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Reverend Braxton Sawyer: The crusading anti-nudist of Arkansas
Revisiting the days when nudism fought for its life at the “Battle of Battle Creek”
Picking himself up from the dirt, his crumpled hat in one hand and a movie camera in the other, the Reverend Braxton Sawyer turned and looked back at the nudists who’d blocked his mad-dash attempt to invade the Sunshine Gardens resort. On the other side of the gates, the conventions of the American Sunbathing Association and the Midwest Sunbathing Association were underway.
Having built a reputation as a crusading radio preacher on a mission to eradicate sinful nakedness from America, Sawyer had traveled from Arkansas, determined to get inside and capture on film all the debauchery he alleged was going on at this rural retreat in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Now here he was, on his knees out on Sunshine Lane, with newspaper reporters snapping photos of his humiliation and taking note of his threats. If he’d only take off his clothes and promised to ask permission before taking photographs of people, the ASA said they’d let him in.But for an evangelist who made his living off the generous contributions of faithful listeners of his radio moralizing, confrontation was the only acceptable avenue.
One young woman from the convention came out with a first aid kit and helped Sawyer bandage his scratched knee. He peered into her eyes, but instead of “Thank you,” only an insult escaped his lips: “You look like a nice girl, but you’re rotten clear through.”
He then faced again the men who’d stood in the way of his appointment with destiny and prepared to pass judgement on them. They stood with arms crossed, staring down at him. Getting back to his feet, the reverend called for divine intervention and threatened to spar with the nudists “two at a time in a dirty fist fight.” Wishing he had the jawbone of an ass at hand, Sawyer declared: “Samson whipped the Philistines, and I can whip a pack of fools!”
Whether it was because his prayers for help went unheard in Heaven or Sawyer simply realized the media had gotten enough unflattering pictures of him, Armageddon was paused that day. The “Battle of Battle Creek” was over, for now. Sawyer returned to his car, sped back to his motel broadcasting outpost, picked up his microphone, and went on raving about mothers “openly nursing their children” at the ASA convention and the “lewd orgies” which he swore were in progress.
In an editorial on the events of the day, the Long Beach Press Telegram said that although Sawyer “had the righteous indignation of the Lord under his wings, he made a crash landing outside the gates of sunshine, health, and happiness.” Emblematic of national press coverage that was far more sympathetic with the nude recreationists than their attacker, the editors opined:
“From the days of nudism in the Garden of Eden, man has understood that evil lies only in the eyes of him who beholds it. Applied to nudism, this truth raises the question of whether the well-clothed intruder in these modern Edens or the well-peeled residents therein have eaten of the apple.”
The Detroit Free Press was more direct: “We are a bit tired of people—crusaders, evangelists, or otherwise—constantly seeking publicity for themselves via nudist camps.”
It all went down on August 4, 1954, about a half-hour east of Kalamazoo. While this might have been the most dramatic and embarrassing scene in Sawyer’s anti-nudist career, it was but one episode in a years-long drama that eventually resulted in passage of the nation’s only law explicitly outlawing nudism as an idea—a piece of legislation which is still on the books to this day.
Braxton Bragg Sawyer was born in 1911 in rural Cullman County, Alabama, the oldest of seven children. He carried the name of Confederate General Braxton Bragg, known for a poor temper and combative personality—other things Braxton Sawyer inherited from his namesake.According to a short, flattering puff piece published in 1951, after a childhood spent on the farm, young Braxton moved to Jonesboro, Arkansas, where on June 23, 1933, the Lord took hold of his heart.
Within a few weeks, it was said, “he surrendered to preach.” He then enrolled at the Baptist College in Sheridan, Arkansas, where he attended classes five days a week to complete his high school diploma. He rented a garage apartment and “batched”—bachelored—doing his own cooking and laundry. He worked in a store on Saturdays and spread the Good Word in rural churches on Sundays.
By the fall of 1934, he was a freshman at the Jonesboro Baptist College, renting out a basement room and, again, readers were informed, he “batched.” The next year, he transferred to the Arkansas State College, but quickly switched back to a religious school, the Ouachita Baptist College. Bumping around from church to church doing part-time, low-paying preaching from Arkansas to Kentucky—at one point he said he had only $16 in his pocket—eventually the newly-christened Reverend Dr. Braxton B. Sawyer got his first full-time pastorates, first in Virginia and then Kentucky.
After that, he landed in Fort Smith, Arkansas, the city that would be his home base from that point onward. On May 1, 1948, he was appointed pastor of the Immanuel Baptist Church.Barely in town a month, Sawyer pulled off a publicity stunt which not only got him known around Fort Smith but also put his picture in newspapers for the first time.
He asked each member of his congregation to write him a letter every single day for 30 days listing the name and address of an individual who might be recruited to join the flock at an upcoming revival meeting. They were instructed to hold onto the letters for the month and then mail them all simultaneously.
Conveniently, press photographers were on hand the day that a postal worker carried in bag after bag of letters to the church office. Dr. Sawyer received well over a thousand names, a literal outpouring of the personal details of souls that needed saving. Thanks to the Associated Press distributing the story nationally, he was now known beyond just the ranks of the Arkansas Baptist Association.
