The Cowboy Evangelist

Artist's sketch of First Baptist Church, Westminster Ave., which was bujilt at the bakc of lot, now 432 Main St occupied until Fall, 1889

Artist’s sketch of First Baptist Church, Westminster Ave. It was built at the back of the lot (where the back lane is, just behind the lot occupied today by Propaganda Coffee (209 E. Pender St). This is the building (occupied until Fall, 1889) in which the Cowboy Evangelist would have preached. Courtesy: These Sixty Years: Being the Story of First Baptist Church, Vancouver BC. W. M. Carmichael. 1947. Artwork was by Reginald A. Blunden (d. 1953 at the age 53), a Vancouver commercial artist.

Rev. James B. Kennedy, the minister at First Baptist Church, invited self-styled Cowboy Evangelist, George W. Rasure, to preach at the evening service on Sunday, November 18, 1888.¹ He preached at FBC every evening for at least two weeks; perhaps as long as three weeks.

Kennedy became a big fan of Rasure and not only invited him to return to FBC’s pulpit on other occasions (in 1889), but he came to Rasure’s aid with publicly supportive comments when Rasure came under negative scrutiny in the press.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Backstory

Rasure was born in 1847 in Boone County, Kentucky and was raised in Louisville until he turned 14.² He joined the Union Army and fought in the U.S. Civil War. Following his discharge in 1866, he returned to Kentucky, where he was involved in a shooting incident with old army acquaintances. He was acquitted, however, as he’d acted in self-defence. He travelled to Texas where he became a herder on a ranch. He was promoted to ‘regular cowboy’ and spent the next 17 years of his life doing that. He was known throughout the area as being one of the wildest of cowboys.

In 1873, he went to Wyoming where he took charge of a cattle ranch. A band of outlaws headed by rogues known as ‘Parsimonious Bill’ and ‘Colorado Jack’ attacked the ranch and robbed him of nearly everything he owned. In 1883, he went to the home of his people who lived in Kansas. There, he was forced to sleep in a stable. 

He claimed he got became very ill in that stable and during that time became convicted of the wickedness of his past life.  He prayed that if God spared his life, he would dedicate his remaining years to His service. He shook off his illness and, true to his word, began to preach in the evenings.

He said goodbye to the cowboy life and real estate became his new day job. In the first year of buying and selling, he claimed he was worth $20,000 (which is roughly US$482,000, in 2017’s inflated money). And by 1887, according to the former-cowboy-now-realtor, he’d accumulated about $1 million of property in Wellington, Kansas.

The Many ‘Day Jobs’ of the Cowboy Evangelist

According to an interview Rasure gave to the Vancouver Daily World, he had come to B.C. to stay. Indeed, he planned to leave for Tacoma within days to pick up his boxes which had been sent there via the Northern Pacific Railroad (from Kansas, presumably).  “From what he has already seen of Vancouver and district, he has come to the conclusion to settle here, and is trying to buy out Tiffin’s Mill, at the head of the Inlet…” (VDW 25 October 1888)

Within two weeks of the interview, the World reported that Rasure had “just about completed” arrangements to purchase the lumber mill, which was located near Port Moody. It also reported that he had taken a house in the east end of Vancouver. (VDW 2 November 1888)

This plan to purchase the lumber mill seems to have come to naught. In a World column called “Port Moody Jottings”, just two years subsequent to the Rasure interview, no mention was made of him in connection with the mill (VDW 30 May 1890). And I could find no mention in any Vancouver city directory of Rasure having a residence in Vancouver. (He may well have owned or rented a home in the east end for a time, but it could be that his time in that residence was so brief as to not be included by directory staff).

By 1889, his attention seemed to shift from lumber in Port Moody to limestone in Yale (which is located about 240km east of Vancouver in the Fraser Valley). An April issue of the World reported that Rasure had “struck it rich” in a limestone quarry near Yale. “He is going into the burning business extensively.” (VDW 20 April 1889) It wasn’t long before the limestone business landed him in a spot of bother. There was a report in August that Rasure had been attacked by a knife-wielding employee in Yale, Michael Finnegan by name, who was distressed that Rasure hadn’t paid him back wages owing to him. Rasure was injured slightly in the incident. Finnegan was locked up and charged with assault. (VDW 17 August 1889)

By the end of 1889, Rasure started a ‘stable’ business in Vancouver located on Oppenheimer Street (now Cordova), between Carrall and Columbia. His ads for the business claimed “A fine lot of Carriage, Driving, and Saddle Horses” were available for sale. This business lasted less than 6 months. It was reported on March 5, 1890, that Rasure had been charged with violation of By-Law No. 97, which required him to have a license before engaging in business. (VDW 5 March 1890). There were no more ads for the stable business after March 1890. Presumably, Rasure decided that if he had to pay for a license and pay the fine for not getting one in the first place, that he couldn’t make an adequate profit.

Near the end of Rasure’s time in Vancouver, the World tartly commented that “Geo. W. Rasure, the renowned cowboy evangelist, was in the city to-day. His patriarchical hair is growing to such a degree that it is with difficulty that he was recognized.” (VDW 13 Aug 1891).

It surprises me that Rasure sought ‘day jobs’ in Vancouver in areas other than the one in which he had (by his own account) done so well, and which was a lucrative one for so many other men in Vancouver: real estate!

First Baptist Church

First Baptist had a longish period of admiration for Rasure. He spoke many times at FBC in 1888 and again in 1889.

