The Prophet and His Own Time
There wouldn't be so many non-church goers if there were not so many non-going churches.—Billy Sotjday.
PROPHET to his own generation is Billy Sunday.
In the speech of today he arraigns the sins of today
and seeks to satisfy the needs of today. A man singularly free and fearless, he applies the Gospel to the conditions of the present moment. Knowing life on various levels, he preaches with a definiteness and an appropriateness that echo the prophet Nathan's "Thou art the man." By the very structure of Billy Sunday's mentality it is made difficult for him to be abstract. He has to deal definitely with concrete sins.
Now a pastor would find it difficult to approach, in the ruthless and reckless fashion of Billy Sunday, the shortcomings of his members and neighbors. He has to live with his congregation, year in and year out; but the evangelist is as irresponsible as John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan. He has no affiliations to consider and no consequences to fear, except the Kingdom's welfare. His only concern is for the truth and applicability of his message. He is perfectly heedless about offending hearers. Those well-meaning persons who would compare Billy Sunday with the average pastor should bear this in mind.
A rare gift of satire and scorn and invective and ridicule has been given to Sunday. He has been equipped with powerful weapons which are too often missing from the armory of the average Gospel soldier. His aptitude for puncturing sham is almost without a peer in contemporary life. Few orators in any field have his art of heaping up adjectives to a towering height that overwhelms their objective.
Nor does the Church escape Sunday's plain dealing. He treats vigorously her shortcomings and her imperfections. Usually, the persons who hear the first half dozen or dozen sermons in one of his campaigns are shocked by the reckless way in which the evangelist handles the Church and church members.
Others, forewarned, perceive the psychology of it. It is clear that in Sunday's thinking the purity of the Church is all-important. Complacency with any degree of corruption or inefficiency on her part he would regard as sin. So he unsparingly belabors the Church and her ministry for all the good that they have left undone and all amiss that they have done.
The net result of this is that the evangelist leaves on the minds of the multitudes, to whom the Church has been a negligible quantity, a tremendous impression of her preeminent importance. It is true that sometimes, after a Sunday campaign, a few ministers have to leave their churches, because of the new spirit of efficiency and spirituality which he has imparted. They have simply been unable to measure up to the new opportunity. On the whole, however, it is clear that he imparts a new sense of dignity and a new field of leadership to the ministers of the Gospel in the communities he has served. Testimony on this point seems to be conclusive.
Given prophets of today, with the conviction that both Church and social life should square with the teaching of Jesus Christ, and you have revolutionary possibilities for any community. Fair samples of Sunday's treatment of the Church and of society are these:
"There is but one voice from the faithful preacher about the Church—that is she is sick. But we say it in such painless, delicate terms; we work with such tender massage, that she seems to enjoy her invalidism. I'm coming with my scalpel to cut into the old sores and ulcers and drive them out. I feel the pulse and say it's pus temperature. The temperature's high. I'm trying to remove from the Church the putrefying abscess which is boring into its vitals. About four out of every five who have their names on our church records are doing absolutely nothing to bring anybody to Christ and the Church is not a whit better for their having lived in it. Christians are making a great deal of Lent. I believe in Lent. I'll tell you what kind, though. I believe in a Lent that is kept 365 days in the year for Jesus Christ. That is the kind I like to see. Some people will go to hell sure if they die out of the Lenten season. I hate to see a man get enough religion in forty days to last him and then live like the devil the rest of the year. If you can reform for forty days you can reform for the year.
"The Jewish Church ran up against this snag and was wrecked. The Roman Catholic Church ran up against it and split. All of the churches today are fast approaching the same doom.
"The dangers to the Church, as I see them, are assimilation with the world, the neglect of the poor, substitution of forms for godliness; and all summed up mean a fashionable church with religion left out. Formerly Methodists used to attend class meetings. Now these are abandoned in many churches. Formerly shouts of praise were heard. Now such holy demonstration is considered undignified. Once in a while some good, godly sister forgets herself and pipes out in a falsetto, apologetic sort of a key: 'Amen, Brother Sunday.' I don't expect any of those ossified, petrified, dyed-in-the-wool, stamped-on-the-cork Presbyterians or Episcopalians to shout, 'Amen,' but it would do you good and loosen you up. It won't hurt you a bit. You are hidebound. I think about half the professing Christians amount to nothing as a spiritual force. They have a kind regard for reb'gion, but as for evangelical service, as for a cheerful spirit of self-denial, as for prevailing prayer, willingness to strike hard blows against the devil, they are almost a failure. I read the other day of a shell which had been invented which is hurled on a ship and when it explodes it puts all on board asleep. I sometimes think one of these shells has hit the Church.
"What are some people going to do aboutthe Judgment? Some are just in life for the money they get out of it. They will tell you north is south if they think they can get a dollar by it. They float get-rich-quick schemes and anything for money. I haven't a word to say about a man who has earned his money honestly, uses it to provide for his family and spends the surplus for good. You know there is a bunch of mutts that sit around on stools and whittle and spit and cuss and damn and say that every man who has an honest dollar ought to divide it with them, while others get out and get busy and work and sweat and toil and prepare to leave something for their wives and families when they die, and spend the rest for good.
"Old Commodore Vanderbilt had a fortune of over $200,000,000, and one day when he was ill he sent for Dr. Deems. He asked him to sing for him that old song:
'Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Come, ye wounded, sick and 6ore.'
The old commodore tossed from side to side, looked around at the evidence, of his wealth, and he said: 'That's what I am, poor and needy.' Who? Commodore Vanderbilt poor and needy with his $200,000,000? The foundation of that fabulous fortune was laid by him when he poled a yawl from New York to Staten Island and picked up pennies for doing it. The foundation of the immense Astor fortune was laid by John Jacob Astor when he went out and bought fur and hides from trappers and put the money in New York real estate. The next day in the street one man said to another: 'Have you heard the news? Commodore Vanderbilt is dead.' 'How much did he leave?' 'He left it all.'
"Naked you came into this world, and naked you will crawl out of it. You brought nothing into the world and you will take nothing out, and if you have put the pack screws on the poor and piled up a pile of gold as big as a house you can't take it with you. It wouldn't do you any good if you could, because it would melt."