"Hitting the Sawdust Trail"
Come and accept my Christ.—Billy Sunday.
PIONEERS are necessarily unconventional. America has done more than transform a wilderness into a nation: in the process she has created new forms of life and of speech. Back from the frontier has come a new, terse, vigorous and pictorial language. Much of it has found its way into the dictionaries. The newer West uses the word "trail"—first employed to designate the traces left by traveling Indians—to designate a path. The lumbermen commonly call the woods roads "trails."
Imagine a lumberman lost in the big woods. He has wandered, bewildered, for days. Death stares him in the face. Then, spent and affrighted, he comes to a trail. And the trail leads to life; it is the way home.
There we have the origin of the expression "Hitting the sawdust trail," used in Mr. Sunday's meetings as a term similar to the older stereotyped phrases: "Going forward"; "Seeking the altar." The more conventional method, used by the other evangelists, is to ask for a show of hands.
Out in the Puget Sound country, where the sawdust aisles and the rough tabernacle made an especial appeal to the woodsmen, the phrase "Hitting the sawdust trail" came into use in Mr. Sunday's meetings. The figure was luminous. For was not this the trail that led the lost to salvation, the way home to the Father's house?
The metaphor appealed to the American public, which relishes all that savors of our people's most primitive life. Besides, the novel designation serves well the taste of a nation which is singularly reticent concerning its finer feelings, and delights to cloak its loftiest sentiments beneath slang phrases. The person who rails at "hitting the trail" as an irreverent phrase has something to learn about the mind of Americans. Tens of thousands of persons have enshrined the homely phrase in the sanctuary of their deepest spiritual experience.
The scene itself, when Mr. Sunday calls for converts to come forward and take his hand, in token of their purpose to accept and follow Christ, is simply beyond words. Human speech cannot do justice to the picture. For good reason. This is one of those crises in human life the portrayal of which makes the highest form of literature. A Victor Hugo could find a dozen novels in each night's experience in the Sunday Tabernacle.
This is an hour of bared souls. The great transaction between man and his Maker is under way. The streams of life are here changing their course. Character and destiny are being altered. The old Roman "Sacramentum," when the soldiers gave allegiance with uplifted hand, crying, "This for me! This for me!" could not have been more impressive than one of these great outpourings of human life up the sawdust aisle to the pulpit, to grasp the preacher's hand, in declaration that henceforth their all would be dedicated to the Christ of Calvary.
The greatness of the scene is at first incomprehensible. There are no parallels for it in all the history of Protestantism. This unschooled American commoner, who could not pass the entrance examinations of any theological seminary in the land, has publicly grasped the hands of approximately a quarter of a million persons, who by that token have said, in the presence of the great congregation, that they thereby vowed allegiance to their Saviour and Lord. Moody, Whitefield, Finney, have left no such record of converts as this.
A dramatic imagination is needed to perceive even a fragment of what is meant by this army of Christian recruits. The magnitude of the host is scarcely revealed by the statement that these converts more than equal the number of inhabitants of the states of Delaware or Arizona at the last census, and far surpass those of Nevada and Wyoming. Imagine a state made up wholly of zealous disciples of Christ! Of the one hundred largest cities in the United States there are only nineteen with more inhabitants than the total number of persons who have "hit the trail" at the Sunday meetings.
Break up that vast host into its component parts. Each is an individual whose experience is as real and distinctive as if there never had been another human soul to come face to face with God. To one the act means a clean break with a life of open sin. To another it implies a restored home and a return to respectability. To this young person it signifies entrance upon a life of Christian service; to that one a separation from all old associations. Some must give up unworthy callings. Other must heal old feuds and make restitution for ancient wrongs. One young woman in accepting Christ knows that she must reject the man she had meant to marry. To many men it implies a severance of old political relations. Far and wide and deep this sawdust trail runs; and the record is written in the sweat of agonizing souls and in the red of human blood.
The consequences of conversion stagger the imagination: this process is still the greatest social force of the age.'
