Born in an Iowa log cabin during the Civil War, Billy Sunday (1862-1935) became one of the country’s most popular athletes. It shocked and stunned the nation when he left baseball in March 1891 to preach the Gospel.
Why would a baseball star leave the sport at the height of his ability and success?
The baseball world was astonished when this admired sports hero made such a drastic career change. But Billy Sunday’s radical step impacted the lives of thousands for eternity as he eventually became the country’s most popular preacher.
In Billy Sunday’s day, many preachers were stern, stiff, and dull. Some droned with tortuously long sentences and needlessly complex vocabulary. Sunday was a dynamo who burst on the scene with colloquial rapid-fire illustrations and down-home speech that made him a favorite nationwide.
The previous article surveyed Billy Sunday’s baseball career. This article discusses his career as an evangelist running sizzling revival crusades all over the country, and concludes with a video trailer for a movie on Billy Sunday’s life.
Sunday served for awhile under John Wilbur Chapman, one of the top evangelists of the day, who mentored Sunday’s theological development. Under Chapman he learned as well the ins and outs of running evangelistic campaigns, how to construct a sermon, and how to preach evangelistically.
In 1896 Sunday started his own campaigns when Chapman returned to the pastorate. Sunday’s rapid-fire speech was laced with baseball illustrations. He acted as if the platform were a baseball diamond as he physically embellished his sermons with baseball maneuvers. He aimed his masculine messages at men. Sunday was a model of muscular Christianity and thus attracted men to his crusades, but he was very popular with women as well.
In his first 10 years from 1896 to 1906 he held 100 revivals with more than half in towns of population under 2,500. Ninety were in towns of population under 10,000. Most were farming communities in the mid-western corn belt from western Iowa to eastern Indiana.
In the early years he used large tents for the meetings. But starting with the Perry, Iowa revival of 1901, he usually required towns to build wooden tabernacles for the revival meetings. Perry, with a population of 4,000, built a 1,000-seat tabernacle for $750.
In 1904 Keokuk, Iowa, built a 3,000-seat tabernacle for Sunday’s crusade at a cost of $2,000. Sunday held 73 meetings in the building during the course of his 31-day revival with a total attendance of 130,000.
Lumber was re-sold after disassembling tabernacles to help recoup costs, and offerings always covered any remaining tabernacle construction expenses.
Towns covered the dirt floors with sawdust to minimize dust and dampen extraneous noise. Sunday invited his hearers to “hit the sawdust trail” in his Gospel invitations, as he urged people to repent of their sin and follow Christ. He asked people to walk down the sawdust aisle to shake his hand to cement their commitment to Christ.
After 1906 Sunday gradually increased the size of the cities in which he held revivals. The population of the six cities with revivals in 1907 averaged 10,000; in 1908 the average population was 20,000. By 1917 the yearly average population reached 1,750,000. From 1906 to 1918 Sunday held revival crusades in 10 of the 15 largest cities in the country and in one-third of the cities with population over 100,000. His geographical range increased as well; from 1912 to 1918 he held revivals in 21 states.
Billy Sunday often used baseball in publicity for his crusades. Sometimes he arranged baseball games with townspeople prior to crusades. At age 53 he hit a home run in an Old-Timers game during the Philadelphia crusade and circled the bases in 16 seconds, not much longer than the 14-second record he set as a player.
He also used baseball in his sermons. He would race around the stage like he used to run the bases and slide into home plate right on the stage shouting, “The devil says I’m out, but the Lord says I’m safe.” He used large print for his sermon notes so that he could catch a peek at them as he ran by the podium.
To say that Billy Sunday was energetic, acrobatic, and dramatic on stage is an understatement. His sermons were entertaining performances as well as being packed with Biblical truth. He did not want people to be bored as he preached the Gospel. He held their close attention through his platform activity.
In some sermons Billy Sunday would grab a chair and dramatize a vigorous onstage fight with the devil. People watched anxiously as Sunday staggered, choked, sputtered, punched, and yelled till he finally would conquer the devil, to everybody’s relief.
