"The Sunny South -- A Negro Revival Meeting -- A Seeker 'Getting Religion,’” by W.L. Sheppard. <i>Leslie Frank's Illustrated Newspaper</i>, 1873. Library of Congress.

Born Again

Religious Renewal in America

For Christians all over the world, the Easter season is a time of renewal, rebirth and reflection. Here at BackStory, it’s our chance to reflect on the history of religious fervor in America. This time on the show, Brian, Ed and Peter journey in search of upswings in spiritual energy across the generations — from the First Great Awakening of the of the early 1700s, to the era of broadcast faith-healing.

Who fueled these revivals? What do evangelical movements say about the times in which they unfolded? Why did huge masses of people suddenly “get religion”? And what do these recurring moments of religious revitalization say about the role of faith in America… and the character of its believers?

This episode and related resources are funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this {article, book, exhibition, film, program, database, report, Web resource}, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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PETER: This is “BackStory”. I’m Peter Onuf.

Back in 1799 the Seneca Indians faced catastrophe as settlers encroached on their land. That’swhen one of their leaders had a vision– two prophets.

BRIAN: One named Jesus Christ and the other named George Washington. And Jesus says,make sure that you carry out your mission to revitalize your people.

PETER: We’re marking Easter today with stories about upsurges of religious fervor, fromcolonial faith healing, to Billy Graham who burst on the scene at a huge tent revival in 1949.

GRANT WACKER: Bulbs are popping, and one of the reporters said to him, you have beenkissed by William Randolph Hearst.

PETER: Today on “BackStory”, a history of religious revivals and the leaders who fuel them, athome, in churches, and on the airwaves.

AIMEE SEMPLE MCPHERSON: Come, just as you are, with your load of sin.

PETER: Coming up on “BackStory”. Believe us, we’ll be right back.

MALE SPEAKER: Major funding for “BackStory” is provided by an anonymous donor, theUniversity of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and RobertCornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

MALE SPEAKER: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is “BackStory” with theAmerican Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Peter Onuf.

PETER: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: And Ed Ayers is with us.

ED: Hey, Brian, Peter.

BRIAN: We’re going to begin today in the early 1700s. That’s when pastors in New Englandstarted worrying that young people were turning away from God.

THOMAS KIDD: So there was a sense that they needed what they called a revival of religion.

ED: This is Thomas Kidd, a historian at Baylor University. He says these pastors started prayingfor something big to happen where people would renew the relationships with Jesus and takeup the cause of spreading the faith.

THOMAS KIDD: And it’s one of those classic historical chicken and egg questions. They startpraying a lot for revival to come, and guess what, it comes. And so whatever you think aboutprayer, they sure were talking about revival an awful lot, and it comes in force starting in the1730s.

PETER: This upsurge or Protestant energy in the 1730s and 1740s came to be known as theFirst Great Awakening. And it played out in an especially interesting way for a woman inPlainfield, Connecticut by the name of Mercy Wheeler.

ED: When Mercy was 20 years old– this was in the mid-1720s– she fell ill with the burningague, something like malaria. A looseness in her joints left her unable to walk and sometimes toweak to speak.

On her worst days, her family couldn’t be sure she was even alive. And this went on for years.But mercy also had periods of clarity. In those times, she devoted herself to reading the bible.

THOMAS KIDD: She begins to wonder if it was possible that as she read in the Gospels, andthe New Testament, and in the Book of Acts where there are routine reports, especially inChrist’s ministry of miraculous healings, she begins to think through whether she might receivea miraculous healing.

PETER: 17 years after becoming bedridden, Mercy Wheeler was still focused on this notion thatGod might heal her. In 1743 she set up a revival meeting in her home and invited a visitingminister to preach a sermon. But when that meeting finally arrived, Mercy began to get a littlenervous.

THOMAS KIDD: She is going through some turmoil in her own mind because she’s waiting,she’s thinking well, maybe I was presumptuous, maybe it’s not going to happen. The meetingis continuing on and she’s waiting and not much seems to be happening.

ED: Then suddenly everything changed. Powerful Bible passages flashed across Mercy’s mind.

THOMAS KIDD: One of them is to the effect of if you will believe you will see the Glory of God.And she starts hearing that repeated in her mind. And then she starts to involuntarily, as shedescribed it, shake, and she starts to feel a kind of warmth of power that’s coursing throughher body.

She starts to feel her joints tightening up, and then sure enough she is able to stand up andstart walking around the room. And everybody is just totally stunned.

ED: Everybody, including the guest preacher who didn’t see it coming at all.

THOMAS KIDD: Yeah, he tells her to sit down. He says that she’s in a frenzy– that’s the termthat he uses. And he says, what are you doing? You need to sit down. This is dangerous. Youcan’t walk.

ED: But Mercy could walk. And she continued to walk up until she died in 1796 at the age of90.

PETER: Now, you might think that those clergyman who had prayed for the renewal of NewEnglanders’ faith would celebrate such an amazing story. But when, with the help of her parishminister, Mercy Wheeler published her story and it’s circulated in print, it encountered a bit of adifferent response.

