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The Voice in the Desert: Billy Sunday’s New York Tabernacle meetings

Before the war, Billy Sunday, a strong supporter of the Prohibition movement, called Americans to distance themselves from the conflict in Europe by calling the war a “slideshow compared to the damnable effects of the saloons.” When Wilson declared war in 1917 however, Sunday immediately changed his tune, openly called forSundayNYCTabernacleNew York Tabernacle the U.S. to go to battle, and launched the New York City revival of 1917 that catapulted him to fame. The next day on April 9, 1917, The New York Times’ headline read:

Sermons Brought Up to Date to Sink the Kaiser
with the Devil as an Enemy Alien

The New York Herald also reported that in his opening sermon, Sunday declared “In these days, one is either a patriot or a traitor, in the cause of Jesus Christ, in the cause of the country.” In another sermon, Sunday said “I tell you it is Bill against Woodrow, Germany against America, Hell against Heaven.” He later targeted conscientious objectors saying: “Either you are loyal, or you are not, you are either a patriot or a black-hearted traitor…All this talk about not fighting the German people is a lot of bunk.”9

Billy Sunday, a professional baseball player turned evangelist, established himself as a flamboyant and entertaining preacher in the early 1910s. No one could escape the640px PreachingSunday Preaching spell of Sunday’s sermons and it was not surprising to see Sunday’s sermons printed in full on newspapers in cities where he held campaigns. Even during World War I, Sunday’s sermons equaled or surpassed media attention.10 His New York City revival of 1917, calling to support the war effort, did not go unnoticed. While his colloquial sermons were attention-getters, Sunday needed a gimmick to hold audience’s attention. His solution was music.

Congregational singing was central to both Sunday and the congregation. It was a personal and collective experience that appealed to 454px HomerRodeheaverHomer Rodeheaverthe entire congregation. Sunday’s choir director, Homer Rodheaver, was responsible for warming up the crowd. His keen sense of what would catch audience’s attention caused him to display his wide-ranging talents from conducting massive choirs to performing magic tricks for children.11 In 1915, Rodheaver re-published his Songs for Service, an anthology of most favored revival hymns. The collection included wartime tunes such as “The Son of God Goes Forth to War” and “The Fight is On.” It is interesting to considersongs for service cover that even though this anthology was published two years before America entered the war, revival hymns with martial lyrics were already popular.

A typical tabernacle meeting would start out with Rodheaver warming up the crowd by singing a hymn and playing a trombone solo. Rodheaver would then turn to his choir of 2,000 and lead them on with the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers.”12 Sunday would then take the podium and start his sermon with the thunderous phrase “Have Ye Received the Holy Spirit?” Perhaps in an effort to unite America’s races for the war effort, Sunday preached, in the autumn of 1917, to an all-white congregation while behind him stood a choir entirely made of black choristers.13

Towards the end of the sermon, Sunday would confront the congregation with the question “Do you want God’s blessing on you, your home, your church, your nation, on New York? If you do, raise your hands.” As hands sprung across the crowd-filled meeting, Sunday would beckon the crowd to move forward and pledge their support to Sunday’s message of redemption. This call for converts was the climax of the meeting and a cue for Rodheaver and his choir to launch “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Rodheaver chose his songs carefully. Repeating tunes that had Sunday leads the crowdSunday leads the crowda message of personal humility and perseverance in America’s just cause were the themes.14 He said, “it was never wise to change the invitation song as long as people were coming forward, even though we had to use it over and over.” He added that music should match the message of the sermon, so “if the preacher Rodheaver leads the crowdRodheaver leads the crowdcloses his sermon with a challenge to men, literally daring them to come and take their stand for Christ, then we certainly do not want to pick out something like ‘Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling’ or ‘Just as I Am,’ but a song like ‘Stand Up for Jesus,’ ‘Onward Christian Soldiers,’ ‘I am Resolved No Longer to Linger.’”15 Sunday always ended his sermons with Rodheaver and the choir singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Clearly, music matched Sunday’s call to support the war.





9. McLoughlin, 257–259; Firstenberger, 60–62; Dorsett, 113–114.The New York Times, Feb. 19, 1918; In one of Sunday’s sermons, he said “If you turn hell upside down, you will find ‘Made in Germany’ stamped on the bottom.” Ray H. Abrams, Preachers Present Arms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1933), 79; The paradoxical and moral hypocritical role of religion is again displayed here. While Sunday tries to connect Germany to hell for political agenda, his message ignores the fact that his branch of evangelical Protestantism was born in Germany in 1521.
10. Johnson, p. 143
11. Martin, p. 51
12. McLoughlin, Billy Sunday, xix.
13. While having an all-black choir behind Sunday would have been seen as liberal views on race, Sunday reaffirmed his racist views saying: “I am not going to plead for the social equality of the white man and the black man. I don’t believe there is an intelligent white man who believes in social equality or an intelligent and reasonable colored man who believes in social equality. But before God and men every man stands equal whether he is white or whether he is black. McLoughlin, Billy Sunday, 273ff.
14. Watkins, p. 278
15. McLoughlin, p. 89.

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