Sunday, Billy (1862-1935)

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Sunday, Billy (1862-1935)

A former professional baseball player with an entertainer's flair and a mastery of idiomatic language, Billy Sunday set the pace for modern evangelism. His tabernacle crusades of the early 1900s combined showmanship with Fundamentalism and produced thousands of converts. His influence on the cultural dynamics of the country is incalculable for, while many doubted the sincerity of Sunday's believers, his "Elmer Gantry" style would be copied by American evangelists throughout the twentieth century, serving to increase and cement the religious right as a significant force in society.

Born William Ashley Sunday on November 19, 1862 in a farmhouse near Ames, Iowa, Billy Sunday seemed an unlikely candidate for the ministry. While a stint in an orphanage instilled habits of honesty, Sunday was also known to fight, drink, and chase women. He held a series of odd jobs until a baseball scout noticed his athletic abilities, and in 1883 he joined the Chicago White Stockings and enjoyed the boisterous life of a professional athlete. One afternoon in 1886, while out with friends at a Chicago saloon, Sunday encountered an evangelistic group from the Pacific Garden Mission. Intrigued by their singing, he accepted an invitation to services and was soon converted, joining the Jefferson Park Presbyterian Church a short time later. He continued to play baseball, but gave up his habits of drinking and swearing, and began giving inspirational talks to young fans. Sunday left baseball in 1891 to work for the Chicago YMCA. In 1893, he joined J. Wilburn Chapman's evangelistic services as an advance man, handling technical details for the revival services. When Chapman retired in 1895, Sunday assumed his place and began a touring ministry.

Sunday's tabernacle crusades were conducted in temporary wooden structures with sawdust covered floors. While the revival meeting was not new to America—the tradition stretched back to the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s and the camp meetings on the frontier—Sunday added new elements to make his events successful. Careful planning went into the crusades, and teamwork was essential. A Sunday campaign resembled a vaudeville show as much as a mission; advance men promoted the coming attraction, secretaries made local arrangements, and bands and choirs were hired to provide entertainment. In 1909, Homer A. Rodeheaver, a song leader and trombone player, joined Sunday's troupe, and the tabernacle rang with music and excitement in the build-up to Sunday's explosive sermons.

Combining athletic gestures with colorful language, Sunday harangued his audiences about the need to get right with God. He defended the brevity of his visits by saying, "They tell me a revival is only temporary: so is a bath, but it does you good." He linked religion to patriotism and upright living, urging people to accept Christ as their savior and to signify their intention to convert by walking down the aisle and shaking Sunday's hand. Thousands did so. A New York campaign alone drew a million and a half people with 100,000 conversions. The weakness in his work was that he did not encourage people to join any specific church, and thus many of his converts never became committed to a particular faith.

Sunday did not avoid controversial issues or tone down his Fundamentalist message in order to court popularity. He advocated Prohibition and wholeheartedly embraced the war effort, using religion to promote the sale of war bonds during World War I. He denounced Modernism in religion, advocated the enactment of laws to ban the teaching of evolution in schools, and was a friend and advisor to conservative politicians. Unlike most evangelists, who settled down to become pastors or teachers in religious colleges, Sunday remained a fixture on the "sawdust trail." By his death on November 6, 1935, he had led over 300 campaigns and claimed to have brought 300,000 souls to Christ.

By using the modern techniques of show business and linking religion not to intricate theology, but to common language and experiences, Billy Sunday established a unique American form of evangelism. Later leaders, most notably Billy Graham, would continue his practice of large-scale campaigns aimed at emotional conversions.

—Tracy J. Revels

Further Reading:

Bruns, Roger. Preacher: Billy Sunday and Big Time American Evangelism. New York, W. W. Norton, 1992.

Dorsett, Lyle W. Billy Sunday and the Redemption of Urban America. Grand Rapids, W. W. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991.

McLoughlin, William G. Jr. Billy Sunday was His Real Name. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1955.

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Sunday, Billy (1862-1935)

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