A baseball star, Billy Sunday played for the Chicago White Stockings in the 1880s and later the Philadelphia Phillies. Born during the Civil War in a log cabin in Iowa, his father, who was a Union Army soldier, died of pneumonia when Billy was a month old. He wrote in his autobiography, “I never saw my father.”
During his childhood, there were 10 deaths among his relatives. Poverty led his mother to send him and his siblings to the Soldier’s Orphans Home. At age 15, Billy Sunday struck out on his own, working several jobs before playing baseball. His career took off when he was recruited by A.G. Spalding, owner of the White Stockings and founder of Spalding Sporting Goods Company. Billy Sunday became one of the most popular athletes in the nation.
While leaving a Chicago saloon with some other players in 1886, he heard a group of gospel singers on the street from the Pacific Garden Mission. Attracted by the hymns, as they were the same ones his mother used to sing, Billy Sunday went closer to listen. He attended services at the mission and experienced a conversion, becoming an evangelical Christian. Billy began attending YMCA meetings and quit drinking.
That same year, he went to Jefferson Park Presbyterian Church where he was introduced to Helen Amelia “Nell” Thompson. Her father disapproved, considering baseball players “transient ne’er-do-wells who were unstable and destined to be misfits once they were too old to play.”
Her father eventually relented, gave his blessing, and Billy and Nell were married Sept. 5, 1888. Nell encouraged Billy, who was naturally shy, to begin speaking. She went on to organize all of his evangelistic meetings, with him admitting to “never yet gone contrary to Mrs. Sunday’s advice.”
Billy Sunday gave up making $5,000 a year as a professional baseball player to working at the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) for $75 a month.
On Feb. 17, 1889, a national sensation occurred when Billy Sunday preached his first sermon as a Christian evangelist in Chicago.
The local press reported in sports’ terms: “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 to second base with his cap in hand.”
During the next 46 years, till his death November 6, 1935, over 100 million people heard Billy Sunday preach.
Sunday proclaimed in Des Moines, Iowa, Nov. 3, 1914: “When may a revival be expected? When the wickedness of the wicked grieves and distresses the Christian. … What a spell the devil seems to cast over the church today! … If the church was down on her face in prayer they would be more concerned with the fellow outside. The church has degenerated into a third-rate amusement joint. … It is as much the duty of the church to awaken … men and women of this city as it is the duty of the fire department to arouse when the call sounds. What would you think of the fire department of Des Moines if it slept while the town burned? You would condemn them and I will condemn you if you sleep and let men and women go to hell. …”
Sunday added: “Christians have lost the spirit of prayer. … Religion needs a baptism of horse sense. … If you go to a farmer and say … God will give you crops only when it pleases him and it is no use for you plow your ground. … That is all wrong. … Revival may be expected when Christian people confess and ask forgiveness for their sins. … Break up your fallow ground. … Stand up and let people know you stand for Jesus Christ. … When may a revival he expected? … When … ministers … thought they would die unless a revival would come to awaken their people, their students, their deacons, and their Sunday school workers, unless they would fall down on their faces and renounce the world and the works and deceits of the devil. … A revival … returns the church from her backsliding and … causes the conversion of man and women; and it always includes the conviction of sin. … A revival helps to bring the unsaved to Jesus Christ.”
Billy Sunday preached on prayer: “The man who truly prays ‘Thy kingdom come’ cannot pass a saloon and not ask himself the question, ‘What can I do to get rid of that thing that is blighting the lives of thousands of young men, that is wrecking homes, and that is dragging men and women down to hell?’ You cannot pray ‘Thy kingdom come,’ and then rush to the polls and vote for the thing that is preventing that kingdom from coming. You cannot pray ‘Thy kingdom come’ and then go and do the things that make the devil laugh. For the man who truly prays ‘Thy kingdom come’ it would be impossible to have one kind of religion on his knees and another when he behind the counter; it would be impossible to have one kind of religion in the pew and another in politics. When a man truly prays ‘Thy kingdom come’ he means it in everything or in nothing.”
