Revivals and Reason: Rationalist Protests, 1875 to 1920
In my study of the freethought movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the relationship of rationalist freethinkers to revivals has given me some food for thought. Freethinkers of this era believed that reason would in time―though they never said how long―cleanse the human race of irrational superstitions and belief in miracles, of the fear of hell and the hope of heaven, and of believing old tales as literally true. Clearly, this has not yet happened.
I look here at the debate and results over two generations. Robert G. Ingersoll and Dwight L. Moody were two of the best known speakers of their generation, from roughly 1875 to 1899, the year both died. They represented two poles on the religious spectrum, the rationalist debunker of orthodoxy, and the orthodox evangelist In the next generation, Billy Sunday carried on Moody’s techniques with some twists of his own. John Emerson Roberts, would-be Ingersoll successor, spoke against Sunday and his beliefs when both were in Kansas City in 1916.
Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899) was first, a lawyer, second, a political speaker and presenter on the lecture circuit. The son of a Congregational minister, Ingersoll abandoned the doctrines of his parents, particularly the belief in hell and damnation. In this he was like many of his generation, but he went farther than most, giving up on Christianity altogether.
By 1877, building on his fame as a speaker for the Republican party, he was periodically going on lecture tours, speaking on such topics as “Some Mistakes of Moses” and “Ghosts.” He set reason against traditional stories, and clear thinking against superstition. He summarized his own belief in terms like these: “Humanity is grander than all the creeds, than all the books. Humanity is the great sea, and these books and creeds and religions are but the waves of a day.”
The term “humanism” was not yet in common use for views like those Ingersoll professed; he was known as an agnostic. Because of his radical views, he was denied political appointment and therefore a career in politics, though politicians sought the support of his speaking abilities. Ingersoll soon could count on filling the largest hall in any city he visited. His great popularity suggests that many more people agreed with him that Christian orthodoxy is irrational than would openly admit it. Controversy is also a big draw, however: some came to be titillated or challenged by his claims; he found protests from orthodox ministers good publicity.
Dwight L. Moody’s development took the opposite trajectory. Born into a Unitarian family, he converted to orthodox Christianity at age 18, after he had left home. He worked as a salesman until he felt the compulsion to teach and to preach the Gospel. He first was a teacher, moving into evangelism after 1871. A tour of Britain in 1875 began the period of his peak success, in his famous collaboration with the musician Ira Sankey.
Moody’s focus was on immigrants in the cities. He was supported by coalitions of churches and by business leaders. He introduced many businesslike aspects in his revivals, including advance men and rooms where volunteers could meet with those who answered the altar call. Moody himself came to recognize that the revivals were not having the effects desired and turned his focus back to education, though he continued to preach extensively.
Dwight L. Moody
Moody’s message addressed behavior as well as conversion. This is evident in a sermon variously called “Sowing and Reaping” or “Reaping Whatsoever We Sow.” It is based on the text from Galatians 6:7-8: “Be not deceived. God is not mocked. For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.”
Moody begins by stressing that God cannot be deceived and giving examples, from individuals to nations, of consequences arising from sin. In the version I have seen of this sermon Moody intertwines consequences in this world, confession and making amends in this world, and confession to God, repentance and the promise of eternal life. The free grace of God is almost lost: “He will forgive you the sin, though He will make you reap what you sow.” God forgives, but society does not.
Robert Ingersoll responded to this sermon with a lecture in which he pointed out that Moody was contradicting himself. Most of the lecture laments the fact that Moody has not read some useful books, such as Darwin and Spencer. Ingersoll’s climax points out the inconsistency that a man can convert just before death and be forgiven, but when a man appears before God moments after death, God sends his soul to hell. (Moody, of course, avoided the death-bed conversion scenario entirely, calling for conversion at the time he spoke.) Ingersoll concludes with the idea that Moody is behind the times. “Yes, the people are becoming civilized, and so they are putting out the fires of hell. They are ceasing to believe in a God who seeks eternal revenge.”
Within weeks of Moody’s death, John Emerson Roberts took the opportunity to compare him with Ingersoll, speaking in his “Church of this World” in Kansas City, Missouri. The lecture was printed by The New York freethought publication, The Truth Seeker, in March 1900. Roberts begins by noting the climate of free speech that allows men of such different views both to have their say. He declares the two men both to have been geniuses in their field, and to have been good men: “They had the greatness and the goodness, the nobility of purpose and magnitude of heart to administer their divine gifts as though held in trust for the use and benefit of all.”