Like a novice actor who’d just discovered the thrill of the stage, Sawyer was soon compelled to set his sights higher than the sanctuary of Immanuel Baptist Church. After barely three years on the job, Sawyer resigned his pastorate and founded “Radio Pulpit,” an over-the-airwaves ministry that within a short time was being broadcast five days a week into homes and cars across the region.
The first transmission on the KWHN network was in September 1951; by December, praise for the program was supposedly pouring in from thousands of “shut-ins, housewives, the unsaved, children, other preachers, and colored people” who’d heard Sawyer’s voice on their radio. Eight Fort Smith businesses were apparently so touched by Sawyer’s work that they banded together to fund a full-page promotional ad in the local paper, the Southwest American.
Supporters were reminded that “an account…has been opened in the City National Bank” where they could make contributions to this “great missionary enterprise.” If the Lord opened their heart through Radio Pulpit, they were encouraged to open their wallets. Reverend Sawyer, readers were told, “had faith in God and faith in you.”
The cash was trickling in, but more was needed to sustain the mission and grow Radio Pulpit’s reach. Setting a model for the televangelists that would follow in his footsteps years later, Sawyer looked for a new schtick to keep audiences interested after the initial splash he’d made in Arkansas. He needed something to set his ministry apart, something to take it national. What he needed was an enemy.
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Launching a holy war
Stepping inside an Oklahoma City bookstore one day in 1953, Sawyer found exactly what he was looking for. A humor columnist for Harper’s magazine told the tale:
“That bulky figure you see, leafing through the sunbathing magazines, is not a nudist or even a coddler of nudists. That, children, is the Reverend Braxton B. Sawyer, president of Radio Pulpit…. He is not reading those magazines deliberately; he is simply browsing. He is in fact deeply shocked by what he has found.”
By Sawyer’s own account, he came upon a group of teenagers giggling as they ogled bare bodies in the magazines on offer at the downtown newsstand. “Nudists!” he exclaimed in an interview with Time. “I had preached for 20 years without ever using the word nudist.”He hurried back to Fort Smith and set about rousing the ire of his loyal listeners, prodding them to join him in a crusade against the naked menace. To guarantee he’d sufficiently alerted them to the danger, he played over the air a supposed “confession of a 13-year-old nudist girl.”
The first shots in his new war were fired against a hometown target, Preston Dunn, a member of The Ozarkansans, a small, discreet nudist club in Fort Smith. Hearing Sawyer’s condemnations on Radio Pulpit and believing him wrong but well-intentioned, Dunn made the mistake of writing to the reverend in hopes of enlightening him as to the benign nature of nudism.Whether out of naivety or otherwise, he provided Sawyer the perfect gift. Armed with Dunn’s name and address, he went on the warpath, demanding that local authorities keep the man’s children from mingling with “decent” children in the local school.
When Edith Church—secretary-treasurer of the National Nudist Council (NNC) and close associate of famed nudist leader Ilsley Boone—heard of the situation, she rushed to Arkansas, only to find Preston Dunn had been hospitalized from the stress of Sawyer’s attacks. His mother, Linnie Dunn, also an Ozarkansans member, had now become the subject of Sawyer’s fury. Giddy that a “big shot nudist woman” like Edith Church had come to do battle with him, Sawyer warned the NNC leader not to “dare show her evil face.” He arranged for a mass meeting in a local church, where he promised to “expose the evils of nudism with real live tape recordings.”
Church decided to slip into the audience that evening to find out what Sawyer planned to reveal. From the pulpit, he ranted about how nudism was akin to the devil, who had disguised himself as a snake to corrupt Adam and Eve. He declared, “We must bash the devil’s brains out with a club!” Then, when he spotted Edith sitting in a pew, he calmly announced, “The devil now comes into our midst in the disguise of a woman.” He then extended a finger toward Edith from his outstretched hand and thundered, “She DARES to come into the House of God! There she is, that woman in the red hat!”
Edith Church rose to her feet, prompting screams from Sawyer that she not be allowed to speak. She stood there trembling, faced the scowling audience, and then, unable to utter a word, sat back down. At the first chance, when the crowd was distracted with “soul savin’” down at the altar, she slipped out the back door. Reaching her car, she “sat there and shook and cried for awhile.”Asked later what had gone through her mind that night, Church responded, “I did not expect to escape with my life.”
Next, in February 1954, Sawyer took his show on the road, targeting a supposed nudist operation in the small Oklahoma town of Binger, population 840. Apparently, Sawyer had seen a directory of nudist clubs in the back of one of the magazines he’d picked up at that Oklahoma City bookstore. There, he found a P.O. box number in Binger.
At a rally of one thousand devotees in Pryor, Oklahoma, he denounced the “bootleg sunbathers” in Binger.At his side was State Rep. G.A. Sampsel, who declared his readiness to file legislation against nudism. To great acclaim, the meeting adopted a resolution:
“Whereas, Dr. Braxton B. Sawyer has presented to us unquestionable evidence that nudism does exist in Oklahoma…be it resolved that this body call upon every citizen of Oklahoma to join Dr. Sawyer in his campaign….”
