Evangelist Billy Sunday’s six-week-long revival meeting in Springfield in 1909 is remembered chiefly because of a spectacular attack on Sunday the very first night of the revival.
Sunday’s revivals were typically held in open-air “tabernacles” specially constructed for the evangelist. The Springfield tabernacle, built at First and Adams streets, held a capacity crowd of 8,000 people for opening night and the dedication of the structure on Feb. 26, 1909.
Sunday (1862-1935) had just delivered a greeting to the crowd and was listening to a hymn when Sherman Potts, 44, of Lovington, who had been obsessed by religion for at least two years, leaped out of the crowd and began hitting Sunday with a buggy whip. The Illinois State Register reported the incident in its Feb. 27, 1909 edition.
Mr. Sunday was standing at the front of the platform, his elbow resting upon the pulpit, when suddenly Potts sprang toward him like a panther upon its victim. …
Had Mr. Sunday had any warning, he easily could have stepped back and been out of the reach of the whip. But he had been struck several blows following one another in lightning succession, before any one seemed to realize what had happened. “You hypocrite, you —- —- —- (deletions in original), I’ll get you yet,” exclaimed Mr. Potts as he struck Mr. Sunday across the leg. … Four more blows from the whip fell before Sunday made his leap directly at Potts, who turned and fled down the aisle. Mr. Sunday fell to the ground as his ankle turned under him, but with his old baseball instinct he rushed after the fleeing assailant and was in the thick of the fray when Architect Gill (Albert Price Gill, the advance man who designed the tabernacles) and several other strong men knocked the pugnacious Potts down. … Finally (Potts) was dragged down the aisle to the door of the tabernacle, where he said he had “had enough” and was willing to submit to arrest.
Potts was judged insane and committed to the state hospital in Jacksonville. (Potts also had been institutionalized there for a few months in 1907, and part of the motivation for his attack on Sunday appears to have been abuses he said he witnessed during his first commitment.) Later released, he was arrested after threatening Sunday again in Baltimore. He died in Topeka, Kansas in 1917.
Sunday had been invited to Springfield by the city’s Ministerial Association, which was discouraged by city authorities’ unwillingness to enforce Sunday closing laws and otherwise clean up local vice.
Although Sunday had to preach some meetings on crutches after spraining his ankle in the opening-day uproar, Potts’ assault may have contributed to what by all accounts was a massively successful revival series. A souvenir booklet published afterwards claimed attendance at individual meetings of as many as 46,000 people and the total for the entire revival of 520,000. Local pastors put the number of people who joined churches as a result of Sunday’s visit at between 3,600 and 4,500. The revival also prompted area churches to organize a Young Women’s Christian Association in Springfield and a separate private group to create the Washington Street Mission in 1910.
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