“I Could Not Do Otherwise… Though It Put My Body in the Grave”: Elections As Apocalyptic Events

In the United States’ never-ending election cycle, the 2020 Presidential campaign is reaching a new level of intensity this month, as the voting day on November 3rd draws closer. The Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives contains many stories of individual Christians, who were impelled by their faith to influence local, state, and national elections.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, a key issue for many fundamentalist Protestants was Prohibition—a national ban on the manufacture and sale of alcohol for consumption. For example, Prohibition was a leading reason why evangelist Billy Sunday held his 1918 revival meetings in Chicago. The bombastic revival preacher was an outspoken advocate of Prohibition, and the Windy City was poised to determine via local initiative whether it should ban the sale of alcohol. Former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan also came to town to assist the effort. It failed. As the popular Frank Sinatra song “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)” boasts, “It’s the town Billy Sunday could not close down.” But the Eighteenth Amendment, ratified in 1919, made Prohibition the law of the land.

William Jennings Bryan welcoming Billy Sunday to Chicago in 1918.

The forces that had allied to bring about Prohibition now had to face the challenge of keeping the amendment from being repealed. The Archives’ Collection 118: Ephemera of Mordecai Ham contains a set of letters (folder 1-13) from one such Prohibition advocate, depicting his tireless efforts to protect the Nineteenth Amendment during the 1928 election season. A Baptist pastor and evangelist, Mordecai Fowler Ham is best known today for holding the 1943 evangelistic meetings in Charlotte, North Carolina where Billy Graham gave his life to Jesus Christ as a teenager. In his own time, Ham earned a reputation throughout the American South as a powerful speaker, unafraid to condemn both civic sin and individual sinners from his pulpit. With the presidential election of 1928 looming, Mordecai Ham believed he had to speak out against the growing threat to Prohibition.

Mordecai Fowler Ham during one of his radio broadcasts. Undated

The popular candidate of the Republican party was Secretary of State Herbert Hoover, who had led relief efforts as a private citizen that saved the lives of millions around the globe during and after World War I. As the incumbent party in the 1928 elections, Republicans happily took credit for the nation’s current prosperity. Al Smith, the Democratic nominee, managed to be both a successful reform governor of New York and a close ally of the notorious Tammany Hall political machine in New York City. Even more important for many American fundamentalists, including Ham, Al Smith was a Roman Catholic and a outspoken opponent of Prohibition, known in the slang of the day as a “wet.”

At the beginning of 1928, Ham was pastoring the First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City, having just retired from ministry as an itinerant evangelist. Yet, with the presidential election looming, Ham felt the urge to travel again to speak against Smith whom he viewed as representing many things Ham despised—the “wet” anti-Prohibition forces, the Roman Catholic Church, political corruption, and big city life. In a September 14th letter to his brother Everett in Chicago, he wrote the following:

Later in the same letter Ham described how “some Chicago committee” had asked him to travel through the Southern states speaking on behalf Prohibition, and he was mulling over the invitation. Considering what Ham believed was at stake, there was never much doubt that he would accept. On September 25th he wrote Everett:

During the six weeks before Election Day on November 6th, Ham spoke fifty times, ranging from Oklahoma to North Carolina. On November 8th, he was able to write Everett celebrating “this glorious victory in the Presidential campaign.” H. B. Gilstrap, the U. S. Veteran’s Bureau manager for North Carolina, wrote Ham the same day, saying:

Ham certainly agreed and replied that the election had been a, “very subtle attack being made on our National welfare. But the real patriotic citizens of America have gone on record in this most glorious manner.” On November 12th, Ham wrote to W. T. Hales, who had been one of the financial supporters of his anti-Smith campaign:

As Ham wrote to another correspondent, “At least I can rest now, and I could not before the election, for my soul is now at ease even though my body is tired.”

In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt had used religious imagery when talking to his secular audience at the national convention of the Progressive Party: “Let us go to Armageddon and battle for the Lord!” Like Roosevelt and Ham, Christians in the United States, on the right and the left, have viewed elections in similar apocalyptic terms, as this one small example illustrates.

For more information on the ministry of Mordecai Ham, visit the Archives’ collection of historical materials from the evangelist in Collection 118, Ephemera of Mordecai Fowler Ham.

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