On this day in 1896, Billy Sunday began full-time evangelistic ministry in Garner, Iowa. Here’s a repost of his rise to popularity and the results he accomplished for God.
Born NOVEMBER 19, 1862
A simple, straight-forward message. A bold presentation. A clear call to repentance. In his heyday, evan- gelist Billy Sunday was a modern-day Elijah or John the Baptist. His preaching attracted crowds by the thousands. They never found him boring. They always returned home having heard a man with a message. The former baseball player spent most of his life at bat for eternal home runs.
A ROUGH START
Iowa-born William Ashley Sunday reached adulthood only after a series of hard knocks. The year Billy was born, his father (a Civil War soldier) died. When his mother remarried, her new husband, an alcoholic, didn’t stick around. In her poverty his mother admitted Billy and his older brother to the Civil War Soldiers’ Orphan Home.
The boys left the orphanage when Billy was fourteen. He didn’t stay home for long. A couple took him in, which led to a short stint in public school. Before he could graduate, Billy dropped out in search for greener pastures. He did however, have a skill he used to his advantage. He could run well. Billy put it to use as a volunteer fireman. That led to a spot on the local baseball team.
That’s where someone discovered him. During one of his baseball games, a visiting professional player watched Billy running and fielding the ball. Billy later received a call from Chicago. In 1883, he tried out for the Chicago White Stockings. They gave him a contract. Running remained his strength in the game. Crowds cheered his ability to steal bases and to slide when doing so. In his seventh season in professional baseball, Billy batted .257 and stole eighty-four bases. Each month he took home more money than a factory worker earned in an entire year.
HE SAW THE LIGHT
Billy eventually traded his income and his fame for something more. It started one Sunday afternoon in Chicago. He and some other ball players dropped by a tavern for a few drinks. When they returned outdoors, they saw a religious song service in progress across the street. They sat on a curb and listened. Billy recognized the songs as ones his mother use to sing in church and at home.
One of the Christian workers came across the street. He saw Billy sobbing. When he invited the ball player to follow the singers to the Pacific Garden Mission, Billy did. There, Billy Sunday committed his life to Jesus Christ. He expected his team-mates to harass him the next morning at practice. Instead, they offered him their respect.
Three years later, Billy married Helen Thompson and joined the Presbyterian church. He became involved in the church. He went on to play for the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia ball teams, but he longed for the city of Chicago. In 1890, Billy Sunday hung up his bat and glove for good. He went to work at a Chicago YMCA.
AN MVP FOR GOD
Billy eventually joined the Wilbur J. Chapman ministry team. For two years he travelled ahead of the evangelist, arranging all the details prior to the revival campaigns and doing whatever was needed during the services. Then evangelist Chapman retired.
With his mentor’s blessings, Billy continued the ministry. He began in his home state, holding his first revival meetings in the town of Garner, Iowa in 1896. He delivered his sermons in the language of the common man. He did so with enthusiasm. When the former professional athlete combined emotion and athleticism, it attracted crowds. He used a bit of showmanship to gain listeners and then lead them to the cross.
Billy Sunday’s name soon spread. What began as ministry in smaller, midwestern towns expanded to large cities. He gained fans and he gained critics. What really mattered was that evangelist Billy Sunday gained results. He concluded every sermon with an invitation for listeners to “hit the sawdust trail,” which meant to walk the aisle to the front to pray to become a Christian. He used the expression because rather than tents, he preached in make-shift buildings (which seated at least a thousand) with sawdust on the dirt floors.By 1914, Billy had become America’s most well-known preacher. Newspapers kept track of him. Many printed his sermons. Some gave a nod to the former baseball player by printing “box scores” of how many “hit the sawdust trail” in his meetings. Billy’s largest number of converts (98,000) came in 1917 during a ten-week campaign in New York.
Billy used a number of expressions that have caught people’s attention. Some of his phrases are still repeated today. Here are a few of them.
“Your reputation is what people say about you. Your character is what God and your wife know about you.”
“Going to church doesn’t make a man a Christian any more than going to the garage makes him an automobile.”
“Temptation is the devil looking through the keyhole. Yielding is opening the door and inviting him in.”
“I believe that a long step toward public morality will have been taken when sins are called by their right names.”
“I’m against sin. I’ll kick it as long as I’ve got a foot, and I’ll fight it as long as I’ve got a fist. I’ll butt it as long as I’ve got a head. I’ll bite it as long as I’ve got a tooth. And when I’m old, and fistless, and footless, and toothless, I’ll gum it till I go home to Glory and it goes home to perdition!”
FIGHTING FOR CAUSES
During World War I, Billy strongly promoted patriotism. He didn’t just preach about it but financially supported it. The nightly offerings in some campaigns were huge. He gave a lot of the money away. The war effort was one of his favorite charities.
During the 1910s, Billy strongly opposed alcohol. He preached for Prohibition prior to its passage. He made statements like, “The saloon is a liar. It promises good cheer and sends sorrow.” It became such a theme of his ministry that he declared, “I am the sworn, eternal and uncompromising enemy of the liquor traffic.”When the Eighteenth Amendment became ratified in 1919, some credited Billy Sunday’s sermons against alcohol as a major influence. The Twenty-first Amendment, which undid Prohibition, was ratified in 1933, just two years before Billy Sunday passed away.
MOLDING THE FUTURE
By the time the famed evangelist died in November of 1935, he’d set new standards for mass evangelism. He’d improved the process of organizing large meetings. He’d showed that churches representing different denominations could work together to host an evangelist.
During his lifetime, Billy preached to over 100 million people in at least 300 revival meetings. He touched a lot of lives. An estimated 20,000 people attended his funeral at Chicago’s Moody Church.
The year before Billy Sunday died, another man named Billy surrendered his life to God. His name was Billy Graham. He would someday speak to even more people than Billy Sunday and invite and lead more to decisions for salvation. In his autobiography, Just As I Am, Billy Graham says that when he was only five, Billy Sunday became the first evangelist he ever heard.
LET ME KNOW: How has Billy’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.
Larsen, Timothy, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
- Temple, Todd and Twitchell, Kim. People Who Shaped the Church. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2000.
- Fisk, Samuel. Forty fascinating Conversion Stories. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1993.
- Ellis, William T. Billy Sunday: the Man and His Message. L. T. Myers, 1914.
Billy Sunday biographies
(A few of Billy Sunday’s sermon texts) http://www.biblebelievers.com/billy_sunday/.