Tag Archives: Christianity

Billy Sunday: Revival in Richmond

Billy Sunday preaches in Jacksonville, Illinois, 1908. Indiana Memory.

The Reverend Billy Sunday, born November 19, 1863, started life as a professional baseball player before his conversion to Christianity in the late 1880s. From 1891 to 1895, Sunday learned the craft of evangelizing with an apprenticeship at the Chicago Y.M.C.A. (of which evangelical icon Dwight Moody was a co-founder), and by 1896 had become a professional evangelist. For the next 40 years, Sunday preached a Presbyterianism that represented “the more ‘American’ side of that denominational tradition—a broad, somewhat tolerant, not highly doctrinal, moralistic, patriotic, and often optimistic version of evangelical Protestantism.” His “sensational and vaudevillian” style urged personal responsibility and growth, which he advocated for in his urban evangelizing campaigns. From Sunday’s style of Americanized evangelism, one can easily see a connection to more modern evangelicals like Billy Graham.

Richmond Palladium, May 2, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

For many years, Sunday made Winona Lake, Indiana his home with his wife and family. It gave him more opportunities to hold revivals in Indiana, especially ones lasting for weeks at a time. One such revival came to Richmond in the spring of 1922. For six weeks, Sunday preached to scores of people in Richmond, “saving souls” and collecting donations from audiences. The Palladium, the city’s premiere newspaper, provided  a supplement section in its daily paper for Sunday to share his sermons, stories, and testimonials with the public. It is unclear as to why the Palladium decided to provide such expansive coverage; perhaps a publishing agreement between Sunday’s ministry and the newspaper facilitated the section. An insight into this arrangement might be gleamed from Sunday biographer Theodore Thomas Frankenberg:

Newspapers in any community, whether large or small, must necessarily pay attention to an enterprise which the business men of the town or city are backing to the extent of thousands and thousands of dollars. The element of publicity continues with increasing vigor to the very end of all campaigns, and one of the remarkable features in connection with it is the fact that this publicity is never sought by any direct or overt act — it comes naturally, almost spontaneously, and is easily the fourth factor toward preparing the field for the advent of the evangelist.

In any event, a half-page ad in the Palladium advertised Sunday’s revival and the paper’s forthcoming coverage. “The Palladium will publish a daily supplement giving two full pages of news and pictures regarding the meetings and the sermons in Richmond,” the ad stated. The paper also boasted of its team of reporters who would cover the revivals with a “direct telephone line . . . run from the Tabernacle to the Palladium office in order that there be no delay.” While Sunday’s preaching may have been “old time religion,” the Palladium’s supplement was a modern affair that anticipated the rise of twentieth century American protestant evangelicalism.

Richmond Palladium, April 13, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Richmond Palladium, April 18, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Palladium published its first supplement on April 17, 1922, right after Easter Sunday. Throughout its six-week run, the Billy Sunday supplement followed a predictable pattern. The first page would run a photo of Sunday, often with a quote. The first one, called “I’ve Got a Combative Nature,” quotes the preacher talking about his background in sports and its influence on his preaching. “I was graduated from five gymnasiums. I can go so fast for five rounds you can’t see me in the dust,” declared the Reverend Sunday. The right hand side carried his main sermon, which often focused on a specific topic. For the first issue, Sunday ruminated on what he believed was the “real essence of Christianity,” love:

I will admit that Christianity has fallen away beneath love as the original standard. Love is the dominant principle of the world; love can never be defeated. Love may be checked; love may be prevented for the time being, in accomplishing its aim, but love will drill a tunnel through all the mountains of opposition and reach the goal of a touchdown. Love—it’s the mightiest thing in the world! And the world is starving today for the manifestation of the love of God in the hearts of men and women.

Richmond Palladium, April 17, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

However, Christianity was more than just love to Billy Sunday. It also manifested itself in good works, particularly donations to the church, or in his case, to his revivals. In every supplement, an article or informational table would display the amount of money, in cash and pledges, Sunday’s ministry received for his sermons. The first day, the total collections were $859.71. This wasn’t good enough for the fiery evangelist. “I turned down 25 cities to come here, and it is not fair to me or to the other cities if you do not support me,” Sunday chided. As subsequent issues were published, the money totals and people “saved” became more explicit.

