1862-1935 American evangelist
"I'm against sin. I'll kick it as long as I've got a foot, and I'll fight it as long as I've got a fist.
I'll butt it as long as I've got 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!"
Billy Sunday was born in the year 1862 on a farm south of Ames, Iowa. His father William
died in the Civil War before he was born. His mother was named Mary Jane. The
provider to the family was his grandad Squire. Billy’s grandfather Squire made
everything on their farm. Billy described his grandfather as the most versatile man he
had ever known. He described him as follows, "There was virtually nothing he could not
make. He made wagons, the wheels and all parts of them. He could build houses and
lay stone walls. He made a turning lathe to make bedposts, spindles for banisters,
bureaus, water wheels and many other things." He had a blacksmith shop from which
Billy's grandmother would make his clothes. As Billy said later in life, "they were ill fitting
affairs but they were warm. You couldn't tell from looking at my pants whether I was
coming or going." Billy attended a local school close to the farm and also began to
learn the value of hard work at an early age. Because of the difficult circumstances on
the farm, Billy's mother was forced to send her two sons to a Soldiers' Orphans home in
Glenwood. Barely 13 years old he was sent out to make a way for himself in a strange
Major League baseball in the 1880’s was a very different game than today. For one
thing the pitcher threw from only 45 feet away instead of the 60 feet that baseball uses
today. And the catcher had no glove or mask to cover his face. He had to catch a
speeding ball barehanded. If he missed a high fastball it caught him right in the face.
Most catchers in those days had a lot of broken fingers and facial bones. And fans did
not just stay up in the stands, they crowded around the infield because the stands were
to small. This is the typical game Billy played in while he was a major leaguer.
As a young man Mr. Sunday began to prove himself as an excellent athlete. At Nevada
High School no one could outrun him. Barely a teenager, he beat all the runners at a
Fourth of July race including the adults. In Marshalltown he began to play baseball and
people began to marvel at his tremendous speed stealing bases and catching fly balls.
Cap Anson, owner of the Chicago White Stockings saw him play and gave him a tryout.
Billy came to Chicago from Iowa. Right away, Cap challenged Billy to race his fastest
player, Fred Pfeffer. "Fred is our crack runner," said Cap. "How about putting on a little
race this morning?" They headed out to a ballpark nearby. Pfeffer was wearing
his running shoes, but Billy didn't have any, so he ran barefooted. Billy won by 15 feet.
"Winning that race opened the hearts of the players to me," Billy said years later. " I will
always Be thankful to Cap for giving me that chance to show off to the best advantage."
Billy was signed and joined the Chicago White Stockings in 1883. His team was the
premier of the league. Their leader Adrian "Cap" Anson-was tall, muscular, and a
powerful hitter. He played in the league for 27 years. He was a manager as well as a
player and batted over 300 for twenty consecutive seasons. Cap's star player was Mike
Kelly. Kelly had been signed by owner A.G. Spaulding while playing for the Rochester
Bop Hitters. Spaulding knew he had a star when, on the day he was scouting him, Kelly
knocked in every run for his team. For the White Stockings, Kelly was a great hitter and
base stealer. The Chicago infield was called the "Stone Wall"...with Cap at first, Ned
Williamson at third, slick fielding Tommy Burns at shortstop., and "Dandelion" Fred Pfeffer
at second. The White Stockings also had two of the best pitchers in baseball: Larry
Corcoran (who threw several no-hitters in his career) and John Clarkson. So Billy joined
this excellent collection of players and began to be seen in stadiums around the
country. He played in the major leagues for eight years for three different teams:
Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia.
Billy earned the trust of Cap Anson from the very beginning. He often carried with him
thousands of dollars of team's money. He helped plan team trips, rounded up
baggage and purchased hotel and train tickets for everyone. He was never an
awesome, but one of the best in stealing bases and catching fly balls. He was the lead-
off batter. This was because he could run so fast. In fact he was so fast, the infielders
would sometimes overthrow the first baseman. "Hurry up, hurry up," was often heard in
the infield as Billy was running towards first. he was the first player ever to circle the
bases in less than 14 seconds. Over the years of his brief baseball career in one year he
stole 94 bases. This was later beaten by none other than Ty Cobb, who stole 96.
