William Ashley Sunday (November 19, 1862 – November 6, 1935) was an American athlete and religious figure who left a promising baseball career to embrace Christianity. Not content to be a member of the religious "flock," he apprenticed himself to J. Wilbur Chapman (a well-regarded itinerant preacher), gradually developed his own theological perspective, homiletic skill and preaching style, and eventually became the most celebrated and influential evangelist in America during the first two decades of the twentieth century.
Sunday sponsored popular religious revivals and other missionary campaigns in America's largest cities, preaching to tens of thousands and (not incidentally) making a great deal of money in the process. It is estimated that, over the course of his career, he addressed more than a million people, meaning that he may have personally preached the Christian gospel to more people than any other person in history up to that time.
Though some have critiqued his theological and political views, it is undeniable that his particular approach to Christian theology and social morality was appealing to many American Christians. The preacher's prestige, plus the attraction of his conservative outlook, made him the darling of many members of the American upper class, and he was often welcomed into the homes of the wealthy and influential. For an example of his influence, one may note that Sunday was a strong supporter of Prohibition laws, and that his preaching almost certainly played a significant role in the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919.
Despite questions about his income, no scandal ever touched Sunday. He lived relatively simply, was sincerely devoted to his wife, and seemed to be a genuine believer in his own message. Even so, his meteoric rise to religious prominence began to reverse as he aged, and his audiences gradually dwindled during the 1920s and 1930s as the preacher grew older and alternate sources of entertainment came to preoccupy his fellow citizens. Nevertheless, he continued to preach his message and remained a stalwart bolster of conservative Christianity until his death in 1935.
Billy Sunday was born near Ames, Iowa in November of 1862. His father, William Sunday, was a Union soldier during the Civil War who had enlisted in the Iowa Twenty-Third Volunteer Infantry and died of disease at Patterson, Missouri, five weeks after the birth of his youngest son. When Sunday was ten years old, his impoverished mother was forced to send him and his older brother to the Soldiers' Orphans Home in Glenwood, Iowa. Though his experience at the orphanage was undoubtedly emotionally trying, it also afforded the young lad certain options that had been unavailable in his poverty-stricken home: specifically, Sunday gained orderly habits, a decent primary education, and the realization that he had exceptional athletic ability.
By 14, Sunday had left the confines of the orphanage and was already supporting himself (both emotionally and financially). In Nevada, Iowa, he worked for Colonel John Scott, a former lieutenant governor, tending Shetland ponies and doing other farm chores. In exchange, the Scott family provided Sunday a supportive home environment and the opportunity to attend Nevada High School, which had a fine local reputation. Although Sunday never received an official high school diploma, by 1880 he was better educated than the typical American of his day.
In 1880, Sunday moved to Marshalltown, Iowa, where his obvious physical hardiness and athleticism earned him a position on a fire brigade team. In Marshalltown, Sunday worked at odd jobs, competed in fire brigade tournaments, and played for the town baseball team. In 1882, with Sunday playing left field, the Marshalltown team defeated the state champion Des Moines team 15-6.
Sunday's professional baseball career was launched by Adrian "Cap" Anson, a Marshalltown native and future Hall of Famer, after he heard an enthusiastic account of Sunday's prowess from his aunt. In 1883, on Anson's recommendation, A.G. Spalding, president of the Chicago White Stockings (the original name of the Chicago White Sox), signed Sunday to play for the defending National League champions.
Sunday's speed was his greatest asset, and he displayed it on the base-paths and in the outfield. In 1885, the White Stockings arranged a race between Sunday and Arlie Latham, the fastest runner in the American Association. Sunday won the hundred-yard dash by ten feet.
Sunday's personality, demeanor, and athleticism made him popular with the fans, as well as with his teammates. Manager Cap Anson considered Sunday reliable enough to make him the team's business manager, which included such routine duties as making travel arrangements and carrying thousands of dollars of team cash.