Richmond Palladium, April 18, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Palladium’s Billy Sunday supplement also shared with readers some of his best one liners or bits from his sermons. This was a smart move; Sunday was extremely quotable and articulate and would often do more with a sentence than other speakers could do in a paragraph. For example, in the April 18 issue, the Palladium published some of “Today’s Hot Epigrams from Billy Sunday’s Lips.” Here’s some of his best quotes from that issue:

*

I think that God is too busy to pay any attention to the fellow who is trying to lift himself by his own bootstraps.

*

This is not a world of chance. God don’t wind it up and then throw away the key and let her rip till she runs down. Nothing comes by chance.

*

Christianity is not a simply a creed. Christianity is a creed plus Jesus Christ.

*

Like with the first issue, a picture of Sunday, often in an animated preaching pose, accompanied the quotes. This gave readers a choice; either read the long-form sermons or check out their best bits and quotable lines. This provided Sunday with a wider readership than if he had just provided the sermons as a whole.

Richmond Palladium, April 19, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One of Sunday’s indispensable lieutenants in his crusades for Christ was Robert Matthews, described by the Palladium as the “custodian of the tabernacle.” However, this was not his only job. Matthews served as Sunday’s secretary, a “buffer between the world and his boss,” as well as his “pianist for the chorus, understudy for Rody [Homer Rodeheaver] as the leader of the choir, and finally a good talker when he has to be.” A native of Kentucky, Matthews graduated from Lake Forest College, received musical education in “New York, Paris, Milan, and Melbourne,” and spent time in the newspaper business before joining Sunday’s staff. The Palladium described Matthews as “faithful to Billy,” further noting that “he is sure that Billy is the greatest man on the face of the earth.” Matthews, along with other staff, made sure that the Sunday revivals went perfectly.

Homer Rodeheaver, known as “Rody,” was Sunday’s musical director. Richmond Palladium, April 20, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The revivals benefited additionally from a well-organized schedule of prayer meetings, led by Florence Kinney, a graduate of Dr. Wilbert W. White’s Bible Training School in New York City and dedicated lieutenant to Sunday. Kinney believed that, “Souls can be saved and individuals converted in those neighborhoods, just as well as at the big tabernacle meetings.” Kinney and Reverend Alfred H. Backus organized Richmond into 10 sections, each with their own superintendent responsible for prayer meetings. Kinney herself taught Bible study classes during the week, scheduled “immediately after the afternoon sermon.” These individualized, personal meetings reinforced Sunday’s sermons, gained new converts, and emboldened the already converted. In this regard, Sunday’s bureaucratic approach echoed the modern evangelical enterprises of Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell decades later.

“Come Up to Help the Lord,” hand-written proclamation from Reverend Sunday. Richmond Palladium, April 21, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In the supplement for April 21, the Palladium published a hand-written proclamation from Sunday, calling for evangelism in Richmond. “The history of the church is the history of revivals—the Church was born in the revival at Pentecost,” Sunday declared in his letter. He also summoned all of Richmond to join his revival. “I issue a proclamation,” Sunday wrote, “to the forces of truth, morality, righteousness in and out of the churches of Richmond ‘come up to the help of the Lord, against the and devil and all his hosts.” He signed it with his name and “Psalm 34,” which, among other verses, stated that “The Lord redeemeth the soul of his servants: and none of them that trust in him shall be desolate.” Sunday fervently believed that the message of Christianity would fail unless the people actively worked for the propagation of its message.

Billy Sunday’s tabernacle in Richmond, Indiana. Richmond Palladium, April 18, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

To hit home this message, the Palladium ran a small chart, starting in the April 19 supplement, chronicling the money raised and those “saved” at the daily services. Between the afternoon and evening services on April 21, the ministry collected $344 and preached to 4,900 attendees. However, by the weekend’s end, the collection ballooned to $3,183.36 and attendance expanded by 19,700 people. As an aside, the paper also noted that the “foregoing does not include pledges, which will swell the total.” The chart began including converts with the April 26 issue, where 119 “’hit the sawdust trail,’ the first converts of the Richmond campaign.” Within days, the paper named the converted as “trail hitters,” a term used throughout the rest of Sunday’s revival in Richmond. By the time Billy Sunday’s six weeks in Richmond came to a close, his ministry claimed 5,876 “tail hitters” and $34,658 in collections. Not too bad for an old baseball slugger turned champion for the Lord.

