Billy Sunday

From the Pastor’s Study   (2/27/2022)

At a recent meeting for preachers at Camp CoBeAc, guests were invited to rummage through several boxes of books donated by a retired pastor.  Anything found to be of interest was free for the taking.  I selected a biography of early 20th century evangelist Billy Sunday.  After I brought the book back to my office I discovered on the flyleaf that it was signed by Billy Sunday’s widow, Nell “Ma” Sunday.

One hundred years ago, Billy Sunday was among the most famous and influential men in America.  He was a professional baseball player with the Chicago Cubs when he became a Christian.  He continued his baseball career for several years after his conversion, but he sensed God’s leading him into full-time Christian service.  He turned down a lucrative contract offer to continue playing ball, and instead went to work for the Chicago YMCA.  At the time, the YMCA was an evangelistic ministry aimed at young men.  After three years with the YMCA, Sunday went to work as advance man for a well-known evangelist, J. Wilbur Chapman.  When Chapman accepted a pastorate, Sunday launched out on his own as an evangelist. 

For a decade Billy Sunday preached in small towns throughout the Midwest.  He preached mostly in churches or in borrowed circus tents.  Then he began to receive invitations to conduct gospel campaigns in larger cities, and his ministry expanded.  He preached across the United States in wooden tabernacles built specifically to hold the many thousands who crowded to hear him.  His campaigns would last six weeks or more, with Sunday preaching sometimes three times a day.

The influence of Billy Sunday’s plain-speaking ministry was dramatic.  Saloons would close, churches would be filled, and the moral climate of communities would be tangibly altered.  It can be argued that Sunday’s campaign to get people “on the water wagon” was instrumental in bringing about Prohibition.  During Sunday’s 1917 New York City campaign, nearly one hundred thousand people publicly responded to the invitation to trust Christ and live a Christian life.

Although widely popular, Sunday was also the target of criticism.  The evangelist was charged with greed because of the large honorariums he often received.  Some accused him of proclaiming a shallow message, and of being vulgar in his delivery.  Others suggested that the popular response to his ministry was superficial and insincere.  His harshest criticism came in regard to his family.  Sadly, Sunday had sons who did not follow their father’s faith, and at times were involved in scandals that brought great heartache to their parents.  By his own admission Sunday, who spent most of his time on the road, should have been more attentive to his family.  

A few years ago, I entered into a discussion on social media with a young seminarian who was highly critical of Billy Sunday.  He argued that Sunday was a charlatan and a “platform clown.”  I countered that a careful study of Billy Sunday’s sermons shows a greater depth of content than many critics portray.  As for his indictment that Sunday’s ministry was superficial, without lasting results, I answered with a personal story.  When I was teenager in suburban Detroit, while visiting door-to-door for my church, I was invited inside a home by a man who was over ninety years old.  As we spoke, I asked about his faith – was he a Christian?  He told me that back in 1916, when Billy Sunday was holding his Detroit campaign, he responded to a public invitation after Sunday had preached and walked “the sawdust trail.”  “That is when I trusted Christ.”  This man was a devout Christian who was converted to Christ nearly seven decades before under the ministry of Billy Sunday.  He was one of a multitude who responded to Sunday’s preaching whose profession was anything but superficial.

Of course, for Billy Sunday, as for all of us, the true evaluation of our labors is not found in people’s recounting or a written a biography.  The real record is in heaven.