Despite concerns about pulpit freedom, almost no one has ever faced criminal prosecution for something said from the pulpit. The late Dean M. Kelley, who spent 30 years working on religious liberty issues for the National Council of Churches, could think of only one exception: James L. Delk.
Delk, it would seem, is the exception that proves the rule. He was arrested in Kentucky in 1914. A Pentecostal or “Holy Roller,” in the language of newspapers at the time, he was holding a summer tent revival in the town of Science Hill. He was preaching against sin and telling Kentuckians they needed Jesus to free them from their bondage.
He was arrested and put in jail with charges of obscenity, indecency and disrupting the peace.
There wasn’t a lot of information about the charges, initially, and some Kentucky newspapers got a bit carried away making up accounts about the preacher’s breach of the peace.
For example, one paper in Richmond, about 50 miles north of Science Hill, reported that Delk had been angered because some of the fashionable women in town weren’t taking his sermons seriously. There was a woman in attendance who had “a pink-nosed poodle snuggled in her arms,” and Delk lost his temper.
The rumor was false.
Another paper, from Hartford, about 160 miles to the west, came up with a wilder version. The paper reported that the revivalist got into a fight with some performers from a carnival. The carnival had an exotic dancing exhibit, according to the paper, in a tent set up opposite Delk’s revival tent. As people gathered to hear Delk preach, the “ballyhoo” or “barker” called to them to tell them he had better entertainment on offer in the dancing tent.
“Drop a thin dime,” he shouted, “and see the wonders of Egypt!”
Delk, in the fanciful account, preached loudly against the carnival and the dancers, warning the Kentuckians of the evils of lust and the consequences of sin. He apparently got quite colorful in his condemnations, until the dancer herself decided she’d had enough.
The dancer — whom the paper called Cleopatra — walked across the street to the revival tent, went “down the saw dust trail” like any sinner seeking God’s forgiving embrace, and smacked Delk in the head with an umbrella.
She hit him right in the “clergical cranium,” in the purple prose of the paper, and thus the peace was breached.
That account wasn’t true either.
Read the full story at the Washington Post.