Billy Sunday’s preaching against alcohol led to the passage of the 18th Amendment. He stated: “I am the sworn, eternal, uncompromising enemy of the Liquor Traffic. I ask no quarter and I give none. I have drawn the sword in defense of God, home, wife, children and native land, and I will never sheathe it until the undertaker pumps me full of embalming fluid, and if my wife is alive, I think I shall call her to my beside and say: ‘Nell, when I am dead, send for the butcher and skin me, and have my hide tanned and made into drum heads, and hire men to go up and down the land and beat the drums and say, ‘My husband, “Bill” Sunday still lives and gives the whiskey gang a run for its money.'”
In 1910, Billy Sunday preached a historic revival in Joplin, Missouri, a mining town known for hotels, women of the night, gambling and saloons.
Rev. Frank Neff of the Independence Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church in Kansas City, and president of the Ministers Alliance of Joplin, told reporters: “We expect a great clean up in the city, but it will be in the nature of a religious awakening which will result in a permanent clean up and will come from a sincere desire of the people.”
During Joplin’s “Fifty Days of Sunday,” Billy Sunday explained: “A revival is the conviction of sin. Inside the church there must be a spiritual revival before it gets outside.”
In his animated style, Billy Sunday said: “Temptation is the devil looking through the keyhole. Yielding is opening the door and inviting him in.”
Billy Sunday warned not to remove the Bible from public schools: “Rivers of America will run with blood filled to their banks before we will submit to them taking the Bible out of our schools.”
One cannot but wonder what Billy Sunday would think of news reports of school shootings? Perhaps more important than a national conversation on guns, he would call for a national inquiry into what killer kids are being taught in public schools. Could it be that thoughts precede actions? That the confusion being programmed into students minds might have some bearing on their behavior? With computers there is hardware and software. Instead of banning the hardware of guns, maybe it would be more important to ban the corrupted software children are being indoctrinated with, the secular-atheistic-transgenderism which teaches there is no right or no wrong?
Billy Sunday’s revival preaching followed in the tradition of:
- Scotland revivals beginning in the 1730s
- First Great Awakening preaching of George Whitefield
- Second Great Awakening camp meetings
- pre-Civil War preaching of Charles Finney
- 1857 New York City’s Noontime Businessmen Prayer Meeting Revival led by Jeremiah Lanphier
- post-Civil War evangelist D.L. Moody
- Welsh revivals at the turn of the last century
Billy Sunday inspired famous tent evangelists and revival preachers such as Oral Roberts and Billy Graham. Billy Sunday spoke in city after city across America where tens of thousands heard him in month-long meetings. Huge wooden auditoriums, called Billy Sunday Tabernacles, were built to accommodate the crowds. The Billy Sunday Tabernacle in Winona was the largest auditorium in northern Indiana for many years, seating 7,500. A Billy Sunday museum is on the campus of Grace College and Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana.
Billy Sunday was a pioneer in gospel radio broadcasting, along with:
- Paul Rader – pastor of Moody Church in Chicago
- Charles Fuller – founder of Fuller Theological Seminary
- Aimee Semple McPherson – founder of the Foursquare Church
- William Ward Ayer – pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Manhattan
- Walter A. Maier – The Lutheran Hour
- Donald Grey Barnhouse – The Bible Study Hour
- “Fighting Bob” Shuler
- Father Charles Coughlin
Religious radio stations were initially unregulated. Sometimes their powerful signals overlapped sports and other broadcasts, and occasionally they aired programing critical of politicians. This resulted in government regulating radio in 1926 by the FRC (Federal Radio Commission), which became the FCC in 1934.
Teaching that salvation was through faith in Jesus Christ, not in organized religion, Billy Sunday explained that churches were fine so far as they were “in the world, but all wrong when the world is in them,” adding:
- “You can go to hell just as fast from the church door as from the grog shop or bawdy house.”
- “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.”
He assured believers of God’s forgiveness: “The devil says I’m out, but the Lord says I’m safe.
He challenged: “Live so that when the final summons comes you will leave something more behind you than an epitaph on a tombstone.”
Billy Sunday stated: “I never see a man or a woman or boy or girl but I do not think that God has a plan for them. … He will use each of us to His glory if we will only let Him.”
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