Helen Amelia (Thompson) Sunday died on February 20, in 1957.
Helen Amelia Thompson had been born 88 years previous, on June 25, 1868. She grew up in Chicago, gave her heart to Christ at the age of 12, and went on to become leader of a Christian Endeavour Society in the local Presbyterian Church.
At a Christian Endeavour social she met Billy Sunday – she was 17 at the time, and he was six years older. Two years later, during which time Billy also was converted – they were married; Billy having proposed to Helen on December 31, 1887. And in 47 years of marriage she followed her husband, as he stormed across America leading multitudes to Christ.
The couple had four children; Helen, George, William and Paul. When the children were young Helen and the little ones missed Billy as he made his extensive preaching forays. From 1907 Helen (known also as “Nell”) travelled with her celebrity husband.
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“And Mrs Billy Sunday became “Ma” Sunday to the nation. “Ma” ran the gamut of usefulness during the ever expanding and ever increasing evangelistic campaigns,” says her biographer. “She looked after many of the details so essential to the handling of great crowds. When the meetings were held under canvas, even the strength of the supporting ropes bore the scrutiny of her watchful eyes” (Remarkable ‘Ma’ Sunday, by O. Overmyer, page 13).
An unsympathetic writer concerning these halcyon days confesses: “Mrs Sunday was hard-headed and hard-working, and she demanded as much from every member of the team as she gave herself. She could always be counted on to help out in any task … they were all glad she kept a more business-like eye on the complex enterprise than her husband” (Billy Sunday Was His Real Name, by W. McCloughlin, pages 77-78).
Life was not without incident. In 1920 Helen survived a very serious car accident. In 1932 their daughter, Helen, died of pneumonia. In 1933 Billy collapsed while preaching in Iowa and that same year their son, George, committed suicide. Then, on November 6, 1935, Billy Sunday died of a heart attack. In 1938 Helen’s son, William, died in a car accident. Following the death of her son, Paul, in 1944, Helen had outlived her husband and all of her four children.
After her husband’s death in 1935, she found a fruitful ministry still awaited her. Invitations poured in for her to speak, and this 67 year-old widow set off on what would eventually be a million miles of speaking for the Lord. In her 84th year she shared in the 25th anniversary celebration of HCJB radio ministry, “The Voice of the Andes”. In 1955 Youth for Christ International observed a special “Ma Sunday Day” where she had the opportunity to address some 5000 young people.
Until her death in 1957, “and in a more subdued manner, ‘Ma’ Sunday carried on from where her bounding, founding Billy left off… (Remarkable ‘Ma’ Sunday, page 4).
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com
Tags: billy sunday, christian endeavour, evangelist, hcjb, helen sunday, youth for christ
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