The Revival of 1911

No. 9

It may seem odd to their descendants of the twenty-first century, but the members of our church in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were quite fond of revival meetings.  They scheduled one every couple of years for nearly forty years.  They were diverse affairs, and not always what we today think of when we think of revivals.  The revival of 1904, for instance, concentrated its preaching on the Disciples historic plea for Christian unity.  The meetings in 1906 were led by Charles Clayton Morrison, a young liberal Disciples minister who in 1908 bought a bankrupt magazine, The Christian Century, and made it into the pre-eminent interdenominational advocate of liberal Christianity in the United States in the twentieth century.  These meetings certainly must have taken a distinctively liberal approach.

But probably the largest one of all, and certainly the most notable, was the revival of 1911, led by a conservative Disciples evangelist, William J. Lockhart.  This particular series of meetings lasted four weeks.  Although music was used, the sermon was the main event of each evening.  It was usually anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour long, followed by more congregational singing, and an altar call.  Lockhart’s first two sermons were directed toward current church members and “backsliders”, those who had let their commitment to the church slip.  His subjects were usually conventional, Heaven, Hell, home, mother, and moral sins such as gambling, drinking and sexual impurity.  Only one sermon directly addressed the question of belief versus unbelief, and this evening was billed as being specifically directed at university students.

The response was apparently phenomenal.  From the first night, according to reports, the church was full, and by midweek people were being turned away.  Lockhart’s proposed solution, which he unveiled on Thursday evening of the first week, was to build a tabernacle able to seat 1000 or more, and have it ready for occupancy by Sunday afternoon!  Money was raised at this meeting and a call went out for 100 volunteers to build this ad hoc hall.  More amazing than this audacious idea is that it actually happened!  The volunteers built the tabernacle in thirteen hours, and Lockhart moved his meetings into it on Sunday afternoon.  By the following Tuesday, even this large space was filled to overflowing.

At this point, leaders of the First Christian Church may have been feeling a bit in over their heads.  The board of the church wrote a letter to each of the Protestant churches in Iowa City, which said in part:

“You are aware that an evangelistic meeting begun by the Christian Church on Oct. 22nd has already attained large proportions.  The greatness of this meeting has been a decided surprise to us.  We had expected a meeting that would awaken our own church and greatly increase our efficiency. . . .

“Now it seems that instead of a great religious awakening coming just to one church, such an awakening is possible and probable for the whole city and we are sending you this letter to open the way for you and every other church in the city that is in symathy with our general plan and purpose, to unite with us as fully as you may find desirable or possible.  We extend this invitation in the spirit of that unity which has characterized the churches of Iowa City of late years. . .”

It is not known what the general reaction to this letter was, but Lockhart continued to draw huge crowds, and after the end of the meetings one Methodist official in Iowa City, the Rev. H. H. Fairall, editor of the Iowa Methodist commented:

“The evangelist Rev. W. J. Lockhart, of Des Moines who has all the magnetism, wit, dramatic power, and spiritual force of ‘Billy’ Sunday, without having his objectionable qualities, preached the old-Gospel every night to hundreds of people. . . . These earnest, Christian brethren, by their genial, devout manner, won the affection of the entire city. All the Protestant churches received   accessions. . . . “