Live so that when the final summons comes you will leave something more behind you than an epitaph on a tombstone or an obituary in a newspaper. -- Billy Sunday
When I was a young boy, my grandmother used to tell me a lot of stories about her life. She was born before the turn of the century and grew up on a farm without electricity where the only running water came from an irrigated ditch that ran near her house, which is a lifestyle that almost seems out of another world. She was a good storyteller, too, knowing just how to keep flirting with my interest as she wove threads together.
I learned more about the last century's history in America from that woman than from anything else I've ever read or heard. She told me all about America First and how a good number of Americans didn't want anything to do with World War II. She told me that many people across America believed in socialism or communism during the heart of the Great Depression, and that in some towns there were even socialist revolts in the United States. She told me that alcohol and drug consumption in the Roaring Twenties blew away anything that people were doing today, and that she should know: she gave me a taste of her homebrewed absinthe when I was eight and told me that that was just for starters.
The part that really fascinated me, though, was the fact that the first decade of the twentieth century saw a massive Christian revival in the United States. People would literally go by the tens of thousands to see some of the travelling preachers who would ride from town to town on the trains. She spoke most fondly of a man named Billy Sunday, one of the preachers who she said was the first man she became smitten with.
My grandmother passed away in 1997, but I still carry some of the things she told me around with me in my heart. I like to make up a batch of homemade absinthe on occasion, I collect World War I art, and in my collection of old pictures, I have this snapshot of Billy Sunday, standing on a stage with his arms outstretched and his face upwards, gazing into the sun.
Somebody asks: "What is a revival?" Revival is a purely philosophical, common-sense result of the wise use of divinely appointed means, just the same as water will put out a fire; the same as food will appease your hunger; just the same as water will slake your thirst; it is a philosophical common-sense use of divinely appointed means to accomplish that end. A revival is just as much horse sense as that.
The above quote is the start of one of Billy Sunday's most famous sermons and it probably summarizes his life as eloquently as the man would want. William Ashley Sunday was born on November 19, 1862, in Ames, Iowa to William and Mary Jane Sunday, the third of three boys. Billy's childhood was fairly typical of children at that time; he did farm chores and went to church each Sunday, but his real passion was baseball - and he was good at it, too. He played on several local co-op teams in his teenage years and when a Chicago White Stockings scout spotted him in 1880, he was offered the chance to try out for the 1881 team. Billy jumped on the chance and embarked on a twelve year professional baseball career, most of it spent in Chicago.
While living in Chicago, he was concerned deeply with the debauchery of his teammates and struggled to find an explanation for their behavior. This struggle eventually led him to the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago, where he became a Christian in 1886. This struggle between what he considered a moral lifestyle and the behavior of his teammates caused Billy a lot of grief; his inner heart told him that his teammates had to find their own way, but he also wanted to help them find salvation. The pebble that upset the balance of the scale was his marriage to Helen Thompson after the 1888 season, which made him carefully consider the impact the life of a baseball player would have on his family; the birth of his first daughter, Helen, in 1890 compounded this problem. This conflict made Billy decide to leave baseball at the apex of his career in 1891 with an offer of $80,000 a season sitting on the table from the White Stockings. Instead, he took a job at the Chicago YMCA.
After a few years working with young Catholic men, Billy began to work for J. Wilbur Chapman, a prominent traveling preacher in the 1890s. From Chapman, he learned the tools of the trade: a homespun speaking style, the proper promotion, and the type of conservative message that would likely convince the farmers that filled the landscape of the middle of America. In 1896, Billy began to preach on his own, starting near his hometown in Garner, Iowa, and in 1898 became a fully ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church.
Billy was coming into his own on the cusp of a revival in America, and he was properly poised to ride upon that upswelling of religious fervor. Billy quickly found his voice: he used the colorful and slang-filled language of his youth and baseball playing days mixed with attention-getting speaking techniques like anecdotes and mimicry. Billy's style of preaching began to quickly attract attention throughout Iowa and eventually across the nation in the first decade of the century, and the newspapers began to take notice of this interest, featuring articles on him. Eventually, this became a mutualistic relationship, as papers would print articles about Billy before his appearance in a town.
Billy's message was as simple as possible. He focused on the need that many felt for personal salvation, and he preached that the way to this salvation was through acceptance of Jesus Christ. Billy was also a strong critic of alcoholic beverages and favored their prohibition as he felt that they resulted in carelessness in one's personal behavior. Many people felt that Billy's wide impact singlehandedly led to the Prohibition era in the United States. It was through this simplicity that Billy was often criticized, both by outsiders to the Christian faith and those within it who held more liberal perspectives.
Billy's fame was at a peak during World War I. He became involved in the support of the war effort, encouraging young men to enlist and encouraging all people to buy war bonds and conserve food and fuel. His fame peaked with a lengthy stay in New York in 1917 which was prominently covered by the New York Times; it was estimated that over the period of three months, Billy spoke to crowds numbering as large as 250,000 and saw over three million different people come to his revival meetings.
After the end of the war, the return of the troops to America, and the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, America's interest in revivalism died down. By 1921, Billy primarily served other churches as a guest speaker and was still capable of drawing large crowds as late as 1927, in which he was reported to have drawn ten thousand listeners at a Baptist meeting in Missouri. His later years were spent in semi-retirement involved with the Winona Bible Conference, who sought to distribute bibles to new Christians, and with the personal troubles of his two sons, who were both involved in messy divorces in the last few years of Billy's life. Billy Sunday died on November 5, 1935, leaving behind a legacy that was already becoming shrouded in the mists of American history.
So why should we care about the legacy of Billy Sunday? He was a man of his times, but that time has long since faded into the past; such a widespread Christian revival is a thing of the past, isn't it?
It is precisely because he was such a man of his times, yet he is little known in the modern world, that we should remember Billy Sunday. Sunday perhaps most clearly symbolizes a time in American history that has been largely swept under the rug. History books report that Prohibition existed; but why did it exist? History books report that war bonds helped finance World War I; what caused Americans to buy them in such numbers? The answers to both questions fall back to Billy Sunday and this period of American history.
Sources for this writeup include Billy Sunday: Home Run to Heaven by Robert Allen (ISBN: 0880621257) and some very fond memories of my grandmother.