Realizing the youngster's great speed, fans began to wonder how fast he really was. In
August 1885, They found out. That year Billy raced Arlie Latham of the Saint Louis
Browns. Billy beat Arlie in a hundred yard dash by a full ten feet. A second proof of
Billy's speed occurred not long afterward when he entered an international track meet
in Chicago. Running against H. M. Johnson, the "Champion of America," young Billy
was nipped by less than a yard.
But track and field was not the place where Billy Sunday was destined to become
famous. His life took a dramatic turn in 1886 when he encountered an evangelistic
group from the Chicago Garden Mission. And Billy's decision to become a follower of
Jesus Christ changed not only his life, but the lives of millions of people across the
country. Billy's conversion happened after a night of drinking in downtown Chicago.
He was standing on a corner with some of his teammates when a gospel wagon pulled
up from the Chicago Garden Mission. Folks on the wagon began to play some of the
old hymns Billy heard his mother sing as a young boy. When the music stopped, an ex-
con Harry Monroe stepped out and began to testify about lives that had been changed
at the mission.
Billy made a fateful decision that day. He walked away from his old life and began a
new one, with Jesus Christ. he simply turned to his friends and remarked: " Boys I'm
bidding the old life goodbye."
After that he began visiting the mission on a regular basis. Near the end of his life he
wrote, "I never pass that spot without stopping taking off my hat and thanking God for
saving and keeping me." In his early years from 1896-1907 he spoke in mostly smaller
farm towns in Iowa and Illinois. His first meeting was in Garner, Iowa in 1896. He used
either a local opera house, an auditorium or a tent. Billy called this time being on the
"Kerosene Circuit" because most of these towns had no electricity. We can see from
newspapers accounts of that time that his preaching had a dramatic effect on lives and
communities where he was holding meetings. Here is one perspective of a meeting
held in Emerson, Iowa:
"Over a hundred were converted during the three weeks’ meeting and our little town
has never witnessed such a transformation in its history. Mr. Sunday was listened to every
night by an audience that packed the opera house to its utmost capacity at every
service. Many a callused and wicked heart has been changed, and many homes
have been made happy. Prayer and Bible study meetings have been organized, and
are doing much good in encouraging and assisting the young Christians. The
evangelist’s power in holding the close attention of his audience all the way through is
wonderful, and his resources seem to be boundless. His vivid imagination, and
irresistible humor and untiring earnestness make him an unusually interesting and most
effective preacher."When Sunday went to take the train to leave us, it looked as if nearly
all the town went to the depot to see him off. His hand was shaken by everybody who
could get to him, and as the train started, hands and handkerchiefs were waved and
gospel songs sung as long as the train could be seen. He will begin his next meeting at
Malvern next Sunday, to which place the prayers of all Emerson will follow him, and
there is no doubt but that many will go and lend a helping hand sometime during his
stay there." This is the way he took hold of the little town of Elliot, the scene of one of his
earliest meetings in Iowa:
"He is a great power for God, and his preaching is stirring the country for many miles
around us. His congregations are sometimes greater that the population of the town. This
shows something of what is being done: Wednesday morning the northbound train
brought thirty-five cases of liquor to Elliot, but the southbound train carried the stuff all
back again. Sunday comes out strong against the liquor business, and hits it hard, and
hits it where it lives." One of the Bedford papers contained this account:
"Never has Bedford witnessed such a religious awakening as is now in progress at the
Presbyterian church. The church of God is being shaken to its very foundation, and
many are anxiously inquiring, "What must I do to be saved?’ For nearly a week
Evangelist Sunday has been holding audiences spellbound by his earnest preaching of
Christ and him crucified. He has a most forcible manner all his own, that at once
commands attention and holds it to the end. He is no more telling church members
their shortcomings than he is commending their virtues. He makes no compromise with
the world, the flesh or the devil, and sends plenty of hot shot into the ranks of the sinners.
