Sin in the City: Chicago and Revivalism, 1880-1920 by Thekla Ellen Joiner
Long before today’s culture wars, the “Third Great Awakening” rocked America. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, evangelists such as Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday roused citizens to renounce sin as it manifested in popular culture, moral ambiguity, and the changing role of women.
Sin in the City examines three urban revivals in turn-of-the-century Chicago to show how revivalists negotiated that era’s perceived racial, sexual, and class threats. While most studies of this movement have focused on its male leaders and their interactions with society, Thekla Ellen Joiner raises new questions about gender and race by exploring Third Awakening revivalism as the ritualized performance of an evangelical social system. Rather than approaching these events merely as the achievements of persuasive men, she views them as choreographed collective rituals reinforcing a moral order defined by ideals of femininity, masculinity, and racial purity.
Q: Why did you choose Chicago as the focus for your examination of revivalism?
Turn-of-the-century Chicago was very dynamic in a way that highlights a complex array of competitive forces. When I began my work on revivalism, I saw Chicago as an urban prototype that would allow me to study the collision of industrialism, immigration, urban problems, and reform--and, in particular, the role of evangelicals in this mix. Placing revivalists along with other Chicago evangelicals in this urban context was an important part of the study, and Chicago had a number of important evangelical leaders. Protestant elites like Nettie and Cyrus McCormick, T. W. Harvey, and J. V. Farwell lived and worked in Chicago, which was also home to several influential churches as well as the Moody Bible Institute. These individuals and institutions supported individual revivalists like D. L. Moody and provided the finances and expertise that were influential in this revival era.
As an urban prototype, Chicago also had ample amounts of urban “sin,” which of course was the threat that Third Awakening revivals sought to buffer and defeat. The city’s large immigrant working class was in the forefront of the labor movement, and some of the most important labor actions of the late nineteenth century, like the Haymarket riot and the Pullman strike, took place in the city. Saloons, prostitution, and early entertainment and amusement venues predominated throughout the city. All of these challenged the private and domestic moral order of evangelicals and became the focus of their mission and outreach.
Because of its turn-of-the century civic and business “boosterism,” Chicago has very good historical documentation. At the turn of the century, Chicago had at least five newspapers that promoted the city’s moral uplift and provided extensive coverage of Third Awakening revivals, including specific locations, descriptions of the events, and the widespread outreach of female leaders.
Use of these sources allowed me to deepen our understanding of the urban and social context of revivalism. Past studies of the Third Awakening tended to focus on the male leadership or the revival events themselves. I wanted to try to understand what revivals meant within a specific urban context. Revival purposes and their alliance with other Protestant reform movements come into clearer perspective. For example, the understanding of the 1893 World’s Fair revival is deepened in light of the Fair Board’s battle with the Sabbatarians (a movement seeking to maintain the sanctity of the Lord’s Day and guarantee that only religious activities occurred on that day) over whether or not the Fair should remain open on Sunday; Virginia Asher’s message of moral womanhood becomes more meaningful in the context of the efforts of the Social Purity movement to outlaw prostitution in the city. Overall, Chicago offered an ideal urban space as it confronted a wide array of challenges precisely as it was entering the modern era.
Q: You mention that the contributions of women in the Third Awakening have been largely overlooked. How has this caused us to misunderstand the movement’s dynamic?
Sin in the City works on two levels in terms of the dynamic of the Third Awakening. First, on what I see as a fairly simple level, the book identifies the active role that women played in the Third Awakening. Women’s activism offers a “boots on the ground” way of looking at revival. Past perspectives have had men as the main attraction. Looking at women encourages a broader focus that I think is a more authentic means of understanding this phenomenon.
Women’s efforts were often outside the main event, entailing street evangelism as well as widespread work in factories, saloons, and brothels. During the 1910 Chapman-Alexander Simultaneous Campaign, for example, Virginia Asher organized large-scale meetings for working women by actually going to the factory floor in places like the “chipped beef” room of Armour Meatpacking and the Kirk Soap Company to deliver her message. In the same revival, Asher received wide publicity for her nighttime visit to the Everleigh House, which was probably the most famous (or infamous) brothel west of the Appalachians.
