Billy Sunday Found the Prairie
Church History Timeline… 1801-1900
The church needs fighting men of God, not “weasel-eyed, jelly spined, four-flushing. . . Christians.” These are the words of evangelist Billy Sunday, a church revival leader in the early l900s. William “Billy” Ashley Sunday was born on this day, November 19, 1862. His father never saw him. A poor farmer and bricklayer, he had left his wife behind on the Iowa prairie to serve in the Union armies where he contracted an infection and died.
Billy grew up in poverty. A sickly child, he often had to be carried on a pillow. But when he grew stronger, he became as hard a worker as any prairie children. Billy’s mom remarried, but his step-dad was an alcoholic who eventually abandoned the family. Billy wound up in an orphanage. Later he became involved in amateur athletics and attracted the attention of the Chicago White Stockings.
After he became a major league baseball player, Billy used to hang out in saloons. Once, when he’d been out drinking, he heard some gospel street singers, and at the Pacific Garden Mission, he asked Jesus to take charge of his life. He began to study the Bible and eventually quit baseball to become secretary of Chicago’s Y.M.C.A. Then he moved on to organize J. Wilber Chapman’s evangelistic services. When Chapman left to be a pastor, Billy took over the meetings.
Billy Sunday organized his evangelistic staff like a vaudeville business–with advance men, secretaries, a choir, and local volunteers. He raised expenses in advance of his tent meetings. In 1909 he was joined by Homer Rodeheaver, a song leader and trombone player. Billy’s talent for the dramatic drew thousands to see his antics and hear his rapid-fire delivery and pantomimes of fighting the devil. His message was against alcohol, laziness, apathy and immigrants. He amassed a fortune–sometimes (according to one disgruntled songleader) by not paying his help.
Sunday’s altar call was relatively painless–nothing like the narrow gate that Jesus’ described or the cross Christ said we must take up. Sunday would ask, “How many of you men and women will jump to your feet and come down and say, “Bill, here’s my hand for God, for home, for my native land, to live and conquer for Christ?” Shaking Billy’s hand was his way of signifying getting right with God. Thousands pressed forward to do it.
But what did it mean? Billy’s New York campaign drew a million-and-a-half people and chalked up l00,000 “conversions.” However, many of the converts were uncertain what their step forward meant and few actually joined a church. Nonetheless, Billy’s techniques paved the way for future evangelists who also learned from his failures and developed methods of follow-up.
Diana Severance, Ph.D. edited by Dan Graves, MSL
- Adapted from an earlier Christian History Institute story.
- Brown, Elijah P. The Real Billy Sunday: the life and work of William Ashley Sunday, the baseball evangelist. Dayton, Ohio: Otterbein Press, 1914.
- Bruns, Roger A. Preacher; Billy Sunday and big-time American evangelism. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.