Billy Sunday Moves a Nation

William Ashley (Billy) Sunday was born on November 19, in Iowa, USA, 1862.

He never saw his father. Billy, as he is better known, was born four months after his father had marched away to fight in the Civil War – never to return to see this third child. Billy lived with him mum, in a Soldier’s Orphans Home and with his grandfather during his growing years, then went through diverse jobs including fireman, janitor and undertaker’s assistant, before getting the chance to go to high school.

By 1880 baseball had become the passion of his life and in 1883 he left his amateur team to play with the Chicago White Stockings. Sunday gained nationwide recognition for his baseball prowess, becoming the first player to run the bases in 14 seconds. He also set records for stealing bases.

In 1886 he stopped to listen to a gospel band on a street corner and he then followed them to the Pacific Garden Mission on Van Buren Street. At that meeting he knelt to accept Christ.

In the years shortly following his conversion he married Helen Amelia Thompson, worked with the YMCA and gave public talks about Christian living while touring with his baseball team. His career advanced and he played with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He also attended Northwestern University for a time, coaching the baseball team in return for his tuition.

Sunday turned down a $400 per month baseball salary (the average worker made $480 per year) for a $84 per month ministry position. Ball teams later offered $500- $2000 per month. Later in life he was offered $1,000,000 to be in the movies, but declined them all in order to continue the evangelistic ministry.

After working for some years with the YMCA and then as assistant to evangelist Wilbur Chapman, Billy Sunday launched out into an itinerant evangelistic ministry (1896-1935).

Thousands crammed into specially built ‘tabernacles’ with sawdust-lined aisles to hear the explosive preaching of this new revivalist.

“By the end of his career he had preached to 100 million souls, of whom a million had walked the ‘sawdust trail’ – that is, had responded to his invitation for them to accept Christ as Saviour (Christianity Today, June, 1991, page 36).

“His magnetic personality, blended with sensational speech and theatrical gestures, kept audiences spellbound!” says the Dictionary of Religious Biography, page 443.

His anti-booze sermon caused “scores of towns and counties” to go dry. Hotels went out of business. His acrobatic preaching meant “he had to change his sweat-soaked suit after each meeting”.

His song-leader, Homer Rodeheaver, wrote that when Billy preached his sermon “The Devil’s Boomerang” – “until he tempered it down a little … two to 10 men fainted every time I heard him preach it!” (Twenty Years with Billy Sunday, page 32).

Sunday contributed much to the Prohibition of alcoholic beverages, through his powerful anti-booze preaching, especially his famous “Get on the Water Wagon” sermon. In later life he devoted much energy in defending the Prohibition amendment from repeal. A battle which he and the temperance movement lost.

It has been pointed out that he was one of the most outstanding preachers of history, yet he has left virtually no legacy. John Wesley was also a great preacher, yet his legacy survives today. The difference between the men is that Wesley built systems which others could employ, while Sunday built only on his own temporary presence and talent. There is a lesson in there for all who wish to make a difference.

Sunday passed away after a heart attack in 1935 at age 73. Helen began an active ministry of her own following his death and continued touching lives for another 22 years.

Not without his faults and plagued by errant sons, nevertheless Billy Sunday stood tall among the giants of evangelism.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.