Richmond Palladium, April 26, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

However, Sunday was not without his controversies. He was openly against divorce, appearing in films, dancing, drinking alcohol, and the theory of evolution. With evolution, Sunday chided that, “If you believe your great, great granddaddy was a monkey, then you take your daddy and go to hell with him, but leave me out! I came from a different bunch, thank God.” He was also particularly bothered by divorce, saying “I shall never prostitute my manhood and high and honorable calling to unite in marriage a man or woman that has ever been divorced for any reason, as long as the man or woman from whom he or she is divorced is alive!” Sunday also railed against hypocrites within the ministry, stating, “I don’t like to see a minister who has one mannerism for the pulpit and another for the street.”

Richmond Palladium, May 3, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Yet, despite his calls for moral behavior and rejection of modern life, there was one group with which he was incautiously naive: the Ku Klux Klan. On May 14, 1922, 12 Klansmen in white robes approached the pulpit during Sunday’s evening service. They stood silent as they handed the reverend an envelope containing a “commendation and $50 in bills.” Sunday took the letter, merely replied “I thank you,” and said to the audience after they left, “I don’t know how you felt, but I commenced to check up on myself.” The Palladium reported that Sunday was “dumbfounded,” even though this was not his first encounter with the Klan. “The klan [sic] has made a present to Mr. Sunday in every city he has been in during the last year. . . . Even the Klan in Sioux City did the same thing,” Sunday confidant Robert Matthews told the press.

Richmond Palladium, May 15, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Muncie chapter and the provisional Richmond chapter of the Ku Klux Klan signed the letter commending Sunday for “the wonderful work that you and your associates are doing in [sic] behalf of perpetuating the tenets of the Christian Religion throughout the nation. . . .” The Palladium further noted that this was “the first time in the history of Richmond that the Ku Klux Klan had appeared. . . .” It also would not be their last time. According to historian Leonard Moore, 4,037 men from Wayne County, of which 3,183 were from Richmond, joined the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Of Richmond’s 26,000 residents, over 12% belonged to the Klan during the decade. Sunday’s interaction with the Klan was not an aberration, but rather a sign of things to come.

As for the Reverend, he shrugged off the “dumbfounding” incident, declared that he did not belong to any secret fraternal organizations, and said that “if you behave yourself they won’t bother you.” In an odd turn, Sunday never readdressed the incident, but instead criticized the liberal wing of Baptist Christianity. “It’s the liberal bunch that don’t like me, and I don’t want their backing,” Sunday shared with his audience before he called for attendees to come forward to be saved.” Sunday’s apparent lack of moral clarity on the issue of the Klan does not imply an endorsement of its politics; it only demonstrates that Sunday was not aware of the implications of associating with them. Nevertheless, Sunday’s actions remain problematic.

Richmond Palladium, May 26, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Towards the end of his run, Billy Sunday’s crowds, collections, and the “saved” continued to grow. On May 25, over 600 members of the local Odd Fellows organization attended the evening service, pushing the audience to 5,200 people and past tabernacle capacity. The next day brought a record 2,000 people to the revival on a week day, the highest it had ever been. His final night of evangelizing brought to his ministry over $10,700 in donations, mostly from those in attendance but also from those unable to attend who donated earlier in the week. The Palladium covered Sunday’s final sermon and the start of his travel home to Winona Lake:

Billy Sunday’s residence at Winona Lake, Indiana, 1920. Indiana Memory.

About 1,500 saw Mr. Sunday off to his home at 10:20 o’clock Sunday evening. As the train started. Billy Sunday was shaking hands with a member of the crowd and was pulled off the steps to the platform. He managed to catch the steps of the end car as it passed and Richmond’s last sight of the evangelist was as he stood on the platform, waving goodbye.

During his six-week revival, Sunday gave 95 sermons in front of nearly 250,000 people, making him one of the biggest draws in the history of Richmond. He left the city a massive success.

Richmond Palladium, May 29, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One of the biggest reasons for that success was the daily newspaper coverage he received in the Richmond Palladium. “The papers in this town have done better in covering this campaign from every angle than any other city have been to,” Sunday told the Palladium on his final day in Richmond. This is no exaggeration. The Palladium gave Sunday six weeks of uninterrupted newspaper coverage in a special supplemental section, a unique experiment in the newspaper’s near-200 year history. They printed his sermons almost verbatim, alongside other stories, quips, and updates on the prayer meetings and the amount of people “saved.” The Palladium‘s wall-to-wall coverage of Sunday’s revivals foreshadowed today’s network of newspapers, magazines, television stations, and internet media devoted to religious programming. Thus, the Palladium’s “Sunday Supplement” underscores the immense influence of Billy Sunday and evangelical Protestantism in the Midwest during the early 20th century.

