Header Graphic
Big Town
Chapter Four


Chapter 4:  The Houses of the Lord
          According to the delightfully romantic literature published by the Chamber of Commerce, the city harbors “165 churches, representing 17 denominations and with a membership of approximately 100,000.” This same source of information states that many of these places of worship “are beautiful edifices whose grandeur is only surpassed by the religious fervor and cordiality of their adherents.”
          While the more cautious reader may be inclined to subject these statements to a slight discount, it is true, nevertheless, that whatever form is taken by the sinner’s appetite for salvation, he can be almost sure of having it dished out to his particular satisfaction.
Established orthodoxy, in the large majority, is represented by the Jews, Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists and Baptists. But there are also the Unitarians, Christian Scientists, Brethren, Latter-Day Saints, Disciples, Evangelists, Mennonites, Nazarenes, Pilgrims, Rosicrucians, Theosophists and Spiritualists.
          If the sinner is not satisfied with the orthodoxy of Israel, the pageantry of Rome, the serene dignity of England, the Rotarian efficiency of Presbyterianism, Methodist interest in the more lurid forms of sin, or the rousing hymnody of the Baptists, he may browse freely among the less conventional sects until he finds something that precisely suits his theological palate.
          He may, for instance, partake of the chaste simplicity of Christian Science. In the leading temple of this denomination he will find no suggestion of ecclesiastical design. He will be met as he enters the edifice by a hat-check girl, and seated by an usher tastily decked out in gray silk gloves and a white carnation. Instead of listening to a sermon, he will be soothed by brief readings from Holy Writ, corrected, expanded and elaborated by extensive selections from the profound excogitations of the late Mary Baker Eddy.
          Or perhaps he is of a mystic turn of mind. If so, he can merge with the Spiritualists and be treated upon occasion to spectral obbligatos on the tambourine, or regaled with physic messages whose import leads one to the solemn suspicion that the intellectual powers of the individual are little if any improved by translation to the hereafter.
          If neither of these appeals to him he may fare further with the certainty of discovering even more exotic dogma awaiting his embrace.
          Among the wealthier Protestant congregations, liberalism, if not modernism, is reflected in the studious avoidance on the part of the clergy, of any pugnacious insistence upon creed or dogma. Sermons tend toward noninflammable generalities which arouse neither terror nor fervor in the souls of the communicants.
          But as one approaches the less opulent flocks in the evangelical field  fundamentalism is found to reign supreme. It roars from the pulpit in blasting denunciation of the more popular forms of sin, and of all the more liberal creeds. Not long since, a thunderous Baptist pastor paused during the excoriation of his own flock to observe that he would rather see them all in hell than in the neighboring Episcopal parish house, where dancing was permitted.
          The old-time mythology holds sway throughout these flocks. Jehovah is very certainly a cantankerous old gentleman in flowing biblical robes and an equally flowing beard. Creation is timed to within a century or so, and in some cases to a single week. Babel rises against the distant sky. Brother Noah conducts the first world cruise. Lot’s wife is given a saline permanence. The whale swallows Jonah, or vice versa Balaam’s ass remonstrates with him. Sheer walls of water accommodate the fleeing Children of the Lord. And heaven is a shimmering, gold-paved city from the walls of which the faithful will contemplate, with no small satisfaction, the writhings of heathens, heretics and atheists forever consigned to the seething pits, far, far below.
          Nor is the faith of the fathers, as dispensed from the pulpit, lacking among the laity. In this present year of enlightenment, the ultra-devout members of the more fundamental sects, being offered the American Standard Bible in the town’s bookshops, are wont to complain, “No, I want the Holy Bible – the one Christ wrote.”
