Upton Sinclair: The Profits of Religion

Book Five - The Church of the Merchants

Holy Oil

And here is Billy Sunday, most conspicuous phenomenon of Protestant Christianity at the beginning of the 20th century. For the benefit of posterity I explain that "Billy" is a baseball player turned Evangelist, who has brought to the cause of God the crowds and uproar of the diamond; also the commercial spirit of America's most popular institution. He travels like a circus, with all the press-agent work and newspaper hurrah; he conducts what are called "revivals," in an enormous "tabernacle" built especially for him in each city. I cannot better describe the Billy Sunday circus than in the words of a certain Sidney C. Tapp, who brought suit against the evangelist for $100,000 damages for the theft of the ideas of a book. Says Mr. Tapp in his complaint:

The so-called religious awakening or "trail-hitting" is produced by an appeal to the emotions and in stirring up the senses by a combination of carrying the United States flag in one hand and the Bible in the other, singing, trumpeting, organ playing, garrulous and acrobatic feats of defendant, by defendant in his talk leaping from the rostrum to the top of the pulpit, lying prone on the floor of the rostrum on his stomach in the presence of the vast audience and from thence into a pit to shake hands with the so-called "trail- hitters" and the vulgar use of plaintiff's thoughts contained in said books. Said harangues and vulgarisms of said defendant and horns, drums, organs and singing by said choir and vast audience which are assembled by means of said newspaper advertisements for the purpose of inducing a habit of free and copious flow of money through religious and patriotic excitement produced by and through the vulgarisms, scurrility, buffoonery, obscenity and profanity of defendant pretending to be in the interest of the cause of religion through what he denominates "hitting the trail," the real object being to induce a religious frenzy and enthusiasm which he announces in advance is to result in large audiences composed of thousands of people generously contributing vast sums of money on the last day and night of the so-called revival which is invariably appropriated by the defendant and through which scheme and device defendant has become enormously wealthy.

As I write, the evangelist is in Los Angeles, and twice each day he holds forth to a crowd of 10,000 or 15,000; in addition the newspapers print literally pages of his utterances. The entire Protestant clergy for a score of miles around has been hitched to his triumphal chariot, and driven captive through the streets. Here in this dignified city of Pasadena, home of millionaire brewers and chewing-gum kings, all the churches have been plastered for weeks with cloth signs: "This Church is Cooperating in the Sunday Campaign." To give a sample of the intellectual level of the performance, here is what Billy has to say about modern thought:

All this blasphemy against God and Jesus Christ, all this sneering, highbrow, rotten, loathsome, higher criticism, wriggling its dirty, filthy, stinking carcass out of a beer-mug in Leipzig or Heidelberg!

Whether willingly or reluctantly, the preachers sit upon the platform and smile while Billy thus slangs the devil; and being themselves, poor fellows, at their wits end to draw the crowd, they watch and see how he does it, and then return to their own churches and try the same stunt; so the manners of the baseball diamond spread like a contagion. I open my morning paper, and find a picture of an intense-looking clerical gentleman, the Rev. J. Whitcomb Brougher, pastor of the Baptist Temple. He is discussing certain slanderous rumors which he has heard about Billy Sunday, and he offers $10,000 reward to anyone who can prove these things; though, as he says,

The dirty, low-down, contemptible, weazen-brained, impure- hearted, shrivelled-soled, gossiping devils do not deserve to be noticed. ... Scandal-mongers, gossip-lovers, reputation- destroyers, hypocritical. black-hearted, green-eyed slanderers. ... Corrupt, devil-possessed, vile debauches. ... Immoral, sin- loving, vice-practicing, ... underhanded sneaks. ... Carrion- lozzing buzzards and foul-smelling skunks.

You will be prepared after this to hear that when the Socialists were near to carrying Los Angeles, this clergyman preached a sermon in support of the candidate of "Booze, Gas and Railroads."

In so far as Billy Sunday is trying to keep the neglected youth of our streets from drinking, gambling and whoring, no one could wish him anything but success; but his besotted ignorance, his childish crudity of mind, make it impossible that he could have any success except of a delusive nature. He is utterly devoid of a social sense; utterly unaware of the existence of the forces of capitalism which are causing depravity 10 times as fast as all the evangelists in creation can remedy it. So he is precisely like the Catholics with their "charity," cleaning up loathsome and unsightly messes for a thousand years, and never stopping to ask why such messes continue to come into existence.

More than that, I question whether the spirit of commercialism which he fosters does not help the development of evil more than his preaching hinders it. The newspapers always report the cost of the tabernacle, and of the "free-will offering," which amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars in each "campaign." In each city the expenses are guaranteed by men who are generally the most sinister exploiting forces of the community; they welcome and fete him, and he visits their homes, and is in every way one of the crowd. After the big silk strike in Paterson, N.J., the employers, Jews and Catholics included, all subscribed a fund to bring Billy Sunday to that city; and it was freely proclaimed that the purpose was to undermine the radical union involvement. This was never denied by Sunday himself, and his whole campaign was conducted off that basis.

Later Billy came to New York, where he met a certain rich young man, perhaps a thousand times as rich as any that lived in Palestine. This young man came to Billy and said: "What shall I do to inherit eternal life? And Billy told him to keep the commandments - "Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor thy father and thy mother." The young man answered: "All these have I kept from my youth up." And Billy said. "Yet lackest thou one thing; sell all that thou hast and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come follow me." And when he heard this he was very sorrowful, for he was very rich.

No, I have got the story mixed up. That is what happened in Palestine. What happened in New York is that Billy said, "I am delighted to meet you, Mr. Rockefeller." And Mr. Rockefeller said, "Come be my guest at my palace in the Pocantico Hills; and then we will go together and you may preach submission to my wage-slaves in the oil-factories at Bayonne and elsewhere." And Billy went to the palace, and went and preached to the wage- slaves, telling them to beware the "stinking Socialists," and to concentrate their attention on the saving of their souls; so the rich man was delighted, and he sent for all the newspaper reporters to come to his office at 26 Broadway, and told them what a great and useful man Billy Sunday is. As the New York "Times" tells about it:

Mr. Rockefeller seldom gives interviews and certainly he has never been charged with having an excess of verbally expressed enthusiasm on any subject. But he talked for an hour and a half about the evangelist. He was full of the subject of Billy Sunday. "Billy did New York a lot of good," he said. He went on to tell of 187 meetings held in 100 different factories, attended by 50,000 men. "That's good work," And he expressed his satisfaction with Sunday's theology: "He believes the Bible from cover to cover and that is good enough for me." The Sunday campaign had cost $200,000, and "If it had stooped here, if it was not kept up, it would be poor business; a poor dividend on the $200,000 and the work invested. But we expect to get dividends in the next year."

Again you note the symbolism of the counting-house!

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