03 May 2013
Roughly 100 years ago there was a man traveling throughout the country and holding meetings in wooden structures called tabernacles. At the summit of his career he was arguably the most well known individual in the country, yet relatively few know anything about the man today, not even his name. Billy Sunday was thrust into the national spotlight after several successful evangelistic campaigns, most of which were held in the Midwest.
EARLY YEARS: William Ashley Sunday was born near Ames, Iowa in 1862. His father died while serving in the Civil War. At the age of 10 he was moved into an orphanage. Very athletic, the teen was spotted by a baseball scout. He signed a contract to play professional baseball where he was especially adept at running the bases.
CONVERSION: During his baseball days, Sunday attended a meeting at the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago, IL. After a bit of a personal struggle, he converted to Christianity. He eventually gave up baseball and began working in churches and YMCAs.
MENTORING AND EARLY CAREER: In 1893, Billy Sunday served with J. Wilbur Chapman, one of the most notable evangelists of his day. When Chapman went back to the pastorate (1896), Sunday began holding meetings of his own. At the peak of his career (1917), Sunday had 26 people on his staff as he traveled all across the United States. In those early days when there was no internet, TV, movie industry or radio, folks looked forward to the community campaigns held by Billy Sunday.
PREACHING: The preaching of Billy Sunday was far different than what is seen today. The evangelist’s speech was coarse. He spoke very rapidly. He made much of dramatic effect, often jumping on platform furniture or running from side to side. His messages were usually topical (as opposed to an expository verse by verse study of Scripture). It is estimated that over 100 million people heard him speak. More than one million people responded to his messages and walked “the sawdust trail.”
POLITICS: Mr. Sunday was very engaged in the political world. He was a strong supporter of Prohibition and one of its leading spokesmen. He was on the forefront of the battle for women’s suffrage, child labor laws and the use of blacks.
HEARTACHES: As with any prominent figure, Sunday was not without his critics. Liberal preachers of the day attacked his “medieval theology … gutter language … and barnyard education.” Some saw inconsistency between his relatively lavish lifestyle while asking donors to make sacrifices for his campaigns. His greatest heartache was seen in his wayward children. Three sons were actively pursuing the things which Sunday was preaching against (drunkenness, adultery, dancing, et al.). His only daughter died from MS in 1932. One son committed suicide in 1933. Billy graduated to Glory on Nov. 6, 1935.
LEGACY: Sunday’s legacy ought to remind us of several things.
1. An evangelist can be used effectively.
2. God can use our unusual backgrounds for His glory.
3. Persistence: “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!”
4. Preach persuasively using the personality God has given you.
5. Heartaches accompany those in ministry.