And that’s because Protestants in the modern age believed that God’s work now manifesteditself in natural ways, and spontaneous healing didn’t fit that mold. Again, Thomas Kidd.

ED: There’s a tension about how much we should reasonably expect the revivals to be full ofwonders and amazing things happening and unexpected developments, up to and includingthings the seem miraculous.

PETER: Visions of Jesus, leading icons, these were the sorts of things that conservativeProtestants scorned. They saw them as Catholic trickery. But radical revivalists celebratedMercy’s story, and debates about its legitimacy swirled in Boston newspapers for decades.

ED: Miracle or not, Mercy’s story got attention, which when you think about it is notable in itsown right. Here is a woman with no religious authority who had interpreted the Bible, publisheda testimony, and inside it, a theological debate.

Thomas Kidd says that Mercy’s story illuminates a shift in religious authority that took placeduring the First Great Awakening. It was a revival movement that democratized religion, givingpowerful voice to all kinds of individuals.

THOMAS KIDD: Where in 18th century America can women and African Americans, and slavesand Native Americans and children voice their most strongly felt opinions and testify about theirexperiences and be taken seriously in public. There is no other venue but revivalist Christianitythat they can do that.

ED: It’s Easter season, a time for renewal, reflection and rebirth. While eggs, bunnies and othersymbols of spring time fill the shopping aisles, for Christians this is the season when Christ’sResurrection is celebrated. It’s a time for recommitment to the founding principles of theChristian faith.

Cycles of renewal, in fact, define much of American religious history. Throughout our past wecan identify periodic upswings of religious energy. And today on the show, we’re going toexplore these seasons of revival.

BRIAN: We’ll consider a few of the most prominent leaders of revival movements, like BillyGraham who has provided counsel to half a century’s worth of American presidents. AndAimee Semple McPherson, a master of modern media in the pre-television age. We’ll also hearstories of charismatic leaders from earlier eras.

ED: But first, I’d like for us to puzzle a little bit over that powerful story that Thomas Kidd toldus about Mercy Wheeler and the First Great Awakening. Peter, it seems to me that ThomasKidd talks persuasively about the connections between that story and big patterns in Americanhistory. And I wonder if you could help us figure out how we connect these individual accountswith those big stories.

PETER: Well, what Thomas Kidd is doing and historians do is connecting a lot of dots, becausethere is no such thing as “a movement.” It’s what we make of what people are doing and whatthey’re experiencing. And there was a feeling in the 18th century in the 1740s, especially, thatthis was the Grace of God descending on America.

BRIAN: That’s the First Great Awakening, right?

PETER: That’s the First Great Awakening, right.


PETER: But it’s only in the 19th century when revival fires are burning again in what we now callthe Second Great Awakening, that the idea that there had been a First Great Awakeningemerges. And that George Whitfield’s travels across the continent, Jonathan Edwards’ revivalin Northampton, Massachusetts.

All of these things are drawn together. The dots are connected. They become the featureattractions in this great panoramic story that tells us who we are as Americans and who we areas Christians.

And it’s that search for meaning, which is, after all, what revivals are about is searching formeaning. That’s what’s happening in the Second Great Awakening.

BRIAN: So are you saying, Peter, that even during the so-called First Great Awakening, peoplelike Whitfield and Edwards, not to mention our protagonist here, Mercy Wheeler, they don’treally realize they’re part of a Great Awakening, regardless of their own awakening?

PETER: Well, they do believe that something important is happening. They know it. When30,000 people gather in a field in Middletown, Connecticut to hear Whitfield, you knowsomething is going on here.

BRIAN: Before football is even invented.

PETER: That’s exactly right. So this is a mass phenomenon. There’s no mistake about that. Butwhat are they doing, Brian? They’re focused on God. They’re focused on what they see to be agreat shower of grace.

ED: And they’re focused on their own heart, their own simpleness, right?

PETER: Their own heart and the work of the Christian dispensation, the restoration of theKingdom of God on earth. What an amazing thing.

So there are different interpretive schemes that are in play. That’s what I would say. And withMercy Wheeler, her major concern is not to advance the cause of women.

Her major concern is with her own connection with God and to share that with her loved ones,and to hope that she could inspire and spark their conversions as well.

ED: And that’s a very humane view, Peter, that I really endorse. But where does revivalism fitinto this? I mean that seems to be an intersection of history and religious faith.

PETER: Yeah.

ED: And people themselves would have said, we’ve back-slid because of this or that, sort ofsecular purpose. Now, let’s reclaim through religion, and I’ll say to make religion everything inother words.

PETER: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I think what revivalism shows us are ways in which the people dotheir own history and the tradition of revivalism is a kind of vernacular popular history. And itboth make sense out of the past, it shapes your future. But I think most importantly that notionof revival tradition anchors you in your world as part of a larger faith community over time.

BRIAN: So Peter, at the risk of being overly social scientific here, does this revivalist impulseappeal particularly to marginalized people, marginalized within the world they’re living in?Which means they need to look back to this previous world to reclaim their authenticity?