Female revival leaders like Virginia Asher and Grace Saxe have barely been mentioned in past studies of this era; yet these women and others were professional revivalists who evidence the very skills that have been so highly touted in male. They were charismatic speakers, singers, organizers, and communicators who significantly contributed to the outreach and impact of these revivals.
On another level, going beyond the representative female and male revivalists, gender provided a central point of moral definition for this movement. I argue in the book that Third Awakening revivalism is defined by its defense of white middle-class gender roles and that this gendered understanding is central to the dynamic of this period. Revivalism’s alliance with organizations like the WCTU and the Social Purity movement along with endless revival references and rituals that elevated moral womanhood and middle-class domesticity spiritualized an underlying gender theology that has been written off by earlier historians as nostalgic or anecdotal.
A central point in Sin in the City is that gender is an important element of the Third Awakening because it informs the evangelical understanding of “sin” and that, over the course of the era, this gendered perception shifts in significant ways. At the end of the nineteenth century, and in earlier revivals, women were seen as the moralizers of society and men were portrayed as the “bad seed.” By World War I, however, women’s growing independence in both the private and public spheres increasingly positioned them as threats to this same moral order. Without this gendered perspective, the history of the Third Awakening is limited to a male-oriented and “top-down” understanding of these socio-religious events.
Q: How did the ways in which women established their identities and position in the Third Awakening influence the gender dynamics of the new middle class?
Public activism by female revivalists within the Third Awakening represented evangelicalism’s moralizing feminine ideal. They spent their careers as middle-class models of womanhood and repeatedly orchestrated rituals that promoted this identity in the city’s most sinful places--the Midway at the Chicago World’s Fair, the famous Everleigh House brothel, on the factory floor. I find it very interesting that these women lived very public career-oriented lives, yet their message espoused a gospel of domesticity, and they saw no contradiction between their lifestyle and their message.
Q: What relationship does the Third Awakening have to religious movements today?
The most obvious connection is the willingness today of religious conservatives and groups to engage in social and political activism in order to defend what they perceive to be a moral cause. Defense-of-marriage and anti-abortion activism would be the best examples of this involvement. This is not unlike the Third Awakening’s intervention into Chicago politics and its willingness to engage with controversial social issues like saloon closings and the outlawing of prostitution.
In the twenty-first century the evangelical subculture has become increasingly diverse and cannot be labeled with just one perspective. The idea that all evangelicals speak with a united voice now is difficult to support.
Q: You mention that revivalists’ promotion of their moral regime served to defend their position as the normative center of American culture. Do you think that Evangelical values continue to function as the standard for the definition of morality in America?
Conservative evangelicals continue to strive to hold the normative center for American morality, and for many evangelicals the struggle to maintain a moral regime continues. At the same time, the pervasive overselling of the evangelical ideology along with its alliance with a strong socio-economic conservatism has strengthened its alliance with the Republican Party which, in light of the 2008 and 2012 elections, appears to be losing ground.
Q: Can you tell us about any upcoming projects or books you have in the works?
For the past three years I have been working with John T. Caldwell on a documentary film titled "Highway 58: Boron to Buttonwillow." We have used a120-mile stretch of blacktop through Kern County, California, as a "lens" to understand America's current racial, economic, and cultural politics. The film begins with a nasty labor fight in Boron in 2010, when transnational giant Rio Tinto tried to break the miners' union. Moving west along Highway 58, we filmed oral histories of survivors of the migrant farm camps featured in Grapes of Wrath as well the indigenous Oaxacans who have replaced the Oakies. We conclude with a look at the South Central Farmers, who have been displaced from South Central Los Angeles to Buttonwillow. The film maps the complex cultural ways that the images, films, and narratives of this area have been fabricated by “outsiders” and selectively reclaimed by “locals” and residents to self-identify and weather severe hardships in the region. The final version will be completed in 2014.