One of my favorite aspects of writing a Dictionary of Christianese is that I get to learn so much about the history of the church, especially the relatively recent history of the past 100 to 200 years.
I particularly enjoy going back in time to the late 19th century and early 20th century, an age when it was part of the fabric of ordinary American life to go to a big-top tent revival on the outskirts of town or to crowd into a bustling city square to hear a traveling evangelist. Hitting the sawdust trail is part of that American religious narrative.
Now I want to hear from the readers. What are some other Christianese terms that sound quaint or old-fashioned to you?
sawdust trail n. See various senses.
1. An aisle to the front of a revival meeting; typically used in the idioms below.
• 1915 New York Times (11 Jan.) 11 : Eight torrents of men and women surged down the eight “sawdust trails” in the Billy Sunday Tabernacle and joined in a weeping, singing, and shouting crowd at the feet of the evangelist this afternoon and tonight.
¶ hit the sawdust trail v. phr. Also elliptically hit the trail (see second 1916 citation). To approach the front of a revival meeting at the evangelist’s invitation in order to become a Christian; hence, to become converted to Christianity.
A person who “hit the sawdust trail” was sometimes called a *sawdust-trail hitter or simply *trail hitter.
The expression hit the sawdust trail was coined and popularized by the evangelist Billy Sunday (1862–1935). For the origin of the expression, see citations for 1914 and 2002.
See also *glory road.
• 1911 The Advance 61/2380 (15 Jun.) 17 : There were 1,782 decisions for the Christian life in Piqua. At one meeting 55 men came forward without any personal solicitations, and at another 83 people hit the sawdust trail in the great tabernacle in the same way. 1912 The Motorman and Conductor 20/12 (Nov.) 29 : Members of Division 285 went to Liverpool Oct. 22 to hear Billy Sunday…. “Who hit the sawdust trail?” 1914 Ellis “Billy” Sunday: The Man and His Message 158,159 : Imagine a lumberman lost in the big woods. He has wandered, bewildered, for days. Death stares him in the face. Then, spent and affrighted, he comes to a trail. And the trail leads to life; it is the way home. There we have the origin of the expression “Hitting the sawdust trail,” used in Mr. Sunday’s meetings as a term similar to the older stereotyped phrases: “Going forward”; “Seeking the altar.” … Out in the Puget Sound country, where the sawdust aisles and the rough tabernacle made an especial appeal to woodsmen, the phrase “Hitting the sawdust trail” came into use in Mr. Sunday’s meetings…. The metaphor appealed to the American public, which relishes all that savors of our people’s most primitive life…. The person who rails at “hitting the trail” as an irreverent phrase has something to learn about the minds of Americans. Tens of thousands of persons have enshrined the homely phrase in the sanctuary of their deepest spiritual experience. 1915 The Unitarian Register 94/9 (4 Mar.) 196 : The big, wooden shanty called the Tabernacle … is filled twice daily, and at the close of each meeting, in answer to the revivalist’s call for converts … several hundred people “hit the sawdust trail” which means that they walk down the sawdust aisles and shake hands with the preacher and perhaps give their names to one of his helpers. 1916 The Sabbath Recorder 80/21 (May) 648 : Tuesday night they “hit the sawdust trail,” as they call it, and 169 went forward. The first to go was a man from Kentucky, who came all the way to Kansas City to hear [Billy] Sunday and get converted. He almost ran down the “sawdust trail” as Bunyan’s pilgrim may have run. 1916 The Literary Digest (8 Jul.) 92 : “How many will hit the trail?” shouted Mr. Sunday. “Hitting the sawdust trail” is applied in Sunday meetings to the walking by converts down the two main central aisles of the tabernacle—wide sawdust aisles—to the high platform, where Mr. Sunday shakes hands with the on-moving men and women. 1917 Technology Rev. XIX. : The booze fight was called off on account of the modesty of the contestants. Each one wished to yield the other the palm, both having recently hit the “Sunday Sawdust Trail.” 2002 Martin Hero of the Heartland: Billy Sunday 59 : “Hit the sawdust trail” … This term describing the response to Billy’s altar calls originated during his revival in Bellingham, Washington, and was derived from lumbermen’s practice of finding their way home out of dense forest by depositing a trail of sawdust.
2. Often uppercase: Sawdust Trail. [Extension of sense 1 above] The itinerary of a traveling evangelist. Typically used in the idiom hit the Sawdust Trail (see citations for 1918, 1955, and 2009), which means for an evangelist to go from place to place evangelizing.
• 1918 Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen Mag. 64/7 (1 Apr.) 3 : Even “Billy Sunday,” when he hit the sawdust trail in New York City, took a slam at them as being traitors and slackers. 1955 Johnson The Frontier Camp Meeting 253 : The revival impulse was carried on in the city gospel tabernacles of the evangelical churches and by the professional evangelists who hit the later “sawdust trail” in going from one summer tent service to another. 1967 Sann Fads, Follies, and Delusions of the Am. People 222 : Billy Sunday was still on that Sawdust Trail when the end came in Chicago on November 7, 1935, just a week ahead of his seventy-second birthday. He had seven seasons in the big leagues and forty on the Glory Road, and he died in peace. 1992 Lindvall The Good News from North Haven 160 : He is a retired clergyman who spent his working days as an evangelist on what was left of the old Sawdust Trail, the tent meeting preaching circuit that is the ancestor of television ministry. 2009 Finstuen Original Sin and Everyday Protestants 142 : For the rest of 1957, he convalesced at his home in Montreat, North Carolina. After this much needed rest, [Billy] Graham hit the sawdust trail with abandon once again. He began his 1958 crusading with a tour in the Caribbean, followed by a five-city swing through California and a stop in San Antonio.
sawdust-trail hitter n. Also elliptically *trail hitter. A person who converts to Christianity at a revival meeting.
• 1951 Wright Giant for God 51 : When they walked down these sawdust aisles to make a public confession of their faith in Christ, they were branded “sawdust trail hitters.”
trail hitter n. Elliptical for *sawdust-trail hitter.
• 2004 Dorsett Billy Sunday and the Redemption of Urban America 91 : In the 1908–1920 era … attendance and converts—so-called “trail hitters”—increased as well. The term “trail hitters,” or people who walked the “sawdust trail,” went back to the Sundays’ 1910 Bellingham, Washington, revival.