To learn more about Billy Sunday, visit Chronicling America and Hoosier State Chronicles.

Richmond Palladium, May 9, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Portions of the introduction appeared in my thesis, Ingersoll, Infidels, and Indianapolis: Freethought and Religion in the Central Midwest.

A Railroad “Chartered in Heaven”

Resurrection of Henry Box Brown

The “religion vs. science” debate has been a hot media sensation since 9/11.  Syria’s refugee crisis is causing further argument over why some believers haven’t helped people obviously in need, though many have.  But venomous debates over religion and refugees aren’t new to American history.

Black History Month reminds us that religious voices have played a profound role in American struggles for justice — with many of the most religious Americans being treated as criminals for their pains on behalf of others.  Some historians have even remarked that the Civil Rights movement was “primarily a religious and spiritual movement.”  The work of Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, William Wilberforce, David Livingstone, and many others drew powerfully on their interpretation of faith.  In fact, you could even argue that the African and African American encounter with Christianity — and vice-versa — eventually unlocked religion for many Europeans and Americans who were only nominally Christian to begin with.

Whatever the truth there may be, radical Christianity rang out loud and clear during one of America’s (and Canada’s) first refugee crises — the exodus of fugitive slaves seeking asylum under “the North Star.”  That exodus took thousands of refugees across the rural Midwest.

Abolitionist history is certainly full of iconic Christian imagery. When a slave from Virginia, Henry Brown, experienced a “heavenly vision” and decided to mail himself out of bondage in 1843, he had himself concealed inside a 3-foot by 2-foot dry goods box or “pine coffin.”  Lined with wool and containing only a few biscuits and some water, the box and its occupant were carried north, delivered after a week on the road to the office of Passmore Williamson, a Quaker merchant active with the radical Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.  Like a well-known Byzantine icon of Jesus, “the Man of Sorrows” — which shows Jesus rising from the dead and an equally tiny box — Henry “Box” Brown climbed out in front of a group of Philadelphia abolitionists and asked “How do you do, gentlemen?”  A fabulous engraving of the event was given the name “The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown.”


Passmore Williamson, 1855

(Passmore Williamson, a Pennsylvania Quaker, at Moyamensing Prison in 1855, where he was jailed for helping Jane Johnson and her two sons escape from slavery. Williamson was also an early advocate of voting rights for women.)


Several major “routes” of the Underground Railroad passed through Indiana, leading to farmhouses and barns in the Wabash Valley, the fields around Quaker-dominated Richmond and Fountain City, and the swamps and prairies north of Indianapolis.  Yet Hoosiers — like other Americans — were deeply torn over whether to obey the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, a controversial law that made it illegal for any citizen to assist a runaway slave and exacted harsh penalties for helping refugees.  The federal law was absolutely designed to protect humans defined as “property” and even as “livestock.”

Many Christians, of course, were slaveholders themselves, though their views often depended on whether they lived in the North or South. Northern and Southern Baptists, for example, had sharp differences of opinion on slavery.  Though Methodism’s founder John Wesley wrote against human bondage in 1778, Southern Methodists often owned slaves.   Ministers who didn’t take their congregation’s — or government’s — line on slavery were sometimes kicked out of the pulpit or physically attacked.  At least a dozen chapels built by anti-slavery Baptists and Methodists in Jamaica were burned down by white settlers.

The religious situation was never simple.  The Jesuits, whose famous South American missions were admired by Enlightenment philosophers as an experiment in earthly utopia, had long owned slaves. Just two years before Pope Gregory XVI spoke out against the slave trade in 1839, Jesuit priests in Maryland were putting slaves to work on plantations to support Georgetown University, a Catholic school built by slave labor and where students brought their slaves to class.  (In 1838, the Jesuits sold thirty of them to the ex-governor of Louisiana, whose son was a student of theirs.)  One Maryland priest used the Bible to defend slave ownership.  Yet the Jesuits were no more guilty than the religious freethinker Thomas Jefferson, who along with forty other signers of the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves while announcing “All men are created equal.”  Jefferson used a blade to create a famous Bible of his own, cutting out the miracles and superstition to focus on Jesus’ ethics and morals.  Jefferson, however, went to his grave a slave-owner, having thought about it for fifty years.


