William Ashley "Billy" Sunday (November 19 1862 – November 6 1935) was an American athlete and religious figure who, after being a popular outfielder in baseball's National League during the 1880s, became the most celebrated and influential American evangelist during the first two decades of the 20th century.
Born into poverty, Sunday spent some years in an orphanage before taking a series of odd jobs in several small Iowa towns as he demonstrated his prowess in amateur athletics. His exceptional speed provided him the opportunity to play baseball in the major leagues for eight years. He was known for his daring base-running and dramatic outfield play, but he was only an average hitter.
Converted to evangelical Christianity in the 1880s, Sunday left baseball for the Christian ministry. He gradually developed his skills as a pulpit evangelist in the Midwest and then, during the early 20th century, he became the nation's most famous evangelist with his colloquial sermons and frenetic delivery.
Sunday held heavily reported campaigns in America's largest cities, made a great deal of money, and was welcomed into the homes of the wealthy and influential. Perhaps more than a million people came forward at his invitations, and he may have personally preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to more people than any other person in history up to that time. Sunday was a strong supporter of Prohibition, and his preaching almost certainly played a significant role in the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919.
Despite questions about his income, no scandal ever touched Sunday. He was sincerely devoted to his wife, who also managed his campaigns. But his three sons disappointed him, and his audiences grew smaller during the 1920s as Sunday grew older and alternate sources of entertainment preoccupied his countrymen. Nevertheless, he continued to preach and remained a stalwart bolster of conservative Christianity until his death.
By fourteen, Sunday was shifting for himself. In Nevada, Iowa, he worked for Colonel John Scott, a former lieutenant governor, tending Shetland ponies and doing other farm chores. The Scotts provided Sunday a loving home and the opportunity to attend Nevada High School, which had a fine local reputation. Although Sunday never received a high school diploma, by 1880 he was better educated than the typical American of his day.
In 1880, Sunday moved to Marshalltown, Iowa, where, because of his athleticism, he had been recruited for a fire brigade team. In Marshalltown, Sunday worked at odd jobs, competed in fire brigade tournaments, and played for the town baseball team. In 1882, with Sunday in left field, the Marshalltown team defeated the state champion Des Moines team 13-4.
Sunday struck out four times in his first game, and there were seven more strikeouts and three more games before he got a hit. During his first four seasons with Chicago, he was a part-time player, taking superstar Mike "King" Kelly's place in right field when Kelly served as catcher.
Sunday's speed was his greatest asset, and he displayed it on the basepaths and in the outfield. 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.
Sunday's personality, demeanor, and athleticism made him popular with the fans, as well as with his teammates. Manager Cap Anson considered Sunday reliable enough to make him the team's business manager, which included such routine duties as making travel arrangements and carrying thousands of dollars of team cash.
In 1887, when Kelly was sold to another team, Sunday became Chicago's regular right fielder, but an injury limited his playing time to fifty games. During the following winter Sunday was sold to the Pittsburgh Alleghenys for the 1888 season. He was their starting center fielder, playing a full season for the first time in his career. The crowds in Pittsburgh took to Sunday immediately; one reporter wrote that "the whole town is wild over Sunday." One reason why Pittsburgh fans supported a losing team during the 1888 and 1889 seasons was that Sunday performed well in center field as well as being among the league leaders in stolen bases.
In 1890, a labor dispute led to the formation of a new league, composed of most of the better players from the National League. Although he was invited to join the competing league, Sunday's conscience would not allow him to break his contract with Pittsburgh. Sunday was named team captain, and he was their star player, but the team suffered one of the worst seasons in baseball history. By August the team had no money to meet its payroll, and Sunday was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for two players and $1,000 in cash.
The Philadelphia team had an opportunity to win the National League pennant, and the owners hoped that adding Sunday to the roster would improve their chances. Although Sunday played brilliantly in his thirty-one games with Philadelphia, the team finished in third place.
