Revivals and Milk Carts

Gospel Meeting announcement

In 1911 a resurgence of spiritual awakening was sweeping across the United States. Even in the mid-west states—where “that old time religion” was firmly entrenched—people were undergoing a revival of spirit and rededication to the Christian life.

Revival meeting announcement in The Bryan Eagle (Bryan, TX) newspaper; March 9, 1911
A revival meeting announcement in The Bryan Eagle (Bryan, TX) newspaper; March 9, 1911


When Isabella Alden wrote Lost on the Trail in 1911, the concept of tent revival meetings wasn’t new. Only four years earlier a great Christian revival had spread across the U.S. and Canada, led by two Australian ministers who traveled the Americas converting thousands of souls.

1897 newspaper announcement
1897 newspaper announcement of a revival meeting


And in 1897, when America suffered a tremendous economic crash, people turned to revival meetings for hope and comfort in a very tough time.

But by the early 1900s the Christian revival meeting had reached new levels, thanks, in many ways, to the emergence of great revival preachers and the power of the American newspaper.

Billy Sunday in 1906
Billy Sunday in 1906


Many popular ministers traveled the country and drew large crowds, but Billy Sunday was the rock star of the revival circuit.

A crowd awaits Billy Sunday's arrival at Penn Station, New York City
A crowd awaits Billy Sunday’s arrival at Penn Station, New York City


When Billy Sunday preached, forty to fifty thousand people went to hear him each day. He spoke in tents, open fields, and huge tabernacle structures built especially for him in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and New York. Newspapers reported that wherever he went, the crowds were so great police could not control them.

In Pittsburgh, the newspaper reported 3,000 club women paraded down the main street of town to a Billy Sunday revival meeting. In Chicago, the entire office force of the courthouse abandoned their desks to march to the meeting tent, accompanied by a brass band.

Women parade down the street


In the 1880s Billy Sunday was a baseball player. He played outfield, first for the Chicago White Sox and then the Pittsburgh Alleghenies (later, the Pittsburgh Pirates). He was a good player; he had a .291 battering average and he set a record for stolen bases. But his real calling, he believed, was giving regular locker-room sermons to his teammates about the evils of alcohol and tobacco.

Billy Sunday baseball

After he left baseball, Billy Sunday was ordained by the Presbyterian Church, and embarked on a career as an evangelical minister.

New York Times article on Billy Sunday. May 23, 1915
New York Times article on Billy Sunday. May 23, 1915


Not every revival meeting was led by a minister of Billy Sunday’s calibre. In small towns and large cities across the country, revival meetings of every size popped up during spring and summer months.

The Clovis News, September 18, 1919
The Clovis News (Clovis, NM), September 18, 1919


While Billy Sunday might spend up to six weeks in a single city and convert forty thousand people, most small revivals lasted one to two weeks with considerably fewer attendees—but the effect was the same: people found new faith and hope by becoming Christians, and established Christians renewed their walk with God.

Rockingham Post Dispatch (Rockingham, North Carolina), June 22, 1922
Rockingham Post Dispatch (Rockingham, North Carolina), June 22, 1922


Revival meetings were big news. Newspapers promoted them and reporters covered the events. In 1905 The Seattle Republican actively encouraged readers to attend an upcoming revival meeting led by Reverend J. Wilbur Chapman, writing:

The thing to do is attend. Let us attend these meetings and, as Mr. Chapman says, feel every time he speaks that he is addressing you individually. Then we will be able to measure ourselves by the standard he represents and see if we are found wanting. The meetings are for the rich and the poor, for the people who are and would become Christians.

And in 1915 the Chicago Day Book invited Billy Sunday to “preach” a revival sermon via a daily column of the newspaper for five consecutive days. The Day Book promoted Rev. Sunday’s guest column in front page headlines and full-page spreads:

The Chicago Day Book announced Billy Sunday's written sermons with the same enthusiasm it gave an interview with Mary Pickford
The Chicago Day Book announced Billy Sunday’s written sermons with the same enthusiasm it gave an interview with Mary Pickford; March 29, 1915


Full-page promotion of Billy Sunday's upcoming written sermons in the Chicago Day Book. March 27,1 915
Full-page promotion of Billy Sunday’s written sermons to be published in upcoming editions of the Chicago Day Book. March 27,1 915


Newspapers in smaller towns and throughout America’s Bible belt gave revival meetings front-page attention:

Front Page of the Guthrie Leader (Guthrie, OK) ; March 7, 1914
Front Page of the Guthrie Leader (Guthrie, OK) ; March 7, 1914


Front page coverage of an evangelical revival in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser (Honolulu, HI); April 6, 1905
Front page coverage of an evangelical revival in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser (Honolulu, HI); April 6, 1905


Isabella Alden drew on her experience with tent revival meetings in her allegorical novel, Lost on the Trail. In the book, a young woman named Weewona was raised from an early age by people in an isolated mountain cabin.