Jefferson Bible

(The cutting-room floor of Jefferson’s Bible.  Though he included Luke 12:48 — “To whomever much is given, of him much shall be required” — the master of Monticello must have been uncomfortable with the next passage, “I am come to cast fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! …Do you suppose that I am come to send peace on earth? Nay, but a sword.” Jefferson sliced it out.  As the English critic of slavery, Dr. Samuel Johnson, put it, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negros?” Contemporary science was no help to Africans.  Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, the most famous American scientist of his time, commissioned the best-known daguerreotypes of African slaves to provide evidence for the old theory of “polygeny,” or “separate creation” of the human races.  Originally a heretical religious theory, the scientific version was given credence by the atheists Voltaire and David Hume.  Voltaire believed that whites and blacks were different species.)


Not all American Christians appreciated the politicizing of the pulpit.  Under the pen name “Q.K. Philander Doesticks, P.B.,” humorist Mortimer Thomson satirized their reaction to “politico religious hash” — i.e., hyper-political sermons.  “Doesticks,” who grew up in the Midwest, wrote for Horace Greeley’s anti-slavery New York Tribune and even did a famous undercover report on a huge slave sale in Savannah, Georgia, where he posed as a potential buyer to get the full scoop.  Thomson received death threats for his exposé of slave auctioneering.  As a satirist, he was much admired by Mark Twain.


Weekly Indiana State Sentinel, October 2, 1856

(Weekly Indiana State Sentinel, Indianapolis, October 2, 1856.)


Indiana was no stranger to this religious battle.  In 1855, the year Passmore Williamson went to prison in Pennsylvania, the Reverend Thomas B. McCormick got into hot water with congregations and the law in Princeton and Mechanicsville, Indiana, two small towns between Evansville and Vincennes.  Gibson’s flock were Cumberland Presbyterians, a branch mostly centered in Kentucky and Tennessee.

Princeton lay on a main line of the Underground Railroad running up the Wabash Valley.  Unlike most “agents” and “stationmasters” on the Railroad, Rev. McCormick made no secret of his hatred for the Fugitive Slave Act.  He actively aided runaways from Kentucky and preached on the topic of slavery and its sinfulness.  A native Kentuckian himself, McCormick had been a minister in southern Indiana for fourteen years when he ran afoul of the law.


Let the North Awake


At a session of the Indiana Presbytery of the Cumberland Presbyterians, who met at Washington in Daviess County in 1855, church elders passed a resolution (17-3) stating “That it is not expedient to discuss the subject of American Slavery from the pulpit.”  McCormick had just preached an anti-slavery sermon.  He ignored the elders.


Indiana American, Brookville, November 16, 1855(Indiana American, Brookville, November 16, 1855.)


McCormick then put forward a resolution of his own, which was rejected by the presbyters:


Indiana American, Brookville, November 16, 1855 (2)Indiana American, Brookville, November 16, 1855 (3)

(Indiana American, Brookville, November 16, 1855.)


When the Cumberland Presbyterians tried to silence Thomas McCormick from preaching, the reverend left and joined the Congregationalists — a denominational cousin of the Presbyterians but who were more united in their condemnation of slavery. McCormick’s activity piloting fugitives north toward Michigan and Canada, however, soon got him indicted by a Kentucky grand jury.

Under the 1850 federal law, Kentucky Governor Lazarus Powell was authorized to request the governor of neighboring Indiana — a technically “free” state, though many Hoosiers were pro-slavery — to extradite any Hoosier caught helping refugees evade slave catchers, who often traipsed onto Indiana soil.  Governor Joseph Wright (namesake of Wright Quadrangle at Indiana University) complied with the noxious law.  Like those he helped, Rev. McCormick himself had to flee to either Ohio or Canada, as “a large sum of money was offered for his body.”  McCormick ran for the governorship of Ohio in 1857 on “the Abolition ticket” and wasn’t able to return to Indiana until 1862, when Governor Oliver P. Morton assured him he would be safe here.  He died in Gibson County in 1892.

