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The Preacher Paradigm: Promotional Biographies and the Modern-Made Evangelist

  • Kathryn E. Lofton


Between 1886 and 1931, Christian publishing houses in the United States offered an unprecedented biographical profile of the contemporary American evangelist as an unambiguously modern figure. Sold at tabernacle tents, Christian bookshops, and church fund-raisers, these texts simultaneously document concerns with the modern landscape as they regale readers with the styles and stories of headlining American Protestants, including Dwight Moody (1837–1899), Sam Jones (1847–1906), Reuben Archer Torrey (1856–1928), J. Wilbur Chapman (1859–1918), Rodney “Gipsy” Smith (1860–1947), Billy Sunday (1862–1935), and Baxter “Cyclone Mac” McClendon (1879–1935). Although it is not difficult to discern distinguishing marks and regional inflections within the anecdotal particularities of these men, the overarching structure and themes of their chronologies is consistent. The purpose of this essay is to produce the beginning of a collective biography of the turn-of-the-century preacher, highlighting the persistent paradigm represented in the promotional products of these preachers. Whereas previous historians have described these men as antiquated proponents of an “old time” religion, this article argues that their narratives reveal a strikingly modern man, poised in an engaged and contradictory conflict with his contemporary moment.



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1. Man, Paul de, “What Is Modern?” in Critical Writings, 1953–1978 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 142 . Reprinted from “What Is Modern?” review of Ellmann, Richard and Feidelson, Charles, eds., The Modern Tradition, in New York Review of Books 5 (August 26, 1965): 1013 .

2. Westerman, Pauline C., “The Modernity of Fundamentalism,” Journal of Religion 74, no. 1 (January 1994): 80 . In addition to Westerman, other scholars have pondered the conceptual overlap of modernism and fundamentalism, including Darryl G. Hart, “When Is a Fundamentalist a Modernist? J. Gersham Machen, Cultural Modernism, and Conservative Protestantism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65, no. 3 (Fall 1997): 605–33; Hans G. Kippenberg, “A Revolt against Modernism: A Note on Some Recent 116 Comparative Studies in Fundamentalism,” Numen 38 (June 1991): 128–33; Hans G. Kippenberg, “Religious History, Displaced by Modernity,” Numen 47 (2000): 221–43; and William Portier, “Fundamentalism in North America: A Modern Anti-Modernism,” Communio 28 (Fall 2001): 581–98.

3. Muir, Edwin, We Moderns: Enigmas and Guesses (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1918), 128 .

4. In this essay, I refer to my primary subjects as “evangelists.” I do this in a conscious effort to avoid the static labels typically applied to Protestants from this era. Rather than understand these preachers strictly as “fundamentalists” opposed to “modernists,” I elect to focus on their profession as their determining descriptive. Though their theologies generally adhere to the varied scholastic principles codified in The Fundamentals, I am arguing that their modes of presentation and moral injunction were also typically modern. Not modernist, but modern. These ministers constructed a vivid modernity for their adherents. Thus, this essay attempts to avoid preexisting historical paradigms in order to follow the self-descriptions produced by these historical actors—to be true to their texts as authorized documentations of their representations.

5. Harkness, Robert, Reuben Archer Torrey: The Man, His Message (Chicago: Bible Institute Colportage Assoc., 1929), 9. Although the majority of sources under survey are biographies, I have incorporated testimony from several autobiographical reminiscences by Gipsy Smith, Billy Sunday, and Dwight Moody that were appended within broader biographical volumes. Popular biographers and Christian publishers frequently assembled diverse genres of narrative into single biographical scrapbooks. For example, Smith's, Gipsy From a Gipsy Tent to the Pulpit: A Memoir of His Wytheville, Virginia Campaign (Wytheville, Va.: Southwest Virginia Enterprise, 1927 ) includes a brief memoir by Smith, a reprint of his tabernacle program, and more than seven testimonials by prominent ministers describing Smith's biography, charisma, and particular message. As these texts provided biographical texts and narratives that matched themes observed within other promotional literature, I included them in my survey.

