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Friday, June 8, 2012

The Accidental Ethnographer (3b)—The Great Melbourne Revival II

One year ago on Round and Square (8 June 2011)—Seinfeld Ethnography: The Bootleg
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "The Accidental Ethnographer." (Coming Soon)
Click below for other posts from "The Great Melbourne Revival":
Revival 1              Revival 2              Revival 3              Revival 4
[a] 2012 RF
I gave a lecture at the Doylestown Historical Society on June 1st, as part of Doylestown, Pennsylvania's big bicentennial celebration. The subject was the American explorer and evangelist William Edgar Geil (1865-1925). This is part of a larger project that I am working on this summer in Doylestown with the help of Beloit College anthropology major Megan Nyquist '14. As I did a few weeks ago in preparation for another lecture (on another subject), I am posting some of Geil's own writings. This was enormously helpful to me the last time I tried it, and I think it is worth another try. I will, over the course of my summer research, post my lecture and some of the early results of the research Megan and I are doing. In the meantime, though, I want to start the "Accidental Ethnographer" series with William Geil's own words. I will post two or three readings from each of Geil's dozen books over the course of May and June.

William Edgar Geil was a world famous figure in his day, and the reasons he has been lost to history (from his death until now) are as interesting as the underpinnings of his fame. Here is a very brief overview. In a day before anthropology or Chinese (or African or Micronesian) studies had a toehold in world universities, William Edgar Geil traveled the world, took extensive notes, returned to Doylestown, and wrote books. Depending on how you count them, he wrote almost a dozen—many of them thick and substantial in ways that a turn of the (last) century reader would understand, even if many people today would not. He traveled across central Africa in the first decade of the twentieth century, spent a year in Australia and New Guinea, and then found an abiding love for the study of China (which is where I "met" him, in a manner of speaking). He traveled the length of the Great Wall, journeyed the Yangzi River from Shanghai into southeast Asia, visited all of China's provincial capitals, and is the only Westerner to have written a book about his travels to all five sacred mountains of China.

[b] Famous RF
He wrote about it all, and he took pictures. The former is not without problem; the latter is easily his legacy. It is all a fascinating picture of an American abroad in a peculiarly resonant time in American history—from the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 to the end of World War I. This series will grow as my research does, but let's get started with Geil's own words—a little from each of his published books.
 ***  ***
We continue the breathless account written by J.A. Packer today. These snippets are part of William Edgar Geil's 1902 book Ocean and Isle, and constitute the last tenth or so of the volume. They are especially interesting for the Geil-less reader (sorry), because they give a picture of how he was viewed by some members of his audiences. I will post the vast bulk of two accounts about Geil written by journalists who saw him speak. To be sure, they are filled with praise, but they address many aspects of Geil's speaking abilities, careerism, and budding interest in world travel.

Ocean and Isle—The Great Melbourne Revival II
William Edgar Geil (1902) 
But the pathetic and the serious came just as natural to Mr. Geil as the humorous. He was himself whichever role he essayed. Picture was never more delicately or lovingly painted than the Somersetshire story of "Laddie." Mr. Geil gave the narrative first at the meeting of business women and girls, and the audience was moved to heartfelt sobs. Later he repeated it at the business men's gathering, when strong men were completely broken up and cried like children. Newspaper men are generally credited with being callous beyond most, and proof against all the emotions of heart and soul; but I heard one reporter say that he had never heard anything which appealed to him as did Mr. Geil's narration of "Laddie" at the women's meeting. 

[c] Presence RF
When, however, the evangelist began to tell the story a second time to the business men, it was too much for the reporter, and he would have given anything he said to get out, only he could not for the press of people near the doors. Nobody will every forget the sacredness of the hour or the holy uplifting which came to the vast audience of men in the Town Hall as on another occasion Mr. Geil gave a vivid outline, with some tenderly filled-in details, of the life, death, and burial of George Muller, the British philanthropist. Men spoke in hushed accents as they separated. They had been led into the very presence of God, and had looked upon His face. It was an experience to be hidden, like Mary's, in the heart, for sacred reflection and as a source of secret spiritual strength in the days to come.

The "Victorian Churchman" declared Mr. Geil to be possessed of "rare platform gifts—a man of great energy." Dr. H. Grattan Guinness, of Harley College, London, and director of the Region Beyond Mission in Central Africa, summed the character and worth of Mr. Geil in the following appreciative sentences, after being brought into close contact with him during the Sydney mission:—"Mr. Geil is a remarkable man. He has been deputed to spend four years in visiting the missionary world, and forming his own independent opinion concerning the value, not alone of the work, but of the apparently malevolent criticisms that have been frequently raised. He has been six months in the South Seas, and has already managed to expose the source and worthlessness of a great number of such criticisms. 

