The book that Billy Sunday couldn’t shut down

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
Font Size:

The 1920s gave rise to a flurry of religious fundamentalism — and interesting people — reminiscent of the last 30 years (with characters ranging from revered men like Billy Graham to more controversial preachers and “televangelists” like Ted HaggardJimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker.)

Dr. Barry Hankins, author of “Jesus and Gin: Evangelism, the Roaring Twenties and Today’s Culture Wars,” and I recently discussed this often forgotten part of American history.

(Listen to audio of our full conversation here. Or download the podcast on iTunes.)

The political dynamics were, of course, different. “You have liberal protestants who were fighting with fundamentalist protestants on theological issues of all kind — and on evolution,” Hankins said, “and yet they stood shoulder to shoulder in support of the Prohibition movement.”

But the big personalities of the major religious figures of the time won’t surprise anyone today. Here’s a sampling of three major people of the era:

… “Billy Sunday was a national Billy Graham character for the first quarter of the 20th century.”

… “Amee Semple-McPherson was a Pentecostal preacher who was nationally known — only second to Billy Sunday in terms of popularity … In 1926, she disappeared for a time and reappeared five weeks later, claiming she’d been kidnapped. But it looked like she’d run away with her radio engineer and had an affair.”

… “Reverend J. Frank Norris shot and killed an unarmed man in his office at the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth.”

These were tumultuous years for religion in America. The 1920s, after all, was the era of the Scopes Monkey Trial — a symbol for the battle that still engages our scientific education in America. Interesting people for an interesting time.

(Listen to audio of our full conversation here. Or download the podcast on iTunes.)

Matt K. Lewis