6. Anyone curious about the ingrown nature of late-nineteenthcentury revival ministry need look no further than Arcturus Z. Conrad, pastor of the Park Street Church in Boston and author of the definitive revival scrapbook, Boston's Awakening: A Complete Account of the Great Boston Revival (Boston: King's Business, 1909). Boston's Awakening detailed the labors of J. Wilbur Chapman, a Moody acolyte, and his musical director, Charles Alexander. Charles Alexander also served as musical accompanist to Reuben Archer Torrey during his four-year world tour. Prior to his successful work on the revival circuit, Torrey attended Moody Bible Institute on the encourThe agement of J. Wilbur Chapman. During Torrey's eventual tenure as the pastor of Moody Memorial Church, Baxter “Cyclone Mac” McLendon attended that institution. “Cyclone Mac” frequently fought comparisons to Billy Sunday, who had developed a phenomenal career following his tutelage with J. Wilbur Chapman, with whom he worked as an advance man on Chapman's 1894 midwestern tour. While on that tour, Sunday met E. O. Excell, a good friend of Chapman’s, who had also been Sam Jones's choirmaster. During the peak years of Sam Jones's ministry, he and Dwight Moody divided the nation, with Jones reigning over the southern circuits and Moody over the northern. It was through his relationship with the Y.M.C.A. in England that Gipsy Smith heard of Dwight Moody and decided to match his success in America. His American host was Arcturus Z. Conrad.

7. Although historians have differentiated among these late-nineteenth- century religious celebrities, noting their discordant theological positions, relative levels of education, and wildly divergent performance styles, the promotional biographies produced about these men construct a strikingly consistent portrait of the successful evangelist. That said, there were different subtypes within this consolidated portrait: Gipsy Smith and Billy Sunday, for example, were more known for their acrobatic antics than Reuben Archer Torrey or J. Wilbur Chapman. For differentiating biographical comparisons, see Richard James Anderson, “The Urban Revivalists, 1880-1910” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1974); James Paul Cogdill, “A Major Stream of American Mass Evangelism: The Ministries of R. A. Torrey, J. W. Chapman, and W. E. Biederwolf” (Ph.D. diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1990); Sung Ho Kang, “Major Vocational Evangelists from Charles Finney to Billy Sunday and Their Development of Methods for Urban Mass Evangelism” (M.A. thesis, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1997); McLoughlin, William G., Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham (New York: Ronald Press, 1959); and Weisberger, Bernard, They Gathered at the River: The Story of the Great Revivalists and Their Impact upon Religion in America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1958).

8. The paradigm of pastoral perfection described in these earlytwentieth- century biographies did not emerge in a literary vacuum. Just as these popular preacher biographies were being propagated along the tabernacle trail of American evangelism, biography as a genre was experiencing a particular boon. This era included the publication of Gertrude Stein's Three Lives (1909), Sigmund Freud's Leonardo Da Vinci: A Memory of His Childhood (1910), Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians (1918), and the heyday of Gamaliel Bradford's “American Portraits.” Whereas the nineteenth century has been identified as the era of the “unvarnished truth” plied in individual autobiography, memoir, and published journals, the late-nineteenth century saw the fulmination of biography (Ann Fabian, The Unvarnished Truth: Personal 118 Narratives in Nineteenth-Century America [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000]). Scholars of biography have interpreted the chronological correlation between turn-of-the-century modernist movements and the quickened ascendancy of biography as a literary symptom of nineteenth-century modernization, including the interconnected experiences of rampant immigration, urbanization, industrialization, and cultural secularization. According to literary historians, biography constructed a purposive self within this confused swirl. Whereas autobiography might be understood as a discourse of anxiety, Jürgen Schlaeger describes biography as “a discourse of usurpation” that perpetually accommodates “new models of man, new theories of the inner self, into a personality-oriented cultural mainstream” ( Schlaeger, Jürgen, “Biography: Cult as Culture,” in The Art of Literary Biography, ed. Batchelor, John [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995], 59, 63).

9. In The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), Susan Friend Harding establishes an analogous personal paradigm in her profiling of Falwell and other late-twentieth-century evangelists.

