Indy’s Great Awakening

The year was 1921. The place was downtown Indianapolis. The largest building of its kind at that time in the U.S., a religious center, had just been dedicated. Known as the Cadle Tabernacle, it could seat 10,000 guests along with a choir of 1,500. British evangelist Rodney “Gypsy” Smith preached the dedication service to a capacity crowd, while another 10,000 people were turned away.  Smith had, that same year, led a month-long revival meeting in the Circle City with 140 churches participating, which was estimated to be half of the city’s churches, the majority of which were Methodists.  There were 15,000 professions of faith recorded before Smith’s meeting concluded, and when he later returned to preach the dedication of the Tabernacle, one of the city’s leaders said it “has been a Great Awakening,” and “our city can never be the same again.”

From a human vantage point, the driving force behind what I have just recapped was an enigmatic figure, E. Howard Cadle, born to a praying Christian mother and an alcoholic father in a log cabin in Fredericksburg, Indiana, in 1884.  When Cadle was as young as twelve he took on his father’s wanton ways and continued in them, drinking and gambling with friends who were not a good influence, until, sick with Bright’s disease and pretty much “busted” financially and physically, he ended up back home on his parents farm in Fredericksburg in 1914 where, after much prayer and Bible reading by himself and with his mother of faith, he had what he considered a conversion experience that he later described as “All the beauty of heaven seemed to burst into the windows. The old, dead apple tree seemed to be in full bloom and I could hear the rustle of wings of angels of mercy. My sins were washed away!”

Cadle was a man of contradictions with a powerful personality–an entrepreneur par excellence, a salesman that could, as one friend said, talk you out of a pair of shoes that you were wearing if he wanted them, and a business man with an uncanny sense of timing coupled with a gargantuan vision. Through business exploits leading up to the early 1920’s Cadle became quite wealthy, building a chain of twenty or so shoe repair shops across several communities, and all the while speaking at church gatherings of his conversion experience.  Having built a 1,200-seat tabernacle in Louisville in 1920, Cadle moved his dream to downtown Indy in 1921 and built the worship center that would stand until wrecking crews would bring their bull-dozers onto its demolition site in 1968. 

Strangely, though, Cadle was not in control of the Tabernacle many of those intervening years. In fact, two years after the gala dedicatory service in 1921, he lost control of it and moved to Florida, resuming business ventures successfully (real estate) until coming back in the mid-thirties to revive the preaching center (thanks to the help of a local bank which then held the mortgage) and his evangelistic ministry. 

Unique about Cadle’s ministry at that point was his use of the air waves as a medium to get out his message.  Cincinnati’s WLW had a 500,000-watt signal in 1933 and the government estimated that WLW could be clearly heard by two-thirds of the then 90 million people who lived in the United States.  Cadle broadcast a daily fifteen-minute program over this powerful outlet at 6:00 a.m. each weekday, and in the many rural communities in southern Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee, when farmers were doing chores and eating breakfast, his program was a staple. In time, Cadle would place Crosby transistor radios, set on the WLW station, in pastor-less churches in these rural areas, and church folk would gather, if the roads were not muddy on Sunday, to hear the Cadle Tabernacle preacher, whether Cadle himself or another one of his many guest speakers. It was for its time a phenomenal strategy that made the Cadle name a household word and built a ministry that made the visionary a wealthy man. Hundreds of letters poured into the Tabernacle mailbox weekly from people in the “hinterlands” who listened religiously to the daily and Sunday broadcasts, attended the one-night rallies that he would have his son, Buford, fly him to on the plane bought for that purpose, and considered him their spiritual leader.

After Cadle’s passing in 1942, at the age of 58, the ministry fell onto hard times.  People were moving from the downtown to suburbs.  Cadle’s wife, Ola, continued to supervise the ministry and various pastors would try to keep it afloat. But in time, the once majestic building that teemed with spiritual fervor became abandoned until its final day of demolition in 1968.  The ministry did go on for a while but eventually, ending up in a small office on the north side, it ceased.

So, Indianapolis had experienced during the 20’s, the depression years, and into the ensuring two or three decades the unique impact of a compelling gospel witness, led by a “free-lance” evangelist who was skilled in communicative endeavors and gifted with a personality that was magnetic. But, alas, the city that “would never be the same again” became, in time, much the same again. Indianapolis, Indiana, with its rich heritage, has “backslidden” into a city full of crime, gambling that has been legalized, daily homicides and, like most large cities, a metropolis plagued with drugs.  This is not to say Indy does not have its appeal; conventions consider it an ideal place for their large gatherings, and it is known as the amateur sports capital of the world.

But the Cadle days, for better or worse, would not last.  Only He who judges the worth and works of those who labor in His name knows what the ministry accomplished.  From this pastor’s point of view, its eventual demise was built into its foundational structure.  God’s method has from the inception been administered in this church age by and through the local church.  Interestingly, when Cadle began conducting great Sunday afternoon meetings in the Tabernacle, churches begged him not to because of their concern that his meetings would infringe upon their local church ministries.

Indianapolis, in the decades following Cadle’s influence, was a place like many other Midwestern cities, ripe for post-war evangelism. Scores of independent Baptist churches were started, many of which still thrive today.  One national fellowship of Baptists had a goal in 1958 to start 408 local churches. Someone estimated that there are, or at one time were, 100 independent Baptist churches in the greater Indianapolis area.  Does Cadle’s impact live on today?  God is the judge.  But, one thing is certain: There is now today a need, a desperate need, not only in Indy but in America, for another “Great Awakening.”

Hold fast the form of sound words which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim. 1:13)

(Note: This post was written from information in an award-winning article written by my son, Theodore, published in TRACES, winter of 2005, by the Indiana Historical Society.  Ted is a free-lance writer, and at the time the article on Cadle appeared he was pursuing a doctorate in history at Yale University. He received a master’s degree in history from Indiana University and wrote his M.A. thesis about the Tabernacle. For further reading on this subject, see his article at https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p16797coll39/id/1253

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