Little wonder that persons of discernment journey long distances to attend a Sunday meeting, and to witness this appeal for converts to "hit the trail." I traveled several hundred miles to see it for the first time, and would go across the continent to see it again. For this is vital religion. If a wedding casts its dramatic spell upon the imagination; if a political election stirs the sluggish deeps of the popular mind; if a battle calls for newspaper "extras"; if an execution arrests popular attention by its element of the mystery of life becoming death—then, by Bo much and more, this critical, decisive moment in the lives of living men and women grips the mind by its intense human interest. What issues, for time and eternity, are being determined by this step! The great romance is enacted daily at the Sunday meetings.
For these converts are intent upon the most sacred experience that ever comes to mortal. Through what soul struggles they have passed, what renunciations they have made, what futures they front, only God and heaven's hosts know. The crowd dimly senses all this. There is an instinctive appreciation of the dramatic in the multitude. So the evangelist's appeal is followed by an added tenseness, a straining of necks and a general rising to behold the expected procession.
A more simple and unecclesiastical setting for this tremendous scene could scarcely be devised. The plain board platform, about six feet high, and fifteen feet long, is covered by a carpet. Its only furniture is a second-hand walnut pulpit, directly under the huge sounding board; and one plain wooden chair, "a kitchen chair," a housewife would call it. Then the invitation is given for all who want to come out on the side of Christ to come forward and grasp Sunday's hand.
See them come! From all parts of the vast building they press forward. Nearly everyone is taking this step before the eyes of friends, neighbors, work-fellows. It calls for courage, for this is a life enlistment. Behold the young men crowding toward the platform, where the helpers form them into a swiftly moving line—dozens and scores of boys and men in the first flush of manhood. Occasionally an old person is in the line; oftener it is a boy or girl. There goes a mother with her son.
How differently the converts act. Some have streaming eyes. Others wear faces radiant with the light of a new hope. Still others have the tense, set features of gladiators entering the arena. For minute after minute the procession continues. When a well-known person goes forward, the crowd cheers, u
As I have studied Mr. Sunday in the act of taking the hands of converts—one memorable night more than five hundred at the rate of fifty-seven a minute—the symbolism of his hand has appealed to my imagination.
Surprisingly small and straight and surprisingly strong it is. Base-ball battles have left no scars upon it. The lines are strong and deep and clear. The hand is "in condition"; no fiabbiness about it. There are no rings on either of Mr. Sunday's hands, except a plain gold wedding ring on the left third finger.
No outstretched hand of military commander ever pointed such a host to so great a battle. Is there anywhere a royal hand, wielding a scepter over a nation, which has symbolized so much vital influence as this short, firm hand of a typical American commoner? The soldier sent on a desperate mission asked Wellington for "one grasp ^of your conquering hand." A conquering hand, a helping hand, an uplifting hand, an upward-pointing hand, is this which once won fame by handling a base ball.
Conceive of the vast variety of hands that have been reached up to grasp this one, and what those hands have since done for the world's betterment! Two hundred thousand dedicated right hands, still a-tingle with the touch of this inviting hand of the preacher of the gospel! The picture of Sunday's right hand belongs in the archives of contemporary religious history.
No stage manager could ever set so great a scene as this. The vastness of it—sixteen or seventeen thousand eyes all centered on one ordinary-looking American on a high green-carpeted platform, a veritable "sea of faces"— is not more impressive than the details which an observer picks out.
The multitudes are of the sort who thronged the Galilean; plain people, home-keeping women, seldom seen in public places; mechanics, clerks, the great American commonalty. Again and again one is impressed from some fresh angle with the democracy of it all; this man somehow appeals to that popular sense wherein all special tastes and interests merge.
The dtbdcle is a sight beyond words. The ice of conventionality breaks up, and the tide of human feeling floods forth. From every part of the great tabernacle—from the front seats, where you have been studying the personalities, and from the distant rear, where all the faces merge into an impersonal mass—persons begin to stream forward. See how they come. The moment is electric. Everybody is on the qui vive.