He is just leaving in a few days for New Guinea, Borneo, and Formosa. He will travel through China, and visit practically the whole missionary world, with the exception of south America. He is hoping to cross Africa, entering at Mombasa, investigating the work at Uganda, crossing Stanley's forest, and visiting the Congo. Is is not a matter of intense gratitude that such a journey should be taken for such purposes? This gentleman will become the greatest missionary observer in the world, and I think, as far as i can judge, he is likely to help on missions immensely. He is likely, I believe, to favorably impress those with whom he comes into contact concerning the value of all honest, spiritual, devoted work.
[d] Gathering RF
Nothing was more remarkable in connection with the great Melbourne mission than the midday and afternoon gatherings in the town hall. The attendances were phenomenal. From the very outset, when Mr. Geil stepped on to the platform to conduct the first of the series of business men's noontide services, the hall was not able to contain the people who desired to hear him. The experience was absolutely unique in the religious life, not only of Victoria, but of Australia. The fact of 3,000 people, the majority being business men, finding time to attend a religious service in the middle of the day, and every day for a month, in the heart of the city, was of itself a phenomenon, and showed how wide and deep as the interest aroused by the mission. 

On the afternoon of Eight Hours Day, between 6,000 and 7,000 people eschewed the secular attractions of the holiday, and rushed the town hall. No provision had been made for an overflow meeting, and many left disappointed, after vainly battling to get in. Subsequently, hurried arrangements were made for an overflow service in the Collins Street Independent Church, which was packed. Inside the town hall the unparalleled sight was witnessed of 3,000 people, most of them with Bibles, taking a novel lesson from Mr. Geil in Bible study. Most of them had attended the previous meeting. Fearing to leave their seats to go out for lunch, lest they might lose them, as they assuredly would have done, they produced frugal meals from bags and pockets and ate them in the hall.

[e] Double-barrelled RF
Mr. Geil's stock-in-trade for this Bible study was a blackboard and three sets of envelopes. The envelopes were distributed to everybody in the hall. Each set contained three kinds (black, red, and yellow) of tiny gummed paper tags, which Mr. Geil called "spots." The black were intended to represent "sin," the red "the way out of sin," and the yellow "prayers." A series of texts under the three headings were read in turn. Each text was to be marked in a peculiar way, as shown on the blackboard, and the black, red, or yellow tag stuck on to the leaf of the Bible, and allowed to protrude, so that the finger could easily be placed on it after the book should be closed. Every text as it was announced was read aloud by the whole audience, and each time Mr. Geil would shout out his instructions after this fashion:—"Double it this way (holding up the tag); stick your tongue in it; place it on the leaf  and give it a good squeeze, letting it protrude about 1-16th of an inch." After closing the town hall meeting Mr. Geil went to the large church, which was packed, and repeated the service.

After the second week, so increasingly large were the attendances at the business people's meetings that Mr. Geil decided to make it a double-barrelled service. From 12 to 12.45, therefore, the gathering was limited to business women and factory girls; and from 1 to 1.45 to business men. Some 3,000 people attended each of these meetings daily. Employers responded to the request of the mission committee, that they would so arrange the lunch hour as to allow their female employees to attend the 12 o'clock meeting. Mr. Geil announced on the second day that one firm of jam manufacturers had arranged to close their factory from 12 to 2 each day to enable their girls to be present at the noon meeting, and the men and boys at the 1 o'clock gathering, and that they had further provided omnibuses to take them to the hall and back to the factory. (Applause.) 

There could be no doubt that Mr. Geil thoroughly aroused and interested these large and unique Melbourne audiences. "You told us yesterday," said one man, as he held up his hand to the evangelist from the floor of the hall, "that when we met a man we were to shake hands with him." In the street men were to be heard saluting him with "God bless you." Men who made no profession of religion were taken with the man's unconventionality, his smart sayings, his wonderful budget of "yarns," and not less with his earnestness, and in many cases they not only went to laugh, but remained, as penitents, to pray.

Click below for other posts from "The Great Melbourne Revival":
Revival 1              Revival 2              Revival 3              Revival 4
[1] William Edgar Geil, Ocean and Isle (Melbourne: Wm. T. Pater & Company, 1902), 269-273.

Geil, William Edgar. Ocean and Isle. Melbourne: Wm. T. Pater & Company, 1902.
[f] Salute RF

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