Faithful Heroes: Billy Sunday

Billy Sunday moved from professional baseball player to well known evangelist throughout his life.

Billy Sunday
Billy Sunday in his baseball uniform

William “Billy” Ashley Sunday was born on November 19, 1862 in Story County, Iowa. His parents were German immigrants who changed their surname Sonntag to the anglicized Sunday.

Billy’s father, William, was a bricklayer. Four months after Mary Jane Corey Sunday gave birth to her son, her husband, William, died from pneumonia while at an army camp in Missouri.

The Sunday family moved in with Mary Jane’s family and Billy became extremely close to his grandparents.

When Billy was ten, he and his older brother were sent to the Soldiers’ Orphans Home in Glenwood, Iowa by their impoverished mother. There Billy discovered that he was a good athlete.

By the age of fourteen, Billy was working on a farm and given an opportunity to attend high school, working for the former lieutenant governor, Colonel John Scott.

In 1883, Sunday was signed to the defending National League champions. He was a part time player his first four years on the team, but his speed was a huge asset.

He was very popular with the fans and had a personality that drew others to him.

In 1887, he was sold to the Pittsburgh Alleghenys as their center fielder. For the firs time in his career, he was able to play a full season. He later became team captain and their star player.

In 1886, Sunday and his baseball team mates stopped to listen to a gospel preaching team on a street corner. Sunday was attracted to the hymns he’d heard his mother sing and soon began attending a local church.

“Following his conversion, Sunday denounced drinking, swearing, and gambling, and he changed his behavior, which was recognized by both teammates and fans.” Soon after he was speaking at churches and local YMCAs.

Later that year he was introduced to Helen Amelia “Nell” Thmpson. He was immediately smitten, but both were in serious relationships. However, he pursued her and overcoming his poor and her privileged upbringings they were eventually married on September 5, 1888.

In March 1891, Sunday was requested and granted a release from his baseball contract. He would remain a huge baseball fan the remainder of his life. He would often umpire minor league and amateur games in cities where he held his revivals. He also attended baseball games whenever he could.

Billy Sunday
Billy Sunday

He went to work at the Chicago YMCA for $83 a month. While there he “visited the sick, prayed with the troubled, counseled the suicidal, and visited saloons to invite patrons to evangelistic meetings.”

In 1893, he became a full time assistant to the best known evangelists of the time, J. Wilbur Chapman. After Chapman unexpectedly returned to the pastorate in 1896, Sunday struck out on his own.

Over the next twelve years he preached throughout Iowa and Illinois on what he referred to as the kerosene circuit.

He often used his reputation as a baseball player to advertise his meetings or organize baseball games between local businesses. As his audience grew, he pitched rented canvas tents to hold the crowds.

After his tent was destroyed in an October 1906 snow storm, he began to demand that towns build a wooden structure for him. This was often expensive for the towns, but Billy Sunday was able to build a rapport with the towns by participating in the process.

By 1908, Billy Sunday’s ministry had grown so much that his wife, Nell, put their four children in the care of a nanny and traveled with him to manage his campaigns. By 1917, the crusades had grown to a paid staff of twenty-six including musicians, custodians and advance men. Homer Rodeheaver, a famed song leader and music director, became his musical counterpart.

Billy Sunday was a preacher who preached hell and damnation sermons. He is said to “gyrated, stood on the pulpit, ran from one end of the platform to the other, and dove across the stage, pretending to slide into home plate. Sometimes he even smashed chairs to emphasize his points. His sermon notes had to be printed in large letters so that he could catch a glimpse of them as he raced by the pulpit.”

“Homer Rodeheaver said that “One of these sermons, until he tempered it down a little, had one ten-minute period in it where from two to twelve men fainted and had to be carried out every time I heard him preach it.”

By the time World War I ended, his popularity was beginning to wane.

The Sunday’s were saddened to witness their three sons live a life against which he preached. In 1932, their only daughter died and the next year their oldest son, George, committed suicide.

However, Billy Sunday continued to accept invitations to preach until the very end.

In early 1935, he had a mild heart attack. Sunday ignored his doctor’s advice to stay away from the pulpit.

In 1935, Sunday attended the World Series. He died two months later on November 6, 1935. He’d preached his last sermon, “What must I do to be saved?”, the week before.

His wife, Nell, lived another twenty years before her death on February 20, 1957. She outlived all four of their children.

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