Evangelical megachurches like Hillsong Church—mainly known outside Christian circles as the spiritual home of Justin Bieber—often come under fire from more traditional Christians for drawing crowds with dynamic rock-star pastors rather than Biblical teaching. As religion historian Margaret Bendroth writes, however, the dilemma of the entertaining, sexy preacher has long been an issue. In the 1910s, for example, a former baseball player named Billy Sunday drew huge crowds of both sexes to blunt, provocative revival meetings.
In the early twentieth century, Bendroth writes, Protestant leaders worried about the “feminization” of their churches that had occurred in the Victorian Era. Sunday presented himself as a solution to the problem of “more feathers than whiskers” in the pews. Decrying “off-handed, flabby-cheeked, brittle-boned, weak-kneed, thin-skinned, pliable, plastic, spineless, effeminate, ossified, three-carat Christianity,” he held services just for men. In these services he railed against vice, supported the cause of temperance, and waved a huge American flag.
Sunday also preached to women-only audiences in other revival meetings. Bendroth writes that his sermons for women featured conventions from popular romantic fiction. His popular book, Great Love Stories of the Bible, featured Satan as “the original street-corner flirt—the lounge lizard of Eden,” while Delilah was “one of those dizzy blondes with the gasoline gaze.”
Critics questioned the “rawness, even coarseness” of Sunday’s sermons to women, as Universalist minister F.W. Betts put it. “Many of the things said and done bordered upon things prohibited in decent society,” Betts wrote. Sunday’s style was aggressive, sometimes bordering on abusive. At one revival, he responded to a giggle from a young girl in the front of the auditorium by pointing his finger at her and shouting: “That’s right you frizzle-haired sissy. You couldn’t turn a flap-jack in the kitchen without spilling the batter all over the place.”
Sunday also attacked divorce, birth control, abortion, marrying for money, and ballroom dance in more explicit terms than most preachers of the time. Women, he said, needed to know about the “impure thoughts” in the male mind. At one women-only meeting in Boston, two hundred nurses were stationed around the auditorium to help anyone who fainted during the sermon.
Yet women flocked to see Sunday speak. Bendroth argues that this was a sign of the times. In the nineteenth century, “low” forms of entertainment like vaudeville had been aimed specifically at men. But starting in the 1890s, vaudeville entertainers began putting on shows for family audiences, with less drinking and somewhat cleaner jokes. By the mid-to late 1910s, big female audiences were showing up to see scantily-clad male performers, like juggler Paul Conchas and strongman Eugene Sandow.
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Drawing a connection to popular entertainment, Congregational pastor Willard Sperry said that Sunday’s “amazing liturgy is cast in the patter of Mutt and Jeff, those modern apostles of cosmopolitan culture.”
Swap out the comic strip character’s names for current pop icons, and the criticism could be one leveled by Protestant traditionalists against today’s megachurches.