Calvin Fairbank, an abolitionist and Methodist minister who ferried slaves over the Ohio, was less fortunate than McCormick.  For over a decade, Fairbank helped at least forty runaways slip into the interior of Indiana, many of them making it to the farm of Levi and Catherine Coffin in Fountain City, just north of Richmond.  Coffin, a Quaker from North Carolina, was called the “President” of the Underground Railroad.

In 1851, with the complicity of Governor Wright and the Clark County sheriff in Jeffersonville, Fairbank was arrested on the way to church by Kentucky marshals, who extradited him across the river to Louisville.  (Some versions say he was “kidnapped.”)  Fairbank eventually spent thirteen years at the old Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort, where guards mercilessly beat him and lashed him with whips, by some accounts a thousand times, by others 30,000 times.  With his body broken, he moved to western New York, where he died in poverty in 1898, an almost forgotten hero of American freedom.


Calvin Fairbank

(Calvin Fairbank.)


The great abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, who lashed out at American hypocrisy, once proclaimed:  “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.”  The Anti-Slavery Bugle, a newspaper published in Lisbon, Ohio, quoted Douglass’ words on the fervently Baptist Newton Craig, cruel superintendent of the Kentucky State Penitentiary and Fairbank’s torturer.

According to an 1860 history of the prison, written by a friend of Captain Craig’s, the jailer’s ancestors had been imprisoned in colonial Virginia “for preaching the gospel” as dissenting Baptists, against the Anglican state church.  In spite of his fervent religion, Craig, as abolitionists said, nevertheless had “the most inveterate hatred” toward “negro-stealers.”  The jail-master earned a small fortune during his eleven years in charge, using convicts on nearby plantations, and is said to have “delivered long sermons to the inmates in his care.”  According to a story mentioned by Frederick Douglass, he broke an expensive cane on Calvin Fairbank’s head:


Anti-Slavery Bugle, Lisbon, Ohio, April 12, 1856

(Frederick Douglass on Newton Craig.  Anti-Slavery Bugle, Lisbon, Ohio, April 12, 1856.)


Kentucky State Penitentiary

(Kentucky State Penitentiary.  The note reads: “This is some Bird Cage.  Looks like a church.”  Frederick Douglass once wrote of America:  “The church and the slave prison stand next to each other… [T]he church-going bell and the auctioneer’s bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer’s block stand in the same neighborhood.”)


Not long after Fairbank’s arrival  behind bars, several other resisters joined him, including Delia Webster (a Vermont-born schoolteacher from Lexington and the only woman at the prison) and former slave Lewis Hayden.  A lesser-known inmate was the Irish immigrant Thomas Brown, who with his wife Mary McClanahan Brown had posed as a traveling merchant and “notions pedlar” downstream from Evansville, Indiana.  Operating on the Kentucky side of the river near Henderson, the Browns smuggled refugees under curtains in their wagon to the riverbank. Brown was arrested by marshals near the mouth of the Wabash and sentenced to a prison term in Frankfort, where he witnessed the murder of a free black man from Evansville by guards. Released in 1857, Brown wrote an exposé of the wardens, published in Indianapolis that year as Three Years in Kentucky Prisons.

By the end of the 1850s, anti-slavery voices had grown stronger than ever.  The religious undertones were clear:  from the fascinating dream-visions and out-of-body experiences of Harriet Tubman to the fiery Old Testament furor of John Brown.  While the actions of Christians like prison warden Newton Craig and many more made Frederick Douglass’ suspicion of the churches a fair criticism, the “voice in the wilderness” was now crying strong.


Weekly Reveille, Vevay, Indiana, August 18, 1853Weekly Reveille, Vevay, Indiana, August 18, 1853 (2)

(Weekly Reveille, Vevay, Indiana, August 18, 1853.)


Hoosier State Chronicles provides access to many other fascinating news clips about the Underground Railroad, all of them available for free on our search engine.  Here’s a few of the best:

A reprint in the anti-Underground Railroad Daily State Sentinel (Indianapolis) about the impact of the refugee crisis on public opinion in Vermont, “A Change of Sentiment,” July 8, 1858.

An editorial from the Daily State Sentinel criticizing Indiana judges for protecting “the n—-r population,” October 12, 1857.

“Calvin Fairbank Dead,” Indianapolis News, October 14, 1898.

“A Kidnapper Caught,” [on Thomas Brown], Evansville Daily Journal, June 2, 1854.

“A Collision on the Underground Railroad,” Terre-Haute Journal, September 15, 1854.

