Biography of Famous Preacher Billy Sunday Part 1

About the famous American preacher Billy Sunday, biography and history of the church revivalist and evangelical.

BILLY SUNDAY (1862-1935)

Billy Sunday liked to call himself "a rube of the rubes," and a "hayseed of the hayseeds." But his New York Times obituary was more accurate in describing him as the greatest high-pressure, mass-conversion Christian evangelist America or the world has ever known.

He was a professional baseball player turned preacher. His flamboyant, highly theatrical performances effectively banished all restraint and solemnity from the revival service. He became the master symbol of ragtime religion in the age of ballyhoo.

Billy's father, the senior William A. Sunday, died of pneumonia in a Union Army camp one month after the birth of his namesake. Following other family tragedies, young Sunday was raised in orphanages and by foster parents. He worked his way through public school as a stableboy, errand runner, hotel worker, farmhand, fireman, and undertaker's helper. In the small-town games that passed for organized sport he proved himself a natural athlete.

While playing with a local baseball team he was "discovered" by Pop Anson, manager of the Chicago Whitestockings. Sunday was a poor batter but a capable outfielder. He held the record for stolen bases until it was broken by Ty Cobb in 1915. As a player for National League teams in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, his moral character was presumably on a par with that of his fast-living handlebar-moustachioed colleagues.

Then one day, sitting drunk with his team-mates on a curbside in Chicago, Billy heard the strains of a familiar gospel tune being played by a tiny band across the street. He stood up and told his buddies: "I'm through. I am going to Jesus Christ. We've come to a parting of the ways."

He renounced his sinful habits and became a lay worker for the Chicago YMCA, though he continued to play baseball for another 5 years. Sunday might have spent his life doing humble chores for the Y but for a fortuitous meeting with J. Wilbur Chapman, a popular evangelist. Chapman needed an advance man and Billy was available.

Two years later, Chapman was ready to return to a settled church in Indiana. Billy was left flat. Nevertheless, he had learned the revival business from poster plastering to tent raising. So when ministers in Garner, Ia., asked him to fill in for Chapman, Billy dusted off his old Y speech on "Earnestness in Christian Life" and answered the call.

Gradually, Billy shed the decorum of his mentor and began to punctuate his sermons with the gyrations, gymnastics, and rapid-fire street epithets that would make him a preaching sensation. During a sermon he would skip, run, leap, and fall down on the stage in endless imitations of drunkards, society women, liberal clergymen, and moral backsliders. He would pound the pulpit, jump up on the pulpit, break furniture, and stamp his feet, perspiration spinning from his grimacing face. Then, crouching and weaving, with his coat and vest stripped away, Billy would shadow-box with "the Devil." One of his best-remembered acts was to slide into "home plate" like a sinner trying to slide into heaven, only to be called "out" by God the umpire.

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