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Billy Sunday

Hitting the Sawdust Trail

By: Chad Acklin

History 338

William A. Sunday was the American revivalist of a new era. He and his huge tabernacle revivals had a marked impact upon America. He preached to over 100 million people from 1908 to 1920.(1) A ball player-turned-preacher, he had a flamboyant style that aroused many listeners. He stirred the hearts of many people, beseeching them to give their lives to Christ and to fight modern culture. He had millions of faithful supporters and many critics, but the one thing that was certain was that he was never ignored.(2) In fact, in a 1914 poll by the American Magazine, asking "Who is the greatest man in America" Sunday was ranked eighth.(3)

Billy Sunday had tough times as a child. He had to deal with death often. In an auto-biography that he wrote for the Ladies Home Journal before his death, he made the statement, "I never saw my father."(4) His father, William Sunday had enlisted in Union army five months after his wife had gotten pregnant with their third child. He sent his wife a note from the battlefield telling her that if the child was a boy to name him William Ashley Sunday. It was indeed a boy, and he was born on November 19, 1862. Five weeks after that, Billy Sunday's father died on the battlefield probably from pneumonia.(5) His mother remarried and a man named Heizer and had two more children. Then in 1874, Hiezer left Mary Jane. She then had to fall back on her family. She left and moved in with her parents, the Coreys.(6) It was around this time that William Ashley and his older brother Edward were sent off to a Soldiers' Orphan Home in Glenwood, Iowa. Later they were transferred to the Davenport Orphanage.(7) Sunday would often lay claim to his roots of poverty when relating to people in his revivals. "I am a rube among rubes...I have crept and crawled out from the university of poverty and hard knocks, and have taken postgraduate courses."(8) After two years in the orphanage, the boys left and returned to their grandfather's farm to work. This was short lived. William had an argument with his Grandfather Corey and left for the town of Nevada, Iowa. There he lived and worked a hotel job as a janitor and clerk. From the age of 15 on, Sunday supported himself in the world.(9)

In 1880, Sunday moved to the town of Marshalltown, Iowa. He was recruited by the Marshalltown fire department. Not only did he work on the fire squad, he worked in a furniture and undertaking business. While this undertaking and furniture refinishing business was not fun for Sunday, it did allow him the time and resources to play on the Marshalltown amateur baseball team. This would eventually lead him away from his tough beginnings.(10) He led his team to the Iowa state championship, which brought Sunday to the attention of the manager of the Chicago Whitestockings, A.C. "Pop" Anson. Anson invited him to Chicago to play professional baseball. Sunday's baseball career lasted from 1883 to 1891.(11)

In 1887, Sunday had a conversion experience that would change his life remarkably. He was in Chicago with five of his teammates. They had gone to a bar and gotten drunk and went to sit on a curb side on Van Buren St. They happened to sit outside the doors of the Pacific Garden Rescue Mission. As they listened to the gospel choir and testimonies from within, something was stirred within Sunday and he went in. He returned again and again and after talking and praying, Billy Sunday gave himself to the Christian life.(12) He gave up drinking, betting, going to the theater and playing baseball on Sunday. As people began to find out about the conversion of this baseball star, they began to ask him to give public testimonies. He began to be a very in-demand speaker. He became involved with the Chicago YMCA. Its president was Dwight Moody and its focus was very evangelistic. They used Billy often to tell of his changed life.(13) Also, it was during this time in his life that he met Helen Tompson. She and her family were devout Presbyterians. Soon after Billy was converted, he joined their church, the Jefferson Park Presbyterian Church. Two years after that, Helen's father finally consented to the marriage of Billy to his daughter.(14)

In the winter of 1887-88, Billy enrolled at the Evanston Academy, a prep school located on the campus of Northwestern University. He was offered a position to coach baseball at Northwestern. He took advantage of this opportunity and took several courses in rhetoric. Both his writing and communication needed training. In the 1888 baseball season, Billy was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The two did not particularly like their new surroundings, but they made due. During that season, Billy began taking Bible courses at the YMCA. He also worked part-time, without salary there. He did quite a bit of preaching, teaching, and evangelizing for the YMCA.(15)