10. Frankenberg, Theodore T., Billy Sunday: His Tabernacles and Sawdust Trails (Columbus: F. J. Meer Printing Co., 1917), 46.

11. Ottman, Ford C., J. Wilbur Chapman: A Biography (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1920), 3. Evangelists like J. Wilbur Chapman and Reuben Archer Torrey may have been born among the middle classes, but their biographies suggested that their profound compassion for common men emerged from their soulful connection to their gritty national landscape.

12. Ellis, William T., “Billy” Sunday: The Man and His Message (New York: L. T. Myers, 1914), 15 .

13. Young, R. J. C., Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race (Routledge, 1995), 52 .

14. Ottman, , J. Wilbur Chapman, 313 .

15. Smith, Gipsy, My Life Story (New York: Alfred Scott and Co., 1892), 17 .

16. Ibid., 11. Lest anyone worry that a lost tribe may have wandered too far astray, Smith further reassures his readership that the Gypsies are as Christian as anyone: “I am often asked, What religion have the Gypsies? My answer to this question is: We have no professed religion. If anything, we are Protestants. We believe in God, and that he will reward the good and punish the wicked” (13).

17. Ibid., 52.

18. Ellis, , “Billy” Sunday, 158 .

19. Weber, Max, “Foundations and Instability of Charismatic Authority,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, trans. and ed. Gerth, H. H. and Wright Mills, C. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), 249 .

20. Smith, Gipsy, “Lessons from the School of Experience,” in The Adventures of a Gipsy Boy and Other Stories (1924); Davis, George T. B., Dwight L. Moody: The Man and His Message, (K. T. Boland, 1900), 206 .

21. Stuart, George R., Sam P. Jones, The Preacher (Siloam Springs, Ark.: International Federation Publishing Co., n.d.), 27 .

22. Harkness, , Reuben Archer Torrey, 11 .

23. Ottman, , J. Wilbur Chapman, 16, 17.

24. Cooke, Ronald, Cyclone Mac (N.p., n.d.), 15 .

25. Stuart, , Sam P. Jones, 79 .

26. Smith, Theodore M., Sermons by Reverend Sam P. Jones with a History of His Life (Philadelphia: Scammell and Co., 1886), 543 .

27. Quoted in the Chicago Tribune, March 27, 1918.

28. Smith, , My Life Story, 43 .

29. Roosevelt, Theodore, “The Strenuous Life,” in The Call of the Wild, 1900–1916, ed. Nash, Roderick (New York: George Braziller, 1970), 7984 . See also Bederman, Gail, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

30. Smith, , My Life Story, 43 .

31. For more on Christianity and masculinity, see Chad Alan Gregory, “Revivalism, fundamentalism, and masculinity in the United States, 1880–1930” (Ph.D. diss., University of Kentucky, 1999); Hatch, Nathan, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991 ); Ladd, Tony and Mathison, James A., Muscular Christianity: Evangelical Protestants and the Development of American Sport (Grand Rapids: BridgePoint Books, 1999); Seana Marie O’Shaughnessy, “Constructing God: Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson as Masculinity and Femininity in Popular Religion, 1910–1930” (M.A. thesis, Sarah Lawrence College, 2000); Putney, Clifford, Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880–1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001); and Boyd, Stephen, Merle Longwood, W., and Muesse, Mark, eds., Redeeming Men: Religion and Masculinities (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996).

32. An intriguing comparison with these texts might be found in an analysis of similar biographical promotions by Uldine Utley and Aimee Semple McPherson. In particular, Utley's, Why I Am a Preacher; A Plain Answer to an Oft-Repeated Question (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1931) highlights some common ground; however, both her and McPherson's writings reveal particular styles of gender performance and domestic biography that are different countermeasures to propositions of feminization.

33. Brown, Elijah, The Real Billy Sunday (Dayton: Otterbein Press, 1914), 56 . Brown also jokes that Sunday's initial reception among men may have something to do with his athletic career: “His audience was made up of about 500 men, who didn't know much about his talents as a preacher, but could remember his galloping to second base with his cap in his hand” (49).