In 1887, Sunday became Chicago's regular right fielder, but an injury limited his playing time to fifty games. During the following winter, Sunday was sold to the Pittsburgh Alleghenies for the 1888 season. He was their starting center fielder, playing a full season for the first time in his career. The crowds in Pittsburgh took to Sunday immediately; one reporter wrote that "the whole town is wild over Sunday." One reason why Pittsburgh fans supported a losing team during the 1888 and 1889 seasons was that Sunday performed well in center field as well, as being among the league leaders in stolen bases.
In 1890, a labor dispute led to the formation of a new league, composed of most of the better players from the National League. Although he was invited to join the competing league, Sunday's conscience would not allow him to break his contract with Pittsburgh. Sunday was named team captain, and he was their star player, but the team suffered one of the worst seasons in baseball history. By August the team had no money to meet its payroll, and Sunday was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for two players and $1,000 in cash. The owners of his new team hoped that adding Sunday to the roster would bolster their chances to take the pennant that season.
In March 1891, Sunday requested and was granted a release from his contract with the Philadelphia ball club. Over his career, Sunday was never much of a hitter: his batting average was .248 over 499 games, about the median for the 1880s. In his best season, in 1887, Sunday hit .291, ranking 17th in the league. He was an exciting but inconsistent fielder. In the days before outfielders wore gloves, Sunday was noted for brilliant catches featuring long sprints and athletic dives, but he also committed a great many errors. Sunday was best known as an exceptionally fast runner, regarded by his peers as one of the best in the game, even though he never placed better than third in the National League for stolen bases.
On a Sunday afternoon during either the 1886 or 1887 baseball season, Sunday and his teammates had indulged in some alcoholic beverages were wandering the streets of Chicago on their day off. At one corner, they stopped to listen to a street preaching team from the Pacific Garden Mission. Sunday was immediately entranced, as the group was performing old gospel songs that he had (in his too-brief childhood) heard his mother sing. As a result, he later began attending services at the mission and was informed that it imperative that he accept Christ into his life. After some internal struggle, he did so. The effect was immediate. Sunday stopped drinking and began faithfully attending the fashionable Jefferson Park Presbyterian Church, a congregation handy to both the ball park and his rented room.
Even before his conversion, Sunday's lifestyle seems to have been less boisterous than that of the average contemporary baseball player. Nevertheless, after his conversion, the changes in his behavior were recognized by both teammates and fans. Thereafter, Sunday decided to spread the Word himself, and began speaking in churches and at YMCAs.
In 1886, a fellow parishioner at Jefferson Park Presbyterian Church introduced Billy to Helen Amelia "Nell" Thompson, daughter of the owner of one of Chicago's largest dairy products businesses. Although Sunday was immediately smitten with her, both had serious on-going relationships that bordered on engagements. Further, Miss Thompson had been raised in a much more privileged environment than had Sunday, and her father strongly discouraged the courtship, viewing all professional baseball players as "transient ne'er-do-wells who were unstable and destined to be misfits once they were too old to play." Nevertheless, Sunday pursued her with the same tenacity that he pursued baseball and the Gospel. On several occasions, Sunday said, "She was a Presbyterian, so I am a Presbyterian. Had she been a Catholic, I would have been a Catholic—because I was hot on the trail of Nell." Fortunately for the young couple, Mrs. Thompson had liked Sunday from the start and weighed in on his side, and Mr. Thompson finally relented. The couple was married on September 5, 1888.
In the spring of 1891, Sunday decided to live out his conversion narrative, turning down a $400-per-month baseball contract in order to accept a position with the Chicago YMCA at $83 per month. Sunday's official job title at the YMCA was "Assistant Secretary," but his position also happened to involve a great deal of ministerial work—a fortuitous coincidence that provided him with valuable experience for his later evangelistic career. For three years, Sunday visited the sick, prayed with the troubled, counseled the suicidal, and visited saloons to invite patrons to evangelistic meetings.
