Segment from Born Again

Paved with Good Intentions

Historian Randall Stephens has the story of the Rev. Sam Jones, who preached a very particular gospel — humor.

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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.


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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.