From Bismarck Daily Tribune (Bismarck, ND), November 26, 1910
Announcement of a Methodist revival meeting in the Bismarck Daily Tribune (Bismarck, ND), November 26, 1910


Cover_Lost on the TrailBut one day Weewona ventured down the mountain and stumbled upon a tent revival meeting where she heard the Christian message for the first time. Isabella used Weewona’s story to illustrate the ignorance and uncertainty we all suffer until we accept salvation through Christ.


After that first taste of God’s message, Weewona felt compelled to seek God. She headed down the mountain again, determined to learn more about the message of the revival meeting.

Dairy delivery wagon

For the first time in her life she was entirely on her own and unschooled in the ways of the civilized world. Finally, a kindly milk man helped her find a home . . . and took her on her first wagon ride. After Mr. Best got her settled in his milk wagon, he tried to put her at ease by asking if she’d traveled far.

“Y-yes,” said Weewona, breathlessly, for they were in motion now, and she had never felt anything like it. Pete had told her much about horses and wagons, but it is one thing to be told about a horse, and quite another not only to see one for the first time, alive and moving, but actually to be seated on a board behind him!

“Don’t it make you afraid?” she gasped, holding on firmly with both hands.

The old man looked at her curiously; then threw back his head and laughed, an entirely fearless, reassuring laugh.

“Afraid of Old Gray!” he chuckled. “Well, now, if that ain’t a joke! I shall have to tell mother that, sure. Why, Old Gray is the gentlest, reliablest horse that ever put foot on the ground! He wouldn’t hurt a fly, even after it had bit him, if he could help it. I guess you ain’t used to horses, are you?”

She answered with a single word, but her voice made the old man look closely at her again, and speak soothingly: “You needn’t be a mite scared. There ain’t anything going to happen to you as long as Old Gray and Stephen Best have you in charge.”

Riding in the dairy wagon was the first of Weewona’s adventures, but as she learned more about God and what it meant to live a Christian life, she blossomed and found the courage, with God’s help, to make a place for herself in the world.


Billy Sunday Sermon 01 01You can read Billy Sunday’s five-part revival sermon as it appeared in the Chicago Day Book in 1915. Click on the image to begin reading:



Here’s a short video that illustrates Billy Sunday’s style of preaching:

Cover_Lost on the Trail

Find out more about Lost on the Trail by clicking on the book cover:




5 thoughts on “Revivals and Milk Carts

  1. What an amazing post! Thanks so much for all this history of revivals in America. I had no idea! I will be greatly interested in reading Billy Sunday’s messages that appeared in the Chicago newspaper in 1915. I know that Grace Livingston Hill’s church, Swarthmore Presbyterian Church, supported a Billy Sunday crusade in Philadelphia in 1915. It’s included in their history on their website. Billy Sunday maintained a home in Winona Lake (it’s still preserved, as far as I know), where my family lived when we returned from South Africa in 1961. The Billy Sunday Tabernacle, with its “sawdust trail” was still being used for large summertime meetings (Youth for Christ, etc.) and Warsaw High School graduations were held there. My to-be-husband Jay and I graduated there on May 25, 1962. Many fond memories.

    1. Vicky, thank you for sharing your memories. I didn’t know the Billy Sunday Tabernacle was still in use in the 1960s. Do you know if it’s still there? If it is, I’d love to visit; I can’t help wishing I had been around a hundred years ago to hear Billy Sunday preach!

      1. The Billy Sunday Tabernacle was the last of its kind in America. Built in 1920, it was also used by the Winona Chautauqua for many years. Many celebrities spoke there over the years. And WMBI radio (Moody Bible Institute) broadcasted many of the religious messages spoken on its platform, which was big enough to hold a large choir. It could seat at least 5,000 (by some estimates up to 7,500) on wooden-backed benches. It was eventually torn down in 1992. Homer Rodeheaver, song-leader and music publisher, also lived in Winona Lake on Rainbow Point. As a boy, my husband delivered newspapers there. It was there that “Beyond the Sunset” was written by Virgil Brock and his wife, after beholding one of Winona’s magnificent sunsets from an upstairs deck.

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