The next week, in the small town of Stigler, addressing a rally outside the Haskell County Courthouse, Sawyer promised “this movement against nudists will spread across this great land of ours.” He pledged to embark on a grand effort to outlaw nudism, with Oklahoma but the first prize in a multi-state campaign. He appealed to those tuning in to Radio Pulpit to make “a little increase in their offerings” to help fund the legislative assault. He said at least $2,000 was needed right away.
Imitating Sen. Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare tactics, Sawyer held up a stack of paper in Stigler and dramatically announced that he possessed the names of “seven families who are members of the Binger colony.” He then set off for Binger himself, saying he had ascertained the exact location of the alleged nudist camp. But the preacher’s mouth was beginning to outrun the facts.
The following day, 600 people congregated in the Binger town square to greet the reverend and accompany him on his raid. He took to the stage, repeated his same charges in a rousing speech, but then, unexpectedly, stepped down without having implicated a single person in the supposed nudist ring. Confused townspeople looked at one another, wondering whether they’d been duped.
Local hardware store owner Bruce West told the Daily Oklahoman newspaper, “We were ready for him… We took down everything he said, but he crawfished. He didn’t name a name.” West said he only got mad “about once every forty years,” but that Sawyer had made him angry. “We’ve heard it on the radio and seen it in the papers until we’re sick of it,” he told reporters. “He can either prove there’s a nudist colony here or shut up.”
Another rally the next day in Anadarko, Oklahoma, brought out well over a thousand. Again, no names were given, no nudist headquarters was revealed. Disappointed locals started to lose patience. Car horns were blown, and shouts were heard: “Tell us who they are!” Pressed by reporters, Sawyer hemmed-and-hawed, saying he’d been advised by lawyers not to reveal the identities of the seven naked families of Binger. Cornered and unable to deliver on his promise, Sawyer stammered, saying, “I won’t let them center my whole work on Binger…. I’m fighting nudism all over the country!”
Deflecting from the failure in Binger, Sawyer pivoted back to his fight with the NNC. Robert Sheppard, a director of the organization, told the press that if Sawyer wanted a fight with nudists, “he’ll get one.”The preacher excitedly responded, “That’s exactly what I’m looking for!” He challenged the sunbathing Sheppard to “come to Fort Smith” for a debate on his show. The two apparently never sparred on air, but via duelling newspaper quotes, they had a few go-arounds on nudity and the Bible.
The nudist leader said that if Sawyer actually read the Good Book, “he would find that God never created any part of the human body we should be ashamed of.” Sawyer retorted that nudists were heathens and asserted, “With the coming of sin, God clothed man,” referring to the Garden of Eden.
By now, Sawyer’s ministry and his self-appointment as the foremost Christian authority on nudism was beginning to attract unfavorable glances even from others in the Evangelical world. They worried that Radio Pulpit and the ravings of its star might reflect poorly on the church as a whole.
Concerned over Sawyer’s sideshow-style antics and opposed to his “money solicitation campaign,” Rev. Harold Schumaker, the pastor of the local Baptist Church in Stigler, denied the use of his sanctuary for an anti-nudist rally.He and Sawyer met in person at the county courthouse to discuss the matter and reportedly got into a heated argument. “I’m as much against nudist colonies as anyone else,” Schumaker said, “but I won’t be a party to raising funds to abolish something that doesn’t exist.”
Sawyer shot back, saying he’d “take the hide off” Schumaker. The Stigler pastor responded, “There’s sin enough around here for people to get excited about…. They don’t have to look for a nudist colony that doesn’t exist more than a hundred miles away.” It wasn’t just Schumaker, though; other Christian leaders were also skeptical of Sawyer’s true intentions.
“Sawyer…has been warming up the airwaves…with radio appeals for donations to be sent him that he may ‘expose’ the nudist colonies,” wrote one Christian commentator in The Gospel Guardian newsletter. “Seems he wants to pass a law…declaring it illegal for the citizenry to walk around in their birthday suit.” The author didn’t take exception to the anti-nudism, but rather to Sawyer’s vigilante means. “If he will just get his movement properly organized and put it ‘under the oversight’ of the elders of a church somewhere,” they lamented.
Little did they know, however, that Sawyer was just getting started.
The Battle of Battle Creek
The Binger affair turned out to be somewhat of a flop from one perspective; the reverend hadn’t actually exposed any nudists. On the other hand, though, he had managed to light a fire under lawmakers in four states to start drafting anti-nudism legislation. When he discovered that nudists from all over the country would be gathering in Battle Creek for the convention of the American Sunbathing Association, Sawyer must have felt like Heaven was smiling down on him at last.
This was an opportunity to march into Sodom and Gomorrah, wielding his video camera to strike down the highest echelons of American nudism. Experienced by now at manipulating newsmen into giving him coverage, Sawyer played up two sensationalist developments. First, pinup model Evelyn West—famed for her 39 ½-inch bustline, reportedly insured for $50,000 with Lloyd’s of London—said she’d be attending the ASA confab. Second, Sawyer said that the top nudist leader, ASA Executive Director Norval Packwood, personally invited him to come as well.