He strikes at everything that bears the stamp of sin with fearlessness and impartiality."
A little later this was said of the meeting:
"Last night ushers brought chairs and filled the aisles, for the people poured in long
before the hour of service." And two or three days further along: :Again the church was
crowded to its utmost capacity, not less than thirteen or fourteen hundred in attendance.
Already one hundred and sixty have gone forward and taken a stand for Christ." And
still later: "Never in the religious history of this community have there been such
meetings as were those of yesterday. The people poured out to the morning meeting
and filled the church. In the afternoon, the place was packed with men, making the
largest audience of men ever assembled in the county at a religious meeting. Some of
them drove fifteen miles. Sunday poured hot shot into the sins of the day. As he warmed
up off came his collar, then his coat, and for an hour and a quarter he dealt sledge
hammer blows for righteousness. Several times the men burst out in applause that shook
the church. They cried and laughed by turns.
"In the evening people began pouring in at five-thirty;women leading children by the
hand;young men and maidens, and old men leaning on their canes - everybody. The
doors were besieged by hundreds, but there was a blockade. The crush was so great
that at times there was no moving either backward or forward. Seats were placed in the
aisles, and hundreds stood around the walls and by the doors. The platform was
thronged. The vast amount of good that has been accomplished in Bedford and
surrounding country in the last twenty-three days seems almost incredible. Never before
in the history of Taylor County has there been such a revival. Men’s hearts were never
touched as they have been during the meeting just closed. And finally this last
comment about the Bedford meeting:
"there was an overflow meeting at the depot, to bid Mr. Sunday and his party farewell
and Godspeed. More than two hundred people were there to say a last good-by, and
while waiting for the train all joined heartily in singing some of the gospel hymns that
had become so familiar and precious to those who attended the services. The
spectacle was indeed an inspiring one, and must have cheered those consecrated
people, as they set out on their way to other fields of labor. As the train went on its way,
handkerchiefs and hats were waved at the little group standing on the rear platform
until it was lost to sight. We believe the good resulting from these meetings will never be
known this side of eternity."
As he grew more popular churches and opera houses were not able to hold the
crowds. Citizens in the towns would gather money and build large wooden tabernacles
for the meetings. This is one of the remarkable things about his meetings. The largest of
these tabernacles held up to 20,000 people. Sometimes one or two buildings would
have to be taken down to make room for it. This was done with the cooperation of the
local Christians and churches in the community. After the evangelist had left the
structure would be torn down and the wood sold to pay for the expenses of the meeting.
The construction of the tabernacle was important also because there were no
amplification systems in those days.
The Sunday team solved this problem by building all tabernacles with the same
pattern. The platform was in the back with the chairs all in front of him. Above the
platform was a device that projected his voice that looked like a huge upside-down
sugar scoop. Baffles were also built on the ceiling to project the sound. There were no
windows but spaces at the top for air circulation. Because of the acoustical problems
there could be absolutely no talking in the audience. There had to be total
concentration on what he was saying. If a baby was crying or a person talking, they
had to be quiet.
The floors of the tabernacle had to be covered with sawdust to deaden the sound of
people walking on the wooden floor. This is where the term walking the sawdust trail
came from. These people were popularly called trailhitters. Shortly before the
campaign began there was some kind of parade to announce the crusade meeting to
the community. Of course many different people would get involved. The men who
were on the wagon, those that had stopped drinking would march down Main Street.
Just the men who had stopped drinking. Then the Sunday school classes would march
and then the fire brigades. Then the policemen and businessmen. Everyone wanted to
be involved in some way. So you can imagine the kind of influence Billy Sunday had.
Saloons would many times close and families would be reunited. Cities were cleaner
and factory workers produced better goods because they came to work sober. Many
good effects happened through a Billy Sunday meeting. Between 1910-1920 Mr.
Sunday began to speak in most of America’s largest cities including Chicago, New York
City, Los Angeles, Detroit and many others. His stirring speaking, rousing his audience
from one topic to another brought in large numbers of people and his campaigns
lasted for many weeks at a time. And many walked the sawdust trail in his meetings.