PETER: Yeah. Brian, I think there is a sense of a possibility of becoming part of that faithcommunity. Because that’s what a revival is. That’s the evangelical impulse is to bring peoplein. It’s not in order to promote the democratic project early to our notion of a better future,perhaps.

It’s instead to complete the work of God, and to ecstatically connect with that world, toexperience it. And yes, the doors open, the tent gets bigger, and those moments are momentsthat religious people cherish in their own faith tradition because then they see their missionfulfilled.

But it’s also moments that people from other traditions can see and admire, that is, the reach ofthese communities. The possibility of a human solidarity transcending a narrow tribal, familial,dynastic connections reaching to a larger world. I think that is a source of inspiration forreligious and to non-religious people.

ED: And that’s the spirit, especially of evangelical Christianity. The tribalism, the tribe can growexponentially.

PETER: Yes, indeed.

ED: It doesn’t matter who you have been before, now you can become reborn in Christ and bea part of this community.


ED: But this impulse to bring everybody into the tent faces the fact that not everybody wants tocome into the tent. That it’s constantly trying to evangelize America, which leads to all kinds ofsocial consequences.

PETER: Ed, and it suggests that all men could be made equal in ways that deny our sense ofwho we are. That is, you want me to be born again on your terms? Well, that’s an offer, that’san opportunity, but that’s also a negation of everything I know I am.

ED: And that’s why I think every time there’s been a revival, whatever we might want to call it,whenever it is, it always comes with all this social tension surrounding it. And holds out thepromise of America finally coming to its own, and also holds up the promise of Americabecoming something it was never meant to be.


BRIAN: It’s time for us to take a quick break, but stick around. When we get back, amomentous religious vision that features, of all people, George Washington.

ED: You’re listening to “BackStory.” We’ll be back in a minute.

PETER: We’re back with “BackStory.” I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh.

Today on the show we’re revising the history of Christian revivalism in America. In the first partof our show we talked a little about what historians refer to as the First Great Awakening. Andas Peter mentioned, people apparently didn’t stay awake for very long, because a few decadeslater there was something called the Second Great Awakening.

ED: This was a series of revivals at the very dawn of the 19th century. It was especiallypronounced in Western New York, which became known as the burned over district for all thefires of religious conversion that engulfed the region.

PETER: This frontier region was in the throes of rapid and disorienting change as settlers andspeculators swarmed across the countryside. And it wasn’t just disorienting for the whitesettlers, because this was Indian country. This was the land of the five nations of the IroquoisConfederacy.

The Seneca Indians, one of the five nations were already in the midst of serious and wrenchingchange. Now they had to fight incursions by white farmers onto their traditional lands. All of thisset the stage for a Seneca religious revival.

Historian Matthew Dennis has written about this movement, a movement that centered on a65-year-old man named Handsome Lake. It began on a June day in 1799.

MATTHEW DENNIS: What happens is that Handsome Lake is sick. So he’s not feeling well.He’s in the house of his daughter. And his daughter notices that he gets up and says, “Whereare you going?” And she knows he’s not feeling well, so he says, basically, “I need to go outand I’ll be back in a moment.”

So he leaves, he goes around the side of his house and he collapses and he goes into thisstate and seems to die to many eyewitnesses. They called for his half brother, Corn Planter.People are gathering around, and he’s in this state for about two hours.

And then he wakes up and he talks to Corn Planter and tells him about what he’s seen, andwhere he’s been, and what he’s heard, and what he’s learned. And people come together andthey’re persuaded by his testimony of what happens.

So this happens on June 15, 1799 and it goes on from there with a series of other visions andrevelations.

PETER: So Matt, tell us about what Handsome Lake related from that revelation he had.

MATTHEW DENNIS: During his visions he somehow goes to this place, which seems heaven-like in many ways. And just before he gets there he meets a couple of other prophets. Onenamed Jesus Christ and the other named George Washington, which is pretty interesting.

And Jesus Christ welcomes him and affirms him and says, make sure that you carry out yourmission to revitalize your people, more or less. And he encounters four angels, emissaries froma Great Creator, and they conveyed the message of the Creator to him.

And one of things that was important is that they stressed the sins or transgressions thatshould be avoided. They went through and delineated those, and then Handsome Lake passedthose on to his people.

Among the most important is whiskey, so there’s this message that’s very strong thatHandsome Lake conveys that they should forswear alcoholic beverages, which puts them rightin the center of the kind of larger movements or temperance in American society.

PETER: Well, Handsome Lake knew what he was talking about. He was a heavy drinkerhimself, right?

MATTHEW DENNIS: He was. And in fact, in the kind of gospel-like writings that emerged later,beginning in oral tradition and then in writings, he kind of embodies that himself. He’s theexemplar of that.

And he goes through his drunkenness and comes out of it. And that’s supposed to really modelhow Seneca people should act. And what seems to be most important is dealing with some ofthe chief dangers and transgressions that are causing peril in Seneca society.