The truth was that West often used her ASA membership (gained through a small Colorado club) to generate publicity for her own career; hinting to reporters that she was to be the keynote convention speaker was another such instance.According to Packwood, rather than let her address the delegates, the board of directors actually intended to warn her about exploiting her membership any further.
As for the Sawyer invitation, it was true that Packwood offered cooperation if the reverend was earnest in his desire to learn the facts about nudism. He was told to apply for information and credentials if he was interested in attending, with the expectation that he’d abide by the rules that apply to everyone else present.Sawyer, of course, had no intention of doing so.
The events that unfolded on the convention’s opening day were recounted in the introduction above. Sawyer, with video camera in hand, ignored the conditions set by ASA and tried to bully his way into Sunshine Gardens by physical force only to be blockaded by a group of burly (but clothed) men. The next morning, the photo of him picking himself up from the ground was on the cover of newspapers around the country, perched beneath headlines like “Preacher Rebuffed in Effort to Prowl Around Nudist Camp”and “Sunshine or sin? Evangelist Sawyer in the Dust.” The reverend had declared the nudists wouldn’t make a fool of him, but it seemed he needed little help with the task.
Outside of a few sympathetic outlets in the South, most newspapers generally portrayed Sawyer as a publicity hound out to make a name for himself. As for the people of Battle Creek, they seemed to have little problem with their nude neighbors. An editorial in the Battle Creek Enquirer and News after Sawyer’s failed raid said: “We are not evangels of nudism…. but we wouldn’t dream of denying such pursuits to those who think they derive benefits from them.... That Biblical passage about casting the first stone never has lost its validity. Neither has the American principle of justice, liberty, and law.”
Though Sawyer came off looking like a fanatic that day, he did succeed in piquing local authorities’ interest in the goings-on at Sunshine Gardens. In the years to come, the resort and its owners would become entangled in major litigation around alleged obscenity and indecency that many felt was rooted in the press coverage prompted by Sawyer’s attempted invasion.
In his final broadcast from Battle Creek, he announced that a Michigan legislator had been persuaded to introduce anti-nudist legislation in the next session. He also left behind a freshly-organized committee of local ministers committed to getting the bill passed and vowed he’d be back to testify on its behalf.
Despite his setback at the ASA convention, Sawyer refused to relent. High-tailing it back to Arkansas, he resumed his campaign to make nudism illegal.
In Oklahoma, the fight to pass an anti-nudist bill pitted Sawyer against “Kansas housewife and nudist queen” Maria Park, a leader of the Midwest Sunbathing Association.Testifying before an Oklahoma House committee, Park was an unassailable everywoman—a suburban goodwill ambassador for nudism who said that the practice required “a clean mind in a clean body.”
Park said she was a believer in “Christ, the Bible, and the Lord” and had been “a member of a church since 1932.”She recited a list of nudist clubs around the country she’d visited without ever encountering any problems, but she said that curiously for a state seeking to shut them down, she’d never come across a single club in Oklahoma.
As for Sawyer, he faced a series of blistering questions from legislators eager to get a peek into the revenues generated by his Radio Pulpit operation. He said his ministry had brought in around $129,000 over the three years prior. In 2023 dollars, the total would be an impressive $1.47 million.Sensing the feeling of the room, Sawyer attempted to turn legislators’ attention back to Park. He pulled out a magazine depicting a nude photo of her being crowned “Mrs. Suntan 1954” and passed it around for lawmakers to get a gander. He expected the sensationalist maneuver to shift the terrain back in his favor, but lawmakers weren’t particularly incensed.
Then, another witness suddenly appeared on the stand, Mr. L.M. “Hoot” Kerbo, a store clerk from none other than Binger, Oklahoma.Earlier, when Sawyer had raged about the hidden nudist camp in Binger, the state crime bureau had launched an investigation. What they discovered was that several years prior, Kerbo had written to the ASA about the possibility of establishing a club in Binger, but he apparently couldn’t meet the minimum number of members required to start a local chapter. Whether through an editing error or out of an intention to help Kerbo find fellow nudists, his P.O. box ended up in the ASA directory—and, then, in Sawyer’s hands. As it turns out, there never was any nudist colony, camp, or club in the state.
Kerbo’s testimony sent Sawyer for a tumble; he suddenly modified his claim about the seven supposed nudist families to say the list of names he possessed consisted of “nudist-inclined” persons. He reluctantly admitted that his knowledge of nudism in Oklahoma came from other sources, not via any of his own investigations. “I have never seen anyone naked in Oklahoma,” he divulged, “and hope I never do.”
A legislator then pulled out a tape recording of Sawyer’s rally at Anadarko the previous year, confronting the preacher with his own lies.With the committee obviously souring on his allegations about secret nudist camps, Sawyer switched strategies.
