Billy Sunday (1862-1935) preached before perhaps eighty million people during what is popularly known as the Second Great Awakening. An itinerant revivalist, he was a driving force behind the Prohibition movement. We’ll use “Sunday Fridays” to let him speak for himself as we try to better understand our revival-influenced religious environment.
We’ll start with excerpts from his “Booze Sermon.” We’ll see the roles of the political parties in the temperance movement, get some samples of Sunday rhetoric, see his view of Christian liberty, find out what happens to people who don’t vote the right way, and witness his pulpit invitation to stand up for Prohibition.
…I am a temperance Republican down to my toes. Who is the man that fights the whiskey business in the South? It is the Democrats! They have driven the business from Kansas, they have driven it from Georgia, and Maine and Mississippi and North Carolina and North Dakota and Oklahoma and Tennessee and West Virginia. And they have driven it out of 1,756 counties. And it is the rock-ribbed Democratic South that is fighting the saloon. They started this fight that is sweeping like fire over the “United States. You might as well try and dam Niagara Falls with toothpicks as to stop the reform wave sweeping our land. The Democratic party of Florida has put a temperance plank in its platform and the Republican party of every state would nail that plank in their platform if they thought it would carry the election.
…The saloon is the sum of all villanies. It is worse than war or pestilence. It is the crime of crimes. It is the parent of crimes and the mother of sins. It is the appalling source of misery and crime in the land. And to license such an incarnate fiend of hell is the dirtiest, low-down, damnable business on top of this old earth. There is nothing to be compared to it.
…In these days when the question of saloon or no saloon is at the fore in almost every community, one hears a good deal about what is called “personal liberty.” These are fine, large, mouth-filling words, and they certainly do sound first rate; but when you get right down and analyze them in the light of common old horse-sense, you will discover that in their application to the present controversy they mean just about this: “Personal liberty” is for the man who, if he has the inclination and the price, can stand up at a bar and fill his hide so full of red liquor that he is transformed for the time being into an irresponsible, dangerous, evil-smelling brute. But “personal liberty” is not for his patient, long-suffering wife, who has to endure with what fortitude she may his blows and curses; nor is it for his children, who, if they escape his insane rage, are yet robbed of every known joy and privilege of childhood, and too often grow up neglected, uncared for and vicious as the result of their surroundings and the example before them. “Personal liberty” is not for the sober, industrious citizen who from the proceeds of honest toil and orderly living, has to pay, willingly or not, the tax bills which pile up as a direct result of drunkenness, disorder and poverty, the items of which are written in the records of every police court and poorhouse in the land; nor is ”personal liberty” for the good woman who goes abroad in the town only at the risk of being shot down by some drink-crazed creature. This rant about “personal liberty” as an argument has no leg to stand upon.
…A man comes along and says: “Are you a drunkard?”
“Yes, I’m a drunkard.”
“Where are you going?”
“I am going to hell.”
“Because the Good Book says: ‘No drunkard shall inherit the kingdom of God,’ so I am going to hell.”
Another man comes along and I say: “Are you a church member?”
“Yes, I am a church member.”
“Where are you going?”
“I am going to heaven.”
“Did you vote for the saloon?”
“Then you shall go to hell.”
…What is your raw material, saloons? American boys. Say, I would not give one boy for all the distilleries and saloons this side of hell. And they have to have 2,000,000 boys every generation. And then you tell me you are a man when you will vote for an institution like that. What do you want to do, pay taxes in money or in boys?
Say, will you line up for the prohibition? Men of Boston, Massachusetts and our nation, how many of you will promise that by the help of God you will vote against it? Stand up. Let me have a look at you!