ohio (which he had attended):

"When I came out of that court-house at Canton, I said: 'Thank God, I'm in good company, for the greatest men of my nation are on the side of Jesus."

From the farthest corner of the auditorium came a fervent "Amen," which found many repetitions in the brief silence that followed [unlike the boos in Charlote when God was "voted" back into the party platform]. Sunday concluded with a story about a man who was impressing a crowd by tossing a valuable pearl high into the air, reaching over the side of a ship to catch it time and time again. But, just once, he missed it and the pearl was gone.

"Boys, that man lost everything just to gain the plaudits of the crowd. Are you doing the same thing? That is the condition of thousands of people beneath the stars and stripes today — losing everything just to hear the clamor of the people, and get a little pat on the back for doing something the mob likes."

When Sunday gave the invitation, after the night meeting, for men who wanted to dedicate themselves to cleaner, nobler manhood to rise, nearly the entire body, visibly moved by the words of the [uneducated ball player] preacher, rose! And the University weekly, Old Penn, stated:

"No one who has ever addressed the students of the University of Pennsylvania on vital religion has ever approached the success which was attained by Mr. Sunday in reaching the students, and without doubt this visit is only the opening up of a marvelous opportunity for Mr. Sunday to reach the students of the entire country, especially those of our great cosmopolitan universities."


"Some people couldn't have faces any longer if they thought God was dead . . The matter with a lot of you people is that your religion is not complete . . You would think that if some people laughed it would break their faces . . Don't look as if religion hurt . . . I see some women who look as if they had a toothache."

Sounds almost like the crowd in Charlotte, doesn't it? "A rare gift of satire and scorn and invective and ridicule had been given to Sunday . . His aptitude for puncturing sham was almost unique in contemporary life." For example:

"O Lord, there are a lot of people who step up to the collection plate at church and fan. And Lord, there are always people sitting in the grandstand and calling the batter a mutt. He can't hit a thing or he can't get it over the base, or he's an ice wagon on the bases, they say. O Lord, give us some coachers out of this tabernacle so that people can be brought Home to you. Some of them are dying on second and third base, Lord, and we don't want that.

"Lord, have the people play the game of life right up to the limit so that home runs may be scored. . .

"Why are so few people coming into the kingdom? I will tell you — there is not a definite effort put forth to persuade a definite person to receive a definite Saviour at a definite time,
and that time is now. I tell you the church of the future must have personal work and prayer.

"The trouble with some churches is that they think the preacher is a sort of ecclesiastical locomotive who will snort and puff and pull the whole bunch through to glory.
A politician will work harder to get a vote than the church of God will work to have men brought to Christ."


© Curtis Dahlgren


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Curtis Dahlgren

Curtis Dahlgren is semi-retired in southern Wisconsin, and is the author of "Massey-Harris 101." His career has had some rough similarities to one of his favorite writers, Ferrar Fenton... (more)


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