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Billy Sunday

"In the chronicles of the restoration of the Church, it will be noted that a time came when the saints ceased being satisfied with their song services, a time when the deepest longings of their hearts ascended beyond the sounds of shouts and hand clapping, a transitional time when pure worship began to carry them into the actual Presence of God.”  Francis Frangipane

“Go after God regardless of the opinions of others. You came into this world alone, and you’ll leave alone. You’re responsible for your own spirituality.”  Stephen Hill

“If I wished to humble anyone, I should question him about his prayers. I know nothing to compare with this topic for its sorrowful self-confessions.”  C.J. Vaughan

“I fear I am growing more earthly in some things. Today I felt a difficulty in bringing in spiritual conversation immediately after preaching, when my bosom should be burning. Excused myself from dining…checked and corrected myself. Then this evening I again slid into worldly conversation. Let these things be corrected in me, O Lord, by the heart being more filled with the love of Jesus, and more ejaculatory prayer.”  Robert Murray McCheyne

It was a warm and breezy summer evening in 1883 when the sound of the “crack” of a baseball bat sent a crowd of over ten thousand into a roar. Jumping to their feet they cheered as, what many considered, the fastest man in America ran the bases. Before the ball cleared the outfielder’s head he was already past first base, as the ball bounced off the centerfield wall and hopped into the fielder’s glove second base was already rounded. The outfielder turned and fired a straight throw to the third baseman. It was too late. Billy Sunday had beaten the throw by at least five steps and was standing on the bag waving his hat over his head to the fans which were “beside themselves.” This was his first Major League hit so Sunday was as excited and shocked as much as the crowd. His first thirteen at bats, since being signed by the Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs) were strike-outs. Finally the hard-drinking, late night partying boy from Iowa was on his way to making a name for himself in the big leagues. It wasn’t his hitting that he was noted for but his flamboyant fielding and strong base running. He held the record for stolen bases until it was broken by Ty Cobb in 1915. The next day the newspapers were full of the story about a three base hit that should only have been a single. Five years later the same newspapers reported another hit by this star player:

“Center fielder Billy Sunday made a three-base hit at Farwell Hall last night. There is no other way to express the success of his first appearance as an evangelist in Chicago. His audience was made up of about 500 men who didn’t know much about his talents as a preacher but could remember his galloping past second base with his cap in his hand.”

That was the beginning of the ministry of Billy Sunday. He would eventually preach to many millions of people and would see many conversions—an estimated 300,000.

Born into poverty on November 19, 1862, William Ashley Sunday never saw his father who died of pneumonia in the Civil War five weeks after Sunday’s birth. Death seemed to be part of his early life. Living in a log cabin in Iowa he would experience ten deaths in his family before he was ten years old. His mother was so poor that eventually she had to send her children to the Soldier’s Orphans Home. While living there, Sunday developed his love for sports, especially baseball. He took odd jobs in several small towns throughout Iowa and always got involved with amateur Athletics. His exceptional speed opened the door to many opportunities. During the day he would work at being a stable-boy, errand runner, hotel worker, farmhand, fireman, and undertaker’s helper and at night he would play organized sports and eventually semi-pro baseball. In 1882, he was playing left-field for a team from Marshalltown, Iowa when an avid fan was impressed with his talents. She was the aunt of future Hall of Famer, Adrian “Cap” Anson. After she gave “Cap” an enthusiastic account of Billy, he went to see the boy play. In 1883, on a recommendation from “Cap” A. G. Spalding, president of the Chicago White Stockings, signed Sunday to the then defending National League champions. He was a part-time player his first four years with Chicago, filling in for superstar Mike “King” Kelly’s place in right field when Kelly served as catcher. He wasn’t a great batter, his highest average one year was about .261 but his aggressive base-running, base- stealing and speed were his biggest assets. In 1885, the White Stockings arranged a race between Sunday and Arlie Latham, the fastest runner in the American Association. Sunday won the hundred yard dash by ten feet.

In 1887, when Kelly was sold to another team, Sunday became Chicago’s regular right fielder. During the winter he was traded to the Pittsburgh Alleghenys for the 1888 season. The crowds took to Sunday immediately. One reporter wrote “the whole town is wild over Sunday.” In Pittsburgh, he led the league in stolen bases.

Sometime between 1886 and 1887 two dramatic events changed the life of Billy Sunday—his conversion and marriage. His moral character was like those of his fast-living peers. Drinking and gambling being their constant companions in their spare time. As they traveled from town to town the drinking establishments knew most of them by name. One Sunday afternoon, Billy and a few of his teammates were hard at carousing from bar to bar and wandering the streets of Chicago when they came upon the Pacific Garden Mission. Sitting drunk with his team-mates on the curbside by the mission, they listened to the street preaching. Billy then heard the strains of a familiar gospel tune that his mother used to sing to him. That was all it took, he stood up held onto the lamppost for support and told his buddies, “I’m through. I am going to Jesus Christ. We’ve now come to a parting of the ways.” He would later say about his mother’s hymns, “There is nothing in the world of art like the songs mother used to sing.”

