LIMA — Just a day earlier, evangelist Billy Sunday had held in his thrall the thousands who trudged through an early spring stew of snow, sleet and mud to pack the big, barn-like building in South Lima.
Now, on the first Monday of April 1911, the day after Sunday’s six-week Lima religious revival ended, neighborhood kids flocked to the cavernous building like prospectors to a gold strike.
“Every inch of the great Tabernacle has been gone over the past week by lynx-eyed boy sleuths of the South Side who have reaped a rich harvest,” the Lima Daily News noted in its Town Topics column for Friday, April 7, 1911. “At dawn on Monday the first advance was made down the saw-dust trail, and since then from morn till night the youngsters have been passing the saw dust through their fingers and sorting out coins and jewels, stick pins, diamond rings, hat pins, trinkets and every conceivable sort of valuables.”
By the Lima Times-Democrat’s reckoning, those opportunistic boys weren’t the only ones to profit from Sunday’s six-week stay in Lima. The evangelist and his aides left behind “a spiritually awakened” city when they boarded a Pennsylvania Railroad train that morning, the newspaper wrote April 3, 1911.
“As a result of their work, 5,050 converts have broken the shackles that fastened them to a life of sin, and have entered into a new life of peace, joy and happiness. And Rev. Sunday has been enriched in this world’s goods to the extent of over $11,000, an approximate average of $2 a convert, cheap indeed, considering what it has cost the local churches in the past for a like number of redeemed souls.”
William Ashley Sunday was very good at redeeming souls. Born into poverty near Ames, Iowa, in 1862, he spent much of his youth in orphanages before embarking on a career in Major League baseball, where he was known as a good fielder and average hitter. In the 1880s he converted to evangelical Christianity and left baseball for the ministry. He gradually developed his pulpit skills while preaching throughout the Midwest, gaining fame for his colloquial sermons and frenetic delivery, which included an occasional baseball-like slide across the stage and perching atop the pulpit. By the early 20th century, Sunday was connecting with audiences in a way he never had with a baseball and had become the country’s most popular evangelist.
In 1909, a delegation from Lima’s Protestant churches began courting Sunday, sending a committee to Winona Lake, a resort near Warsaw, Indiana, to confer with him about a Lima revival. “Billy Sunday will come to Lima, but the nearest possible date is April of 1910,” the Daily News reported July 31, 1909, “and it is only on condition that another city which is booked for that date drops out that he can come at that time.”
Sunday didn’t come at that time, or for some time after that. Finally, in January 1911, Sunday’s advance man arrived in Lima to plan for a revival to begin in mid-February 1911.
“Albert P. Gill, who is here to clear the way for the Billy Sunday crusade … told the clergy and the Billy Sunday Company (comprised of local people who bought shares to fund the venture) directors, gathered in the YMCA last night, that he would begin the big tabernacle Monday morning next precisely at 8 o’clock in the morning and finish in five days,” the Times-Democrat reported on Jan. 12, 1911. Sunday had insisted towns build him a wooden tabernacle since 1906, when an early Colorado snowstorm destroyed a tent he was going to use. Since revivalists typically were paid with a freewill offering at the end of their meetings, Sunday lost income as well as a tent.
“But Gill is not satisfied with the site chosen for the tabernacle,” the Times-Democrat continued. “He says there is too much mud in the lot just south of the river between Pierce and McDonald (McDonel) streets (the former site of Lima Senior High School). He thinks that people who want to hear Sunday ought to be able to walk on paved streets …”
Eventually, after no suitable alternative site could be found, Gill relented and, on Jan. 23, work began on the tabernacle. According to the Republican-Gazette, the tabernacle would seat 7,000 in the auditorium another 600 on the stage and would measure 200 feet by 140 feet.
“Electricity will be used for the lighting but the building will be piped for gas to be used in case of emergency. Water will be taken to the structure for fire protection and cleaning,” the Republican-Gazette wrote Jan. 15, 1911.
Ninety volunteers showed up the first day to work under the supervision of Gill and a handful of professional builders. “A scene that rivaled the legendary tale of Aladdin and his mystical castle which grew up in one night presented itself to the gaze of those who journeyed to the Billy Sunday tabernacle Monday morning,” the Times-Democrat marveled. “Where yesterday had been a large vacant lot, today stands the completed framework of the building in which for six weeks beginning Feb. 17, Satan will be handed uppercuts and solar plexus blows by the renowned Rev. William A. Sunday.”
The rival Daily News predicted the building would be under roof by Jan. 25, showing “that the people are taking hold of the work with interest.” The newspaper added that food was prepared for the workers that day by the “ladies of Trinity M.E., First Baptist Church and Calvary Reformed Church.” Members and ministers of all but four of Lima’s Protestant churches participated in the raising of the tabernacle and the Sunday revival.
Gill and the church volunteers made good on the ambitious timeline. “The Billy Sunday tabernacle, begun last Monday morning, is virtually completed. It was built mostly by volunteer labor. The minor details of interior construction will be finished this week,” the Republican-Gazette wrote Jan. 29, 1911, six days after the work began.
The Times-Democrat described the completed tabernacle in a story on Feb. 9, 1911. “From a rough, unsightly, barn-like appearance, the interior of the Billy Sunday tabernacle has been transformed into an inviting temple of worship,” the newspaper wrote. “The decorating committee accomplished this transformation yesterday afternoon. Bunting has been woven about the posts from one end of the building to the other, while the front of the speaker’s platform is adorned with the national colors. In the center above the platform is placed a sign in huge letters, ‘Lima for Christ,’ while on each side of this in smaller letters are slogans, ‘Get Right with God’ and ‘Saved for Service.’”
On the afternoon of Feb. 18, 1911, Sunday arrived in Lima aboard The Pennsylvania Flyer. “He was greeted by an immense throng that crammed every inch of the depot platform,” the Times-Democrat reported. “Dressed in his big fur coat, Mr. Sunday was the cynosure of all eyes as he descended from the railway coach, and he was compelled to run the gauntlet of scores of people who crowded about him anxious to get a good look at the one of whom they had heard so much.” Toward the end of the Sunday revival in Lima, William Jennings Bryan came to town to deliver a talk at the tabernacle. “Not a soul was at the station to meet him,” the Republican-Gazette noted on April 1, 1911.
Sunday preached twice daily Tuesday through Sunday, ending each meeting by calling forward down “the saw-dust trail” those seeking salvation. “All church services, except the Sunday schools, will be abandoned in all of the Protestant churches in Lima during the six weeks of the Billy Sunday crusade. This will apply to all meetings usually held on the Sabbath and to all weekday services,” the Republican-Gazette reported.
Most of Lima’s ministers were regulars at the revival anyway. On March 23, 1911, the Rev. Parker E. Pope, of Grace M.E. Church, died on the stage after suffering an apparent heart attack. “Death, preceding the evangelist, mounted the rostrum at the Billy Sunday tabernacle last night, undeterred by 6,000 persons assembled to hear of heaven and hell,” the Republican-Gazette wrote.
On Sunday, April 2, 1911, the revival ended with Sunday sending “his final message of hope reverberating down the sawdust aisles of the now deserted tabernacle,” the Times-Democrat wrote the following day, “and waved his sweat stained kerchief in fond, final adieu to the thousands who have learned to love the very mention of his name.”
With the advent of radio and motion pictures after World War I, Sunday’s popularity waned. Still, by the time he died in November 1935, preaching almost to the end, Sunday estimated he had delivered nearly 20,000 sermons, reaching more than 100 million people.
The Lima tabernacle was sold for $1,600 in mid-April 1911 and eventually dismantled for the lumber.
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.