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Sunday Crusade

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

In the early twentieth century, the towns of Davenport and Rock Island facing each other across the Mississippi seemed to be contending for the title of "Sin City."

Davenport was the location of Bucktown, several blocks of dives, gambling dens and houses of prostitution sprawling along the waterfront. In 1903 Bishop Henry Cosgrove named Davenport "the wickedest city for its size in the country."

Rock Island countered with John Looney, who organized a crime syndicate that paid off police, shot rivals, and blackmailed prominent citizens with threats of exposure in the newspaper Looney ran.

By 1916 decent citizens had had enough. No David would do against these modern Goliaths. No one less than another Goliath would do. So began a four-year effort on the part of churches of Rock Island to bring the famous evangelist, Billy Sunday, to town. Finally, he agreed to hold a six-week crusade in Rock Island in September and October of 1919. The duel was on.

Advance men for the Sunday team arrived in July to gather a 1,400-member choir, publicize the coming crusade, and supervise the construction of a 210-foot by 125-foot wooden tabernacle seating seven thousand people at 5th Avenue and 24th Street.

The building was finished by the end of August. It stands, the Argus wrote, as a challenge to the forces of evil in our midst.

Rock Island was ready for Billy Sunday when he arrived on September 13th. Two days later, more than 20,000 people packed three services, and most of the other services for six weeks. They heard Billy Sunday promise to "reach down lower, reach up higher, reach out further, preach longer, preach harder," than the other side, those "damnable, infamous, vile, rotten, black-hearted, white-livered, beetle-browed, hog-jawed, weasel-eyed, good-for-nothing dirty imps of hell."

There may have been isolated pockets of sin left after Sunday was through, but a final head count showed that ten thousand, four hundred and ninety-five men and women had hit the sawdust trail, while collections totaled $48,923, $20,000 in the final collection for Sunday himself.

That headcount leaves fourteen lost sheep unaccounted for.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.