Backroads

William Evander Penn (1832–1895) baptizes a convert in a Salado creek as crowds cluster along the banks. Bell County was a popular stop for protracted revivals, led by traveling evangelists who combined theatrics, oratory and theology to attract large audiences. Preaching, praying, talking and singing filled the days and nights, often for weeks and sometimes for months.

Sure, this weather is hot, but hell is hotter.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, traveling evangelists crisscrossed the county conducting revivals, preaching at camp meetings and baptizing anybody within a hallelujah shout of a stream.

These annual rites of summer became important social events for rural and city dwellers who hungered for community, gospel music and the word of the Lord.

Religious revivals and evangelists in the United States have yielded mixed results throughout history. Religion historian William G. McLoughlin, author of “Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham” (Ronald Press, 1959), said that these revivalist waves over the past two centuries “produced so few tangible or lasting results.”

While religious revivals in Europe produced far-reaching social, political and even economic changes, “America is hard put to measure the effects of what are usually called revivals except in terms of increased church memberships or sporadic moral reform movements,” he said.

The camp meetings (such as those 19th-century meetings in Belton and Nolanville, where people stayed in tents) were different from the protracted revivals held in towns and villages.

The principal purpose of both was to arouse a new interest in religion among church members and to generate a new wave of enthusiastic fervor to attract non-church members. Preaching, praying, talking and singing filled the days and nights, often for weeks and sometimes for months.

White and African-American traveling preachers found fertile ground here. At some times, they even spoke to racially mixed audiences, such as when “Sin Killer” Griffin rolled into town with his entourage of musicians and his own baseball team to play local squads.

Even before the railroads laid tracks through Central Texas, roaming evangelists saddled up their horses for preaching engagements.

A Tennessee native and Confederate veteran, William Evander Penn (1832-1895) was the Billy Graham of his generation, a towering figure with oratory skills to scare the devil out of folks. Pretty soon, he deservedly earned the title, “the Texas Evangelist,” known for his bellowing pulpit style, marketing acumen and expansive personality.

Penn viewed Bell County as fertile ground for saving sinners and bolstering fledgling Baptist congregations. An 1877 Belton newspaper account reported that he was “still pounding away at the stony hearts of the Belton people, and, so far, succeeded in knocking religion into their hardened souls.”

Penn eagerly and frequently announced to statewide papers the success of his revivals.

Throughout the 1880s, he held summer camp meetings in Belton, Nolanville, Salado and Little River as well as numerous other small county settlements now faded from maps.

The first Salado meeting drew 278 campsites and 600 wagons and carriages.

Attendance was estimated from 1,000 to 6,000 adults and children. Penn-led events also brought a festive flare to evangelism.

His revivals were good for business. Stagecoach operators offered discounted rates for those traveling to hear the famous evangelist. Feed lot and stable operators expanded their pens for visitors’ equines. Local markets and produce farmers sold their wares. An 1889 McGregor camp meeting drew worshippers from a 150-mile radius and featured lemonade and ice cream stands, feed stores and plenty of music.

Penn’s theology followed popular topics of his time — especially the evils of drinking and dancing. He blamed women for men’s lustful thoughts that “excite the baser passions of men.”

A Temple revival in October 1915 by Preacher Mordecai Fowler Ham (1877-1961) and his music director, William J. Ramsey, resulted in more than 800 conversions and attracted an attendance of nearly 210,000. More than $3,000 was added to the collection plates — all going toward Ham’s expenses. Ham set forth several counts in God’s indictment of churches, namely profanity, treason, robbery, card playing, billiards and blasphemy.

For sheer Methodist-style showmanship, no one could top Burke Culpepper (1880-1948), dubbed “the Prince of Evangelists” for his theatrics. Culpepper led a massive revival in March 1922 in downtown Temple that resulted in a record number of baptisms and professions of faith to several churches, the most at First Methodist.

Local newspapers called him “an unbridled cyclone.” He was an uncompromising fundamentalist, pre-millennialist and prohibitionist — also a sexist. Pretty women were “little ornery devils who have sent more boys’ souls to hell than you can count,” he said.

“Can you imagine the Virgin Mary smoking, drinking and playing cards?” he asked.

A born showman and actor, he made his revivals a blend of vaudeville, stump speaking and old-time religion at its most frothy. He even acted out the story of Christ’s trial and crucifixion, playing all the parts himself, to the delight of his audiences. He went to the busy Santa Fe Railway roundhouse in Temple without prior notice, climbed a flatcar for his pulpit and preached to 300 “begrimed railway shop employees as a congregation,” the Temple Daily Telegram reported. Work stopped, which forced workers to lose wages.

Culpepper so pleased the Temple Klavern of the Ku Klux Klan that the Klan mailed him $100 and a letter of appreciation for doing “wonderful good” in sin-riddled Temple.

Historian Josh McMullen in his book “Under the Big Top: Big Tent Revivalism and American Culture, 1885-1925” (Oxford University Press, 2015) chronicles the effect that these peripatetic preachers had on 20th-century churches.

Some accounts portray revivalists as Victorian hold-outs, bent on re-establishing 19th-century values and religion in a new America. McMullen disagrees, arguing that “big-tent” revivalists actually participated in the shift away from Victorianism and helped in the creation of a new U.S. consumer culture and religious commercialization.

As evidence, look no further than Penn’s ice cream and lemonade stands.