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 www.donaldprout.com. 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.

Stuart Hamblen Writes Songs for the World

This is the day that Stuart Hamblen was converted at 4 o’clock in the morning. It was 1949.

Under conviction of sin, 40 year-old Hamblen, the son of a Texas minister, telephoned Billy Graham, waking him up: “Pray for me,” he begged the evangelist.

Billy Graham was preaching in his “Christ for Greater Los Angeles” crusade, which had been scheduled to last for three weeks. It was about to close, and Hamblen’s wife, Suzy, had talked him into attending.

But the conversion of Hamblen and two other well-known identities in the Los Angeles area led to an extension of the crusade for another five weeks (Billy Graham, by John Pollock, page 80). Three thousand chairs were added to accommodate the crowds; 6000 people had already been attending the “canvas cathedral” each night.

Hamblen was born October 20th, 1908, in Kellyville, Texas, the son of a travelling Methodist preacher. Hamblen’s radio and movie career began in 1926 on radio KAYO in Abilene, Texas, where he became radio broadcasting’s first singing cowboy. In 1929, he won a talent contest in Dallas, Texas and with the $100 cash prize in hand headed for Camden, New Jersey, to the Victor Talking Machine Company to seek his fortune. Recording four songs for the forerunner of RCA Victor, Stuart then set out for Hollywood, California, where he auditioned at KFI and went on the air as “Cowboy Joe”. He also became a member of the original “Beverly Hillbillies”, radio’s first spectacularly popular western singing group.

In 1931, and for 21 years thereafter, Stuart stayed on top of the popularity charts on the West Coast with his radio programs. During that time, his motion picture credits included: “In Old Monterey” with Gene Autry; “The Arizona Kid” and “King of the Cowboys” with Roy Rogers; “The Plainsman and the Lady” and “The Savage Hord” with Wild Bill Elliott; “Carson City Cyclone” and “The Sombrero Kid” with Don ‘Red’ Barry; “King of the Forest Rangers” with Larry Thompson; and “Flame of the Barbary Coast” with John Wayne.

Stuart Hamblen achieved fame as a rodeo champion, a country/western singer and songwriter, a dance-band leader, a gambler, and a heavy drinker. His 1934 Decca recording, ‘Out on the Texas Plains’, was one of the year’s top selling discs.

But when he was converted, he told his radio audience: “I’ve quit smoking and drinking”. And he was going to sell all his racehorses, except one, “which would never race again”.

Shortly afterwards “he bumped into his friend, movie star John Wayne. ‘What’s this I hear about you, Stuart?’ Wayne asked. ‘Well, John,’ came the answer, ‘I guess it’s no secret what God can do!’ ‘Sounds like a song’, the tall movie star replied, and that remark started the musical notes ringing in Stuart’s mind …” (New Life in Country Music, page 64). As a result Stuart Hamblen wrote …
It is no secret what God can do;
What He’s done for others He can do for you…

Recorded by George Beverly Shea in 1951, this song soon became a firm favourite for thousands of Christians and has been translated into over 50 languages around the world. It was the first song to ‘cross-over’, becoming #1 in Gospel/Country/and Pop categories and starting the trend for ballad style gospel songs

He also penned ‘This Ole House’ which was awarded 1954 Song of the Year, and was number one song hit in seven countries at the same time. His 230 song titles also include ‘Open up your Heart and let the Sun (Son) Shine in’, ‘This Book’ and ‘Known only to Him’.

By 1952 he was a candidate for the office of President of the United States – on a Prohibition ticket! He came in fourth in an election won by Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Married to his wife, Suzy, for over 55 years, Stuart lived with her on their horse ranch in Canyon Country (Los Angeles), California, where he produced his weekly nationally syndicated “Cowboy Church of the Air” program. They also bred Peruvian Paso Horses. Stuart Hamblen died on March 8, 1989.

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 www.donaldprout.com. 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.