Suddenly, he said he had never contended that “Oklahoma has nudist colonies to the point of danger that legislation is needed.”This even though the anti-nudism bill under consideration had been filed at Sawyer’s request by his “old friend,” State Rep. James Fesperson of Bokoshe, a small Oklahoma town just over the state line near Fort Smith.
Instead, he pleaded, it was essential that politicians act to ban the sale of magazines that promote nudism or print nude photos. Still unconvinced, however, the committee voted to kill the bill and quickly adjourned. The members sent their report to the full legislature, in which they concluded: “We have not been furnished with any competent evidence showing…that nudism…exists or has existed” in the state.
Oklahoma was a bust for Sawyer. In quick succession, Arkansas, Missouri, Michigan, and Kansas followed.The Nudist Newsletter kept score: American Sunbathing Association – five; Sawyer – zero. And in New York, in an effort to block repeal of an old anti-nudity law, Sawyer alleged that “people who want to go to school naked and ride buses naked are plotting.” No one in the Empire State paid him much attention.
In the fall, he took up the charge to stop the ASA-sponsored film Garden of Eden from being screened. Any time a theater in Arkansas or Oklahoma was due to show the movie, he appeared and sat through the whole thing, supposedly to gather evidence proving that the nude scenes had not been cut out. He told police the film “promotes juvenile delinquency and rouses sex maniacs to high passion” and alerted the Oklahoma City press that even if he is “ready to vomit” every time he watches Garden of Eden, he would take that punishment on behalf of the forces of decency.
He bragged that he had already gotten the movie shut down in the Arkansas towns of Fort Smith, Alma, Mulberry, and Russellville. For his efforts, though, he was mostly rewarded with mocking newspaper coverage. The Oklahoma City Times, for instance, reported that the “nudists’ foe faces the job of seeing the raw film three more times.”
It looked like the preacher from Fort Smith had finally been defeated, as his attempts to outlaw nudism failed in state after state. The year 1956 passed by relatively quietly. Radio Pulpit continued airing programs on the evils of nudism, and Sawyer offered his help to the ongoing campaign against Sunshine Gardens in Michigan, but after so many losses and humiliations, he generally laid low. Though they still faced other battles, nudists were content that this foe was vanquished.
So the movement was rocked when, seemingly out of nowhere, news broke on February 13, 1957, that the Arkansas legislature had just passed and Gov. Orval Faubus (of segregation infamy) had signed Senate Bill No. 95 declaring nudism illegal in the state. At the end of a long day, when a lengthy and hectic debate over an unrelated tax measure concluded, lawmakers quickly voted on a proposal which some described as “a bit of comic relief.”
There were no hearings, no investigations, no testimony. The matter was treated with such nonchalance, but it amounted to nothing less than “a rape of the democratic process,” in the words of an editorial in American Sunbather & Nudist Leader.
The Arkansas measure was different than the litany of indecent exposure and censorship laws that had long been used to prosecute nudists in dozens of other states. This one explicitly outlawed not just social nudity, nude recreation, or publishing nude photos—it also criminalized supporting nudism as an idea or even having a kind word to say about the practice. From the bill:
“It shall be unlawful for any person, club, camp, corporation, partnership, association, or organization to advocate, demonstrate, or promote nudism.”
The General Assembly determined that there had “grown up in various parts of the nation and in the State of Arkansas a form of recreation or participation known as nudism which entails such practices as sunbathing, hiking, swimming, and other activities in the nude and in the presence of persons of the opposite sex.” Such practices, lawmakers decided, “constitute a clear and present danger to the public peace, health, welfare, safety, and morals.” They declared the situation an “emergency” requiring stiff legal sanctions—a fine of $2,500 and up to a year in prison.
Though the law came as a surprise to top nudist leaders, it hadn’t actually emerged out of thin air. Sawyer, of course, was behind the whole affair. The 1955 anti-nudism bill, thought dead, had been hastily resurrected by a Sawyer ally, State Sen. C.E. Bell.He’d reportedly gotten support for the proposal from other legislators in exchange for giving his vote to the taxation measure. And though many national nudist leaders appear to have been unaware, another anti-nudist controversy was simmering in Arkansas in the weeks before the bill’s passage.
Reviving the tactic he’d used against the Dunn family, Sawyer had been hammering away against another Arkansas nudist on his Radio Pulpit broadcasts. Targeted this time was Gordon Satterfield, a Fort Smith native who was then operating Wildwood Lodge, the state’s sole nudist campground, located near Forrest City in the far eastern part of Arkansas.On Jan. 26, the local sheriff in St. Francis County—part of Sen. Bell’s district—had arrested Satterfield on a charge of indecent exposure for being nude within the confines of the camp.
In a letter Satterfield dispatched to ASA Executive Director Norval Packwood, he said that Sawyer “was broadcasting some of his lies…harassing my employees by threatening to give their names” and saying “that he has another anti-nudist bill introduced in the legislature.”Rather than protecting the morals of the people of Arkansas, Satterfield said the preacher had one goal: “Same old Sawyer racket, anything to get money.” He asked the ASA for “financial help, moral support, and a good nudist lawyer.” Before his letter even made it to Packwood’s desk though, Sawyer’s bill was already in force.
