Billy Sunday Billy Sunday For almost a quarter century Billy Sunday was a household name in the United States. Between 1902 when he first made the pages of the New York Times and 1935 when the paper covered his death and memorial service in detail, people who knew anything about current events had heard of the former major league baseball player who was preaching sin and salvation to large crowds all over America. Not everyone who knew of the famous evangelist liked him. Plenty of outspoken critics spoke of his flashy style and criticized his conservative doctrines. But he had hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of loyal defenders, and they were just as loud in their praise as the critics were in their criticism.
Whether people stood for or against the Reverend William A. Sunday, they all agreed that it was difficult to be indifferent toward him. The religious leader was so extraordinarily popular, opinionated, and vocal that indifference was the last thing that he would get from people. His most loyal admirers were confident that this rural-breed preacher was God’s mouthpiece, calling Americans to repentance. Sunday’s critics said that at best he was a well-meaning buffoon whose sermons vulgarized and trivialized the Christian message and at worst he was a disgrace to the name of Christ (Dorsett 2). There are elements of truth in both of these views. He was often guilty of oversimplifying biblical truths, and at times he spoke more out of ignorance than a heavenly viewpoint.
He was also a man with numerous flaws. He spoiled his children, giving them everything that they asked for. He put enormous responsibility on his wife, burdening her with many aspects of his ministry. He always noticeably sought the Oswalt / 2 applause of the crowd for his own praise. He often confused the will of God with his own social and political agenda.
He even sometimes compared the gospel of Jesus Christ with special interest and American foreign policy. Nevertheless, Billy Sunday was a sincere man whose life was fundamentally changed by his response to an evangelist’s call to repent of his sins, to believe that Jesus Christ died in his place for those sins, and to follow Christ in thanksgiving by worshiping and obeying him. Following this spiritual rebirth, the convert became deeply devoted to Jesus Christ. A devotion manifested in living out many of the teachings of Christ as found in the New Testament’s four Gospels. The professional baseball player became a regular churchgoer. He also studied Scripture and became unusually generous toward the needy. Furthermore, Sunday was constrained by an obsession to tell others how he had finally found inner peace and a more purposeful life.
At first through lectures and then in sermons, he related how Jesus Christ gave him a new life of meaning, peace, and hope. This same gospel, he said, would similarly transform others. The evidence is overwhelmingly that it did. If Billy Sunday was sincere devoted, and motivated, he was also a product of his times and an example of the culture and morals of middle America. On the other hand, Sunday took many stands against popular beliefs, and he persuaded multitudes to join him in a war against many of the modernistic ideas of the time that he saw as evil.
As he once summarized his opinion so well, “What this world needs is a tidal wave of reform” (Sunday “Satan” 24). Oswalt / 3 It is true that Sunday was a showman who craved an audience and loved applause. But he also touched the lives of countless men and women of all social classes, helping them escape various forms of personal bondage and find freedom in the gospel. And if he did not convert all of urban America to his brand of Christianity, he at least played a major role in helping to keep conservative biblical Christianity alive in this century (Dorsett 3). To understand fully why he thought, lived, preached, and teached the way he did, we should look at his upbringing and conversion experience. William Ashley Sunday was born on November 19, 1862.
His father, a union private, would die of pneumonia just five weeks later, three days before Christmas, in a cold, damp army tent in the Missouri wild. His father’s death and a series of other deaths would come to have a tremendous impact on Sunday’s life. For the first three years of Billy Sunday’s life he was a very sickly child. His mother, Mary Jane, would carry him around on a tote pillow while helping her parents plant corn, milk cows, chop wood, and wrangle horses. Then a traveling doctor prepared a syrup that Mary Jane fed to Billy every day for three weeks.
Miraculously, Billy gained strength and became a normal active child. Luck changed for Billy’s family, but only for a short time. His mother remarried and had two more children. Sadly, the second child, a girl, died in a fire when she was three. Not long after, Mary Jane’s second husband died also.
These untimely deaths left a mark on young Billy that stayed with him for the remainder of his life. In a short autobiography written for The Ladies’ Home Journal, he begins with the words “I never saw my father.” In the first few pages of this revealing tale he recalls Oswalt / 4 ten deaths in addition to that of his father. Four aunts and an uncle died of tuberculosis, and then a grandmother he loved dearly died of the same disease. Billy was six years old when she died. “I would leave her coffin,” he recalled, “only when forced to do so. The second day after the funeral my mother missed me.
They called and searched everywhere; finally my dog picked up the scent and they followed my tracks through the snow to the grave, weeping and chilled through with the November winds. For weeks they feared I would not live.” As painful as these deaths all were, Billy Sunday soon experienced a more hurtful separation. By 1872, Mrs. Sunday and her parents were so impoverished that they could not feed and clothe all the children. Thanks to a state senator, they re assigned to one of Iowa’s three well-run Civil War Soldiers’ Homes located in Glenwood, about a hundred and fifty miles from the Sunday homestead.
Billy remembered the departure this way: When we climbed into the wagon to go to town I called out, “Good-bye trees, good by spring.” I put my arms around my dog-named Watch and kissed him. The train left about one o’clock in the morning. We went to the little hotel near the depot to wait .. The proprietor awakened us about twelve-thirty saying, “The train is coming.” I looked into mother’s face. Her eyes were red and her cheeks wet from weeping, her hair disheveled.
While Ed and I slept she had prayed and wept. We went to the depot, and as the train pulled in she drew us to her heart, sobbing as if her heart would break (Sunday “Sermons” 14). Oswalt / 5 Life at Glenwood b …