In March 1891, Sunday requested and was granted a release from his contract with the Philadelphia ball club. Over his career, Sunday was never much of a hitter: his batting average was .248 over 499 games, about the median for the 1880s. In his best season, in 1887, Sunday hit .291, ranking 17th in the league. He was an exciting but inconsistent fielder. In the days before outfielders wore gloves, Sunday was noted for brilliant catches featuring long sprints and athletic dives, but he also committed a great many errors. Sunday was best known as an exceptionally fast runner, regarded by his peers as one of the best in the game, even though he never placed better than third in the National League in stolen bases.
Sunday remained a prominent baseball fan throughout his life. He gave interviews and opinions about baseball to the popular press; he frequently umpired minor league and amateur games in the cities where he held revivals; and he attended baseball games whenever he could, including a 1935 World Series game two months before he died.
Even before his conversion, Sunday's lifestyle seems to have been less boisterous than that of the average contemporary baseball player. Nevertheless, after his conversion, his changed behavior was recognized by both teammates and fans. Sunday shortly thereafter began speaking in churches and at YMCAs.
In 1893, Sunday became the full-time assistant to J. Wilbur Chapman, one of the best known evangelists in the United States at the time. Chapman was well educated and was a meticulous dresser, suave and urbane. Personally shy, like Sunday, Chapman commanded respect in the pulpit both because of his strong voice and his sophisticated demeanor. Sunday's job as Chapman's advance man was to precede the evangelist to cities in which he was scheduled to preach, organize prayer meetings and choirs, and in general take care of necessary details. When tents were used, Sunday would often help erect them.
By listening to Chapman preach night after night, Sunday received a valuable course in homiletics. Chapman also critiqued Sunday's own attempts at evangelistic preaching and showed him how to put a good sermon together. Further, Chapman encouraged Sunday's theological development, especially by emphasizing the importance of prayer and by helping to "reinforce Billy's commitment to conservative biblical Christianity.
Sunday also took advantage of his reputation as a baseball player to generate advertising for his meetings. In 1907 in Fairfield, Iowa, Sunday organized local businesses into two baseball teams and scheduled a game between them. Sunday came dressed in his professional uniform and played on both sides. Although baseball was his primary means of publicity, Sunday also once hired a circus giant to serve as an usher.
When Sunday began to attract crowds larger than could be accommodated in rural churches or town halls, he pitched rented canvas tents. Again, Sunday did much of the physical work of putting them up, manipulating ropes during storms, and seeing to their security by sleeping in them at night. Not until 1905 was he well enough off to hire his own advance man.
In 1906, an October snowstorm in Salida, Colorado, destroyed Sunday's tent — a special disaster because revivalists were typically paid with a freewill offering at the end of their meetings. Thereafter he insisted that towns build him temporary wooden tabernacles at their expense. The tabernacles were comparatively costly to build (although most of the lumber could be salvaged and resold at the end of the meetings), and obviously, locals had to put up the money for them in advance. This change in Sunday's operation began to push the finances of the campaign to the fore. At least at first, raising tabernacles provided good public relations for the coming meetings as townspeople joined together in what was effectively a giant barnraising. Sunday built rapport by participating in the process, and the tabernacles were also a status symbol, because they had previously been built only for major evangelists such as Chapman.
Mrs. Sunday transformed her husband's out-of-the-back-pocket organization into a “nationally renowned phenomenon.” New personnel were hired, and by the New York campaign of 1917, the Sundays had a paid staff of twenty-six. There were musicians, custodians, and advance men, of course; but the Sundays also hired Bible teachers of both sexes, who among other responsibilities, held daytime meetings at schools and shops and encouraged their audiences to attend the main tabernacle services in the evenings. The most significant of these new staff members were Homer Rodeheaver, an exceptional song leader and music director who worked with the Sundays for almost twenty years, and Virginia Healey Asher, who (besides regularly singing duets with Rodeheaver) directed the women's ministries, especially the evangelization of young working women.
