William Ashley “Billy” Sunday (1862-1935) was a professional baseball player, YMCA worker, and the best-known evangelist in America during the first half of the twentieth century. Born near Ames, Iowa, the youngest of the three sons of Mary Jane and William Sunday, his childhood was characterized by poverty, loneliness, and emotional insecurity stemming from the loss of his father in the Civil War and from his mother’s subsequent marriages which provided her sons with neither emotional nor financial stability. After living from 1874 to 1876 in state-sponsored homes for orphans of the Civil War, Sunday spent most of the remainder of his adolescence in Nevada, Iowa, supporting himself with a variety of jobs and living with the family of former Iowa Lieutenant Governor John Scott. During these years he became acquainted for the first time with solidly middle-class Iowa life, attended but fell a few credits short of graduating from high school, and developed a reputation as a fleet-footed athlete. His reputation for athletic prowess was at least in part responsible for his subsequent relocation to Marshalltown, which brought him to the attention of Marshall County native Adrian Cap Anson, manager of the Chicago White Stockings, one of the premier teams of the fledgling National League. In 1883 Anson invited him to join the White Stockings, an invitation which inaugurated his journeyman’s career in professional baseball in Chicago, Pittsburg, and briefly Philadelphia that lasted until 1890.
In the mid-1880s, while playing ball in Chicago, two pivotal events occurred in Sunday’s life. He experienced a profound religious conversion that turned his life in a new direction and he met and married Helen Amelia Thompson, daughter of a successful Chicago businessman. His new wife strengthened her husband’s sense of security and, along with her family, helped to nurture his new-found commitment to Christianity.
In 1891 Sunday abandoned baseball to become an assistant secretary of the Chicago YMCA, a position he held until 1893 when he became an advance man with Presbyterian evangelist J. Wilbur Chapman from whom he learned the fundamentals of professional evangelism. When Chapman temporarily abandoned evangelism for the parish ministry, Sunday, with his mentor’s help, launched his own evangelistic career with a revival in Garner, Iowa. Initially modeling himself after Chapman and other revivalists with whom he was familiar, Sunday gradually developed his own unique pulpit persona which combined athleticism, humor, plain speech, and toughness to produce an aura of appealing unconventionality in the service of saving souls. Meanwhile, with the support of Helen, he slowly elevated his revivalistic team to unprecedented levels of organizational, financial, and marketing sophistication. Although success was not immediate, Sunday, despite the scorn of many contemporaries who despised both his message and his methods, ultimately had one of the most remarkable, albeit controversial, careers in American religious history, during which he is thought to have preached to between eighty and one hundred million people.
Initially, the Iowa evangelist toured the small towns and cities of the Midwest dubbed the “kerosene circuit” because of the general absence of electrification. Within little more than a decade, however, he was in demand in larger cities and by the 1910s he was preaching in most of the country’s largest metropolitan centers, reaching the pinnacle of his success with a ten-week campaign in New York City beginning in April 1917. In post-World War I America Sunday’s popularity began to wane as the nation turned more decisively toward modernity and its options for diversion and entertainment became more diverse. In the 1920s and 1930s calls for the services of the aging apostle came increasingly from the small and midsized towns and cities of the South and Middle West, but the calls never stopped coming and Sunday never refused to answer as long as his health permitted.
Billy Sunday launched his evangelism in an era when print was the only popular medium of mass communication. Toward the twilight of his ministry in the 1920s and 30s, records, movies, and especially radio had transformed the way in which politicians, entertainers, promoters of athletic events, and preachers were reaching millions. However, Sunday grasped instinctively that his charisma, rapport with audiences, and showmanship were crucial to the vitality of his ministry and, even as age took its toll on his stamina, he refrained from turning in any significant way to the new media of post-World War I America.
For largely the same reason, Sunday never committed much time or energy specifically to the production of books, articles, or essays. He was not truly a writer as that term is normally understood. He clearly recognized the importance of the print medium for his image and for the marketing of his ministry, and he worked with and sometimes manipulated the press to convey his ideas and to secure favorable publicity. However, he devoted most of his creativity to the preparation of sermons intended primarily for delivery from the pulpit. It was theatrical and emotionally charged presentation as much as content that energized and gave persuasive power to sermons such as “Get on the Water Wagon,” a diatribe against demon rum, and “Chickens Come Home to Roost,” a denunciation of male sexual immorality. The latter, preached only to male audiences, was allegedly so graphic in its depiction of the consequences of sexual sin that men frequently fainted as they listened to Sunday preach. To be sure, versions of these and many other sermons reached a wide audience because they were sold as pamphlets at Sunday revivals and they afford valuable insight into the style and content of his ministry.
Now and then a book or article did appear over Sunday’s name. In 1914, for example, Burning Truths from Billy’s Bat was published, but this volume was largely a collection of moralistic, melodramatic stories about unredeemed lives from Sunday’s days on the diamond, many of which were extracted from his sermons. In the early 1930s, the revivalist, then around 70 years of age, agreed to write his autobiography, which was serialized in the Ladies’ Home Journal in late 1932 and early 1933. These articles, as is typical of autobiographical writing, convey a picture of Sunday’s life as he wished to be remembered and obscured the complexity and inner turmoil that plagued him for much of his life. Yet, this very fact provides important clues to his success. The Billy Sunday the reader meets here is a man who embodied the American myth of success, who was a popular player in the nation’s favorite sport, who effectively utilized the business practices of his day in the service of God, who personified Christian manliness, and who seemed to validate traditional cultural and religious values in a bafflingly, changing world. Such was Sunday’s perception of himself, and it was a perception shared by millions of admirers and one which goes far to explain his success.