Remember how I mentioned that PBS has that American Experience documentary on the 1918 Influenza available to stream right now? No? Okay, well I did. Anyway, I rewatched it on Monday, and one of the facts that stuck out was how famed evangelist Billy Sunday responded to that deadly pandemic. Spoiler alert: he didn’t handle it well:
All those screen grabs are from the American Experience documentary, btw. Afterward, I found myself wanting to know more about Sunday’s take on the 1918 Influenza, especially in light of the current Coronavirus pandemic. I landed on this great post by John Fea at The Way Of Improvement:
Sunday conducted a revival in Providence, Rhode Island. As was his custom, Sunday (his advance men) built a temporary tabernacle in the city. He held seventy meetings in that tabernacle between September 21 and November 17, . The Congregationalist and Advance, a religious journal of the era, noted that Sunday preached to a “quarter of a million listeners” during the course of the crusade. But he could have reached even more. Sunday only had seventy meetings in this three month period (he usually preached every night) because during the crusade the influenza epidemic hit Providence. Sunday did not preach for three weeks.
The influenza hit Providence hard. In October, 6000 people in the city got sick. 814 died of pneumonia in 1918. On October 5, the Board of Alderman closed schools, theaters, dance halls, and most religious services. Prior to this, Providence newspapers ran stories about the death of Providence citizens alongside reports of Sunday’s crusade. The Congregationalist and Advance claimed that 10,000 people “grasped Mr. Sunday’s hand” during the crusade. Newspapers described people collapsing with the flu as Sunday preached. As we look back today, during this time of “social distancing” during the coronavirus, one can’t help but wonder how much the Sunday crusade contributed to the spread of the epidemic.
Sunday’s foe in Providence was much stronger than the “wet forces” of Chicago, but that doesn’t mean that the evangelist did not go down without a fight. Before the Providence Board of Aldermen closed the crusade, Sunday, in his trademark style, informed his audience about the true cause of the epidemic rocking Providence and the nation:
We can meet here tonight and pray down an epidemic just as well as we can pray down a German victory. The whole thing is a part of their propaganda; it started over there in Spain, where they scattered germs around, and that’s why you ought to dig down all the deeper and buy more Liberty bonds. If they can do this to us 3000 miles away, think of what the bunch would do if they were walking our streets. There’s nothing short of hell that they haven’t stopped to do since the war began–darn their hides
The epidemic, of course, broke-out during World War I and Sunday was a master at blaming every American problem on the Germans, including German Higher Criticism of the Bible and the influenza. As historian George Marsden writes, “Although Sunday had little interest in the war until the United States joined it, he soon concluded that zeal for the Gospel and patriotic enthusiasm should go hand in hand. It apparently did not strain his principles…to conclude in 1917 that ‘Christianity and Patriotism are synonymous terms and hell and traitors are synonymous.” Marsden continues:
As the war effort accelerated he used the rhetoric of Christian nativism to fan the fires of anti-German furor and was famous for sermons that ended with his jumping on the pulpit waving the flag. “If you turn hell upside down,” he said, “you will find ‘Made in Germany’ stamped on the bottom.” Praying before the House of Representatives in 1918 he advised God that the Germans were a ‘great pack of wolfish Huns whose fangs drip with blood and gore.”
Today, one cannot help but think about Jerry Falwell Jr.’s recent suggestion that the coronavirus was a North Korean and Chinese attempt undermine Donald Drumpf and the various conspiracy theories we have heard on Fox News and elsewhere.
But when the Providence Board of Aldermen closed the city’s public venues in early October, Sunday submitted to its authority:
It is up to us to hope and pray. We are always willing to help anything that is for the public good and do it cheerfully. There is nothing drastic in the [Alderman’s] order, and it is issued in an attempt to stamp out this epidemic.
Eventually, the influenza faded, Providence re-opened schools and public places, and the Sunday crusade continued. The Christian Advocate, another religious paper, quipped: “We are not sure but that influenza is preaching to more people than Billy Sunday ever did….”
Read the entire post here. If you’re curious about how Billy Sunday sounded while he preached, it’s probably exactly what you’re expecting. Just keep scrolling.