Continuing on this ministerial career path, Sunday, in 1893, became the full-time assistant to J. Wilbur Chapman, one of the best-known evangelists in the United States at the time. Personally shy, like Sunday, Chapman commanded respect in the pulpit both because of his strong voice and his sophisticated demeanor. Sunday's responsibilities as Chapman's "advance man" were to precede the evangelist into cities where he was scheduled to preach, organize prayer meetings and choirs, erect tents (when necessary) and take care of the various and sundry additional requirements of a traveling ministry. By listening to Chapman preach night after night, Sunday received a valuable course in homiletics. He was also given explicit instruction by his mentor, who critiqued Sunday's own attempts at evangelistic preaching and showed him how to construct a compelling sermon. Further, Chapman encouraged Sunday's theological development by emphasizing the importance of prayer and by helping to "reinforce Billy's commitment to conservative biblical Christianity."
When Chapman unexpectedly returned to the pastorate in 1896, Sunday struck out on his own, beginning with meetings in tiny Garner, Iowa. For the next twelve years, Sunday preached in approximately seventy communities, most of them in Iowa and Illinois. Sunday referred to these towns as the “Kerosene Circuit” because, unlike Chicago, most were not yet electrified. Towns often booked Sunday's prayer meetings informally, sometimes by sending a delegation to hear him preach or by telegraphing him while he was holding services somewhere in a nearby community.
Always a shrewd self-promoter, Sunday took advantage of his reputation as a baseball player to generate advertising for his revival meetings. In 1907 in Fairfield, Iowa, Sunday organized local businesses into two baseball teams and scheduled a game between them. Sunday came dressed in his professional uniform and played on both sides. Although baseball was his primary means of publicity, Sunday also once hired a circus giant to serve as an usher.
When Sunday began to attract crowds larger than could be accommodated in rural churches or town halls, he pitched rented canvas tents. As during the years of his apprenticeship, Sunday did much of the physical work of putting these structures up, manipulating ropes during storms, and seeing to their security by sleeping in them at night. Not until 1905 was he financially successful enough off to hire his own advance man.
In 1906, an October snowstorm in Salida, Colorado, destroyed Sunday's tent—a special disaster because revivalists were typically paid with a freewill offering at the end of their meetings. As a result, this chance event was doubly costly (as it lost him both the tent and the potential earnings from the Salida revival). Thereafter, he insisted that towns build him temporary wooden tabernacles at their expense. At least at first, raising tabernacles provided good public relations for the coming meetings, with townspeople joining together in what was effectively a giant barn-raising—not to mention the fact that the tabernacles themselves were also status symbols, as previously they had only been built for major evangelists (such as Chapman). Further, Sunday helped to built rapport with communities by participating in the construction process himself.
Eleven years into Sunday's evangelistic career, both he and his wife had been pushed to their emotional limits. Long separations had exacerbated the preacher's natural feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. As a product of a childhood that could well be described as a series of losses, he was extremely dependent on his wife's love and encouragement. Nell Sunday, for her part, found it increasingly difficult to handle household responsibilities, the needs of four children (including a newborn), and the emotional welfare of her husband. Coincidentally, this same period also saw his ministry expanding, meaning that he needed an administrator—a job that would ideally suit his practically-minded wife. As a result, in 1908 the Sundays decided to entrust their children to a nanny so that Nell Sunday could manage her famed husband's revival campaigns.
Mrs. Sunday transformed her husband's out-of-the-back-pocket organization into a "nationally renowned phenomenon." New personnel were hired, and by the New York campaign of 1917, the Sundays had a paid staff of twenty-six. Their organization included the standard employees (musicians, custodians, and advance men), but also some innovative positions whose inclusion was prompted by the couple's unique vision of their ministry. Most notably, the Sundays hired Bible teachers of both sexes, who, among other responsibilities, held daytime meetings at schools and shops, and encouraged their audiences to attend the main tabernacle services in the evenings.