34. Ottman, , J. Wilbur Chapman, 54 ; Memorial Services, J. Wilbur Chapman (New York: Gillespie Bros., 1919), 48; Bayliss, Edward E., The Gipsy Smith Missions in America: A Volume Commemorative of His Sixth Evangelistic Campaign in the United States, 1906–1907 (Boston: Interdenominational Publishing Co., 1907), 78 ; Fitt, Arthur Percy, Moody Still Lives: Word Pictures of D. L. Moody (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1906), 134 ; Stuart, , Sam P. Jones, 5 , 6; Smith, , Sermons by Reverend Sam P. Jones, (Philadelphia, Scammell and Co., 1886), 505 ; and Stuart, , Sam P. Jones, 33 .

35. Stuart, , Sam P. Jones, 9 .

36. Smith, , Sermons by Reverend Sam P. Jones, 37 .

37. Brown, , The Real Billy Sunday, 57 .

38. McLoughlin, William, Billy Sunday Was His Real Name (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), 141 .

39. Bayliss, , The Gipsy Smith Missions in America, 34 .

40. For further evidence of this frontier compulsion, see the documents collected on the “Environment” by Nash in The Call of the Wild.

41. Bayliss, , The Gipsy Smith Missions in America, 15 .

42. Conrad, , Boston's Awakening, 38 .

43. Orvell, Miles, The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), xv. See also Chidester, David, Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

44. Brown, , The Real Billy Sunday, 132 ; Harkness, , Reuben Archer Torrey, 123 ; Smith, Gipsy, Gipsy Smith: His Life and Work (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1902), 7 .

45. Jung, Carl, Modern Man in Search of a Soul (San Diego: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1933), 196 .

46. Smith, Gipsy, Forty Years an Evangelist, 256 ; Stuart, , Sam P. Jones, 15 ; Smith, , Sermons by Reverend Sam P. Jones, 73 .

47. Smith, , My Life Story, 5 .

48. Twice authors went so far as to describe their ministers as sui generis: First, Christian journalist Arthur Porritt writes of Gipsy Smith, “He is sui generis and a man of fine quality of heart and spirit” ( Smith, , Forty Years an Evangelist, 28 ); then, in “Billy” Sunday: The Man and His Message, William Ellis writes, “He probably does not know what ‘sui generis’ means, but he is it.”

49. Smith, , Sermons by Reverend Sam P. Jones, 421 ; Norris, Frank, “Simplicity in Art,” in Six Essays on the Responsibilities of the Novelist (New York: Alicat Bookshop Press, 1949).

50. Harkness, , Reuben Archer Torrey, 92 ; Stuart, , Sam P. Jones, 18 ; Conrad, , Boston's Awakening, 40 ; Ottman, , J. Wilbur Chapman, xi ; Fitt, , Moody Still Lives, 47 ; Smith, , From a Gipsy Tent to the Pulpit, 8 .

51. Ellis, , “Billy” Sunday, 71 . Both Elijah Brown and William Ellis cite various newspapers that praise Sunday for this sort of precision. The Reverend T. J. Gilbert of the First Baptist Church in South Bend, Indiana, contributed this to Brown's The Real Billy Sunday: “His language is not always as dignified and precise as that of the average pulpit today, but if he talked as ministers usually do, he would have no more success in getting the crowd than we do. And there is something very refreshing in having things called by their right names, as also is the absence of wriggling diplomacy to avoid saying things that cut” (113).

52. Stuart, , Sam P. Jones, 44 .

53. Ibid., 15, 47, 75; Davis, , Dwight L. Moody, 212 ; Bayliss, , The Gipsy Smith Missions in America, 24 ; Smith, , Forty Years an Evangelist, 235 .

54. Bayliss, , The Gipsy Smith Missions in America, 36, 22; Ottman, , J. Wilbur Chapman, 311 ; Stuart, , Sam P. Jones, 47 .

