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Christian History Home > 131 Christians > Evangelists and Apologists > Billy Sunday

Billy Sunday
Salty evangelist
posted 8/08/2008 12:56PM

 1 of 2

Billy Sunday

"Nowadays we think we are too smart to believe in the Virgin birth of Jesus and too well educated to believe in the Resurrection. That's why people are going to the devil in multitudes."

"Center fielder Billy Sunday made a three-base hit at Farwell Hall last night. There is no other way to express the success of his first appearance as an evangelist in Chicago." So reported the local press about Sunday's first public appearance as a preacher in the late 1880s. "His audience was made up of about 500 men who didn't know much about his talents as a preacher but could remember his galloping to second base with his cap in hand."

This was just the beginning for Sunday. Until Billy Graham, no American evangelist preached to so many millions, or saw as many conversions—an estimated 300,000.

From baseball to the Y

"I never saw my father," Sunday began his autobiography, for his father had died of pneumonia in the Civil War five weeks after Sunday's birth. In fact, his early childhood in an Iowa log cabin was enveloped by death—ten deaths before he reached the age of 10. His mother was so impoverished, she sent her children away to the Soldier's Orphans Home. Sunday survived only with the support of his brother and his love of sports, especially baseball.

His professional baseball career began with the Chicago White Stockings in 1883 (he struck out his first 13 at bats); he moved to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and in 1890, to the Philadelphia Athletics, where he was batting .261 and had stolen 84 bases when he quit.



D.L. Moody converted


Darwin publishes Origin of Species


U.S. Civil War begins


Billy Sunday born


Billy Sunday dies


Bultmann calls for demythologization

Ever since his conversion to Christianity at the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago in 1886, he had felt an increasingly strong call to preach. The YMCA finally convinced him to leave baseball to preach at their services (which meant a two-thirds cut in pay). He moved on to work with two other traveling evangelists, then was invited to conduct a revival in Garner, Iowa. From then on he was never without an invitation to preach, at first holding campaigns in midwestern towns and then, after World War I, preaching in Boston, New York, and other major cities.

Much of his success was due to his wife, Helen Amelia Thompson. She organized the campaigns and did much of the advance work. She even tried to better Billy's vocabulary in her letters to him, deliberately including words he would have to look up.

Prancing and cavorting

Sunday's preaching style was as unorthodox as the day allowed. His vocabulary was so rough (e.g., "I don't believe your own bastard theory of evolution, either; I believe it's pure jackass nonsense"), Christian leaders cringed, and they often publicly criticized him. But Sunday didn't care: "I want to preach the gospel so plainly," he said, "that men can come from the factories and not have to bring a dictionary."

Sunday was master of the one-liner, which he would use to clinch his practical, illustration-filled sermons. One of his most famous: "Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile."

He used his whole body in his sermons (and other nearby objects, such as his chair, which he would sometimes fling around while preaching). As one newspaper wrote, "Sunday was a whirling dervish that pranced and cavorted and strode and bounded and pounded all over his platform and left them thrilled and bewildered as they have never been before."

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