With his wife administering the campaign organization, Sunday was free to do what he did best: compose and deliver popular sermons. While his bombastic style and simple, "matter-of-fact" theology (discussed below) earned the preacher his share of critics, it is undeniable that they also brought him considerable success and approbation.
By 1910, Sunday began to conduct meetings (usually longer than a month) in small cities like Youngstown, Wilkes-Barre, South Bend, and Denver, and then finally, between 1915 and 1917, the major cities of Philadelphia, Syracuse, Kansas City, Detroit, Boston, Buffalo, and New York City. Throughout this decade, Sunday was front-page news in the cities where he held campaigns. Newspapers often printed his sermons in full, and even during World War I, local coverage of his campaigns often equaled or surpassed the media attention received by the war. Sunday was the subject of over sixty articles in major periodicals, and he was a staple of the religious press regardless of denomination.
During these meetings, individuals would be "invited" to come forward and renew their commitment to Christ. The physical environs present during these sessions provided a potent metaphor for this conversion/confirmation process. Specifically, the floors of Sunday's hastily-constructed tabernacles were covered with sawdust, which led the act of coming forward during the invitation to become known as "hitting the sawdust trail." The term was first used during a Sunday campaign in Bellingham, Washington, in 1910. Apparently, the phrase "hitting the sawdust trail" had first been used by loggers in the Pacific Northwest to describe following home a trail of previously dropped sawdust through an uncut forest—a metaphor for coming from, in Nell Sunday's words, "a lost condition to a saved condition."
The financial contributions made by large crowds, especially when coupled with Nell's efficient organization, meant that Sunday, the formerly impoverished war orphan, was soon netting hefty profits. The first questions about Sunday's income were apparently raised during the Columbus, Ohio campaign at the turn of 1912-1913. During the Pittsburgh campaign a year later, Sunday spoke four times per day and effectively made $217 per sermon ($870 a day) at a time when the average gainfully employed worker made $836 per year. The major cities of Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, and New York City gave Sunday even larger love offerings, though Sunday donated Chicago's offering of $58,000 to Pacific Garden Mission and New York's $120,500 to war charities. Nevertheless, between 1908 and 1920, the Sundays earned over a million dollars; an average worker during the same period earned less than $14,000.
With his newfound wealth and influence, Sunday was welcomed into the circle of the social, economic, and political elite. He counted among his neighbors and acquaintances several prominent businessmen. Sunday dined with numerous politicians, including Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and counted both Herbert Hoover and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. as friends. During and after the 1917 Los Angeles campaign, the Sundays visited with Hollywood stars, and members of Sunday's organization played a charity baseball game against a team of show business personalities that included Douglas Fairbanks.
Though typically frugal, the Sundays were occasionally willing to make use of their considerable fortune. For instance, the couple enjoyed dressing themselves and their children stylishly; the family sported expensive but tasteful coats, boots, and jewelry. Mrs. Sunday also bought land as an investment. A fruit orchard farm and rustic cabin at Hood River, Oregon, caught the attention of reporters, who called it a "ranch." In spite of these occasional luxuries, Sunday was a soft touch with money, such that he gave away much of his earnings to friends, charities, and needy individuals. Indeed, neither of the Sundays were extravagant spenders. Although Billy enjoyed driving, the couple never owned a car. Their American Craftsman-style bungalow at Winona Lake, Indiana, where the Sundays had moved their legal residence in 1911, was nicely appointed and had two safes, but the house itself had only nine rooms, 2,500-square-feet of living space, and no garage.