The first to take the evangelist's hand is a young colored boy. The girl who follows may be a stenographer. Young men are a large part of the recruits; here come a dozen fine-looking members of an athletic club in a body, while the crowd cheers; evidently somebody has been doing personal work there.
Contrasts are too common to mention. There is a delicate lady's kid-gloved hand reached up to that of the evangelist; the next is the grimy, calloused hand of a blueshirted miner. The average is of young men and women, the choice and the mighty members of a community. Is the world to find a new moral or religious leader in the person of some one of these bright-faced youth who tonight have made this sign of dedication?
And here comes an old man, with a strong face; evidently a personality of force. Twice the evangelist pats the head bowed before him, in pleasure over this aged recruit. He seems reluctant to let the old man go; but, see the children crowd behind him, and no convert can have more than a handclasp and a word.
All around the platform the crowd resembles a hive of bees just before swarming. Stir, motion, animation seem to create a scene of confusion. But there is order and purpose in it all. The occupants of the front seats are being moved out to make way for the converts, who are there to be talked with, and to sign the cards that are to be turned over to the local pastors.
Personal workers are getting into action. See the ministers streaming down into the fray! There goes the Young Men's Christian Association secretary, and the Salvation Army soldiers, and the members of the choir, wearing Christian Endeavor and Bible class badges. This is religion in action. Can these church members ever again lapse into dead conventionality?
Meanwhile, Rodeheaver, the chorister, leans upon the piano and softly leads the great choir in "Almost Persuaded." The musical invitation continues while the work goes on in front. It is undisturbed by an occasional appeal from the evangelist. The song quickly changes to "Oh, Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?" and then, as the volume of penitents increases, into "I Am Coming Home" and "Ring the Bells of Heaven, There is Joy Today!" All this is psychological; it fosters the mood which the sermon has created. Music mellows as many hearts as spoken words.
All the while Sunday is shaking hands. At first he leans far over, for the platform is more than six feet high. Sometimes it seems as if he will lose his balance. To reach down he stands on his left foot, with his right leg extended straight behind him, the foot higher than his head. No one posture is retained long. Often he dips down with a swinging circular motion, like a pitcher about to throw a ball. Never was man more lavish of his vital energy than this one. His face is white and tense and drawn; work such as this makes terrific draughts on a man's nerve force.
As the converts increase, he lifts a trapdoor in the platform, which permits him to stand three feet nearer the people. Still they come, often each led by some personal worker. I saw a Scandinavian led forward in one meeting; ten minutes later I saw him bringing his wife up the trail. Some of the faces are radiant with a new joy. Others are set at a nervous tension. Some jaws are grim and working, revealing the inner conflict which has resulted in this step.
A collarless, ragged, weak-faced slave of dissipation is next in line to a beautiful girl in the dew of her youth. An old, white-wooled negro, leaning on a staff, is led forward. Then a little child. Here are veritably all sorts and conditions of people.
In the particular session I am describing, a big delegation of railroad men is present, and the evangelist keeps turning to them, with an occasional "Come on, Erie!" The memories of his own days as a railroad brakeman are evidently working within him, and he seizes a green lantern and waves it. "A clear track ahead!" Toward these men he is most urgent, beckoning them also with a white railroad flag which he has taken from the decorations. When the master mechanic "hits the trail"
there is cheering from the crowd, and Sunday himself shows a delight that was exhibited over none of the society folk who came forward.
Hare and remarkable as are these scenes in religious history, they occur nightly in the Sunday tabernacle. Two hundred, three hundred, five hundred, one thousand converts are common.
A Collarless, Weak-faced Slave Of DissipaTion Is Next In Line To A Beautiful Girl In The Dew Of Her Youth
Anybody interested in life and in the phenomena of religion will find this occasion the most interesting scene at present to be witnessed in the whole world. As for the novelist, this is the human soul bared, and beyond the compass of his highest art.
For life is at its apex when, in new resolution, a mortal spirit makes compact with the Almighty.