          Occasionally faith gives rise to profound theological discussions which enliven Sunday School classes. Recently in a Presbyterian men’s class the teacher was pointing out that it was the lack of gallantry displayed by Joseph toward his employer’s wife which eventually passed him through the Pearly Gates. Class discussion turned to the various means of effecting such admission and then advanced to a practical test of these means by considering the cases of two prominent worthies, recently deceased. One of them had led a career of unscrupulous rapacity, larded with extensive public benefactions. It was decided that at that moment he was lolling in eternal bliss. The other, having committed the indiscretion of being at once a Lutheran and a brewer, was held to be ensconced in one of the deeper pits of hell.
          Faith is prevalent too among the devotees of the new as well as the old-time religions. There was, for instance, a recently lady-convert to Christian Science who had passed through ten years of matrimony without adding a sprig to the family tree. Shortly after her conversions she began to entertain certain anatomical suspicions. She consulted a doctor and asked if he thought this turn of affairs was a manifestation of the power of science. The medico replied that he did not regard Mrs. Eddy’s philosophy as sufficiently penetrating to accomplish such an end.
          There has been, of recent years, a marked tendency among several sects to translate the Glory of the Kingdom into temporal aspects which perhaps can more easily impress themselves upon the laity. This movement has taken the double form of a notable increase in the material splendor of the temples of the wealthier congregations and an elaborate expansion of the whole program of secular activities.
          A satisfactory example of this movement is found in the magnificence resulting from a merger, several years ago, of two of the leading Presbyterian congregations. Considerable jockeying was required to effect this amalgamation as each congregation feared the appearance of being absorbed by the other. It was finally accomplished, however, though there was some dissension caused by the fact that while both pastors had agreed to resign and depart, one of them insisted on remaining for some time in he clearly saw to be a very fertile section of the Lord’s vineyard.
          This difficulty having been overcome finally, the new congregation set about the erection of a new cathedral which cost, when finished, approximately eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars. It contains fifty-five rooms. There is a chapel in addition to the main auditorium. There is another auditorium for secular affairs. The pastor’s study is a spacious chamber with an open fireplace, walls of hand-modeled plaster, deep rugs, and period furniture, including a large desk of black oak, ten chairs and a davenport. There are intercommunicating telephones, synchronized electric clocks wherever clocks might conceivably be desired, and an elevator. The kitchen and cafeteria are capable of distributing an elaboration of the loaves and the fishes to a crowd of seven hundred and fifty. The large quarters of the ladies’ sewing circle contain twelve electrically operated sewing machines. And there is even a well equipped gymnasium.
           The membership is said to consist of approximately two thousand active members. Of these, seven hundred contribute to church support and six hundred attend Sunday morning services in an auditorium which will seat more than twice that number. Sunday evening services witness the devotion of some two hundred and fifty. The active Sunday School enrollment is close to one thousand, and about a quarter are present each Sunday morning.
          The trend toward secularism is most clearly apparent in the Wednesday evening prayer meetings. The lengthly service of yesteryear is no more. Instead, the sinners gather for dinner at six o’clock, witness a secular play produced by congregational amateurs at six-thirty, pass into the chapel at seven for twenty minutes of psalm readings and hymn singing without pastoral harangue, and finally split up into groups which discuss everything from international peace to local morals.
          Throughout the week the church hums with secular activities. Missionary societies and sewing circles have been joined by a vast array of social service clubs and similar organizations. A whole group of children’s clubs functions in the afternoons, including one boys’ organization made up exclusively of urchins so tough that they are not eligible for the pure life insisted on by the Boy Scouts.
          There are luncheons served to these various organizations every day in the week, and dinners on at least three nights. Some nights there are three or more groups dining at the same time.
          Similar elaborations of the secular program exist throughout the Protestant fabric, scaling downward toward the simplicity as the congregations decrease in size and wealth. But everywhere there are frequent oyster suppers, bazaars and club activities designed to afford chaste recreation for the pious, and to woo the unsaved to piety through an appeal to their gregarious instinct.
          Formerly much of the energy and noise which today characterizes these multifarious activities whet into gaudy and widely publicized reform campaigns.