So through a series of visions, until he dies in 1815, he laid out, ultimately, this kind of new kindof social gospel for Senecas, which they could follow. And it would bind them together basedon their traditional beliefs and their confidence that they could endure in a really changedworld.

PETER: The power of Handsome Lake’s teachings is that it’s a blend of Christianity andtraditional Seneca beliefs so that even if it requires this renovation or reform of the community,it’s in affirmation of Seneca identity.

MATTHEW DENNIS: Exactly. And the things that will affirm that identity and allow them tosurvive continue. So for example, Handsome Lake is against dancing and frolicking andgaming. But he’s not against traditional kind of dancing, and he’s not against traditional kind ofgames that are incorporated into, say, the midwinter festival or other events in their ritualcalendar.

PETER: And this galvanized the community? I mean people were really excited about this?

MATTHEW DENNIS: It’s complicated because you have Handsome Lake as a kind of center.And then you have those who are traditional in a way that’s kind of pre-Handsome Lake andthey’re suspicious of him– props maybe politically or socially.

But increasingly, I think his messages are very, very strong and they’re widely disseminated,because they seemed to offer a way to survive. You can’t overestimate the dangers thatSenecas and other native people in Western New York felt and experienced.

So I think he affirmed their identity and their integrity and their solidarity, and it allowed them, inparticular, to come together to prevent the thing that would most likely destroy them which wasthe loss of their land. And so one of the things that Handsome Lake emphasized is no landsales, and in that, he was broadly affirmed by his followers.

PETER: So what were some of the other injunctions or teachings that Handsome Lake passedon from the Great Spirit in this effort to reform himself and his people?

MATTHEW DENNIS: Well, in addition to his efforts to stamp out drink, he offered some wordsthat seemed to really run against the trends in Seneca society, especially with regard to genderorganization of families.

One of things I think he was really committed to, and I think this is something that reallyresonated among his people, was to reconstruct Seneca families. But his way of doing it wasquite different from tradition because what he prescribed was a kind of patriarchal organizationwhere men would have much greater power than they had traditionally in Iroquois life.

Iroquois society is matrilineal, which means that they would reckon descent through themother’s line. The people would live in their mother’s houses. Clans were organized this way.So women were really very important in that way, and they were the key of subsistence inSeneca life as the agriculturalists, the people who produce most of their food.

So what he seemed to be pushing was a new structure where men would be much more incontrol and in charge of families in a way that seemed much closer to the white societysurrounding. Most Senecas themselves didn’t ultimately agree. The women pushed back anddidn’t give up the kind of status that they had acquired.

And so the prophecies themselves went through a lot of negotiation and were controversial,and although they were adopted and effective, they shifted a lot over time. And ultimately,became much less patriarchal than the original revelations would suggest.

PETER: So Matt, let’s look out into the distant future– that would be our present. What’s thelong term effect of Handsome Lake’s teachings for the Seneca people?

MATTHEW DENNIS: Well, Handsome Lake’s revival led to the survival of the Senecas. Theywere able to hold onto their land base and to fend off speculators and maintain theirsovereignty. And so their traditional beliefs as revitalized by Handsome Lake were really at thecenter of this.

And so while the so-called frontier pushed West and native people in the East were removedacross the Mississippi, they were able to stay. There were attempts to remove them. Thesewere fought off.

And so today, there are reservations, vital communities that continue to exist in New YorkState. And I think without this revitalization or something else like it, that wouldn’t be the case.

PETER: Matthew Dennis is a Historian at the University of Oregon. He’s the author of “SenecaPossessed: Indians, witchcraft and power in the Early American Republic.”


BRIAN: This is “BackStory,” and we’re talking about the history of religious revivals in America.That history tends to coalesce around charismatic leaders who have inspired large followings,leaders who have managed to make very old religious teachings relevant to new generations ofAmericans.

Each of these preachers spoke to their audience in a way that appealed to that particulargeneration. We can think back to someone like Jonathan Edwards in the 18th century who wasremembered for conjuring up the fear of damnation. Or a century later, there was Henry WardBeecher. He was all about the gospel of love.

ED: And there’s been another strain in American preaching. Historian Randall Stevens haswritten about one man’s gospel of humor in the years leading up to the turn of the 20th century.

RANDALL STEPHENS: So the image that a lot of Americans probably have of the Southernpreacher, the classic kind of view of a Southern preacher is he’s very serious, and that themessage that they are peddling is of sin and salvation or hell and damnation. But in the case ofSam Jones, who was a famous preacher in the 1880s and the 1890s, that wasn’t the case atall.

One reporter said that Sam Jones furnished more fun than two comedians.

SAM JONES: The best way in the world to kill an enemy is to love ’em to death. Then you don’thave to bury him.


RANDALL STEPHENS: Not dispensing with judgment and sort of fire and brimstone, butbringing humor into his services in a way that was really appealing to most of his audiences. Hewould even make jokes about who would be going to hell. I mean one of his most famousphrases, Sam Jones, is “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

SAM JONES: Now, whiskey’s a good thing in its place, and that place is in hell. If I get there I’lldrink it all I can get but I won’t do it here.