In 1907, journalist Lindsay Denison complained that Sunday preached “the old, old doctrine of damnation,” getting results by "inspiring fear and gloom in the hearts of sinners.” But Sunday himself told reporters "with ill-concealed annoyance", that his revivals had "no emotionalism." Certainly contemporary comparisons to the extravagances of mid-nineteenth-century camp meetings — as in the famous drawing by George Bellows — were overdrawn. Sunday told one reporter that he believed that people could "be converted without any fuss, and, at Sunday's meetings, "instances of spasm, shakes, or fainting fits caused by hysteria were few and far between.
Crowd noise, especially coughing and crying babies, was a significant impediment to Sunday's preaching because the wooden tabernacles were so acoustically live. During his preliminaries, Rodeheaver often instructed audiences about how to muffle their coughs. Nurseries were always provided, infants forbidden, and Sunday sometimes appeared rude in his haste to rid the hall of noisy children who had slipped through the ushers. Tabernacle floors were covered with sawdust to dampen the noise of shuffling feet (as well as for its pleasant smell and its ability to hold down the dust of dirt floors), and coming forward during the invitation became known as “hitting the sawdust trail.”
By 1910, Sunday began to conduct meetings (usually longer than a month) in small cities like Youngstown, Wilkes-Barre, South Bend, and Denver, and then finally, between 1915 and 1917, the major cities of Philadelphia, Syracuse, Kansas City, Detroit, Boston, Buffalo, and New York City. During the 1910s, Sunday was front page news in the cities where he held campaigns. Newspapers often printed his sermons in full, and during World War I, local coverage of his campaigns often surpassed that of the war. Sunday was the subject of over sixty articles in major periodicals, and he was a staple of the religious press regardless of denomination.
Over the course of his career, Sunday probably preached to more than one hundred million people face-to-face — and, to the great majority, without electronic amplification. The vast numbers who "hit the sawdust trail" are also remarkable. Although the usual total given for those who came forward at invitations is an even million, one modern historian estimates the true figure to be closer to 1,250,000. Of course Sunday did not preach to hundred million different individuals but to many of the same people repeatedly during the course of a campaign. Before his death, Sunday estimated that he had preached nearly 20,000 sermons, an average of 42 per month from 1896 to 1935. During his heyday, when he was preaching more than twenty times each week, his crowds were often huge. Even in 1923, well into the period of his decline, 479,300 people attended the 79 meetings of the six-week 1923 Columbia, South Carolina, campaign. That number was 23 times the white population of Columbia. Nevertheless,"trail hitters" were not necessarily conversions (or even "reconsecrations") to Christianity. Sometimes whole groups of club members came forward en masse at Sunday's prodding. Undoubtedly some audience members simply wanted to shake Sunday's hand. By 1927, Rodeheaver was complaining that Sunday's invitations had become so general that they were meaningless.
Large crowds and an efficient organization meant that Sunday, the former resident of an orphan home, was soon netting hefty offerings. The first questions about Sunday's income were apparently raised during the Columbus, Ohio, campaign at the turn of 1912-13. During the Pittsburgh campaign a year later, Sunday spoke four times per day and effectively made $217 per sermon or $870 a day at a time when the average gainfully employed worker made $836 per year. The major cities of Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, and New York City gave Sunday even larger love offerings. Sunday donated Chicago's offering of $58,000 to Pacific Garden Mission and the $120,500 New York offering to war charities. Nevertheless, between 1908 and 1920, the Sundays earned over a million dollars; an average worker during the same period earned less than $14,000.
Sunday was welcomed into the circle of the social, economic, and political elite. He counted among his neighbors and acquaintances several prominent businessmen. Sunday dined with numerous politicians, including Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and counted both Herbert Hoover and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. as friends. During and after the 1917 Los Angeles campaign, the Sundays visited with Hollywood stars, and members of Sunday's organization played a charity baseball game against a team of show business personalities that included Douglas Fairbanks.