At the height of his influence, Sunday took a public stand on numerous political issues, including the first World War and the Prohibition movement, both of which he passionately supported. Commenting on the former, he said, "I tell you it is [Kaiser] Bill against Woodrow, Germany against America, Hell against Heaven." In response, Sunday raised large amounts of money for the troops, sold war bonds, and stumped for recruitment. Similarly, Sunday had been an ardent champion of temperance from his earliest days as an evangelist, as his ministry at the Chicago YMCA had given him first-hand experience with the destructive potential of alcohol. Sunday's most famous sermon was "Get on the Water Wagon," which he preached on countless occasions with both histrionic emotion and a "mountain of economic and moral evidence." Sunday said, "I am the sworn, eternal and uncompromising enemy of the Liquor Traffic. I have been, and will go on, fighting that damnable, dirty, rotten business with all the power at my command." With typical bluntness, he fumed that "whiskey and beer are all right in their place, but their place is in hell." Sunday played a significant role in arousing public interest in Prohibition and in the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919. When the tide of public opinion turned against Prohibition, he continued to support it. Even after the law was repealed in 1933, Sunday made an unpopular (and unsuccessful) call for its reintroduction.
Sunday's popularity waned after World War I, when radio and movie theaters became his competitors for the public's leisure time. As Dorsett notes, "Sabbath church attendance was not greatly affected by the rapid rise of the entertainment industry, but revivals conducted in big tents and tabernacles night after night for several weeks running were definitely undercut when the public found new competitors for their time." At the same time, the health of the elderly couple began to decline—likely as a result of their continually ambitious (though consistently dwindling) tour schedule.
Worse, the Sundays were disgraced by the behavior of their three sons, all of who tended to engage in all the activities Billy preached against. In the end, the Sundays were effectively forced to pay blackmail to several women to keep the scandals relatively quiet. In 1930, their housekeeper and nanny, who had become a virtual member of the family, died. Then Sunday's daughter, the only child actually raised by Nell, died in 1932 of what seems to have been multiple sclerosis. As if to compound this litany of tragedies, their oldest son George committed suicide in 1933.
Nevertheless, even as the crowds declined during the last 15 years of his life, Sunday soldiered on, accepting preaching invitations and speaking with his characteristic vigor. In early 1935, he suffered a mild heart attack, and his doctor advised him to stay out of the pulpit. Sunday ignored the advice. He died on November 6, a week after preaching his last sermon on the text "What must I do to be saved?"
Over the course of his career, Sunday probably preached to more than 100 million people. The vast numbers who "hit the sawdust trail" are also remarkable. Although the usual total given for those who came forward at invitations is an even million, one modern historian estimates the true figure to be closer to 1,250,000. Of course, Sunday did not preach to 100 million discrete individuals, but to many of the same people repeatedly during the course of a campaign. Before his death, Sunday estimated that he had preached nearly 20,000 sermons, an average of 42 per month from 1896 to 1935. During his heyday, when he was preaching more than 20 times each week, his crowds were often huge. Even in 1923, well into the period of his decline, 479,300 people attended the 79 meetings of the six-week 1923 Columbia, South Carolina campaign. That number was 23 times the white population of Columbia. Nevertheless, the "trail hitters" were not necessarily conversions (or even "reconsecrations") to Christianity. Sometimes whole groups of club members came forward en masse at Sunday's prodding. Undoubtedly, some audience members simply wanted to shake the famous preacher's hand. By 1927, Rodeheaver was complaining that Sunday's invitations had become so general that they were meaningless.
Part of Billy Sunday's near universal appeal was his unapologetically vigorous and bombastic homiletic style. At a given meeting, Sunday would wait until the moment felt right, and then would launch into his message. Sunday gyrated, stood on the pulpit, ran from one end of the platform to the other, and dove across the stage, pretending to slide into home plate. Sometimes he even smashed chairs to emphasize his points. His sermon notes had to be printed in large letters so that he could catch a glimpse of them as he raced by the pulpit. In addresses directed to an audience of men, many of which attacked sexual sin, Sunday's delivery could be graphic (at least for the era). Some religious and social leaders criticized Sunday's exaggerated gestures as well as the slang and colloquialisms that filled his sermons, but audiences clearly enjoyed them. Further, some modern scholars argue that Sunday's approach can be seen as an instance of the muscular, virile Christianity that was arising at the time in response to the perceived "weakness" inherent in stereotypical Christian values. Indeed, his ministry did "share the conviction [common in his day] that Christianity must be a muscular, masculine religion to be effective. Through the content of his message, his aggressive style of evangelism, and the remarkable story of his own life, Sunday's revivalism both reflected and addressed some of the gender-related concerns of his day."
