Three thousand people pressed close to the smoke-belching train in New York City to greet one of the most exciting figures in the world. It was April, 1917, and evangelist Billy Sunday had arrived to try to bring Jesus Christ to the world’s largest city.
The famous former baseball player had already had a long string of successful campaigns. In Boston 64,000 people had “hit the sawdust trail”; in Philadelphia, 42,000; in Detroit, 27,000; and so the astounding record had gone for seventeen years. Yet many observers were very skeptical about Sunday’s taking on the “Big Apple.” With a cynical press and sophisticated urbanites, could he fill a tabernacle that held 20,000 people for a ten-week crusade?
They underestimated the rapid-fire pulpiteer. While his obvious strength was his speaking ability, his greatest asset was an enormous capacity to organize and publicize. He left very little to chance.
A volunteer ushering staff of 2,500 men had been assembled. A choir of 2,000 had practiced regularly. Churches, factory workers, and women’s groups had been contacted, and arrangements had been made to recognize them during the services. It is estimated that 50,000 volunteers were involved in the effort. Twenty paid assistants were working full-time to tie the package together.
Immense free publicity was generated as the giant tabernacle was built board by board at 168th Street and Broadway. A sounding board was erected over the pulpit to allow Sunday to whisper to 20,000 people without microphone or megaphone. Some Catholic priests and Jewish rabbis held their own rallies to attack the coming crusade. Just in case all this did not cause enough commotion, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., lent Sunday ...1
Already a CT subscriber? Log in for full digital access.