Billy Sunday’s authorized biographer Elijah Brown described Sunday’s preaching style:
“There is but one word at your command that will even remotely indicate his manner — action! At one moment he is at one end of his long platform, and before you become used to seeing him there he is at the other, and then quicker than thought he bounds back to the center, giving the desk a solar plexus blow that would knock out a giant. Ever and anon he makes long rapid strides to give it more whacks, until at last a big piece splits off and bounds to the sawdust floor below.”
(Brown, Elijah P., The Real Billy Sunday: The Life and Work of Rev. William Ashley
Sunday, D.D. The Baseball Evangelist, Otterbein Press, 1914.)
Biographer Bernard Weisberger also spoke of Sunday’s active preaching approach:
“Sunday skipped, ran, walked, bounced, slid, and gyrated on the platform. He would pound the pulpit with his fists until nervous listeners expected to hear crunching bones. He would, in a rage against the Devil, pick up the single kitchen chair which stood behind the reading desk and smash it into kindling; once it slipped away from him and nearly brained a few people in the front rows. As he gesticulated and shook his head, he would shed his coat, then his vest, then his tie, and finally roll up his sleeves as he whipped back and forth, crouching, shaking his fist, springing, leaping, and falling in an endless series of imitations.”
(Weisberger, Bernard, They Gathered at the River, Little, Brown and Company, 1958, p. 248.)
The New York Times reporter described Billy Sunday’s platform gymnastics at the opening of his 10-week New York City revival crusade on Sunday April 8, 1917 with these words:
“He raced up and down the green-carpeted platform … 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 backwards like a springy sword blade, bobbing back and forth and waving a handkerchief between his legs as he reeled off one of his amazing long lists of vituperative epithets and displaying as much energy, determination, and virtuous enthusiasm as Douglas Fairbanks [famous actor known for swashbuckling roles and the host of the first Oscar ceremony in 1929].”
(McLoughlin, William G., Billy Sunday Was His Real Name, The University of Chicago Press, 1955, p. xx.)
New York excitedly anticipated Billy Sunday’s first “sawdust trail” invitation in the wooden tabernacle that had been built for the meetings. At the time, it was the largest building ever erected in New York for public meetings, holding 20,000. Unlike other evangelists, Sunday delayed asking for converts. As daily meetings continued one after another, no one knew when the first invitation call would come and this stoked the fires of expectation and publicity. It finally began on April 19, the twelfth day of the crusade.
This New York City crusade began two days after America had declared war on Germany, and Sunday’s opening evening sermon “God’s Grenadiers” was a mixture of Christianity and support for the war effort. At the end of the sermon, Sunday stood on top of the pulpit waving a huge American flag as the crowd sang “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “America.”
The New York crusade was the apex of Billy Sunday’s career. He preached twice a day Tuesday through Saturday and three times on Sunday, all without loudspeakers. Total attendance for the 71-day revival April 8 – June 17 was 1,443,000 with 98,264 conversions.
By June 6 the daily offerings had covered the $200,000 cost of the campaign; the remaining 11 days raised $120,490 which Sunday donated to the Red Cross, YMCA, and YWCA, as he had promised in the first sermon of the crusade. Thus he sought to blunt the criticism that he was only in it for the money.
Upon the conclusion of the revival, John D. Rockefeller Jr. declared,
“Billy Sunday’s campaign in New York City has been tremendously successful–exceeding the most enthusiastic expectations of those who invited him here. … So far as the awakening of the city to religious things is concerned, the campaign is scarcely beginning. Think of the vast number of men and women who have been led by Billy to take an interest in cleaner living. … I am very glad that I had a part in bringing this great religious force to New York.”
(McLoughlin, William G., Billy Sunday Was His Real Name, The University of Chicago Press, 1955, p. xxviii.)
New York governor Charles S. Whitman telegrammed Billy Sunday upon his departure:
“The people of New York City and State recognize and appreciate this great service you have rendered.”
(McLoughlin, William G., Billy Sunday Was His Real Name, The University of Chicago Press, 1955, p. xxviii.)
