Every generation is tempted to romanticize the past. Especially as Christians, we can look at our own country drifting farther away from Christian roots and feel defeated. We hear stories like 52,000 Christian businessmen gathering in downtown Kansas City in 1923 and think the city was more Christian back then than today.
But was it? Did Christianity thrive 100 years ago more than today? Was the past better than the present?
The Businessmen’s Bible Class rose against a backdrop of crime and corruption as a call for men to surrender to God, a call that remains just as necessary today as it was back then.
A City Hungry for Peace
World War I ended in 1918, leaving a nation grieving the loss of thousands of soldiers. Citizens hungered for peace, yet the war’s end only left the country with more time to focus on its domestic problems. The 1920s were a tumultuous time for America. Historian Keith Eggener writes, “Americans faced political scandals, organized crime, and a resurgent Ku Klux Klan. They clashed over Prohibition, women’s rights, immigration, and evolution.”
Locally, Kansas City found itself embroiled in crime. Eggener continues, “Between 1920 and 1926, when the Missouri Crime Survey was published, Kansas City laid claim to one of the nation’s highest crime rates, its highest per capita murder rate, and one of its most corrupt and ineffective police forces.”
These statistics show that when the Bible Class of 1923 occurred, Kansas City was not a “Christian” city by a longshot. Mob rule had peaked, and crime and corruption flourished under the machine’s politics. No rose-colored glasses fit over this era.
A Summons to Peace
Pastor of First Baptist Church of Kansas City Dr. David Evans founded the Businessmen’s Bible Class in October 1921, a month before the groundbreaking ceremony of the Liberty Memorial. He recruited architect N.W. Dible to take over the class. Starting at 35 members, the class grew to 2,000 men in regular attendance. In 1923, they held their largest rally yet and gathered 52,121 men in downtown Kansas City. The mayor of Independence came, along with Missouri Governor Arthur Hyde. That morning, 75 buglers rode through the city sounding the call for the rally.
The rally was more than a simple gathering. It was a summon back to Christ. The rally’s attendees knew well the mob’s activity in their city. Every day, they felt the repercussions of rising crime and murder rates. They had witnessed World War I end five years earlier and they longed to live in a time of peace.
To these men, Dr. David Evans said in a speech that day, “Peace cannot come until the world commits itself to Jesus the Son of God and the Son of Man … Let the cross become a symbol of each individual man, in order that it make us strong men of peace.”
In the middle of a war-ravaged country and a crime-ridden city, businessmen gathered to lift up the cross of Jesus Christ and remind their fellow men that the only way to peace comes through following Christ, the Prince of Peace.
The same call still stands for us today. This year, a Forbes article ranked the top 15 most dangerous cities in the U.S.—and Kansas City rated as number 13. As we face our own issues—political divisions, wars around the world, and crime-ridden neighborhoods at home, Dr. Evans’ words ring just as true today as they did 100 years ago. We must bend our knees and cry out for peace in our city. Peace cannot come until the city commits itself to Jesus.
Bloom, Laura Begley. “Report Ranks America’s 15 Safest (And Most Dangerous) Cities For 2023,” Forbes, January 31, 2023.
Eggener, Keith. “Liberty Memorial: Remembering Then and Now,” Kansas City Public Library, accessed June 15, 2023.
High, Bill, and Annika Bergen. The Spiritual Roots of Kansas City: Discovering the Past to Shape Our Future, The Signatry, 2019.
Seeing the City Through God’s Eyes. Unpublished research by Jon Peterson.