In 1890, several things happened to change Sunday's life. He became the father of his first child. The two named her Helen after her mother. This meant that his wife would not be able to travel with the team. It was about this time, also, that L. W. Messer, director of the YMCA, approached Sunday and asked that he consider full-time Christian service. He wanted him to come on board and be a Bible teacher, evangelist, and chair of the religion department. Sunday wanted to do this, but questioned whether or not he could support his new family doing ministry. He had been making a very lucrative $400/month, and the YMCA job would only pay $83/month. At the end of the 1890 season, Sunday was questioning whether or not he should seek release from baseball and pursue ministry. He was released from Philadelphia, but immediately he was offered a $500/month salary from Cincinnati. He spent much time praying about this matter and came out convinced that the full-time position with the Chicago YMCA was what God wanted him to be doing.(16)

Sunday held this position for three years, during which his salary never rose above $1500 per year. Financial stresses were becoming great for the Sunday family. He now had two children and an invalid brother that he was taking care of. In 1893, he was offered a job that would help his immediate financial problems, but also this would launch the career path that he would pursue till his death. He was offered a job with the J. Wilbur Chapman. Chapman was one of the most well-known evangelists of his time, save the older D. L. Moody. Sunday became the advance man for Chapman's revivals. It served as a valuable experience for Sunday, learning the ins and outs of revivals. On some occasions when Chapman did not have revivals scheduled, he helped Milan Williams and Charles Alexander. In December of 1895, Chapman temporarily left revivalism to return to the pastorate. This forced Sunday to work on his own. Chapman gave Sunday a recommendation and in January of 1896, Billy Sunday held his first independent revival meeting in the town of Garner, Iowa.(17)

Sunday was successful with his revivals from the start. He became comfortable preaching and gained a hearing in small town at annual revivals. For several years, though, Sunday did not preach or hold revivals in the manner by which he became famous. His early revivals were not typically emotional. Sunday would preach in many solemn annual revivals. His fiery personality could not be completely contained, but he tried to exhibit dignity and control. He respected Chapman greatly and imitated his serious style. In fact, he began with notes from several of Chapman's sermons.(18)

Billy Sunday soon discovered his own style, though. By 1900, he had given up the dignified style of his mentor. He became known as a preacher with great humor and abounding enthusiasm. He gave the audience an enthusiastic and often acrobatic performance. He would use huge boisterous gestures and preach with great energy.

Gradually, Sunday began to draw bigger and bigger crowds. When church buildings could no longer hold the revival crowds, he moved to holding services under tents. They had significant drawbacks, though. There were numerous distractions for the audience, the noise sometimes made it hard for the evangelist to be heard, and the tents often fell due to prairie winds or rain. Sunday spent many evenings sleeping in the tents when bad weather was forecast. In 1906, Sunday and his newly hired assistant, Fred Siebert, were holding a month long revival in Salida, Colorado. When they arrived there, the weather was beautiful, but after 3 weeks of revival, there was a huge snowstorm that destroyed their tent. It was from this time on that Sunday refused to hold his campaigns in a tent again. He began to build wooden tabernacles for his revivals. The tabernacles were temporary wooden structures that could be torn down and the wood sold after the campaign was over. He began to require the building of a tabernacle from any town wishing to have a Billy Sunday revival.(19)

Sunday sought ordination rather early in his career. It was important to him to be able to wear the label, Reverend. The profession of evangelism did not require ordination. In fact, D. L. Moody refused ordination, but it was important to Billy. He presented himself to the Chicago Presbytery in 1903 to become an ordained minister of the gospel. The examinations do not seem to have been very difficult. Sunday was not very theologically knowledgeable, but the board passed him. One board member said, "God has used him to win more souls to Christ than all of us combined and must have ordained him long before we ever thought of it." The rest of the board agreed with these sentiments and Sunday was allowed to be ordained.(20)

The next several years were difficult for Sunday. He traveled on what he called the "Kerosene Circuit." These were revivals held in mainly small mid-western towns. It was so named because of the Kerosene lamps used to light the tabernacles. They did not have either gas or electric lights.(21) Between 1896 and 1906, Billy held one hundred revivals. Ninety percent of these revivals were held in towns that had a population of over 10,000. Nevertheless, his conversion rates were staggering. In 30 of these towns, it is indicated that an average of 20 percent of the population would be converted at the Billy Sunday revivals.(22)

The campaigns of Billy Sunday became larger and larger. His revivals became much more organized, and he ventured into much larger cities. In 1908, Nell Sunday became basically the manager and financial head of Billy's crusades. As they moved into bigger cities, not only did the number of converts increase, so did the love offerings. They were called "trail-hitters." This term went back to a 1910 revival in Bellington, Washington. This was lumber jacking territory. When lumberjacks would go into an uncharted place, they would take with them a bag of sawdust and leave a trail to find their way back home. It was an image of coming from a lost position, and coming home. Another thing that made this name stick was the fact that many of the tabernacle floors were lined with sawdust. (23)

As the size of Billy's crusades increased, so did the staff and organization. These were called "The Sunday Party." It consisted of upwards of 20 people, all of whom had a specific job and area of expertise. He had begun very humbly in 1900 by hiring a chorister to lead the music. He then hired and advance man in 1904 to prepare cities for his revivals and oversee the building of the wooden tabernacles. By 1906, he had hired a research assistant. Later, he hired a soloist, a pianist, a publicity manager, a private secretary, directors of men's, women's, and student's work, a personal masseur, a cook, a housekeeper, and a man whose specific job it was to supervise the building of tabernacles.

The most important of the Sunday Party was Alvin Rodeheaver, who joined in 1910. He was Billy's music leader for 20 years. He was a choir leader, soloist, trombone player, and master of ceremony. He was a suave, gentile man that was a valuable complement to Sunday's brashness. "Rody" also was important as a hymnbook publisher and record manufacturing.(24)

Billy's crusades became larger and larger. Between the years of 1908 and 1920 he held sixty-nine revivals and made numerous side trips to outlying towns and cities. The number of trail-hitters exploded. A sampling of trail-hitters is amazing.

City Year Trail-Hitters
Philadelphia 1915 41,724
Syracuse 1915 21,155
Kansas City 1916 25,646
Detroit 1916 27,109
Boston 1917 64,484
Buffalo 1917 38,853
New York, NY 1917 98,269

Billy Sunday preached to almost 100 million people during his lifetime. Estimates are that by the end of his career over a million people had hit the trail to give their life to Jesus Christ.(25)

Sunday's revivalism was sharply criticized by many of the liberal churches of the day. They saw his theology as crude and narrow. Nevertheless, Billy's popularity grew as he blended an "old-time religion" with anti-modernist social concerns of the times. He was convinced that science and religion could never be reconciled and denounced anyone who tried. He spoke against the "bastard theory of evolution." He took up the cause of "moral reform." He advertized his crusades as social clean-ups. By attacking sin in his revivals he also attacked the wickedness in the world. He took up the cause of prohibition and this is perhaps how he is most remembered. He was convinced that financial panics, depression, and poverty would disappear if people would stop buying liquor and use their money more wisely. In virtually every revival that he did, Sunday rallied the prohibition supporters. He set out on a moral crusade to rid the country of the "damnable liquor traffic."(26)

When war broke out in 1914, Sunday initially tried to distance himself from it. He would not make statements about the justness of the war at all. As it progressed, though, he became more involved in speaking about the war. Increasingly, he linked patriotism and religion. His denunciations of the Germans became just as heated as his hatred for alcohol. By the time the war was over, though, Americans were not as responsive to revivalists.

Many imitators of Sunday came along. There was an over-abundance of evangelists in the field, most of them crudely copying the style and methods of Billy Sunday. Many of the imitators tried to outdo Sunday and made fools of themselves and the churches that supported them. Not only that, they brought an air of disrepute over the practice of mass evangelism. Many condemned the Billy Sunday type evangelists because of their short nature, lack of support for the local pastors, superficial nature of commitments, and the exaltation of the evangelist.(27)

Billy Sunday began to be attacked from many directions. His sons began to get into trouble with family and alcohol. While he still had constant invitations to speak in the Bible-Belt, the size and impact of his crusades dwindled. Because of a decrease in love offerings, the size of the Sunday Party had to be reduced. Then in July of 1927, Homer Rodeheavor penned a letter airing many grievances against Billy and his organization. He sent the letter to Mrs. Sunday hoping that she would share it with Billy and make changes in the ministry. It was not a letter of resignation, but an attempt to halt the decline of Billy's ministry. Nell did not show the letter to Billy and after a few months without any improvement, Rody left the Sunday Party frustrated.(28)

Billy Sunday died in November of 1935 in Chicago from a heart attack. He had been in poor health and his ministry was slowly dying. If one looks as Sunday from just this vantage, he may just seem like a fiery evangelist that outlived his effectiveness. He did, in fact, have a huge impact on America. The establishment of Billy Sunday Evangelistic Clubs had lasting impacts on the places that he held revivals. Many whose lives were changed by the Billy Sunday ministry went on to influence others. Another place where Sunday had a lasting impact was in the African-American community. Few white preachers reached out to black communities in that time as Sunday did. He was used to change many lives in the course of his ministry.(29)

Billy Sunday was an influential Christian leader throughout his life. Deploring the evils of alcohol at home and the Germans abroad, he rallied many people. He led them to faith in Jesus Christ and then to change themselves and their society. While perhaps led into decline by his pre-occupation with money and his inability to adapt to changing times, he had a huge impact during his ministry. Billy Sunday was a man totally devoted to God and spent his life trying to lead others to that same devotion.


Dorsett, Lyle W. Billy Sunday and the Redemption of Urban America. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991.

Ellis, William T. Billy Sunday: The Man and His Message. L. T. Meyers, 1914.

McLoughlin, William G. Billy Sunday Was His Real Name. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

McLoughlin, William G. Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham. New York: The Ronald Press Co., 1959.

1. Lyle W. Dorsett, Billy Sunday and the Redemption of Urban America (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991), back cover.

2. Ibid, 1.

3. William G. McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham (New York: The Ronald Press Co., 1959), 401.

4. Dorsett, Redemption of Urban America, 8.

5. McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism, 402-403.

6. William G. McLoughlin, Billy Sunday Was His Real Name (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), 1-2.

7. William T. Ellis, Billy Sunday: The Man and His Message (L. T. Meyers, 1914), 24.

8. Ibid, 24-25

9. Dorsett, Redemption of Urban America, 14.

10. Ibid, 15-16

11. McLoughlin, Sunday was His Real Name, 4.

12. Myers, Billy Sunday, 40.

13. Dorsett, Redemption of Urban America, 29-31

14. McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism, 404

15. Dorsett, Redemption of Urban America, 35-38.

16. Ibid, 40-43

17. McLaughlin, Modern Revivalism, 405

18. McLaughlin, Sunday was His Real Name, 14-15

19. Dorsett, Redemption of Urban America, 64.

20. McLaughlin, Sunday was His Real Name, 44-45.

21. Dorsett, Redemption of Urban America, 62.

22. McLaughlin, Modern Revivalism, 414.

23. Dorsett, Redemption of Urban America, 88-92.

24. McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism, 421-22.

25. Dorsett, Redemption of Urban America

26. McLaughlin, Modern Revivalism, 410-14.

27. McLaughlin, Sunday was His Real Name, 262-64.

28. Dorsett, Redemption of Urban America, 133-38.

29. Ibid, 150-57