          As the Victorian Age waned with the first decade of the century, sin everywhere was seen to be engaging the interest of the populace. Cigarettes were enjoying a wider popularity. In public places the evils of the dance were clearly gaining a stronger hold on even the humbler sections of the citizenry. Scarlet women practiced their wiles almost openly. The increasingly common automobile was leading to a lamentable prevalence of the sin of omitting Sabbath observance. And the movies were presenting licentiousness in glowing and attractive colors.
          The more frantic of the evangelical pulpit thumpers, led by the Methodist and Baptist fanatics, and followed by large platoons of galvanized laymen, swept into uproarious action. The Purity League appeared, a rallying point for the forces of Righteousness. The press resounded as the Lord’s Anointed belabored the Devil from all sides.
          High-priced virtuosi were imported to conduct revivals – including no less a demon-blaster than the prodigious Billy Sunday. The local clergy submerged their regret at seeing thousands of perfectly good dollars leaving the city – presumably with holy and beneficent destination – and joined forces with nationally famed wowsers in monster drives to do away with sin and harvest souls. Less obvious were the endorsement and support of criminal attorneys, saloon keepers, panders, abortionists and quack doctors, who anticipated a golden harvest when the pendulum of public mortality should subsequently swing in their direction.
          The agencies of law enforcement perspired freely under the pressure brought to bear on them. Gambling must go. Prostitution must go. Public dance halls must be closed. Sanctified silence and inactivity, except in the pulpits, must be the serene and single manifestation of the Lord’s Day.
          The Council of Churches left no stone unturned to put the fear of God into the hearts of the politicians. It could and did deliver or withhold a large and vitally important bloc of votes, depending upon the candidate’s allegiance to the Cause. And its secretary could chill the hearts of the city fathers by merely appearing during the course of their deliberations.
          So great was the onslaught of the Hosts of Purity that the red-light district was closed – a triumph which will be discussed in a later chapter.
          Then, of course, there was Demon Rum. Here the militant uplifters saw impending victory; and they advanced with shouts of triumph. When – the laws being upon the statute books – it became apparent that there were bootleggers about and customers who dealt with bootleggers, they all rallied to the standard of the Anti-Saloon League, and proceeded to aid, abet, coerce and interfere with the distracted and overloaded police. A clerical committee sat on the bench with the police judge and exercised what was referred to “moral guidance” in assisting His Honor to administer stern justice in all liquor cases.
          Finding that there was a deep satisfaction in thus guiding the hand of justice, the Council of Churches sought to put a similar committee in the court of juvenile delinquency and domestic relations. The jurist who then adorned that bench welcomed them warmly but pointed out that only the Court of Appeals was empowered to pass on his decisions. In view of this fact, he solemnly promised that if the ministerial committee, while in his court, lifted a single eyebrow in comment on any of his decisions, he would forthwith put the ministerial committee in jail for contempt. Offenders who appeared before him were consequently denied that stringent interpretation of the letter of the law which could be assured only by divine inspiration.
In 1923 and 1924 the Ku Klux Klan ran its triumphant course through the churches. It engulfed not only large numbers of laymen in the outlying smaller congregations, but also the pastors of many of these flocks, who were delighted with the prospect of wielding the boasted reform power of the Knights of the Bedsheet. In many other churches fear mixed with anger resulted in a pastoral straddling of the issue. Only two ministers openly disavowed and denounced the Invisible Empire.
          In spite of the crusade, however, sin cropped out occasionally – and even within the ranks of the Righteous themselves. Some of the brethren persisted in gaming, dicing and drinking strong waters. And the theater and dance continued to lure the saved as well as the unsaved.
          Even list was not entirely stifled. A young girl who belonged to an evangelical congregation sold her soul to the Devil. When the biological result of that transaction became obvious to the casual eye, she was forced to appear before a congregational meeting and was publicly expelled from the church. Later it developed that her seducer was a middle-aged member of the same congregation. Fortunately this did not become known generally, as he was one of the sturdier financial pillars of the church. At any rate his soul was cleansed by ministerial admonition, and he remained a pew-holder, being laid away ultimately in the full odor of sanctity.