In late 1888, a notice in the Detective indicated that Rasure was wanted in Kansas for embezzlement:

Fifty dollars reward – G W Rasure is wanted for embezzlement. Will pay the above reward for his arrest and detention. He is about 5 feet 11 inches tall, weight about 160 pounds, dark auburn hair, red face, full cheeks, sandy moustache, quick in action and a great talker. Is a member of the M. E. [Methodist Episcopal] church and of the order of Knights of Pythias. Preaches when he can. Operates under cloak of religion; is a great traveller, claims to be wealthy, loves fast horses and fast women, gambles. He is known as a reformed cowboy.

Cy Brookover,
Sherriff, Greenwood County, Kansas³

This notice is not a shining example of objectivity. There is plenty of loaded language, including: “the cloak of religion” and “loves fast horses and fast women.”

Rasure denied publicly that he had embezzled anything. And Rev. J. B. Kennedy came to his defence. He stated, after a long meeting with Rasure and others that “he himself is convinced of Mr. Rasure’s innocence of the charge, and that his pulpit is still open to him.” It isn’t clear to me what was the outcome of the suit. (VDW 17 December 1888)

Whether he was invited to preach at First Baptist after J. B. Kennedy had moved on to another church in January 1890, isn’t clear. But it seems doubtful to me. In September 1889, the congregation had moved out of the wee chapel off Main Street just south of Hastings, and into their much more commodious structure at the corner of Hamilton and Dunsmuir. Kennedy had been the principal advocate for the Cowboy Evangelist, by all accounts.  With the move into the newer, larger, and more orthodox-looking ecclesiastical structure, I’d argue that FBC had moved on from its rustic, pioneer beginnings and had outgrown the charms of the vernacular preacher.

Another Stage and Final Curtain

The last report pertaining to the cowboy evangelist in the Vancouver Daily World was in November 1891: “G. W. Rasure, the renowned cowboy evangelist, whose antics while in this city were somewhat erratic, has developed another stage. He crossed the Atlantic last month to Liverpool with a woman he stated here [in Vancouver, presumably] was his sister, but whom in England he passed off as his wife, giving their names as Mr. and Mrs. Kenwick.” (VDW 23 November 1891). What exactly this was all about, and what source the World had for this mildly outrageous claim, I don’t know.

His wife in 1891 seems to have been Joanna Pierson (m. 1884). There were two previous marriages: to Helena Ehlester (m. 1863) and Merilda McReynolds (m. 1877).

There was a notice placed, I assume, by Joanna Rasure in The People’s Voice, a newspaper of Wellington, Kansas, stating that she was tying to locate an insurance policy which Rasure was supposed to have held at the time of his death in Los Angeles, California. According to this article, he died in L.A. in 1896. There is no other more official record that I could find of Rasure’s death. (TPV, 16 November 1899)

George Rasure was, without a doubt, a colourful figure around whom no little controversy swirled. The Vancouver Daily World seems to have taken a view of his time in the city as being worthy of a cocked eyebrow.

Kansas newspapers, however, were less charitable. The Anthony (Kansas) Republican described him as being someone who “preached and prayed while he kept one eye open for business.” They summed up his character as being an “oleageneous aggregation of hypocrisy” (The Topeka State Journal, 27 January 1890).


 

Notes

¹Rasure was neither the first nor the last person to describe himself as a “cowboy evangelist”. Among others who were contemporaries of Rasure were Sam Jones, S. W. Wesley (a Baptist who claimed to be a direct descendant of John Wesley, a founder of Methodism), and “Lampasas Jake”. An excerpt from a sermon by Jake which appeared in the Baltimore Sun on April 6, 1886, gives some idea of the flavour of his ‘vernacular preaching’ style: “How many of you’s ready to die with your boots on? Where’d you be to breakfast? Don’t any of you drunken, swearing, fighting, blaspheming, gambling, thieving, tin-horn, coffin-paint,  exterminating galoots look at me ugly, because I know ye. I’ve been through the drive. You’re all in your sins. You know a fat, well-fed, well-cared-for, thoroughly-branded steer when you see one, and you can tell whose it is and where it belongs. There’s a man that owns it. There is a place for it to go. There’s a law to protect it. But the maverick — who’s is that? You’re all mavericks and worse. The maverick has no brand on him. He goes bellering about until somebody takes him in and clasps the branding iron on him. But you whelps,  you’ve got the devil’s brand on you. You’ve got his lariat about you. He lets you have rope now, but he’ll haul you in when he wants firewood.” (Baltimore Sun 6 April 1886).

Lampasas Jake’s style reminds me of the fictional “Rev. Little Ed Pembrooke” of the Church of the Mighty Struggle, made famous on WKRP in Cincinnati (got to the 8 min. mark for  the intro of Little Ed).

There have been more contemporary fellows who have described themselves as cowboy evangelists, including Lou Eilers (“Cowboy Evangelist; Trick Rope Artist; Plays the smallest mouth organ in the world.Guitar expert”) in the 1950s, Andy Stan (“Famous Cowboy Evangelist; Radio Singer and Guitarist”) in the 1960s, and Jack Jackson (“Singing Cowboy Evangelist”) in the 1990s.

²Many of the details in this section came from an interview given by Rasure to the Vancouver Daily World (VDW 25 October 1888).

³Genealogy Trails. See heading: “Rasure Wanted for Embezzlement”. Note: Although this is cited in Genealogy Trails as being in an issue of Detective published in early 1889, it seems that it was first published in a late 1888 issue. 

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