A man asked me the other day, “Who is Billy Sunday? I know Billy Graham, but who is Billy Sunday?”
Long before there was much of radio, Billy Sunday, a phenomena of Christian fundamentalism, held revivals across the country.
He was dramatic, dynamic, athletic and articulate as he strode the platform, stood on the pulpit, flung his arms and torso using tough, robust male language to fight sin and save sinners.
He was soft on theology but tough on Christian morals. He condemned liquor traffic and challenged society’s evils. The press praised him and the people loved him.
In the first half of the 20th century, Billy Sunday was America’s best known 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.
Sunday was converted to Christianity 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,” Martin wrote.
He portrayed an image of the all-American man: plain spoken, unabashed, athletic, patriotic, professional and hyper masculine — delivering a form of old time religion with entertainment, toughness and passion. He had an ear for the rhythm of language and for evocative word pictures and he delivered his adjective laden descriptions in rapid fire succession.
Instead of praying, “Lord, save us from weak Christianity,” he prayed, “Lord save us from off-handed, flabby-cheeked, brittle-boned, weak-kneed, thin-skinned, pliable, plastic, spineless, ossified three karat Christianity.”
As thousands of enthralled worshipers watched, Sunday would run, jump, hurl unseen baseballs, smash imaginary home runs, slide for home plate and shout in umpire like fashion “you’re out” thus announcing God’s judgment on the unsaved.
Congregations marveled at the evangelist’s remarkable agility and energy, and journalists commented upon his stamina. One reporter estimated that as he preached, Sunday traveled a mile during each sermon and more than 100 miles in every campaign.
I heard Dr. W.A. Criswell, the dynamic pastor of the First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas, address ministerial students and to my astonishment he mentioned Billy Sunday in this way; “He came and went.”
Dr. Criswell’s opinion was that you should always try to connect your public ministry to an institution, a bible school or a college. The good you have done can last for generations and help build the kingdom of God on earth. There is much wisdom in that as we consider our living and giving.
E. Lee Phillips, a minister and author, works in Floyd County.