Sawdust Trail Evangelist

by Bernard R. DeRemer

Sawdust Trail Evangelist

0ne observer estimated that without leaving the pulpit, during a single sermon he "walked, pranced, ran, slid, staggered, and jumped" a mile and a half! Controversial and sensational-that was Billy Sunday, who didn't hesitate to smash a chair in order to make a point. But his herculean, acrobatic efforts aimed at the hearts of people-and perhaps 300,000 "hit the sawdust trail" in response to his warm, powerful invitations. Some authorities put the figure even higher.

When critics carped that his revivals "didn't last," he retorted, "Neither does a bath, but it does you good to take one once in a while!" William Ashley Sunday was born at Ames, Iowa, in 1862, shortly before his father's death, which forced him to spend part of his boyhood in orphanages.

But he had a talent for sports, especially baseball, and wound up playing professionally for seven years. He held the record in his day for speed in circling the bases-14 seconds ("greased electricity").

The most dramatic change of all occurred in 1886. He and other players visited a saloon in downtown Chicago, then wandered to a vacant lot where Pacific Garden Mission was holding a service. He listened to some hymns "that I heard my mother sing in the log cabin in Iowa." When Harry Monroe, an ex-gambler, spoke, Sunday was captivated. He told his companions, "Boys, I bid the old life goodbye." Some laughed; while others showed mixed "admiration and disgust." After attending several services at the mission, Sunday accepted Christ as his Savior.

Baseball had been his entire life, but in a few years it lost its appeal to a much higher calling. So he turned down a $5,000-a-year sports offer to serve the YMCA at $75 a week. There he got much of his early instruction; he never attended college or seminary.

His first opportunity came as an advance man for J. Wilbur Chapman, an outstanding leader of that era (see "Witness to the World," Pulpit Helps, June, 1998). With this small beginning one of the greatest evangelistic careers was launched.

From small midwest towns to major metropolitan areas, Sunday's meetings grew in size and scope. He often preached in specially-built tabernacles holding up to 20,000, without a PA system!

During this era, he was said to have "no equal for audience appeal, enthusiasm, and name identification."

He married Helen Thompson and they had four children. "Ma" Sunday, as she was always affectionately known, became a vital part of his campaign staff, which at the peak included 23 full-time persons performing a "dizzying array of activities." Sunday even hired an ex-boxer as a "trainer." Jack Cardiff gave the evangelist rubdowns between meetings, made necessary by his vigorous exertions.

Sunday's revolutionary methods of course attracted more than his share of opposition. After hearing him in Pittsburgh, the great statesman William Jennings Bryan wrote, "Do not allow yourself to be disturbed by critics-God is giving you ‘souls for your hire' and that is a sufficient answer . . . No man can do good without making enemies, but yours will, as a rule, be among those who do not hear you."

His song leader, the famous Homer "Rody" Rodeheaver, conducted huge choirs in lively numbers after Sunday's message, thus helping set the mood for the closing invitation.

J. Gresham Machen, the great Princeton Seminary scholar, confessed that some of Sunday's humor left him cold. But he conceded, "The total impact of the sermon was great . . . I got a new realization of the power of the gospel . . . " In 10 weeks, during a New York City campaign, nearly 100,000 responded to the altar call.

Yet by the 1920s he began to fade from the national scene, though he continued to meetings throughout the Midwest and rural South.

Sunday spent his last years in semi-retirement, plagued by failing health, as well as the crushing burden of all three wayward sons and the death of his daughter. On Oct. 27, 1935, he preached his last sermon; 44 came forward. Then on Nov. 6, after three heart attacks, he went to be with the Lord he had served so long and faithfully.

He is remembered as "one of the most productive professional soul winners in history." Another authority declared that through his preaching and promotion of Bible conferences like those at Winona Lake, "he did more than anyone else in the first half of the 20th century to keep Christianity vital."

The Billy Sunday Historic Site Museum, 1101 Park Ave., Winona Lake, Ind., featuring videos and other memorabilia, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, except for Good Friday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. For more information, call 1-877-786-3292.