In 1953, I was brought into a little known and seldom remembered dimension of Chicago history, which I find interesting in retrospect. Our small Baptist church in Kendallville, IN, had a parade of ministers, who came through during the 20 years I was affiliated with it. Being democratic in structure, members took their voting rights seriously and hired and fired ministers according to the whim of the majority at the time.
One of the ministers whom they brought to our church in this never-ending parade was one Harry Clarke. Rev. Clarke was a white-maned, animated minister, the very best public speaker I had ever heard and a splendid musician. In fact, he even wrote songs, which he taught the congregation with enthusiasm and great verve. Rev. Clarke was, you see, in his final assignment before retiring with his wife, whose family was from my hometown, to their nearby Pretty Lake home. In the 1930s, Rev. Clarke had been on the staff of the Billy Sunday evangelistic team, and, when Homer Rodeheaver, the famed songwriter, resident soloist, and song leader for the Billy Sunday organization resigned in 1929, Rev. Clarke took his place.
It was Rev. Clarke who knelt beside Billy Sunday in Des Moines in 1933, when Sunday had his first heart attack as he preached “on the sawdust trail.” I heard the story a dozen times in 1953 and 1954, as Rev. Clarke, a vigorous and entertaining speaker himself, demonstrated how he knelt, cradled Mr. Sunday’s head on his lap, and spoke soothingly to him before the emergency crew arrived to take him to the hospital. In the fine biography, Billy Sunday Was his Real Name (1955), by William McLoughlin, Jr., Clarke tells how Sunday urged him to invite people to the altar because he thought he was dying and this was his final sermon. When Clarke took Sunday’s hand, Sunday assumed it was a seeker and whispered, “Thank God!” Sunday had a second heart attack in May 1935 and a fatal attack in Chicago on November 6, 1935. He is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery.
William Ashley “Billy” Sunday, you may remember, was the first of the great American evangelists of the modern era. He was the Billy Graham of his day. (See p.8.) Born in Iowa, he became a professional baseball player with the Chicago White Stockings in 1893. In his eight years as a professional player, he had a lifetime batting average of 317. In 1898, he batted 421. He was the best base runner in the Major League and could circle the bases in 14 seconds. He led all players in bases stolen during his playing years. He played for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, as well as Chicago.
But in 1896 at Chicago’s Pacific Garden Mission, he found greater meaning in life and left baseball — and his $400-a-month salary (the average American worker earned $400 a year then) — to become a preacher. During the next three decades, he preached, without a public address system, TV, or radio, to over 100 million people. His preaching introduced “evangelicalism” on a large scale to America. The music of his staff, led by the gifted Rodeheaver, introduced to America the gospel song, or chorus, which replaced the mainline, European-based hymn, in many churches. Rodeheaver popularized music in both theme and tune. The ideas became more personal, always evangelical, and the music became vigorous, simplified, and almost elementary. His music truly became music for the masses, and Billy Sunday, with spirited energy, preached to the emerging masses across America. Rodeheaver became the leading Gospel recording artist of his day. His music company, located at 218 S. Wabash and later at 440 S. Dearborn, made Chicago the Gospel music capital of America.
Harry Clarke, a Welshman of uncommon talent, continued as best he could, in our small church, the traditions of Billy Sunday. We teenagers loved his bravado, his humor, and his boundless gift with words, both spoken and sung. The older folks didn’t quite know what to make of this celebrity in our midst, then in the waning years of his career. Rev. Clarke was pastor of our church for just a couple of years before the endemic, fractious nature of the church body moved him on and brought along another in the ongoing parade. I hold this brief sketch of Harry Clarke as a cherished memory. It is one of my own “twice-told” tales or, more accurately, a part of my twice-lived life — ever more important as the years pass.
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