These cities are just a sampling; Youngstown Ohio, 80,000 people came forward to
accept Christ, Columbus Ohio 181,000; Philadelphia 42,000; Syracuse, New York 21,000;
Boston 64,000; and New York 95,000.The list could go on and on. So many of his
campaigns were historic and life changing. His Canton, Ohio campaign in 1911 should
be can be singled out. It took place from December 1911 to February 1912 during one
of the coldest winters Canton had ever experienced. Every day the temperature was
below zero. Despite this the 5,000 seat tabernacle was packed at nearly every service.
During the second week city officials had to control the crowds entering the tabernacle.
There was no more room. Forced to wait outside they listened anyway, braving the
subzero temperatures. Some even defied police, climbing on the roof to listen through
the ventilators. On the last day 20,000 heard him speak and 10,000 tried to storm the
tabernacle but were turned away. Ten thousand saw him off at the train station as he
was leaving for his next meeting in Wheeling, Ohio. In April 1917, Billy came to New
York in one of his most important and largest campaigns. He preached to over one
million five hundred thousand people during a four month campaign. Over 94,000
came forward to accept Christ or recommit their lives to him. One reporter commented
about a meeting as follows, "Sunday was in excellent condition yesterday, and in the
best of spirits. Clad in a two piece sack suit, with a pleated white silk shirt, a bow tie, and
low shoes of patent leather. He raced up and down the green-carpeted platform
during his sermons, waving his hands, kicking up one knee now and again like a park
walking horse, brandishing a chair, standing with one foot on the chair and another on
the pulpit, bending over backward like a springy sword blade, bobbing back and forth
and waving a handkerchief between his legs as he reeled of one of his amazing long
lists of vituperative epithets, and displaying as much energy, determination, and
virtuous enthusiasm as Douglas Fairbanks thwarting the caitiffs of the film."
About the Apostle Paul he said; "Paul, that stoop shouldered, dim-eyed, wrinkle-
browed, white-haired gospel veteran was full of the Holy Spirit; he was on the firing line
for years and never dipped his colors. He knew that a man must be a child of God."
About the universal fatherhood of God;
"Now I don’t believe in the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood
of man. You’re a creature of God. So is a hog eating slop out of a trough. You’ve got to
be a child of God."
Then he turned his attention to the "damnable, hellish, vile, corrupt, iniquitous liquor
business." With one foot on a chair and the other on the pulpit, he shouted, "my life has
been threatened from one end of this city to the other. This God-forsaken whiskey gang
is the worst this side of hell. They offered money to the editors of one of the biggest
papers in New York to print their dirty lies about me, and he told them to go to hell. He’s
a church member too. They’ve raised, I understand $500,000 to get me. I say to them,
‘come on you God-forsaken, weasel-eyed, white-livered, black-hearted gang of thugs.
Come on! I defy you.
I’ve put them out of 200 million dollars worth of business. I ask no quarter from the dirty
bunch and I give them none." Dropping his voice to an impassioned whisper" None.
Absolutely none. None whatever. None."
Billy’s preaching style reached into the secular media as well. His meetings were
always publicized in the daily newspapers. Numerous articles and pictures were shown
of Mr. Sunday and his wife Helen. The headlines in the New York City Campaign are
some examples. Sunday and the Flag Give Crowd a Thrill, What Jesus Would do in Visit
to New York and A Dry Manhattan is Billy’s Fond Hope. His sermons were usually printed
verbatim and his meetings vividly described. Much like a Billy Graham crusade, Billy
Sunday meetings were big news in those days.
In the 1850’s sentiment within the Christian community and other groups began to fight
the selling and production of liquor. Most of these groups are long forgotten now but the
Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), The Anti Saloon League and others were
against liquor as much as the pro-life movement is against abortion today. This was
popularly called the Temperance or Prohibition movement. There was a widespread
feeling throughout our country that alcohol was a social evil that needed to be
eliminated. Mr. Sunday became a leading spokesman against liquor.