For almost a quarter century Billy Sunday was a household name in the United States. Between 1902 when he first made the pages of the New York Times and 1935 when the paper covered his death and memorial service in detail, people who knew anything about current events had heard of the former major league baseball player who was preaching sin and salvation to large crowds all over America. Not everyone who knew of the famous evangelist liked him. Plenty of outspoken critics spoke of his flashy style and criticized his conservative doctrines. But he had hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of loyal defenders, and they were just as loud in their praise as the critics were in their criticism.
Whether people stood for or against the Reverend William A. Sunday, they all agreed that it was difficult to be indifferent toward him. The religious leader was so extraordinarily popular, opinionated, and vocal that indifference was the last thing that he would get from people. His most loyal admirers were confident that this rural-breed preacher was God’s mouthpiece, calling Americans to repentance. Sunday’s critics said that at best he was a well-meaning buffoon whose sermons vulgarized and trivialized the Christian message and at worst he was a disgrace to the name of Christ (Dorsett 2).
There are elements of truth in both of these views. He was often guilty of oversimplifying biblical truths, and at times he spoke more out of ignorance than a heavenly viewpoint. He was also a man with numerous flaws. He spoiled his children, giving them everything that they asked for. He put enormous responsibility on his wife, burdening her with many aspects of his ministry. He always noticeably sought the
applause of the crowd for his own praise. He often confused the will of God with his own social and political agenda. He even sometimes compared the gospel of Jesus Christ with special interest and American foreign policy.
Nevertheless, Billy Sunday was a sincere man whose life was fundamentally changed by his response to an evangelist’s call to repent of his sins, to believe that Jesus Christ died in his place for those sins, and to follow Christ in thanksgiving by worshiping and obeying him. Following this spiritual rebirth, the convert became deeply devoted to Jesus Christ. A devotion manifested in living out many of ...
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...ee baseball seasons stood up at the street preacher’s invitation and abruptly announced to his teammates on the curb, “Boys I bid the old life good-bye.” Billy considered going down during the invitation but did not. After several days of agonizing over this Billy went back to the mission and decided, “With Christ you are saved, without him you are lost” (Sunday “Satan” 4). He “committed” his life that night to a cause that he saw was more important than any baseball game ever played.
Despite becoming largely famous after being traded to Philadelphia, it would be the results of that decision at the Pacific Garden Mission that the world would remember Billy Sunday for. Some applauded Sunday and his methods; others did not. But there is no question that Sunday’s sensational career was a phenomenon Americans would not soon forget.
Dorsett, Lyle W. Billy Sunday and the Redemption of Urban America. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub, 1991.
Ellis, William T. Billy Sunday: The Man and His Message. n.p., 1914.
Sunday, Billy. Billy Sunday’s Sermons. Omaha: Omaha Daily News, 1915.
Sunday, Billy. Face to Face With Satan. Knoxville: Prudential Pub, 1923.
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