55. Brown, , The Real Billy Sunday, 16, 82.

56. Ellis, , “Billy” Sunday, 17 .

57. Ibid., 138.

58. Smith, , Sermons by Reverend Sam P. Jones, 307 ; Harkness, , Reuben Archer Torrey, 42 ; Conrad, , Boston's Awakening, 54 ; Smith, , From a Gipsy Tent to the Pulpit, 6 .

59. Ottman, , J. Wilbur Chapman, 313 ; Davis, , Dwight L. Moody, 319 ; Barr, Walter, Baxter McLendon: A Biography (Bennettsville, S.C.: Bibliotheca Co., 1928), 245 ; Conrad, , Boston's Awakening, 53 .

60. Earlier historians of American religion endorsed the “old-time religion” construct through their revivalist genealogies that traced “old time” from George Whitfield to Jerry Falwell. For reviews of this classic historiography, see Hall, Gordon L., The Sawdust Trail: The Story of American Evangelism (Philadelphia: Macrae Smith Co., 1964); McLoughlin's, Modern Revivalism; Archie Robertson, That Old-Time Religion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1950); and Weisberger, They Gathered at the River. For Sunday's position in this genealogy, see Dorsett, Lyle, Billy Sunday and the Redemption of Urban America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 124–25.

61. It is shocking just how many historians of religion accept Billy Sunday's representation of himself as his definitional profile. In Twentieth- Century Shapers of American Popular Religion (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989), Jon Pahl concludes his entry on Sunday with the following assessment: Billy Sunday was never deep. To an extraordinary degree, his rhetoric had to carry him. In light of this, his physical gyrations and contortions while preaching can be seen as the visible expression of the intellectual contradictions plaguing not only the evangelical but also the Protestant mind of his era. Sunday could not cognitively pinpoint the religious tensions of his time, so he acted them out. His appearance appealed to many in the America middle class who were similarly mute, or undecided, before the substantive challenges of modernity. (415) Pahl's phrasing is revealing: “never deep,” “gyrations and contortions,” “cognitively pinpoint,” and, most tellingly, “similarly mute, or undecided.” For Pahl, Sunday functions as a useful model of the antiquated character of fundamentalism. Sunday's intellect is nonexistent; all that persists (and ever existed) was his body, a body that provided safe harbor for middle-class Americans frightened by modernity. The “Protestant mind” could not bear the challenges, and so it turned to the Sunday body for distraction, entertainment, and therapeutic release. According to Pahl, Sunday was an ignorant symbol, a blind actor of religious tensions. It should be clear that my dissent from such a portrayal is absolute.

62. Brown, , The Real Billy Sunday, 127 .

63. Kippenberg, “A Revolt against Modernism,” 133.

64. McLoughlin, , Billy Sunday Was His Real Name, 282 .

65. Clark, T. J., Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 8 .

66. Harkness, , Reuben Archer Torrey, 122 ; Conrad, , Boston's Awakening, 44 ; Smith, , Sermons by Reverend Sam P. Jones, 360 ; Smith, , From a Gipsy Tent to the Pulpit, 6 .

67. Conrad, , Boston's Awakening, 65 .

68. Cooke, , Cyclone Mac, 27 .

69. Mathews, Shailer, “The Religious Life,” in Religious Life, ed. Sapir, Edward (New York: D. Van Nostrand Co., 1929).

70. Brown, , The Real Billy Sunday, 220 .

71. Hawthorne, Nathaniel, “Wakefield,” in The Complete Novels and Selected Tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York: Random House, 1937), 926 .

72. McLoughlin, , Billy Sunday Was His Real Name, 131 .

73. Homberger, Eric and Charmley, John, “Introduction,” in The Troubled Face of Biography (London: Macmillan Press, 1988), ix . My understanding of biography is assisted by Parke, Catherine N., “Biography: An Overview of the Genre,” in Biography: Writing Lives (New York: Routledge, 2002), 134 , and Wilson, Rob, “Producing American Selves: The Form of American Biography,” boundary 2 18, no. 2 (Summer 1991): 104–29.

74. Ottman, , J. Wilbur Chapman, 4 .

75. Davis, , Dwight L. Moody, 9 .


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