An article against “The Abolition Editor of the [Indianapolis] Journal,” Daily State Sentinel, May 5, 1856.

An editorial against Illinois abolitionist Owen Lovejoy, brother of murdered abolitionist printer Elijah Lovejoy, Daily State Sentinel, August 9, 1856.

“Return Trips of the Underground Railroad,” about the miserable conditions refugees that found in Ontario, Daily State Sentinel, October 24, 1857.

A reprint from the Detroit Advertiser equating the Underground Railroad with theft, “Arrival of Twenty-Six Fugitive Slaves at Detroit,” Daily State Sentinel, November 8, 1859.

A statement from a Senate report arguing that the Underground Railroad would be cause for war with a foreign nation, Evansville Daily Journal, January 23, 1861.

A reprint from the New York Express, written during the Civil War, mocking abolitionists as part of a procession leading the American people toward “the Limbo of Vanity and the Paradise of Fools,” Daily State Sentinel, October 17, 1862.


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

Eugene Debs, Jesus & the “Woman in Scarlet”

Eugene V. Debs

American politics often repeats itself every generation or two.  In light of some of the top stories in the media in 2015 — including Pope Francis’ U.S. visit and the first major candidacy of a Socialist for the White House since 1920, that of Vermont’s Bernie Sanders — one fascinating, overlooked tale from the Indiana press is worth retrieving from the archives.

The story starts in Terre Haute, hometown of Eugene V. Debs, the great American labor leader who, as a Socialist, ran for president not once, but five times.  A passionate leader of railroad strikes — Terre Haute a century ago was one of the major railroad hubs of the nation — Debs was also a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World and a vocal opponent of American entry into World War I. When he clashed with President Wilson over the military draft in 1918, he was sent to prison under an espionage act.  Debs spent over two years of a ten-year sentence at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta, where he ran for the presidency in 1920 — the only candidate ever to run a campaign from a jail cell.


ireland is free why not debs
“Ireland is Free, Why Not Debs? Bring Debs Home for Christmas.” A scene on Wabash Avenue in Terre Haute, 1921. President Harding commuted his sentence, effective Christmas Day.

In the summer of 1913, however, Eugene Debs came to the defense of a scorned young woman tossed into Terre Haute’s own city jail. Slandered in the press, she’d been called a “woman in scarlet,” a “modern Magdalene” and a street-walker.  Local papers and the American Socialist press jumped on the story of how Debs showed compassion for her, but today the tale is almost unknown.

The alleged prostitute was Helen Hollingsworth Cox (sometimes spelled Hollinsworth in the papers.)  Born in Indiana around 1888, she would have been about 25 when her case electrified the city, including its gossips. Helen was the daughter of the Reverend J.H. Hollingsworth, a Methodist minister in Greencastle, Newport, Terre Haute and probably several other Wabash Valley towns.

As Mont Casey, a writer for the Clinton Clintonian, explained, the Reverend Hollingsworth had angered some of his flock by preaching the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth rather than giving “more attention to society and the golf links.” Though Debs was a famous “non-professor” when it came to religion, he and Hollingsworth saw eye-to-eye on issues like poverty, it seems. (In fact, the agnostic Debs, son of French immigrants, had been given the middle name Victor to honor Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, the great novel of the poor.)  Yet Mont Casey wrote that the Socialist and the Methodist were close friends.


Greencastle Herald, July 28, 1913(Greencastle Herald, July 28, 1913.)


Some papers had apparently gotten their version of Helen’s “fall from grace” wrong, prompting Casey to explain her “true history.”  Set among the debauched wine rooms and saloons of Terre Haute, Casey’s version ventures into the city’s once-flourishing red light district near the Wabash River and the world of the “soiled doves,” a popular euphemism for prostitutes.  The scene could have come straight from the urban novels of Terre Haute’s other famous son in those days, Theodore Dreiser, whose Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt were banned for their sexual frankness and honesty.


Greencastle Herald, July 28, 1913 (5)Greencastle Herald, July 28, 1913 (6)Greencastle Herald, July 28, 1913 (7)

(Greencastle Herald, July 28, 1913.)


Helen’s minister father may have been denied a pulpit because of his interpretations of the gospel.  He also may have been living in poverty and unable to help his daughter.  This isn’t clear.