“Some laws are impracticable—this one is shameful,” declared an article in Suntan magazine. “[It’s] an insult to the intelligence of legislators who allowed themselves to be hoodwinked by that ‘squirrel preacher’ from Fort Smith, Arkansas.” But giving Sawyer his due, the author grudgingly admitted the reverend had “learned some political ropes” since his earlier anti-nudist legislation was thrown out in several states.
The Arkansas anti-nudity bill, with its restrictions on “advocating” or “promoting” nudism and punishments for providing venues for its practice, was obviously unconstitutional. Most observers at the time expected it would be struck down by some court or another in relatively short order. One jurist compared it to Tennessee’s law forbidding the teaching of evolution that sparked the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial.
Sunset for Sawyer
As the years went by, however, no challenges were ever filed, and the law lived on. For Sawyer, the Arkansas bill was his shining moment, the victory he’d been waiting for in his war against nudism. When no one was watching, he’d finally snuck one in.
But with the coming of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and the boom in printed pornography, Sawyer’s campaign against family nudist camps and nudist publications didn’t age well. The nudist magazines that he’d railed against on Radio Pulpit in the ’50s, with their often-airbrushed genitals, seemed anything but explicit compared to what was available on newsstands by the middle of the next decade.
For awhile, Sawyer made temperance his issue of choice, preaching on the evils of alcohol and lobbying to preserve “dry county” laws.Like Prohibition in the Depression years, however, the campaign failed to generate much enthusiasm. He then turned to trashing what today’s conservatives might call “woke” literature in school libraries, urging the banning of such volumes as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and George Orwell’s 1984 for being “dirty books.” He was also up against some fresh competition—television. The housewives who’d made up a key segment of his audience increasingly migrated to morning gameshows and soap operas on the tube. Radio Pulpit’s listenership was declining, and dwindling along with it was Sawyer’s influence.
Losing some of his theological cachet, Sawyer devoted more time in these years to another hobby. He had long been known in certain circles as a coonhound fancier and dog show judge. He was a regular writer for canine-connected publications, expounding on the genetic engineering of foxhounds and “The Value of the Brood Bitch.”According to papers he deposited with the American Kennel Club, he spent his “first paycheck to purchase an American Foxhound bitch” back in 1930 and turned out “more than 8,000 puppies” from his kennels over the decades.
But the old battles still beckoned. Trying to revive the glories of his fights against naked bodies, Sawyer launched an offensive against pornography in the early 1970s. According to the memoir of one Arkansan from the time, the effort was all about soliciting contributions. Thinking back to that time, David W. Smith wrote in 2011:
“One Friday evening, driving somewhere, I tuned into Braxton's radio show. He was still raving against porn and then said words that I still remember almost to the letter even now [text altered from imitation Southern vernacular]: ‘I can’t describe this evil stuff to you on the radio! These pictures are sinful and have to be stopped! But I know that you can’t know about what I am talking. So, if you would just send me a little love offering of $5, I will send you a sample of this horrible pornography so you can see for yourselves how evil it is.’”
Whether Sawyer actually made the transition from what many saw as a moralizing swindler to outright retailer of porn over the radio is hard to verify. He was an avid collector of the stuff, though. In 1958, Sawyer said that he had airmailed 20 pounds of pornographic material to evangelist Billy Graham to help prepare testimony before a legislative committee in California.Archives and transcripts of Radio Pulpit broadcasts, if they exist, are not known to be publicly available. Smith’s recollection, if true, would probably have left at least one significant person unsurprised, however.
University of Delaware Professor and author Hershel Parker, in a 2012 blog post, remembered having played the piano for Braxton Sawyer in the late 1940s, presumably at a church service. Commenting on the post, a man named Michael Dennis Sawyer made a revelation about the reverend that no other public source has ever mentioned:
“He was my grandfather. He abandoned my father and grandmother in Arkadelphia, Alabama, in 1935. His Ft. Smith family was his second family. He never told them about my dad or grandmother. There was a minor reckoning in the early ’60s. He was a jerk.”
Attempts to contact Michael Sawyer to provide further comment or context for this article were unsuccessful. According to his internet trail, though, Michael D. Sawyer is originally from Alabama and now lives in Virginia. Without official legal documents, his story about being related to Braxton Sawyer cannot be verified beyond doubt, of course. But records printed in the Cullman Democrat from March 27, 1930, did report the recent license application filed for the marriage of “B.B. Sawyers, 19, to May Zipple Victory, 16.”Cullman County, Alabama, was where Braxton Sawyer grew up; the ages line up with known birthdates; May Zipple Victory was the name of Michael Sawyer’s grandmother; and family photos posted online suggest what some might say is more than just a passing resemblance between Braxton Sawyer and Michael’s father, Dennis.