In 1907, journalist Lindsay Denison complained that Sunday preached "the old, old doctrine of damnation," getting results by "inspiring fear and gloom in the hearts of sinners.”  But Sunday himself told reporters "with ill-concealed annoyance," that his revivals had "no emotionalism." Certainly contemporary comparisons to the extravagances of mid-nineteenth-century camp meetings—as in the famous drawing by George Bellows—were overdrawn. Sunday told one reporter that he believed that people could "be converted without any fuss," and, at Sunday's meetings, "instances of spasm, shakes, or fainting fits caused by hysteria were few and far between."
The particularities of his style, especially his use of invective and binary opposition, are immediately notable when one examines an excerpt of his famous sermon on the evils of liquor:
Billy Sunday was a conservative evangelical who accepted fundamentalist doctrines. He affirmed and preached the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, a literal devil and Hell, and the imminent return of Jesus Christ. At the turn of the twentieth century, most Protestant church members, regardless of denomination, gave assent to these doctrines (except, perhaps, for the imminent return of Christ). Though Sunday refused to hold meetings in cities where he was not welcomed by the vast majority of the Protestant churches and their clergy, dissenting clergymen often found it politic to limit their objections to Sunday's theology while he was adding new members to their congregations.
Nevertheless, Sunday was not a "separationist," as were most orthodox Protestants of his era. He went out of his way to avoid criticizing the Roman Catholic Church and even met with Cardinal Gibbons during his 1916 Baltimore campaign. Also, cards filled out by "trail hitters" were faithfully returned to the church or denomination that the writers had indicated as their choice—including Catholic and Unitarian.
Although Sunday was ordained by the Presbyterian Church in 1903, his ministry was nondenominational, and he was not a strict Calvinist. He preached that individuals were, at least in part, responsible for their own salvation. “Trail hitters” were given a four-page tract that stated, “if you have done your part (i.e. believe that Christ died in your place, and receive Him as your Saviour and Master) God has done HIS part and imparted to you His own nature.”
Sunday was neither a theologian nor an intellectual, but he had a thorough knowledge of the Bible, and he was well read on religious and social issues of his day. His surviving Winona Lake library of 600 books gives evidence of heavy use, including underscoring and reader's notes in his characteristic all-caps printing. Some of Sunday's books were even those of religious opponents. In fact, he was later charged, probably correctly, with plagiarizing a Decoration Day speech given by the noted agnostic Robert Ingersoll.
Sunday was a lifelong Republican, and he espoused the mainstream political and social views of his native Midwest: individualism, competitiveness, personal discipline, and opposition to government regulation. Writers such as Upton Sinclair and John Reed attacked Sunday as a tool of big business, and poet Carl Sandburg also crudely accused him of being a money-grubbing charlatan. Nevertheless, Sunday sided with Progressives on some issues. For example, he denounced child labor and supported urban reform and women's suffrage. Sunday condemned capitalists "whose private lives are good, but whose public lives are very bad," as well as those "who would not pick the pockets of one man with the fingers of their hand" but who would "without hesitation pick the pockets of 80 million people with fingers of their monopoly or commercial advantage." He never lost his sympathy for the poor, and he sincerely tried to bridge the gulf between the races at the nadir of the Jim Crow era, although on at least two occasions in the mid-1920s Sunday received contributions from the Ku Klux Klan.
Sunday also opposed eugenics, recent immigration from southern and eastern Europe, and the teaching of evolution. Further, he criticized such popular middle-class amusements as dancing, playing cards, attending the theater, and reading novels. However, he believed baseball was a healthy and even patriotic form of recreation, so long as it was not played on Sundays.
*Leach, William H. "Religious Fanaticism: Asset or Debit?" The Biblical World 53(3) (May 1919): 240-244.
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