RANDALL STEPHENS: It was as if he was just talking to you in your parlor. He actually makesfun of these kind of uptown preachers in cities like Atlanta or Nashville, who have divinitydegrees and doctoral degrees. And there’s one of his witticisms that kind of picks up on thisthat I think’s really funny.

SAM JONES: Half the literary preachers in this town are ABs, PhDs, DDs, LLDs, and A-S-Ss.

RANDALL STEPHENS: He was traveling constantly by railroad, crisscrossing the country, goingthousands of miles to do a week at a time of revival services. So trains were such an importantpart of his ability to reach so many Americans. Jones is having these major revivals in everylarge city in the country, so in New York City, in San Francisco, in Chicago.

So he really makes a name for himself well beyond the South. He is probably one of the mostrecognized names in America at the time. And one of his very forceful critics was actually thewriter Mark Twain.

Twain writes this short story. Mark Twain is traveling on a train to heaven, along with SamJones. And when they get to heaven, Saint Peter thinks that Sam Jones is such a nuisance.He’s loud, he’s obnoxious. So Saint Peter’s looking at his train ticket trying to see if it’s actuallyvalid, trying to find some way that he can kick him out of heaven.

And Sam caterwauls and is hollering for the Lord so much in heaven that everybody decides toleave heaven to get out of there.

Maybe there was some kind of professional jealousy from Mark Twain to Sam Jones. I meanJones– the kind of humor that Jones uses, the he weaves is Twainian in a way. It’s similar toMark Twain.

SAM JONES: I’d rather be a first-class sinner than a tenth rate Methodist. And when you get aMethodist down to about a tenth rate Methodist, you’re getting them down pretty low, for afirst-class one is not very high.

When I first started out I was afraid I would hurt somebody’s feelings. Now I’m afraid I won’t.

RANDALL STEPHENS: In the United States, all through the 19th century and well into the 20thcentury, ministers have used humor. America doesn’t have a state religion, so these differentdenominations are vying with each other to gain the most adherence, and what better way todo that than with witticisms, with sort of backwoods jokes. Funny things that will draw attentionto your work and to the gospel.

SAM JONES: I’ll stand with a sword in hand and fight the devil till the blade is worn out anddrops from my hand. And then I will hit him until my arms wear out. And kick him until I kick myfeet off, and then gnaw him as long as I got a tooth. When my teeth play out, I will gum himuntil I die.


ED: Randall Stephens is a Historian at Northumbria University in the UK. He wrote theintroduction to a recent edition of Jones’ sermons entitled, appropriately enough, “Sam Jones’Own Book, A Series of Sermons.”

BRIAN: It’s time for another break. When we get back, a revival leader who spread the goodnews the same way we do, with the help of the radio airwaves.

ED: You’re listening to “BackStory.” We’ll be back in a minute.

PETER: Hey there, listeners. Before we get back to the show, we wanted to share with yousomething special we have in the works for next week.

FEMALE SPEAKER: A sudden thought struck me, what an easy matter it would be to kill thepresident as he stands there.

PETER: It’s an hour on everything you didn’t know about American history’s most famous truecrime story.

MALE SPEAKER: The general public doesn’t know that there were simultaneous attacks onother members of the Lincoln Administration.

MALE SPEAKER: Shakespeare could not have written a more dramatic play.

MALE SPEAKER: And he said– I told Booth, I signed up for kidnapping, right? I’m not doingthis. And Booth says you’ve got to do it or I’ll kill you.

PETER: The Lincoln assassination, 150 years later.

FEMALE SPEAKER: This is the scene of the crime.

PETER: That’s coming up on next week’s podcast.

BRIAN: This is “BackStory.” I’m Brian Balogh, here with my fellow sinners, Peter Onuf’s one ofthem.

PETER: Oh, oh, Brian, and I’m here.

BRIAN: And Ed Ayers is the other.

ED: That’s me.

PETER: Today on the show, we’re exploring the history of Christian revival in America. We’veconsidered a couple of prominent 19th century revivalists. Now we’re going to turn the page tothe early decades of the 20th century.

ED: It was then that a new religious movement cropped up in the Midwest among Christianswho had had it with the rigid formality of middle-class Protestant churches. Pentecostalism, asit came to be known, encouraged raucous and joyous worship practices, inspired by theearliest days of the Christian church.

Its inherence longed for converts to speak in tongues and to practice faith healing, just as theapostles had done in the New Testament account of the Pentecost.

The resurgence of these divine acts, Pentecostals believed, was evidence that the return ofChrist was imminent.

PETER: By the 1910s, Pentecostal camp meetings were cropping up across the country. And itwas on this revival circuit that a young woman from Ontario named Aimee Semple McPhersonbegan to make a name for herself. Charismatic and entertaining, the young woman quicklybecame a star of the circuit.

TONA HANGAN: I think she was a born religious leader in a time when that was not a commonlife story for women.

BRIAN: This is Tona Hangan, a historian who has written about McPherson. Hangan says thatfrom the earliest days of her ministry, McPherson knew how to use unorthodox means tospread the good word.