If the story of an abandoned Alabama family is true, then the repeated reminders that Braxton Sawyer was doing all his own cooking and washing as a single young man—that he was “batching”—back in that laudatory 1951 biography make some sense. Readers had to know that the good reverend had been unmarried and alone before marrying Miss Ruth Coker in Arkansas. It’s all speculation at this point, of course, but suggestions of hypocrisy become all the more relevant when discussing a public figure who made an entire career out of denouncing others’ supposed immorality.
On March 13, 1982, the Reverend Dr. Braxton Bragg Sawyer suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 70. His funeral was held at the Grand Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Smith, and he was laid to rest at the city’s Forest Park Cemetery. Newspapers in the area remembered him for his “crusade against nudism” and his fight to outlaw “pornographic literature, which he believed would prove morally destructive to youth.”
Legacy: America’s only anti-nudism law
The true legacy of Braxton Sawyer—one which should still spur nudists, naturists, and defenders of the U.S. Constitution to action today—is the Arkansas anti-nudist law. Passed in 1957, it is still on the books, the country’s only explicit prohibition on nudism as an idea and practice.
Amended around the edges over the years, it is today designated as “Arkansas Code § 5-68-204: Nudism.” It stands as the most stringent legal restriction of social nudity in the country, forbidding any two (or more) persons of the opposite sex from being nude in each other’s presence unless they are married or one of them is a medical professional engaged in a procedure or examination.
Directly contravening the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of thought, speech, association, and the press, it declares unlawful the advocacy of nudism by any means or its practice in any form. According to the letter of the law, simply standing on a street corner in downtown Fort Smith and saying, “Nudism is terrific,” could earn a year behind bars and a hefty fine. While the law has gone unenforced and is largely forgotten by most, it still hangs like a sword of Damocles over the heads of any who dare to go bare in the state.
An advocacy group called Unconstitutional Arkansas has been promoting repeal for years, without gaining much traction. The effort has generated positive press coverage from time to time, but without a test case to prompt a court review, it’s unlikely the law will be disappearing anytime soon.
Although the reverend is long dead and Radio Pulpit ceased broadcasting decades ago, the ghost of Braxton Sawyer and his war against the unclothed still haunts American nudism—and American democracy. 🪐
Special thanks to the American Nudist Research Library for access to the archival nudist publications referenced in this article.
Donald Johnson. “The Crumpled Crusader,” Modern Sunbathing. Vol. 24, No. 12, December 1954, p. 7.
June Lange. “The Battle Creek Conventions,” American Nudist Leader. Issue 37, January 1955, p. 3.
The jawbone reference is to the tale of Samson’s superhuman abilities as told in Judges 15:16 in the Holy Bible. Sawyer later told Time magazine: “When public sentiment has decided the issue, I am ready to shut up…but there are times when Samson has to take the jawbone of an ass and whip a pack of Philistines.” Quoted in: “The Preacher & the Nudists,” Time. August 16, 1954, p. 46.
Long Beach Telegram, quoted in The Nudist Newsletter. Issue 36, p. 3.
Detroit Free Press, quoted in The Nudist Newsletter. Issue 36, p. 3.
Peter Cozzens. No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991
“Just who is this man Sawyer?” Southwest American (Fort Smith, Arkansas). December 29, 1951, p. 10.
“Rev. Braxton B. Sawyer to Be First Baptist Pastor,” Murray Ledger and Times (Murray, Kentucky). July 20, 1944.
“New Pastor at Fort Smith,” Arkansas Baptist. April 15, 1948, p. 4.
“Notes of Advance,” Arkansas Baptist. July 22, 1948, p. 5.
“Thousands Praise Radio Pulpit,” Southwest American (Fort Smith, Arkansas). December 29, 1951, p. 10.
Mr. Harper, “Cherokee Strip,” Harper’s. August 1955, p. 84.
Quoted in: “The Preacher and the Nudists.”
Tommy Dee. “Nudism’s Proudest Hour (Part I),” Sun Lore. Vol. 1, No. 2, November 1964, pp. 27-30.
Tommy Dee. “Nudism’s Proudest Hour (Part II),” Sun Lore. Vol. 2, No. 1, January 1965, pp. 31-4.
Dee, “Nudism’s Proudest Hour (Part I).”
“Nudism Advocate Blasted – Arkansas Minister Challenges Sunbather to Debate,” Lubbock Evening Journal (Lubbock, Texas). February 25, 1954, p. 12.
“Anti-Nudist Campaigner Vows He’ll ‘Take Hide Off’ Minister,” Oklahoma City Times. February 18, 1954, p. 10.
F.Y.T. “Exposing the Nudists,” The Gospel Guardian. April 15, 1954. Vol. 5, No. 48, p. 13.
“Evelyn West Says Nudism Answer to Complete Health,” Tucson Daily Citizen (Tucson, Arizona). August 4, 1954, p. 28.
Stan Stohler. “The Battle of Battle Creek,” Sunbathing Review. Spring 1959, pp. 8-20, 60.
“Preacher Rebuffed in Effort to Prowl Around Nudist Camp,” The Shreveport Journal (Shreveport, Louisiana). August 5, 1954, p. 21.
“Sunshine or sin? Evangelist Sawyer in the Dust,” Life. August 16, 1954.
Quoted in Lange.