The effect was immediate. Sunday stopped drinking and began attending the Jefferson Park Presbyterian Church which was located near the ball park and his rented room. Even though he would continue to play baseball another five years, he became a lay-worker for the Chicago YMCA (not the organization that the Y has evolved into today) and there met a popular evangelist by the name of J. Wilbur Chapman.

While attending the Presbyterian Church, Sunday was smitten by a beautiful young lady. Helen Amelia “Nell” Thompson was the daughter of the owner of one of Chicago’s largest dairy products businesses. Since she was from a much more privileged upbringing than Sunday, her father was strongly against the courtship, viewing all professional ball players as “transient ne’er-do-wells who were unstable and destined to be misfits once they were too old to play.” That didn’t stop Sunday. He pursued her with the same tenacity he pursued the Lord:

“She was a Presbyterian, so I am a Presbyterian. Had she been a Catholic, I would have been a Catholic—because I was hot on the trail of Nell.”

On September 5, 1888, the couple married with a lot of help from Nell’s mother who liked Sunday and convinced Mr. Thompson to relent.

The 1888 and 1889 seasons were ranked among his best. He performed well in center-field and led the league in stolen bases. A labor dispute in 1890, led to the formation of another league and, even though Sunday was asked to jump to the competing league, he decided to stay with Pittsburgh. By August of that year the team had no money to meet its payroll so Sunday was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for two players and $1,000 in cash.

Ever since his conversion he had felt an increasingly strong call to preach. Finally in 1891, to the consternation of his father-in-law, Sunday left baseball for full time ministry. He requested and was granted a release from his contract with the Philadelphia ball club where he was making $400.00 per month to accept a Assistant Secretary position paying $83.00 a month with the YMCA. Here he would get chances to preach and also work with the evangelist J. Wilbur Chapman eventually becoming his full-time assistant. Sunday’s job was to be the advance man and precede Chapman to cities in which he was scheduled to preach. Sunday would organize prayer meetings and choirs and often set up huge tents. It was through Chapman that Billy learned the importance of prayer and the precepts of conservative biblical Christianity. In 1896, Chapman unexpectedly decided to return to being a pastor in his old settled church in Indiana. So a few ministers asked Sunday to fill in for Chapman at a camp meeting in Garner, Iowa, so Sunday remembered an old “Y” sermon of his on “Earnestness in Christian Life” and his evangelistic career was birthed. From that point on he was never without an invitation to preach. He would hold meetings throughout the Midwest and then after World War 1, he would preach in Boston, New York and other major cities to enormous crowds. Many of the early small towns he preached had not yet received electricity so he referred to these towns as the “Kerosene Circuit.”

Sunday’s preaching style was not what many of that day expected. His vocabulary was rough and many Christian leaders cringed and often publicly criticized him. Sunday didn’t care what the “self proclaimed religious” said about him explaining:

I want to preach the gospel so plainly that men come from the factories and not have to bring a dictionary.”

The farmers would listen with amusement as he would denounce a “red-nosed, buttermilk-eyed, beetle-browned, peanut-brained, stall-fed old saloonkeeper”; or preach on how “David socked Goliath in the coco between the lamps and he went down for the count.” He was the master of the one-liners and a few of his famous lines were:

“Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.”“Churches don’t need new members half so much as they need the old bunch made over.”“Look at the preaching Jesus did and you will find it was aimed straight at the big sinners on the front seats.”“The reason you don’t like the Bible, you old sinner, is because it knows all about you.”

Body language was an important part of his preaching. Sometimes while giving a sermon he would use nearby objects, such as a chair, which he would fling around while preaching:

“During a sermon he would skip, run, leap, and fall down on the stage in endless imitations of drunkards, society women, liberal clergymen, and moral backsliders. He would pound the pulpit, jump up on the pulpit, break furniture, and stamp his feet, perspiration spinning from his grimacing face. Then, crouching and weaving, with his coat and vest stripped away, Billy would shadow box with ‘the devil.’ One of his best-remembered acts was to slide into ‘home plate’ like a sinner trying to slide into heaven, only to be called ‘out’ by God the umpire.”

One newspaper wrote:

“Sunday was a whirling dervish that pranced and cavorted and strode and bounded and pounded all over his platform and left them thrilled and bewildered as they have never been before.”

