Monday, May 13, 2013

Charles Savidge - Urban Revivalist

With the first post in this series on Charles Savidge, there is no better place to start than with the dour-looking fellow below.

Yes, the gentleman above is none other than the second greatest revivalist of the late-nineteenth century, Sam Jones.  For the purposes of this post, we'll ignore Jones' racism and New South political activism, and instead focus on his reform methods and connection to Savidge. Until the ascendance of Billy Sunday, no revivalist besides Dwight Moody could rival Jones' national reputation. With his quick wit and humor, Jones took the U.S. (and even Canada) by storm with a series of revivals in major cities in the 1880s.

Some of his zingers:
  • "I don’t believe man came from monkeys, but when I look at some fellows I think they are heading that way, and will likely reach there.” 
  • "Some folks say, don’t mix politics with religion.  When you hear a fellow talk that way, you know he hasn’t got any religion to mix."
  • "We have been clamouring for fifty years for an educated ministry, and we have got it to-day, and the church is deader than it ever has been in its history. Half of the preachers in this town are A.B.'s, Ph.D.'s, D.D.'s, LL.D.'s, and A.S.S.'s."

Jones, a southern Methodist, began his ministry in a rural, southern environment, but he represented an urban revivalism which sought to reform cities by cleaning them up from vice and sin.  Unlike the image of backwoods camp meetings sometimes associated with revivalism, Jones' campaigns were focused on the city. His approach to reform revealed a shared assumption with theologically liberal social gospelers, mostly northerners, who would have rejected other aspects of his sensationalist style. Individual conversion was not the sole aim, and emotionalism was not the primary method for Jones. Instead, taking action to eliminate personal and societal sources of sin was part of the goal. In that sense, such revivalism was similar to the social gospel, which used its own methods (such as the emerging field of sociology) to eradicate the social causes of sin. The ultimate aim for both was to Christianize the world by eliminating barriers that were preventing people from living a truly "Christian" life. Perhaps this is why esteemed liberal preachers like David Swing and H.W. Thomas of Chicago endorsed Jones. As Swing pointed out, "his heaven is here today, as well as over yonder tomorrow.”

Sam Jones, fresh off a campaign in Toronto, came to Omaha in November 1886. His appearance immediately caused a stir. A newspaper report claimed that the crowd which came to see Jones on the second night was “the largest audience that ever greeted a public speaker in Omaha.”  From November 8 until November 30 Jones preached sermons geared towards reforming Omaha. He warned Omaha's citizens that the city “will never be what you want it to be on the line you are now running with two or three hundred barroom doors wide open and your gambling halls advertising on the Sabbath.”  The measure of success for his campaign, he told a reporter, could be found not in souls saved but in “moral improvement and increasing church membership.” Savidge attended most of the revival meetings and declared that Jones did “more good than any evangelist we have ever had in Omaha.”  More importantly, Jones' in-your-face, folksy, and practical style inspired Savidge, who launched a new sermons series soon after Jones' departure.

Savidge’s sermon series followed in Jones’ footsteps by articulating an aggressive practical Christianity that could meet the needs of Omaha’s citizens. He addressed his sermons to specific vocational groups, including street car operators, salesmen, and domestic servants, and offered specific advice on how each could be better Christians. Savidge also tackled the typical personal moral issues of the time such as Sabbath-breaking, temperance, baseball playing, and the use of tobacco. When one of Omaha’s most influential newspapers, the Omaha Bee, began publishing Savidge’s sermons, the crowds appeared in droves and Savidge gained regional notoriety. The Bee’s editor, Edward Rosewater, a “colorful and controversial” Bohemian Jew and one of Omaha’s most important political figures, occasionally offered editorial comment on Savidge’s sermons, which only brought him more publicity. Even Omaha's rival Nebraska city took notice, as one editorial from Lincoln described Savidge as "the minister who created a mild sensation in Omaha by talking common sense from the pulpit."

Savidge collected the best of his practical sermons printed by the Bee and put them together in 1888 as part of a book called Shots from the Pulpit. Fittingly, Sam Jones penned the introduction to Savidge’s book, writing, “this volume of sermons, preached by my friend and brother Rev. C.W. Savidge, goes to the public full of fire and life."

The revival spirit did not die out when Jones departed Omaha, or when Savidge completed his sermon series. For the rest of his life, Savidge viewed the city of Omaha as his mission field. As he told the Omaha Bee, "The city is my parish." That mindset led him leave the Methodist Church and start his own "People's Church" in the slums of Omaha. It also inspired him to fight for prohibition, to launch a matchmaking bureau, and to build a home for the elderly, among other reform-oriented activities.

Interestingly, Savidge also came into contact with another revivalist of note when Billy Sunday came to town in 1915. The pageantry of Sunday's campaign exceeded anything that Jones had produced three decades earlier, but Savidge was not as taken. "I do not heartily endorse all he says or does, but I believe him sincere in his work," Savidge told the Omaha Bee, and then added, "many people can't get past the money issue but this man has something to sell that the people want and are willing to pay for."

Savidge's backhanded compliment in 1915 would seem like effusive praise just four years later. By then Savidge had determined that Sunday was a "false prophet" whose constant (and successful) campaign for Prohibition had not cured society's ills at all, but instead had served only to create a "taste for liquor."

Such an about-face may seem disingenuous, coming as it did from a man who spent most of his adult life lambasting the evils of alcohol and arguing vigorously for the ban of liquor  Others, however, may find it rather fitting...after all, here was the man who called on the city to reverse course and change its ways practicing what he preached.

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