Reinhold Niebuhr Timeline: Publishes article on Billy Sunday

Reinhold Niebuhr Timeline: Publishes article on Billy Sunday

Niebuhr's Article on Billy Sunday

"Billy Sunday — His Preachments and His Methods"
by Rev. Reinhold Niebuhr, Bethel Evangelical Church, Detroit
(from Detroit Saturday Night, October 14, 1916)

The opinions which we have seen expressed in the "Vox Populi" columns of our daily press on the work and personality of the eminent revivalist who is at present sojourning in our city confirm the conviction that neutral opinions are always sparingly given and unwillingly received. The voices that are raised are all voices of either eulogizers or detractors. They speak of Mr. Sunday as either a modern Jeremiah or as a medieval fakir. Those who think both well and ill of Mr. Sunday either keep a discreet silence or do sufficient violence to their honest convictions to express either a wholly favorable or an entirely unfavorable opinion. Perhaps they do this unconsciously because they realize that the world gives lit tel attention to neutral opinion. It likes to see the actors who occupy the stage either as heroes or villains. If the characters do not satisfy this desire, the imagination is ever ready to help the facts along. Those who find good and evil in policies and personalities spoil the fun and must be discouraged. Roosevelt is either a modern Moses or a demagogue; Sunday is either one of the great prophets or a mercenary sensationalist. There seems to be no middle ground when we appraise great personalities.

And yet there must be many, both in the churches and out of them who are perplexed by the peculiar mixture of good and evil in Sunday and his work and who consequently can be neither passionately for him or very strongly opposed to him. The writer counts himself as one of these and is seeking to give expression to their viewpoint.

If Sunday belongs to the line of the prophets his personal characteristics are as important as his doctrine and message. Religious enthusiasm spreads as much, if not more, by contagion as by conviction. In spite of the modest disclaimer of most prophets that they deserve credit for the success of their message it remain a fact that religious exhorters have attained their ends with the most varying doctrinal tools. The content of their preaching is certainly not unimportant but, whether we like to admit it or not, religious enthusiasm is produced as much by the personal power of the prophet as by the power of his message. And Sunday has the power of personal magnetism; however indefinable that quality is, Sunday seems to have more of it than even the most successful men on platform and pulpit. Perhaps his inexhaustible physical power and stamina contributes to this platform magnetism, perhaps it is that grin of his which seems to sooth his audience and personally comes after a particularly vicious attack; perhaps also his God uses us all in spite of our shortcomings and in Sunday's case the good seems by far to outweigh the evil as far as his personal equipment is concerned.

Most men could probably be wholeheartedly for Billy as far as his personal equipment is concerned. What confuses them is his message. The moral content of Sunday's message consists in a vivid portrayal of the hideousness of sin, particularly of personal sin. The sins of which Sunday speaks are the more obvious ones, the ones that every one recognizes as sin but which are more or less tolerated by a Christian society. In this field Sunday has the true instincts of a prophet, for as the prophets of old, he is an accelerator of the community conscience and is valuable not so much because he finds new paths for spiritual progress but because he cleans the brambles from the old ones.

Like the prophets, he ridicules the forms and symbols of religion and has no use for religion that exists for its own sake. Without a doubt he is without a peer as a denunciator of intemperance and immorality, as an apostle of personal purity and decency. But one cannot help but notice that he seldom utters a word on those complex moral problems that pertain to the application of Christian principles to the conduct of business. Sunday may be right in declaring that Christianity will stand or fall by the consistency of Christians in their personal life. But he ought also to know that Christianity has been judged in the past decades not so much by the personal morality as by the business ethics of Christians.

It is much harder to determine whether a man is sinning in his business than to decide whether he is sinning in his personal life and it is also much harder to lead him on the paths of righteousness. But Christianity has been equal to the task; it has preached the "social gospel" and some of the very men who have preached it are men whom Billy would like to "see in hell where evolution came from."