The messages of the two men were opposites: “that of Mr. Moody was the doctrine of dependence, that of Mr. Ingersoll the doctrine of self-reliance.” Roberts asserts that Moody’s message was out of date, and that he was losing the backing of the churches, had in fact outlived his cause, as religious people came to speak of allegory and to read the Bible in a different way. Ingersoll, on the other hand, “was a prophet of the future, the light-bringing herald of the dawn. He was equipped by reason and backed by knowledge and discovery.”
John Emerson Roberts (1853-1942) had moved from an orthodox family into freethought as Ingersoll did, but his transition was slower. He spent six years as a Baptist minister, then twelve as a Unitarian before he established his own venue for Sunday morning lectures without religious trappings. Newspaper reporters in Kansas City spoke of Roberts as a potential successor to Ingersoll while Ingersoll was still alive, but a combination of personal and social factors prevented this.
Personally, Roberts lacked Ingersoll’s stamina and connections. In society, the fluid and allusive speaking style which led many to compare Roberts to Ingersoll was losing popularity. Many freethinkers were looking for “stronger stuff” from their lecturers. Roberts refused to change with the times. Along with his lecturing style, he maintained his optimism about the eventual triumph of reason. The revivals of Billy Sunday challenged his optimism, but gave him an opportunity to fight for his cause. While Ingersoll had treated Moody lightly, saying, “Let us hope Mr. Moody will read some really useful books,” and Roberts could calmly compare the two men in 1900, Roberts was quite serious and heated about Sunday in 1916.
Billy Sunday (1862-1935) was the best known revivalist of the first quarter of the 20th century. After a conversion experience, he turned the athletic energy of his former life as a baseball player, and his country slang, toward saving souls. He learned Moody’s methods through Wilbur Chapman; he developed them further into a very precise process of preliminary work, use of volunteers, and choreographed presentations. Like Moody he focused in his sermons on individual behavior and the effects of sin, but he put more emphasis on the terrors of hell.
For seven weeks in 1916, Sunday brought his revival to Kansas City. For five of those weeks, Roberts spoke out against him. He had to, he said, because others could not: newspapers would lose subscribers and liberal churches would only be accused of jealousy if they spoke against the popular revivalist. Roberts claimed that he was not attacking but explaining the revivals. In his lectures he describes the process of preparation and the play on emotions of the music, the stories and the sheer energy of Sunday’s performances. He cites Sunday’s stories of human failing, such as one where a mother loses her sons to drowning because she scoffed at their desire to become missionaries. He compares bringing groups of children to hear Sunday to the excesses of the church in the middle ages:
[W]hen they will bring 96 orphans from an orphan asylum, and let a vehement, passionate, whirling dervish evangelist tell them that unless they “come down here and shake my hand” they will go to hell, – when that can be done in the twentieth century, with the support of intelligent churches and ministers, then religious propagandism is just as brutal as it ever was.
Roberts charges that society has not benefited but been damaged by Sunday’s efforts:
For seven long weeks, day and night, science has been condemned, knowledge has been trampled under foot, the moral standard has been perverted, false standards of human conduct have been held up. Jesus has been caricatured, and God Almighty has been made a hideous, an infinite fiend.
In contrast, Roberts promises: “We shall make the earth a divine, a heavenly place, when we have persuaded men that the only religion is to be decent, just and kind.”
Did Roberts and his reason have any effect on Sunday’s success? Not at all. Reason turns out to have little power up against emotion backed by economics. Ingersoll and Roberts saw the churches that backed revivals, and believed they were losing power. They failed to see the businessmen who, in the search for a more disciplined work force, put up much of the money. Sunday’s revivals declined when it became clear that they weren’t accomplishing what the financial backers wanted. Revivals would come again, and the opposing voices of reason would continue to be at a disadvantage.
These thoughts are developed from work I did for my biography: John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher (Xlibris, 2011; softcover edition available from the author at Freethoughtandmetaphor.com).
Moody, “Reaping Whatsoever We Sow”: The Life and Work of Dwight Lyman Moody, Chapter 22.
Ingersoll, “Sowing and Reaping”: Infidels.org.
The Truth Seeker is available in the Library of Congress.
Quotations from Roberts on Sunday are from “The Sawdust Trail,” a pamphlet in my possession. I have recently learned of one other copy in private hands, but know of none in a public repository.