It was probably due to such ferocious evangelical attacks upon licentiousness that the Devil retaliated by ensnaring a pastor of one of these denominations in his toils. This holy man’s amorous relationship with the wife of another cleric having come to the attention of the elders, he was promptly given the air by his congregation. Some of the more devout laymen took a further interest that the Lord enjoyed vengeance. They pursued their former shepherd from one sectarian job to another and were successful in securing his ejection from each one. Finally he sought refuge on the pastoral staff of an eminent California evangelist, where apparently his lustful proclivities were not regarded as a serious handicap in the performance of holy offices.
          Currently, there is considerably less tumult and shouting. Less and less are the police, the city fathers, and the press harassed by clerical and lay committees demanding explosive action. There are, of course, recurrent complaints from the Council against the slot machines, and as a result these devices of the Devil are occasionally withdrawn from public places for several months at a time. Once in a while, too, a rowdy dance hall is closed temporarily. And on one occasion the official installation of a high-school principal was held up for several weeks because the Council did not regard him as sufficiently devout. But the glamour of the more hectic days of the Crusade is no more.
          Nor are revivals employed to woo the sinners to salvation. They are appealed to instead through the medium of newspaper publicity. The Saturday papers carry church pages which announce the Sabbatical treats offered by practically all of the churches. Though most of the harangues delivered are likely to be rather commonplace, some of the announced subjects have a distinctly melodramatic and curiosity-arousing flavor. The following are culled from the programs of a single month: “Heaven and Hell – Are They Real? – Who Will Dwell in Each?”, “How To Become Beautiful,” “Mussolini and the Coming Anti-Christ,” “Who Cut That Man’s Hair?”, “Puss in Boots,” “The Best Way of Committing Suicide,” “The Lord’s Hired Razor,” and “The Fox Hunt.”
          In all of the alarums and excursions of the reform era a few congregations of various denominations declined firmly to be drawn into the great Crusade for Righteousness. These held perversely and stubbornly to the notion that religion was an individual matter and that the church’s disciplinary authority and moral control did not extend beyond its relations with its own communicants and their uneasy consciences.
          Their pastors have continued to restrict themselves to teaching, counseling and guiding their own flocks. For the most part, the laymen of these same congregations, though they are not to be regarded as truly pious, seem somehow to live in peace and amity with their neighbors and to avoid the majority of the more serious crimes and misdemeanors. In spite of their heretical leanings, not a few of them are to be found in high places in the industrial and civic life of the city, where they are able apparently to administer their duties with a reasonable measure of honesty, and even with some honor to themselves.
          It is largely on the account of the failure of these citizens to participate in the Crusade that that undertaking has failed to achieve a notable triumph. Today perhaps also on this account, even the ranks of the Crusaders themselves seem to be suffering some depletion. During the past decade few of these congregations have shown any gain in membership, and many of them have actually suffered a falling-off. Sunday attendance used to be about one-half of the total membership; today it is about one-third. And in the Sunday Schools the decrease is even more alarming.
          To these true Crusaders it seems not only that the Devil is still hale and hearty, but that large numbers of citizens, and even some of their own communicants, continue to be shockingly intimate with him. Indeed they feel that those very sins which received the brunt of their attack during the reform era are now flourishing as never before.
          Clerical lament over this situation is perhaps nowhere better expressed than in a mournful quatrain which flowed from the pen of one of the city’s leading Methodist divines:
            “The middle class has thought to take its fling;
            Read sexy stuff, drink, gamble, anything.
            They make fun of the law; religion makes them laugh;
            They’ll do a jazz dance merrily around the golden calf.”
          Perhaps a measure of the outrageous effrontery of sin is found in the fact that it seems to have set foot in the very citadel of Methodism itself! In a corridor of the church which enjoys the pastorate of the clergyman quoted above, there hangs a boldly lettered sign which reads: “Warning! Do Not Leave Your Clothing On Racks During Church Services.”