TONA HANGAN: She had this battered black car that she called the gospel car, and she wouldput slogans on the side of it, “where will you spend eternity?” Or “judgment day is coming, getright with God.” And she and her kids and her mother went up and down in small towns,tobacco fields, camp meetings all along the year.

BRIAN: McPherson, known by her followers as Sister Aimee, eventually settled in Los Angeles,where in 1923 she built her own version of what today we’d call a mega church. But shequickly discovered an even more effective means of spreading the good word, a means that alot of you listeners can probably appreciate today, radio.

AIMEE SEMPLE MCPHERSON: Come unto me, all ye that labors, and are heavy laden, and Iwill give you rest. Come, come, come.

BRIAN: For Sister Aimee, the combination of the Christian gospel and the radio airwaves was amatch made in heaven.

TONA HANGAN: She, I think, had always had an affinity for media, as the bumper stickers onher car suggests, that she was always looking for more ways to amplify her voice and to makethis revivalism message have a broader appeal.

So in Los Angeles, like any other big city in the early 1920s, radio was just beginning to takeoff. There were a few people, a few hundred, thousand people with radio sets. There were afew broadcasters.

And she imagined as an extension of her ministry and of this congregation that she wasforming there that she could, again, amplify this message by using radio. And she’s trulyvisionary in seeing the possibilities.

BRIAN: And how did she go about that? It’s one thing to want to use radio. It’s another thing toget access to radio in those days, I would imagine.

TONA HANGAN: It is. This is before the Federal Radio Commission, which is the predecessorof the FCC. There’s no regulatory body. So you can get a radio license– that’s not the hardpart. And then you build a receiver and a transmitter in a studio. That’s the hard part.

So she sets off on a fundraising campaign that takes about a year, 1923 to 1924. She’sproduced a magazine by this point that goes out to her various followers around the country.

And she asks for donations by pointing out that, as she put it, “The world had already capturedthe moving pictures.” And she said, “Shall we let them have the radio too, or shall we say–“this is her speaking– “No, this his Father’s air and earth, and we will send the message uponits breezes to spread the gospel in this wholesale and miraculous manner.”

And over a period of about a year she raised $25,000 and constructed a huge 500 wattbroadcasting facility, with its radio towers mounted on the top of this domed temple that shehad built.

And it became one of the very earliest radio stations in Los Angeles. It’s probably within the topfive. And she’s one of the first women, if not the first woman, to hold a radio station license.

BRIAN: Now, I assume there were other preachers using the radio at this time?

TONA HANGAN: There were people preaching on radio using borrowed or purchased time,sometimes just for a portion of a Sunday. What she envisioned was something different. Shepioneered a station that would be fully owned by a church and that would be on air all the time.That’s the new piece.

And so she had a seven day a week schedule of programming unlike anything else that anyoneelse is doing in the mid-1920s. She’s really the only one who’s doing this.

BRIAN: So I understand it was very innovative to have a station devoted entirely to religion.What about the content? Why don’t you compare the way that radio ministry worked to someof those camp meetings a few years before she started the radio ministry.

TONA HANGAN: Yeah, that’s a good point. I think the camp meetings involved audiences a lotmore integrally than her radio ministry did. The radio ministry I think becomes a theater whereSunday morning and afternoon services are happening in the church. She packs that templefull of people, and the performances are simulcast, and so there’s this sense of theater andglamour.

But then she also has programs that are more intimate in scale, that come from the broadcaststudio. Things like a program designed just for people who are sick or shut in that’s sort ofaimed at hospital patients and the like.

A call-in request show of hymns. The Vesper hour, which would be a quieter devotionalreading. In some years she had a weekly travelogue. She had the Foursquare Junior hour forchildren.

And she also offered, which I think is kind of fascinating, she offered weekly dramas, like radiodramas. This is the era of shows like “Superman,” and “The Green Hornet,” and “TheAdventures of Sam Spade.” And she had weekly dramas with names like “The Adventures ofJim Trask, Lone Evangelist.”

And she also did faith healing without direct physical contact. She did that over the radio aswell. She would literally have listeners kneel by the radio and place their hands on it in order toreceive long distance cures. She believed if the Holy Spirit could travel over the airwaves, thatso could the healing power of Jesus Christ.

BRIAN: And was she acknowledged as the leading practitioner of radio? I almost saidtelevangelism– audio evangelism?

TONA HANGAN: I think she’s acknowledged now, but at the time, no. I think she was seen as agimmick by people who didn’t follow or believe her. She was seen as not very serious, as, insome ways, corrupting the message by interweaving all this pop culture to it.

Newspaper commentators at the time roundly dismissed her and her congregation for theirlow-brow pretensions.

BRIAN: What does this chapter about McPherson tell us about the larger religious picture,particularly regarding revivals and evangelicalism?

TONA HANGAN: I think it tells us two things. First, that radio as a new technology ironicallyprevented old-time religion from dying out in the modern century.

People were worried that old-time religion was going to be less relevant, that it was dying out.And I think the message of McPherson’s ministry is that that didn’t happen. As secularismgrows, so does revivalism in response.