He had no mercy on the lukewarm brethren who sit in the seats during the services:

“The backslider likes the preaching that wouldn’t hit the side of a house, while the real disciple is delighted when the truth brings him to his knees.”

Wherever he would preach, usually under a tent or building built just for that occasion, the floors were covered with sawdust to dampen the noise of shuffling feet as well as for the pleasant smell and its ability to hold down the dust from dirt floors. When he finished his sermons he would invite the respondents to “hit the sawdust trail” and come forward to indicate their decision for Christ. And hit the trail they did, sinners and backsliders alike would push and stumble up the sawdust strewn aisles to the front of the platform and kneel and surrender to Jesus. The leaders of the day criticized him for turning worship into “vaudeville” and he would denounce the liberalism that was then infiltrating the Church:

“Nowadays we think we are too smart to believe in the virgin birth of Jesus and too well educated to believe in the Resurrection. That’s why people are going to the devil in multitudes.”

Sunday was not a theologian and even though he was a Presbyterian his ministry was nondenominational and he had a thorough knowledge of the Bible. He was also a strong supporter of Women’s suffrage, he called an end to child labor, and included blacks in all his revivals. He also supported Roman Catholics and Jews. One of the hottest topics of the day was prohibition. His preaching against liquor was instrumental in getting Prohibition passed:

“Whiskey is all right in its place—but its place is hell…to know what the devil will do, find out what the saloon is doing…If ever there was a jubilee in hell it was when lager beer was invented…I am the sworn, eternal and uncompromising enemy of the liquor traffic. I have been, and will go on, fighting the damnable, dirty rotten business with all the power at my command.”

He also stood firmly against card-playing, movie going, and roaring ‘20s fashions':

It’s a damnable insult some of the rigs a lot of fool women are wearing up and down our streets.”

He would spend a good part of his day in prayer and tell the audiences that prayer and Jesus are their strength to get through the day. Some people work all day, some sleep, some have hobbies but the ones with power pray:

“If you are strangers to prayer you are strangers to power…Yank some of the groans out of your prayers, and shove in some shouts.”

It could be said that Billy Sunday hated sin with a passion. His condemnations of booze, modernism in the Church, and the high fashions of the day were preached against with fire in his heart:

“I’m against sin. I’ll kick it as long as I have a foot. I’ll fight it as long as I have a fist. I’ll butt it as long as I have a head. I’ll bite it as long as I’ve got a tooth. And when I’m old and fistless and footless and toothless, I’ll gum it till I go home to Glory and it goes home to perdition.”

By 1910, Sunday was conducting meetings, usually lasting longer than a month, in cities like Youngstown, Wilkes-Barre, South Bend, and Denver. Between 1915 and 1917, he preached in major cities of Philadelphia, Syracuse, Kansas City, Detroit, Boston, Buffalo, and New York City. In the New York City revival it was reported that there were conversions totaling 98,264. He was front page news in all the cities he held campaigns. During World War 1, he often got more coverage in local newspapers than did the war. Some newspapers printed his sermons in full.

Before his death it was estimated that Sunday preached nearly 20,000 sermons, an average of 42 a month from 1896 to 1935. At the height of his popularity he was preaching more than twenty times each week, his crowds were enormous. Sunday probably preached to more than one hundred million people face to face. The huge numbers who “hit the saw dust trail” are remarkable. One modern historian estimates that 1,250,000 came forward during his invitations to receive Christ. In 1923, Sunday held a six-week Columbia, South Carolina campaign at which 479,300 people attended some 79 meetings.

Sunday was now a millionaire thanks to the free-will offerings at every meeting. A lot of questions were asked about his income but no scandal ever touched Sunday. He bought some land as an investment but Sunday was a soft touch with money and gave away much of his earnings. The Sundays were not extravagant spenders. Although he liked to drive, the couple never owned a car. Their American Craftsman-style bungalow at Winona Lake, Indiana had only nine rooms, 2500 square feet of living space, and no garage. He raised millions of dollars for the war effort but after the war his influence seemed to decline. The world was slowly creeping into the Church in America. Radio, movies, leisure activities and other entertainments drew masses away from the meetings. He never did lack for speaking and preaching engagements held in many of the largest cities at this time. The last fifteen years of his life he continued the “race” pleading with the lost to know Christ. In early 1935, he was bedridden for a while after suffering a mild heart attack. His doctor advised him to stay out of the pulpit, a command Sunday ignored. In the last week of October he preached on the text “What Must I Do to be Saved.” It was his last sermon. He died on November 6.

Billy Sunday is still one of the twentieth century’s best know evangelists and because of his faithfulness in answering God’s call over three hundred thousand men and women are known to have “hit the sawdust trail.”1 Corinthians 9:24,25 “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for imperishable crown.”

JJ (Dark) Di Pietro
Cane Creek Church