The Sundays enjoyed dressing well and dressing their children well; the family sported expensive but tasteful coats, boots, and jewelry. Mrs. Sunday also bought land as an investment. A fruit orchard farm and rustic cabin at Hood River, Oregon, caught the attention of reporters, who called it a "ranch." Sunday was a soft touch with money and gave away much of his earnings. Neither of the Sundays were extravagant spenders. Although Sunday enjoyed driving, the couple never owned a car. Their American Craftsman-style bungalow at Winona Lake, Indiana, where the Sundays had moved their legal residence in 1911, was furnished in the popular Arts and Crafts style and had two safes, but the house had only nine rooms, of living space, and no garage.
Nevertheless, Sunday was not a separationist as were most orthodox Protestants of his era. He went out of his way to avoid criticizing the Roman Catholic Church and even met with Cardinal Gibbons during his 1916 Baltimore campaign. Also, cards filled out by "trail hitters" were faithfully returned to the church or denomination that the writers had indicated as their choice — including Catholic and Unitarian.
Although Sunday was ordained by the Presbyterian Church in 1903, his ministry was nondenominational, and he was not a strict Calvinist. He preached that individuals were, at least in part, responsible for their own salvation. “Trail hitters” were given a four-page tract that stated, “if you have done your part (i.e. believe that Christ died in your place, and receive Him as your Saviour and Master) God has done HIS part and imparted to you His own nature.”
Sunday was neither a theologian nor an intellectual, but he had a thorough knowledge of the Bible, and he was well read on religious and social issues of his day. His surviving Winona Lake library of six hundred books gives evidence of heavy use, including underscoring and reader's notes in his characteristic all-caps printing. Some of Sunday's books were even those of religious opponents. In fact, he was later charged, probably correctly, with plagiarizing a Decoration Day speech given by the noted agnostic Robert Ingersoll.
Sunday was a passionate supporter of World War I. In 1918 he said, "I tell you it is [Kaiser] Bill against Woodrow, Germany against America, Hell against Heaven." Sunday raised large amounts of money for the troops, sold war bonds, and stumped for recruitment.
Sunday had been an ardent champion of temperance from his earliest days as an evangelist, and his ministry at the Chicago YMCA had given him first-hand experience with the destructive potential of alcohol. Sunday's most famous sermon was "Get on the Water Wagon", which he preached on countless occasions with both histrionic emotion and a "mountain of economic and moral evidence." Sunday said, "I am the sworn, eternal and uncompromising enemy of the Liquor Traffic. I have been, and will go on, fighting that damnable, dirty, rotten business with all the power at my command. Sunday played a significant role in arousing public interest in Prohibition and in the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919. When the tide of public opinion turned against Prohibition, he continued to support it. After its repeal in 1933, Sunday called for its reintroduction.
Sunday also opposed eugenics, recent immigration from southern and eastern Europe, and the teaching of evolution. Further, he criticized such popular middle-class amusements as dancing, playing cards, attending the theater, and reading novels. However, he believed baseball was a healthy and even patriotic form of recreation, so long as it was not played on Sundays.
Worse, the Sundays were disgraced by the behavior of their three sons who engaged in all the activities Billy preached against. In the end, the Sundays were effectively forced to pay blackmail to several women to keep the scandals relatively quiet. In 1930, their housekeeper and nanny, who had become a virtual member of the family, died. Then Sunday's daughter, the only child actually raised by Nell, died in 1932 of what seems to have been multiple sclerosis. Rescued from financial ruin by the Sundays, their oldest son George committed suicide in 1933.
Nevertheless, even as the crowds declined during the last fifteen years of his life, Sunday soldiered on, accepting preaching invitations and speaking with effect. In early 1935, he had a mild heart attack, and his doctor advised him to stay out of the pulpit. Sunday ignored the advice. He died on November 6, a week after preaching his last sermon on the text "What must I do to be saved?
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