Billy Sunday was a quick witted, energetic, fireball evangelist! A stellar baseball player for Chicago, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh professional teams, he was fast; the first man to circle the bases from a standing start in 14 seconds. Base-ball enthusiasts of the time, knew him as the most daring base-stealer in both leagues. After his conversion, he dedicated his life to stealing sinners off the path to hell. Homer Rodeheaver was Sunday’s song leader for 20 years. He said, “Millions of people heard Billy Sunday preach. Opinions were formed; some rabidly antagonistic – most were enthusiastically favorable.”
Erie was one of the later “Kerosene Circuit campaigns,” so named for the cities not yet entirely wired for electricity. Billy Sunday brought some of his famous sharp quips to Erie:
They tell me a revival is only temporary; so is a bath, but it does you good.
You say you have a bad temper, but it’s over in a minute; so is a shotgun, but it blows everything to pieces.
The world is wrong side up. It needs to be turned upside down in order to be right side up.
I have no faith in a woman who talks about heaven and makes hell out of her home.
Sin flourishes because folks treat it like a cream puff.
A network of Erie business and church leaders, the Men’s Personal Work League, later named the Erie Evangelistic Association, worked to bring Sunday’s dynamic gospel message to Erie. [In part 2, I talk about the Erie Christian Business Leaders Association which remarkably similarity in structure and dedication to Christ as the Erie Evangelistic Association]. Folks came from all around to the newly erected tent tabernacle at 12th and Myrtle streets. Billy Sunday preached there for six weeks in the spring of 1911, stirring a massive spiritual revival. President of Lovell Manufacturing, Byron Walker, led the way in raising monies to organize a rescue mission. The Erie City Mission opened in October 1911, and remains today, working as one of the most important social outreach centers in Erie. “For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you. Do not fear; I will help you” (Isaiah 41:13).
Seven years after the campaign that rocked Erie a terrible plague known as Spanish Influenza swept the globe. This was a particularly nasty strain; and no antivirals were developed until the 1940’s. Its exact origin is unknown but was first seen in the spring of 1918, in France, Britain, China and Fort Riley, Kansas. The second wave hit Boston dock workers in the fall and quickly spread to the Naval Ship Yard in Philadelphia. From there the virus spread within the USA most likely because of WWI troop movements.
Erie was hit hard in the fall of 1918. It was the Liberty Loan parade on Sunday, September 29, that pushed the infection. 20,000 marchers representing schools, civic and service clubs, and industries from around the region walked and interacted with the crowds for two hours. The parade was a big deal and 50,000 people crowded Erie streets in the effort to raise bonds for WWI. They didn’t know the virus was among them. Two men had come from infected areas outside the state in addition to soldiers’ and sailors’ who were home on leave coming from barracks already infected with the virus. By weeks end there were 250 cases of Spanish Flu in Erie. Did you catch that? In one week, there were 250 cases! At the end of October, more than 3,000 Erie residents were sick with the flu, and by Christmas Day 1918, 500 were dead. Still, Erie faithful trusted God and worked to stop the spread of the disease.
“I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:13-14).
Photo – 1918 nurse from the National Archives.
Officials tried to follow the guidelines other cities had adopted to slow the spread. Some worked some didn’t. Across Pennsylvania, theaters, dance halls, saloons and other “public amusements” closed. Erie’s Health Commissioner closed schools and churches. According to the Erie Times News, he also ordered streetcars to be cleaned daily and directed the fire department to hose down State Street daily “in the hope of washing some of the germs away.”
Here are some local headlines from the 1918 Erie Times – from Valerie Myers Erie Daily Times article. It’s interesting, some of them could be written today:
OCT. 12, 1918 CHANGES CONTINUE
Erie hospitals ordered to turn away minor ailments and postpone nonessential surgeries; police ordered to arrest anyone spitting in public and to break up gatherings downtown.
OCT. 19, 1918 FACE MASKS MADE AVAILABLE
Erie Chapter, American Red Cross, makes thousands of face masks available to the public. Companies asked to accommodate their own sick as General Electric is doing in a barracks there.
OCT. 24, 1918 EMERGENCY HOSPITAL OPENED
Hospitals are “jammed to the doors” with patients in corridors and solariums. City health board opens emergency hospital for flu victims on second floor of Elks Club at Peach and Eighth streets.
DEC. 9, 1918 ORPHANAGE OPENS FOR PARENTS WHO DIED OF FLU
The “General Pershing Emergency Orphanage” opens for children whose parents died of the flu, in government-built housing for American Brake Shoe employees at Fourth and Cascade.
DEC. 15, 1918 PA. GOVERNOR DECLARES DAY OF PRAYER FOR FLU
Gov. Martin Brumbaugh declares Dec. 16 to be a day of prayer “that the flu plague might pass.” There have been 40,000 flu deaths in the state. The pandemic killed between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide, more than the Bubonic Plague and World War I combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Post Plague Recovery
Erie was a thriving city of 110,000 people when the Spanish flu pandemic hit. As terrible as it was, after it passed there was remarkable growth. God hadn’t forgotten Erie. According to a publication of the Times Publishing Company, “ERIE 200 Years as a Community” one of the booms Erie saw in the decade following the plague was in education:
Two colleges were founded, Mercyhurst College for women (1926), and Cathedral College (1933), later becoming Gannon College for men.
Penn State launched a cooperative program with Erie Vocational School in the 1920’s which has since become Penn State at the Behrend Campus.
Kanty College & H.S. for men of Polish descent, and a number of seminaries were also developed in the 1920’s.
In the public-school arena, Academy and East High Schools were built, as well as Wilson Jr. High. Strong Vincent H.S. started classes in 1930.
Under the supervision of John C. Diehl, an additional three new elementary schools were constructed and four others enlarged.
New banks sprang up in Erie, including Mellon Bank and what is now PNC.
A group of small power companies combined efforts, forming PENELEC.
Hugh Lord founded Lord Corporation in 1924.
H.O. Hirt founded Erie Insurance in 1925.
Erie also had its challenges during the post plague recovery decade. Prohibition went into effect in 1920. Let’s just say, it was greeted unfavorably by Erie’s colorful mayor and city government.
And the mission founded during the Billy Sunday campaign? It continued operations throughout the plague, bringing light to the darkness for those battling addiction, homelessness and serious health problems. The mission is still operating today with the same zeal and dedication with which it was founded. Erie has cause to sing of God’s goodness.
“But I will sing of Your mighty strength and power; yes, I will sing aloud of Your mercy and loving-kindness in the morning; for You have been to me a defense and a refuge in the day of my distress. Unto You, O my Strength, I will sing praises; for God is my Defense, my Fortress, and High Tower, the God Who shows me mercy and steadfast love” (Psalm 59:16-17).
During this earlier pandemic which took so many young healthy lives, God did not forget Erie. We were not abandoned, not defeated, not future-less, nor isolated. As the song says, He is the God of miracles. We’ve seen Him move mountains, seen Him make a way where it seemed there was no way. And we believe we’ll see Him do it again because He is faithful!
Believing the readers faith will be boosted!
My friend Deb Nuber has this signed, Revival Hymnal from her great-grandfather, George W. Osborn, 1911.
Part 2 – A Preacher and a Plague will take a look at a more recent move of God and the current pandemic.