William Ashley “Billy” Sunday “Faith is a warrior invading the enemy’s country and burning every bridge behind, for it expects to live there. Faith makes no provision for relapse. Faith is going to the goal for a touchdown. Faith will put the ball over the fence in the last half of the ninth inning, score 3 to 0 against you, bases full, two men out and two strikes and three balls called on you.”
William Ashley “Billy” Sunday began his career in the public eye as a professional baseball player, but he ended it as one of the most prominent and enigmatic evangelists in America in the early 1900s. He was known not only for his evangelism, but also for his social influence in implementing the prohibition of alcoholic beverages, as well as his support of the war effort during World War I. With his colorful approach and fiery sermons, Sunday won many to faith in Christ and used his status as a public figure to speak a message of morality to American society.
On November 19, 1862, Billy Sunday was born in Bina, Iowa. Only a month after he was born, his father—a solider in an army camp in Patterson, Missouri—died tragically of pneumonia. Now widowed, his mother was faced with the grim prospect of raising three sons alone. Sunday spent most of his childhood in poverty, and when he was thirteen, he was sent to an orphanage in Glenwood, Iowa, along with his older brother. Eventually Sunday ran away from the orphanage, worked a series of odd jobs to support himself, and moved to Marshalltown, Iowa. It was there that he discovered his first great love. Billy Sunday excelled as an athlete, and whatever spare time he could find, he played baseball for the local team. One afternoon the celebrated player and team manager Cap Anson came to watch Sunday play and soon after signed him on to the Chicago White Stockings. Sunday’s fame grew with his skill, and he was acknowledged as the champion sprinter of the National League. Over the course of eight more years, Sunday would play for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia teams, setting records and enjoying the blessings God bestowed upon him.
During his baseball career, Sunday was invited to attend a service at the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago. One night in 1886, Sunday decided to give his life to Christ, and he began attending services at the Mission regularly. Two years later he married Helen Thompson, and in 1889 Helen gave birth to a baby girl. Even though he had everything he could ever want—fame, wealth, and family—Sunday knew he was missing something in his life. In 1891, he decided to devote more time and energy to the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and accepted a job as the secretary of the religious department. He’d been stealing bases, but the Lord was ready for him to steal souls for God’s Kingdom.
Evangelist J. Wilbur Chapman, who often held revival meetings across the country, visited Sunday in 1894 and offered to hire him as an assistant. With Chapman, Sunday got his feet wet in the world of evangelism. In 1896, Chapman decided to begin pastoring a church and left his nationwide ministry, and Sunday struck out on his own. During the first week of his revival meetings in Garner, Iowa, one hundred people accepted Jesus Christ, and this was just the beginning. In 1903 he was ordained as a minister by the Presbyterian Church, and Sunday began his ministry in earnest.
Sunday found that his success as a professional athlete had already made him a household name in the Midwest and the East, and his background in baseball provided him with a rich store of images, metaphors, and stories he could sprinkle throughout his sermons. He also was known to throw imaginary baseballs, hit homeruns, and slide into home while he preached to further underscore his message. Sunday’s energy in the pulpit was contagious, and both men and women found Sunday’s masculine Christianity appealing. He considered himself a warrior for Christ, and challenged men to be “real men” who could “stand up and give battle to the devil.” He despised the notion that a Christian could be considered “…a sort of dish-rag proposition, a wishy-washy, sissified sort of galoot that lets everybody make a doormat out of him.” Sunday embodied a virile, blunt, and brawny Christianity and declared, “Let me tell you the manliest man is the man who will acknowledge Jesus Christ.”
Along with this emphasis on rugged manliness, Sunday encouraged new converts and seasoned saints alike to support the American war effort in buying bonds, conserving resources, and enlisting in the military.
As most popular evangelists of his day, Sunday was not without his critics. He knew little about theology and had no oratorical training. Mainstream journalists critiqued Sunday’s willingness to call people to a faith that church critics claimed he knew nothing about. Sunday was also attacked for his business-like manner in running his revivals, and the sizeable income that resulted. Nevertheless, Sunday’s appeal to America was undeniable. Many Americans found Sunday’s success story truly inspiring. “I have butted and fought and struggled since I was six years old. If ever a man fought hard, I have fought for everything I have ever gained,” Sunday would sometimes remark in his sermons.
Sunday continued to travel across U.S. In 1917, Sunday embarked on a ten week campaign to New York, and over 98,000 people came to trust in Jesus Christ. In his later years his popularity began to wane, as technologies and national attention began to shift from “big tent” preaching after World War I. Nonetheless, Billy Sunday remained in demand as a speaker and preacher until his death in 1935.