If Christianity has been judged in past decades by the power it has been able to wield over the ethics of business it will be judged in the future by the influence it may exert on the ethics of nations. The problem of interpreting Christian principles and making them potent to corporations and to nations is one that is naturally outside of an evangelist's field and we are therefore not justified in criticizing him if he fails to take account of it. But the criticism may be justified when we find an evangelist encouraging the impression that the future of the Christian faith depends upon the outcome of his meetings. We dare not, even in the enthusiasm of a local campaign, lose our sense of proportion. In the history of Christianity a Christian statesman like Beecher has as important a place as an evangelist like Moody and in contemporary Christianity such men as Gladden may mean more to the kingdom of God than Sunday.

Though Sunday, like the prophets, emphasizes the moral side of religion, he takes himself quite seriously as a theologian also. And there is much in his theology to commend it. He maintains that fundamental paradox of Christian faith that god is both righteous and merciful and he preaches both judgment and forgiveness with force. Perhaps he emphasizes judgment more strongly than the modern church is wont to, but this emphasis is a wholesome antidote against the "tender-mindedness" of modern Christianity. For the same reason he ought to be commended for his anti-universalism. Most of the clergy of today are touched with a degree of universalism. They are not afraid to preach judgment to the faithful, but there has simply been a loss of interest in future retributions. This tendency has its wholesome aspects, but it also has its dangers. Like the over-emphasis of the doctrine of grace, it has the tendency to take the rest out of the moral struggle. It does no harm, therefore, to hear from Billy that "if you don't [settle] the future before the undertaker pumps his embalming fluid into you, you're a goner."

Another element in Sunday's preaching for which he is envied is the authority with which he speaks. There are no problems, paradoxes and dilemmas in his gospel. It's all absolute and final truth. Whatever modern liberalism may have gained for Christianity, it has without doubt lost that one of authority which seems so vital to the pro[unintelligible]tion of religious faith. The basis of Sunday's authority is, of course, the Bible. But is it significant that Billy is after all more of a prophet than a scribe? His final authority is not a text but a "Thus sayeth the Lord." At least we cannot help but notice that in spite of his implicit faith in the Bible's authority, he picks texts that are practically non-committal doctrinally and that are calculated to embarrass him as little as possible in presenting his rather disconnected discourse.

But if this tone of authority is a source of strength in his preaching it is also a weakness. For the views which he proclaims with such a note of finality are, by common consent, medieval. He is intolerant of any other viewpoint. There can be no question but that his anathemas against every form of intellectual liberalism breed a good deal of scepticism among those who find it impossible to accept his antiquated theological view. If Sunday were speaking for himself alone the harm which he might do with a theology that is out of touch with modern thought would not be great. He believes sincerely and implicitly in the message he preaches. But the havoc is wrought because he speaks in the name of the churches who call him to his work and co-operate with him.

Among the ministers who have signed the invitation not only in this city but in other there have invariably been quite a number who present the fundamentals of the Christian faith in quite a different light than does Sunday. In fact quite a number of these ministers pride themselves upon the fact that they have been of service in reinterpreting the old Christian truths to an "age of doubt." They are quite aware of the fact that the difference between their gospel and his is the product of decades of mental labors and spiritual agonies. They tolerate his theology principally because they are interested in the temperance cause and recognize him as the most potent foe of liquor interests. That explains their attitude but does it excuse it? They are practising a form of dishonesty that we do not tolerate in politics and ought not to tolerate in the church.

Their policy confuses any layman who has heard their sermons and then goes to the tabernacle upon their invitation. Perhaps this is the weakest point in the whole Sunday campaign. If Sunday were employed simply as an anti-saloon agitator all Christians could join in wishing him well. He is doing great work in that field. But if he wants to be a religious leader he ought to work independently and speak only in his own name.

The present policy suggests dishonesty and breeds confusion. The story is told that in a certain city Sunday called on the ministers who believed in evolution to arise and then wished them into hell "where evolution came from." It would be well if all ministers who support Sunday without sharing his viewpoint would meet a like fate. It might in time discourage the dishonesty which has been characteristic of every Sunday campaign.

Reinhold Niebuhr Papers: Library of Congress, Manuscript Reading Room

Voices on the Radio

Paul Elie

is senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.

Jean Bethke Elshtain

is an author and Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Robin Lovin

is Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, and the author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism.