Billy Sunday (1862-1935), evangelist. Born near Ames, Iowa the son of a tenant farmer and wife, he spent most of his teen years in an orphanage and working as a hired farm laborer. A superb baseball player with lightning speed he was signed to a contract with the Chicago White Stockings (today’s Chicago Cubs) in 1883 and spent seven years in the National League setting a record for most stolen bases that was later broken by Ty Cobb.
In 1886 after a night’s carousing in Chicago, Sunday was converted at the city’s Pacific Garden Mission. Becoming active with the YMCA and at a local Presbyterian Church, Sunday married in 1888 and retired from baseball in 1890 in favor of preaching the Gospel. After a full-time stint with the YMCA, Sunday served three years under the tutelage of famed evangelist J. Wilbur Chapman before launching his own career in 1896.
Over the next four decades Sunday would become the most prolific American evangelist since D.L. Moody, conducting over 250 campaigns throughout the nation. Railing against sin, alcohol, and vice, his theatrical style and verbal broadsides garnered immense publicity and newspaper coverage wherever he preached. Often Sunday’s campaigns lasted for several weeks at a time in such cities as New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. Committees of local citizens and businessmen seeking to fight crime, promote clean, sober living and the development of responsible, hard-working employees frequently issued the invitation-and footed the bill–to get Sunday to come to town.
In the process, Sunday gained a comfortable lifestyle, a great deal of personal wealth, and no shortage of criticism, even though he gave most of his fortune away. Sunday’s popularity waned as the 1920s progressed and his pro-Temperance sentiments and old-fashioned diatribes against sin fell increasingly out of style. Nonetheless, it is estimated that perhaps as many as 100 million people heard Sunday preach and that over one million people walked down the “Sawdust Trail” to shake his hand and accept Christ as their savior.
For further reading see L.W. Dorsett, Billy Sunday and the Redemption of Urban America (Eerdmans, 1991).