See the extensive discussion of the Michigan v. Hildabridle case in Chapter 5 of: Brian Hoffman, Naked: A Cultural History of American Nudism. New York: New York University Press, 2015; and: Stohler, “The Battle of Battle Creek.”
Stan Stohler, “Donnybrook at Battle Creek,” Urban Nudist. Vol. 1, No. 8, October 1963, pp. 54-7.
“Asks Right to Undress – Kansas Housewife Asks Oklahoma Not to Ban Nudism,” The Kansas City Times (Kansas City, Missouri). January 26, 1955, p. 3.
“Nudist Queen Opposes Ban at Hearings,” The Ponca City News (Ponca City, Oklahoma). January 25, 1955, p. 1.
Howard Wilson. “Anti-Nudist Bill May be Watered to Bar Magazines,” Sapulpa Daily Herald (Sapulpa, Oklahoma). January 26, 1955, p. 6.
“Asks Right to Undress,” and “Cherokee Strip.”
Wayne Mackey. “Pastor’s Nudist Claims Denied by Binger Man,” Oklahoma City Times. January 26, 1955, p. 1.
“One Man War on Nudists,” American Sunbather and Nudist Leader. Vol. 9, No. 6, June 1957, p. 27.
Wayne Mackey. “Nudist Queen Testifies, But Not in the Flesh,” Oklahoma City Times. January 25, 1955, pp. 1-2.
Mackey. “Pastor’s Nudist Claims Denied by Binger Man.”
“Nudist Queen Opposes Ban at Hearings.”
Mackey. “Pastor’s Nudist Claims Denied by Binger Man.”
“Bill to Outlaw Nudism Dies,” The Daily Oklahoman. February 3, 1955, pp. 33, 40.
“Pack Reports Progress vs. Sawyer’s Efforts,” The Nudist Newsletter. Issue No. 40, 1955.
“Sawyer Falls Flat,” The Nudist Newsletter. Issue No. 41, 1955.
“One Man War on Nudists.”
Wayne Mackey. “Minister on Trail of ‘Eden,’” Oklahoma City Times. September 13, 1955, p. 1-2.
Forrest Emerson. “Braxton Sawyer Defeated in U.S.A.,” Sun and Health. Vol. 19, No. 31, p. 7.
Editorial Board. “Rape of the Democratic Process,” American Sunbather & Nudist Leader. Vol. 9, No. 6, June 1957, pp. 3, 17.
2010 Arkansas Code § 5-68-204 - Nudism. https://naturistaction.org/laws/arkansas-laws/
“Anti-Nudist Bill Passed in Arkansas,” The Nudist Newsletter. Issue 63, 1957.
Jim Hadley. “I am as free…” Modern Sunbathing and Hygiene. Vol. 27, No. 4-119, April 1957, pp. 14-18.
“Man Arrested in Possible Nudist Colony Operation,” Times Daily (Florence, Alabama). January 27, 1957, p. 8.
Gordon Satterfield, Letter to Norval Packwood, reprinted as “Nudist Park Owner Arrested!” in The Nudist Newsletter. Issue 63, 1957.
Karen Sue Daniels. “News from the Four Corners,” Suntan. Vol. 4, No. 4, July-August 1957, pp. 26-8.
Judge Gene Williams. Nudism, Tyranny, and Arkansas. Spokane, Wash.: Outdoor American Corporation, 1957.
Hugh Hall. “Beer Vote Campaign Nears a Crescendo,” Oklahoma City Times. November 27, 1957, p. 1-2.
Jack Bickham. “Nudism Foe Slams Smut,” Oklahoma City Times. April 23, 1963, p. 1-2.
Braxton B. Sawyer. “The Value of the Brood Bitch,” The Basenji. June 1980.
“Dr. Braxton Sawyer Scrapbook of American Foxhound Materials, 1965-1979.” American Kennel Club Library and Archives. http://akc.libraryhost.com/repositories/2/archival_objects/12873
David W. Smith. “My Little Town: Uncle Bill and His Friend,” Daily Kos. August 10, 2011. https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2011/08/10/1005228/-My-Little-Town-20110810-Uncle-Bill-and-his-Friend
“Lewd Books Foe Sends Graham Data,” Oklahoma City Times. May 20, 1958, p. 3.
Michael D. Sawyer, comment on Hershel Parker’s blog post: “Braxton Sawyer in 1940s and 1950s,” Fragments from a Writing Desk (Blogspot). August 10, 2012. https://fragmentsfromawritingdesk.blogspot.com/2012/08/baxter-sawyer-in-1940s-and-1950s.html
“Marriage Licenses of Cullman County,” The Cullman Democrat, March 27, 1930. http://www.genealogytrails.com/ala/cullman/marriage_licenses.html
“Rites Today for Arkansas Minister,” Tulsa World. March 16, 1982, p. 6.
David Koon. “Group wants Arkansas’s prude nude law revoked,” Arkansas Times. March 31, 2016. https://arktimes.com/news/arkansas-reporter/2016/03/31/group-wants-arkansass-prude-nude-law-revoked