Sunday’s crusades were enthusiastically received. Newspapers all over the country extensively covered his crusades, including printing transcripts of his sermons. For example during 1917, the New York Times printed 116 articles on Billy Sunday. Newspaper accounts consistently reported that the tabernacles were filled daily. The total crusade attendance for New York was nearly a million and a half, for Boston a million and a half, and for Philadelphia two million.
Newspapers also reported the offerings at his crusades. From 1907 to 1918, Sunday held 65 crusades, running 4 to 6 crusades each year. Over these 12 years the freewill offerings for Sunday at the crusades totaled $1,139,315. This total does not include offerings that covered crusade expenses. This was an average freewill offering for Sunday of $17,528 per crusade during this time period.
Sunday gave both the New York and Chicago crusade offerings totaling $176,490 completely to charity. Subtracting this from the total gives $962,825 for an average yearly offering of $80,235. He gave a tenth to charity and paid one-third of his staff salaries out of this. Additional income included lecture fees, investments, gifts, and book royalties. In 1920 Dunn and Bradstreet rated him as worth $1,500,000. Sunday pointed out that it was nobody’s business how much he was worth or what he did with his money as it was the Lord’s blessing on him.
Sunday’s success was partially due to extensive advance work and planning in each city. For example, work began in Boston eight months before the crusade with a team of volunteers that soon reached 35,000. In New York volunteers began a year ahead of time and eventually numbered 50,000.
Those who “followed the sawdust trail” (converts) at Sunday’s urging roughly numbered about 10% of a city’s population for cities with populations under 100,000. The cities with the three largest convert totals were New York (98,264), Boston (64,484), and Chicago (49,165).
Billy Sunday also pioneered radio preaching. The FCC was established when his radio preaching interfered with baseball game broadcasts.
Billy Sunday’s crusade career spanned 40 years from 1896 to 1935. Enormous crowds totaling over 100 million attended his sensational sermons, as he conducted over 300 separate revival campaigns. “Sawdust trail” converts numbered over 1,000,000, and he raised millions of dollars in campaign offerings to cover crusade expenses and salaries.
Sunday estimated that he had delivered 20,000 sermons over his career, averaging 42 per month from 1896 to 1935.
Here’s a YouTube clip of a proposed movie on Billy Sunday:
The next blog article in this series will delve into some of Sunday’s sermons and discuss what he believed and taught.
Questions to Ponder
- What could a present-day Bible teacher do today to seize the attention and commitment of contemporary Americans as Billy Sunday did in his day?
- Is it legitimate for a gospel minister to be wealthy? Why or why not?
Share your thoughts on these questions in the comments below. It could encourage or help another reader.
Soli Deo Gloria.
This is the eighteenth installment in the Famous Thinkers series highlighting great men who believed in the Creator.
Read the prequels:
1. Famous Thinkers – Former U.S. President Supports Intelligent Design
2. Famous Thinkers – Scientist Supports Intelligent Design
3. Famous Thinkers – Mathematician Supports Intelligent Design
4. Famous Thinkers – Theologian Testifies for Creation
5. Famous Thinkers – Rocket Scientist Supports Intelligent Design
6. Famous Thinkers – Botanist Supports Creation
7. Famous Thinkers – Botanist Supports Creation 2
8. Famous Thinkers – Astronomer Is a Creationist
9. Famous Thinkers – Mathematician Is a Creationist
10. Famous Thinkers – Mathematician Is a Creationist 2
11. Famous Thinkers – Chemist Is a Creationist 1
12. Famous Thinkers – Chemist Is a Creationist 2
13. Famous Thinkers – Chemist Is a Creationist 3
14. Famous Thinkers – Chemist Is a Creationist 4
15. Famous Thinkers – Physician Is a Creationist
16. Famous Thinkers – President Is a Creationist
17. Famous Thinkers – Evangelist Is a Creationist 1
Read the sequel:
19. Famous Thinkers – Evangelist Is a Creationist 3
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©William T. Pelletier, Ph.D.
“contending earnestly for the faith”
“destroying speculations against the knowledge of God”
(Jude 1:3; 2 Cor 10:4)
Wednesday March 25, 2015 A.D.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. (Romans 1:18-23)