What Was It Like To Hear Billy Sunday Preach?

In the first half of the 20th century, Billy Sunday (1862–1935) was America’s best-known evangelist and revivalist.

So instead of saying, “I’m against sin; I’ll fight it as long as I live,” he would put it this way: “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.”

 

In the first half of the 20th century, Billy Sunday (1862–1935) was America’s best-known evangelist and revivalist.

Born to poverty in rural Iowa, Billy was sent to an orphanage at the age of 10. He would later use his hard-scrabble past as a justification for his plain-spoken style:

The mal-odors of the barnyard are on my feat. I have greased my hair with goose-grease; I have blackened my shoes with a cob; I have wiped my proboscis with a gunny sake; I have drunk coffee out of my saucer and eaten peas with a knife. . . . I am a graduate from the University of Poverty and Hard Knocks.

In 1883 he became a professional baseball player with the Chicago White Stockings, playing center field (in the days before outfielders used gloves). He also played for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Athletics. He was never much of a hitter, but he impressed fans with his acrobatic diving catches and his base running (he stole 84 bases in the 1890 season).

If you wanted to get on Billy Sunday’s nerves, just try suggesting to him that the game was rigged. He once responded:

When some withered-up, walrus-jawed, limber-legged, gimlet-eyed, pink-tea-blooded old fool of a pessimist comes to me and tells me in a voice like a dying calf and the gurgle of a wheezy cistern pump that the game is crooked as the devil, and that pennants are bought and sold, I feel like knocking his block into the middle of next week.

Sunday was converted to Christianity at Pacific Garden Mission around 1886, and he retired from baseball to pursue evangelism. By 1895, he was headlining his own revivals, and he soon became one of the most successful evangelists of his generation. His events were so well-populated that the locations of his revivals would prepare months in advance, constructing wooden tabernacles able to hold up to 10 percent of a smaller town and up to 20,000 people in a major city.

The apex of his career was in 1917, during World War I, when 98,000 people “hit the sawdust trail” (came forward for commitment or recommitment to Christ) during a 10-week revival in New York City.

As his biographer Robert Martin notes, Sunday was not a doctrinal preacher. “He believed and preached only enough doctrine to make sense of his own conversion and that which he hoped to engender in others.” From what I can tell, he never really set forth the beauty and importance of communing with God through Christ by the Spirit to the glory of God. Rather, the focus was more on decisive transformation and good Christian morals for the good of society.

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