Whatever the truth is, the story went international, perhaps through the efforts of Milwaukee’s Socialist press.  (The Socialist mayor of Milwaukee, Emil Seidel, had been Debs’ vice-presidential running mate in 1912.)  The tale eventually made it overseas, as far away as New Zealand, in fact, where The Maoriland Worker, published out of Wellington or Christchurch, mentions that Debs was a designated “emergency probation officer” in Terre Haute.


Maoriland Worker 2
(New Zealand’s major labor newspaper carried “Did Debs Do Right?” on October 3, 1913.)

The fires were being stoked.  Terre Haute’s well-heeled “Pharisees” — the same type, many pointed out, who had killed “the rebel Jesus,” as Jackson Browne and the Chieftains put it in an Irish Christmas song — apparently weren’t happy about Debs coming to Helen Cox’s defense.  When he took the “modern Magdalene” directly into his home (the phrase refers to Jesus’ female disciple, who was also falsely labeled a prostitute in popular memory),  Debs declared that his “friends must receive her.”

Son of a formerly Catholic French mother but a freethinker himself, this was a remarkable moment for Debs — who famously said that he would rather entrust himself to a saloon keeper than the average preacher but who was anything but hostile to religion at its best.


Lake County Times, June 22, 1913


Lake County Times, June 22, 1913 (2)
Lake County Times, June 22, 1913 (3)Lake County Times, June 22, 1913 (4) (Lake County Times, June 22, 1913. Hoosier State Chronicles recently portrayed Muncie’s Alfaretta Hart, a Catholic reformer and policewoman who would have agreed heartily with Debs’ take on Imitatio Dei.)

A clip from the Washington Post added this excerpt from the labor leader’s remarks to the press:

Washington Post 1

That summer, Debs’ healthy “challenge to the Christianity of Terre Haute” was taken up in the pages of a unique monthly called The Flaming Sword.  Published at a religious commune near Fort Myers, Florida, the periodical was the mouthpiece of the Koreshan Unity, an experimental utopian community based partly on Socialist and Christian principles.  The celibate group living on the outskirts of the Everglades had been founded by Dr. Cyrus Teed (1839-1908), a former Civil War doctor turned alchemist and messiah who came down to Florida from Chicago in the 1890s.  Teed also propounded a curious “Hollow Earth” theory.

Dr. Teed was dead by the time Debs threw down his challenge to the churches, but the Koreshans printed a spirited, sympathetic editorial about it — written by fellow utopian John S. Sargent, a former Civil War soldier and Wabash Valley native.

The Flaming Sword 2
The Flaming Sword, Estero, Florida, August 1913. The Koreshan Unity lingered on until 1961, when Hedwig Michel, a refugee from Nazi Germany who had joined the group, donated the property for use as a Florida state park.

The Flaming Sword 1


Helen Hollingsworth apparently got back on her feet thanks to Debs’ help.  But she did lose her daughter, Dorothy, born in 1908, who was raised by the wealthy Cox family and Helen’s “reprobate betrayer.”  That was Newton Cox, “petted profligate of an aristocratic family,” who died in 1934.  During the Great Depression, Dorothy Cox married a banker named Morris Bobrow.  She died in New York City in 2000.

Helen’s father, Reverend J.H. Hollingsworth, passed away in 1943. The Methodist pastor had followed his daughter up to Michigan, where in the early 1930’s, she was living in Lansing and Grand Rapids, having married a news broadcaster named King Bard.  The 1940 Census shows that the Bards had a 17-year-old “step-daughter” named Joan.  The 1930 Census states that Joan was adopted, and that — confusingly — the married couple’s name was Guerrier, at first.  It’s not clear why they changed their last name to Bard during the Depression.  King’s birth name had been John Clarence Guerrier, the same name on his World War II draft registration card, which lists him as “alias King Bard.”

Eugene V. Debs died in 1926.  Helen Bard retired with her husband to Bradenton, Florida, where she appears to have passed away in May 1974, aged 86.


Indianapolis Star, July 20, 1913
Indianapolis Star, July 20, 1913.

President Lincoln and Religion: The Evening Journal, September 6,1872

President Abraham Lincoln. Nathan Greene Studio.

“Mr. Lincoln’s Religious Views
The testimony of Mrs. Rebecca R. Pomeroy of Newton, Mass.”

(Page one, third column, seventh title down.)

 

Indianapolis Journal, September 6, 1872. Hoosier State Chronicles.