Flashback Friday: A Church for the People and a Priest for the Common Man: Charles. W. Savidge, Omaha’s Eccentric Reformer (1882-1935) – Paul Putz

The hum and bustle of reform seemed to be everywhere in Omaha in July of 1892. Economic instability and uncertainty hovered, foreshadowing the impending Panic of 1893. Midwesterners took aim at the perceived causes of their pecuniary distress with a gathering in Nebraska’s Gate City. Frustration with the inequalities produced by the Gilded Age had been combined in the 1880s with a number of agricultural grievances to produce a conglomeration of Western and rural reformers eventually known as the Populist movement. In the summer of 1892, the movement came of age as the Populists gathered in Omaha to give their movement a formal political platform and to select a candidate for their party. The new People’s Party approved the Omaha Platform on July 4, which included such demands as the free coinage of silver, a graduated income tax, and direct election of senators.

 

The winds of reform remained even after the Populists left town. A mere ten days later, another group of citizens claiming to represent the common people gathered in Omaha. Believing that the current establishment did not meet the needs of the masses, they formulated a mission statement and instituted a set of rules for their new movement. There was little doubt as to the eventual name of the organization. It would be named after the source of its energy and the reason for its existence, the people. On July 14, 1892, the First People’s Church of Omaha was formally incorporated. Although the new church and the new political party shared a common impulse for reform and claimed to speak for common folk, they had divergent ideas about how to best represent the people.

 

To Charles W. Savidge, the founder and leader of the First People’s Church of Omaha, the 1892 incorporation of his congregation inaugurated a new epoch in the religious life of the Midwest. Savidge spent over half a century in Omaha, most of it (from 1892 until his death in 1935) at the helm of the People’s Church. Upon his death, the Omaha World-Herald described Savidge as an “Omaha institution” whose “frock coat, black hat, stiff collar and black tie were a familiar sight in downtown Omaha.” His unique physical features combined with “his courtly manners, his vast store of homespun humor . . . and his frank utterances” to make him “a distinctive figure.” Yet despite his distinctiveness and reputation in Omaha and beyond as an eccentric preacher and reformer, very little about Savidge has been passed down in the narrative histories of Omaha or in the scholarly analysis of the radical holiness movement with which Savidge had at least a loose affiliation. It is within those two contexts—Omaha and the holiness movement—that Savidge’s importance and place in history can best be analyzed and assessed. The nineteenth century nationwide holiness movement—a collection of loosely affiliated, fervent evangelical Protestants who emphasized the importance of powerful post-conversion spiritual experiences that would enable believers to live a pure and holy life—informed the spiritual vocabulary and provided the impetus for Savidge to understand both his own personal religious experiences and his perceived duty to lead the way in helping others eliminate sin and establish holiness. The city of Omaha, meanwhile, provided the arena in which Savidge could carry out his duty. As he told a newspaper reporter in 1899, “the city is my parish.”

 

Even if his accomplishments hardly match his aspirations, there is historical insight to be gained from analyzing his aspirations in the first place and his attempts to make them a reality. On the one hand, they are a reflection of what Jackson Lears called a nationwide “yearning for regeneration” characteristic of the American cultural milieu in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. On the other hand, they are born out of Savidge’s unique experiences. Bringing Savidge’s career to light adds to recent historiography related to the evangelical reform impulse so prevalent in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, an impulse which recent historians have shown cannot be neatly divided into the “liberal/modernist” and “fundamentalist/reactionary” camps that became prominent in the 1920s. Although one of the few historians to investigate Savidge described him as a fundamentalist, Savidge does not exactly fit that label. The early fundamentalists were a collection of conservative evangelical Protestants who gained a national identity in the 1920s. They were militantly opposed to modernism and placed a very high value on having, in historian George Marsden’s words, “a strong concern for the exact meaning of the printed word.” Savidge, although he shared the fundamentalist desire to repel creeping liberalism, tended to be rather loose in his theological precision.

 

For example, Savidge claimed that “a living Christian is better than an acute theologian,” and he utilized a vast array of ideological influences in his sermons. Also, unlike the later fundamentalists of the 1920s, Savidge incorporated social welfare as an integral part of his ministry. Far from being a reactionary and separatist zealot, he proved to be a thoroughly modern innovator, a religious entrepreneur whose product was an idealized version of the old-time Methodism of America’s recent past applied in practical ways to the problems created by the emerging industrialized city of Omaha.

 

The entire essay appears in the Summer 2013 issue.

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