I think a second thing we learn is that radio connected religion to the nation’s premierentertainment medium which people consumed in their homes. Revivalists who used media likeradio had sell it. They had to adopt modern marketing, and advertising, and psychology, andbusiness methods. And that was irreversible.

Once media and religion got connected together, and McPherson is really the glue for this,she’s the bridge, they never get separated. And I think we see early radio ministries as a bridgeto later mass media ministries, the Christian broadcasting and marketing juggernaut. And itsslick and its commercial in its own way.

But McPherson did not see it as a fundamental transformation. She saw it as a fulfillment of thegreat commission to preach the gospel in all the world. The same old gospel in new packaging,just reinvigorated with new meaning and new relevance for each generation.

BRIAN: Well, thank you so much for joining us on “BackStory” today, Tona.

TONA HANGAN: You’re so welcome. Thanks for having me.


BRIAN: Tona Hangan is a historian at Worcester State University. She’s the author of”Redeeming the Dial: Radio, Religion, and Popular Culture in America.”

BRIAN: If you’re just joining us, this is “BackStory,” and we’re marking the Easter season withstories about Christian revival in America, from the First Great Awakening to the age ofbroadcast evangelism.

We’re going to move on now to one of the best-known figures in American Religious history,Billy Graham.

MALE SPEAKER: One of the most inspirational spiritual leaders in the 20th century.

MALE SPEAKER: We need you. We love you. Thank you for coming, Billy Graham.

MALE SPEAKER: What is your purpose?

BILLY GRAHAM: Going to the whole world and proclaim this message.

You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

BRIAN: This epic montage is from a 2013 Fox News special about the Reverend Billy Graham.It includes comments by Johnny Carson and Larry King, as well as a few of the 12 USpresidents– 12– that he’s met over the years.

Graham, who’s now 96 years old, has held revivals all over the world. His audiences havenumbered in the millions. It’s safe to say his influence is unparalleled by any preacher inAmerican history.

But his rise to stardom was sudden.

GRANT WACKER: In the 1940s when Graham came into the scene, there were dozens ofconspicuous revivalists. And by 1950, there was no competition.

BRIAN: This is Grant Wacker, a historian at Duke, and the author of a recent book on Graham.He says the sea change can be pinpointed to one particular event in the fall of 1949.

That’s when Billy Graham, this itinerant preacher from North Carolina, pitched a tent in LosAngeles. The revival, which he actually called a crusade, was supposed to be a three-weekstint.

GRANT WACKER: In the beginning, the crusade did not fare well. The attendance wasmediocre, and Graham and his associates became discouraged.

ED: Like any good preacher, Graham prayed for something to happen. Hoping for divineintervention, he kept his tent pitched for one more week.

GRANT WACKER: And it was in the fourth week that Graham came into the tent one afternoonand there were reporters all over. The reporters started writing down his comments, and hewas astonished. He was a very young man at this point in his early 30s. Bulbs are popping andthese reporters are taking notes.

And so he asked, naturally, what’s happened here? Why are you writing down everything thatI’m saying? And one of the reporters said to him, you have been kissed by William RandolphHearst.

BRIAN: William Randolph Hearst, owner of a newspaper empire, an all-around media mogul.He’d apparently told his reporters to start writing articles about Graham’s LA gathering.

GRANT WACKER: Almost immediately the “Los Angeles Times,” which Hearst did not own,picked it up. Within a few days, “Time” magazine picked it up. Then “Life” magazine. And thestory went to Europe and it went to Asia.

BRIAN: The press attention attracted scores of gawkers, many of whom came out out of purecuriosity. But the crowds continued to build. Graham’s popularity, Wacker says, wascontagious.

GRANT WACKER: The kind of truck stop mentality. If there are a lot of cars parked outside, a lot of trucks, this must be good. The press presented this as a landmark in the history ofAmerican revivalism.

ED: Soon, a space that could seat 3,000 was expanded to accommodate 9,000. On oneoccasion it was estimated that another 15,000 stood outside listening. And what of the man atthe center of all this attention?

Well, the content of Graham’s sermons wasn’t all that unique. He hit all the familiar notes ofrevival preaching– troubles of the world, personal issues, personal salvation.

What set Graham apart was his presence and his delivery. He was tall, handsome andcommanding. His voice boomed at a lightning clip. Here’s a sample from the LA revival.

BILLY GRAHAM: And I shall give thee the heathen for thy inheritance, and the [INAUDIBLE] part of the earth for thy possessions. Thou shalt break them on the rod of iron. Thou shall dice themto pieces, like a potter’s vessel.

GRANT WACKER: Stenographers clocked his preaching at 240 words a minute. Very, veryrapidly announce, and he did that deliberately because he felt that successful newscastersspoke very, very rapidly.

He also was loud. And at volume, gave the sermon a commanding quality. He was animated.He paced the platform. One account, he often paced a full mile in the course of a sermon. Andthen the gestures. With his fists, fingers stabbing outward. One reporter said he had the energyof a coiled panther.

