It's a historical fact that many churches, as well as colleges,a in the Southwest were built on money contributed by gamblers.
Circuit-riding ministers would often ride into a trail town with three necessary provisions in their saddlebags—a revolver, a Bible, and a deck of cards. Following the Biblical advice, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," they would walk into a gambling saloon, introduce themselves to the patrons, announce their plans to build a church, and ask for donations.
Gamblers were a superstitious lot. Not wishing to offend the Almighty, they generally dug into their pockets and came up with a sizable contribution to the fund. Some even became members of the church and gave up their gambling (and often thieving) ways.
But gamblers were a tough breed who had learned the art of survival. Some refused to be sweet-talked into giving up their ill-gotten cash. They would listen to the pitch of the stranger holding the Bible, sneer, and go back to the game.
The Rev. Endicott Peabody ambled into a gambling hall in Tombstone, Arizona, which had a reputation as the "town too tough to die." He wore a long black coat which was similar to the black frocks often worn by professional gamblers.
He cheerfully identified himself as a preacher and pulled a well-worn Bible out of his pocket. He was Episcopalian and wanted to build a fence around his church. The gamblers listened and contributed to the fund.
Such was not always the case. Preacher Brown was a reformed gambler who had once been one of the best poker players in Nevada. He had a winning personality and wanted to build churches to serve his Lord.
He entered a saloon that sported a poker table, roulette wheel and faro games. The place was filled with men drinking whiskey, smoking, and bucking the tiger with their chips and cash.
In a loud commanding voice, Preacher Brown announced who he was and asked for contributions to start his church.
One gambler wearing a long-barreled six-shooter looked up from the poker table and threw down his cards.
"Why don't you take up a hand, Preacher?" he said. "Maybe you'd win enough to build your Godforsaken church." The other gamblers snickered and some burst into laughter.
The scorn didn't bother Preacher Brown who had encountered rougher times than this.
Encouraged by the laughter, the gambler continued. "Assuming you know how to play," he said, winking.
That did it. Preacher Brown gave him a cold look and said, "Mock not, lest ye be smitten hip and thigh." He sat down at the table, reached into his pocket for cash, and ordered some chips.
The other gamblers gathered around the table as the preacher was dealt his cards. The atmosphere grew tense, but Preacher Brown didn't seem to be affected by it. He ordered a drink from a scantily clad cocktail waitress and added, "No alcohol, please."
The waitress grinned and bowed. "Anything you say, Parson," she said.
The gambler who had goaded the minister was seething.
"Come on and smite, Preacher," he said. "Make room for the old fool, boys."
Preacher Brown cocked an eyebrow at him. In a thundering voice he said, "Let it not be said that I failed to rebuke a sinner. Verily there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth." He glanced at his hand, saw it was a flush, and said, "I open for fifty dollars."
The onlookers gasped. The gambler looked at his cards, decided the preacher was bluffing, and raised him. Preacher Brown re-raised and the out-of-control gambler raised him back.
Preacher Brown won the pot.
"Woe, woe, woe," he said as he raked in the chips. "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away."
The crowd around the table roared with laughter and applause. Even the losing gambler had to smile. He nodded and complimented the minister on his play.
Preacher Brown not only won enough money to start building his church, the next morning many of the gamblers from the saloon showed up to start chopping logs.
There was another recorded case of a man who was not as sincere or selfless as Preacher Brown. A gambler disguised himself as a minister at the Lady Gay Saloon and Dance Hall in Dodge City, Kansas.
He intoned that gambling was a way that "God punished sinners and rewarded the virtuous." He removed his black smock, folded it on the back of his chair and began playing poker.
The game went on for more than two hours and the preacher seemed unbeatable. Then a sharp-eyed patron shouted, "He's got an ace up his sleeve!"
The false preacher tried to explain that it must have been a miracle and said the Lord must have placed it there, but the gamblers weren't fooled. They didn't give him the usual harsh treatment reserved for cheaters, but he never showed up at that saloon again.