BILLY GRAHAM: And I hope that Jesus designates to me a little part of Los Angeles. There aretwo things I’d like to clean up around this town if you could put me in charge.

BRIAN: Peppering his sermons were appearances from figures sure to play well in glitzy LA.Radio personalities, actresses and athletes took turns testifying to the power of Graham’smessage.

GRANT WACKER: The word of the satisfied customer, to put it in marketing terms. And heunderstood that this was more powerful than any kind of technical theological apologetic.

BRIAN: And all of this gave the press yet another story to tell. Newspapers across the countryand around the world were fascinated by the fascination with Graham.

The revival, originally slotted for a three-week run, lasted for two months.

GRANT WACKER: And by the end of the crusade, Graham was an international commodity.

ED: The story of Billy Graham’s lightening fame at the hands of William Randolph Hearst hasbecome something of a legend. It’s been told time and again in Graham circles. But it doesleave one question unanswered.

GRANT WACKER: So the question is why? Why did Hearst give him this attention? Hearst wasnot known to be a particularly religious man, and he certainly was not known to be anevangelical figure like Graham.

BRIAN: The truth is no one really knows why Hearst turned his attention to Billy Graham. ButGrant Wacker has an idea. He doesn’t buy the notion that Hearst just saw Graham’s geniusand promoted it. He thinks all the attention was actually a response to bigger forces,international forces.

GRANT WACKER: Two days before the revival started, the Soviets had successfully explodedan atomic bomb, and Harry Truman announced this. And by all accounts, people were frightened to know that now another nation that was in the grip of this atheistic, aggressiveideology known as communism, possessed nuclear weaponry and could inflict terrible damageupon Americans.

BRIAN: About a week later, communist, led my Mao Zedong toppled the Chinese government.

GRANT WACKER: And this was an evidence to people, including Graham, that communismwas aggressive, it was expansionist, and they intended to conquer the world, including theUnited States. The world is in dire condition.

BILLY GRAHAM: And one of these days an earthquake, a tidal wave, an atomic bomb is going to wipe this city off the face of the globe [INAUDIBLE] and face the judgment of God.

GRANT WACKER: That was the background of anxiety, fear, awareness that it was possiblethat the world really could be destroyed.

BILLY GRAHAM: And we’re told that there are more subversive forces in Los Angeles and anycity in America. I tell you, it’s a [INAUDIBLE] that Los Angeles needs to come to its kneesbefore God. It’s the present hour which we live in.

BRIAN: Hearst was a smart newsman. He, no doubt, recognized the value of a really goodstory, a story about frightening times that individuals sitting in that tent, and, of course, God.It’s a story that has always been a part of Billy Graham’s sermons.

But Los Angeles 1949 was a moment when that story was particularly compelling. And Grahamtapped into that energy.

BILLY GRAHAM: We see starvation around the world that testifies that something is wrong. Wesee a bleeding China–

ED: Thanks to Grant Wacker for helping us tell that story. He’s a historian at Duke University.His most recent book is “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation.”


BRIAN: And that is all we have for you today. We’ve reached the end time. But we’d love tohear what you thought about today’s show. You’ll find us at backstoryradio.org.

We’ve also got descriptions of our upcoming shows there, including one on technologies thathave changed the workplace. And one on the theme of speed in American history.

You could leave us a comment or give us a call on our voicemail line. Our number is 434-260-1053. We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

PETER: “BackStory” is produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones,Emily Gadek, and Robert Armengol. Jamal Millner is our engineer.

We had help from [INAUDIBLE]. Special thanks this week to Steve [? Zelany, ?] [? Teesa ?]Wanger, the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, and the Billy Graham EvangelisticAssociation. And also to Adam Broch who performed the sermons of Sam Jones.”BackStory’s” executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

BRIAN: Major support for “BackStory” is provided by an anonymous donor, the University ofVirginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell MemorialFoundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis foundations.

Additional funding is provided by Weinstein Properties, by the Tomato Fund, cultivating freshideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment, and My History Channel, history madeevery day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. PeterOnuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello. EdAyers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond.

“BackStory” was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.”BackStory” is distributed by PRX the Public Radio Exchange.

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Born Again Lesson Set

Note to teachers:

The lesson materials that follow focus on helping students become discriminating readers of text material, learning the value of reading widely and critically in order to frame questions and evidence-based perspectives. The materials are designed to help students learn to write concisely and persuasively. They also give students an opportunity to discover how things change and how they remain the same, often differing more in the words and media used than in the purpose and message.

The materials and activities in this lesson ask students to look critically at the words chosen to convey the message, the context in which information is presented, and the effect these choices have on their understanding and feelings about individuals and their times. As students read critically to discern differences between evidence and assertion and to frame useful questions, they will engage in reasoned debate and evidence-based interpretation. The materials provided include primary sources from the 1920s and 1930s as well as history and biography from 1931 to 2015. Students are asked to consider how these accounts differ in regard to word choice, descriptions of the time period, and the impressions created by the writings. Change over time can be observed in evolving narratives constructed from available sources, cogent inferences, and changing interpretation.