'Preacher' takes a look into the life and times of evangelist Billy Sunday

May 03, 1992|By Ron Grossman | Ron Grossman,Chicago Tribune

PREACHER.

Roger Bruns.

W. W. Norton.

351 pages. $22.95.

Billy Sunday was the mold from which today's televangelists are cast.

Half a century before Oral Roberts, Billy Graham and Jimmy Swaggart, Sunday put the fear of Jesus into millions of Middle Americans. In Sunday's heyday, radio and TV didn't exist, so he couldn't preach to the multitudes from the comfort of a broadcast studio. He had to constantly tour the hinterland bringing his fire-and-brimstone message to one town after another.

There had been, of course, other revivalists before him, notes Sunday's biographer, Roger Bruns. But when Sunday began his crusade in 1895, he brought a new note to evangelism: the power of a voice trained not in seminaries or Bible colleges but in gin mills and pool halls.

"Too much of the preaching of today is too nice; too pretty; too dainty," he said. "Lord save us from off-handed, flabby-cheeked, brittle-boned, weak-kneed, thin-skinned, pliable, plastic, spineless, effeminate, ossified three-karat Christianity."

Sunday had been a fleet-footed outfielder for the Chicago White Sox at a time when baseball players were as famous for carousing and womanizing as for exploits on the diamond. After the Sox lost the World Series of 1886, Albert Spaulding, the team's owner, traded most of his stars, accusing them of drinking away the championship.

Sunday, though, had found religion that season.

"Boys, I bid the old life goodbye," Sunday told his new friends.

A few seasons afterward, he retired from baseball to devote himself to church work full time. He learned the revivalist business from the best-known evangelist of the day, John Chapman, then took over his tent show when Chapman retired.

Sunday's traveling mission was indeed both a business and a show. Mr. Bruns reports that when Sunday's crusade came to Boston in 1905, it drew upon the efforts of 20,000 local volunteers, who acted as secretaries, ushers, prayer leaders and funds solicitors. Eight thousand Bostonians sang in Sunday's choir.

Sunday's popularity, Mr. Bruns argues, derived from his ability to articulate the fears of small-town Americans who saw their values endangered by the tremendous changes that came over the nation in the early years of the 20th century.

By 1920, Sunday was being talked about as a presidential candidate, an idea that intrigued even New York Times editorialists. Shortly afterward, Sunday's hold over his audience began to slip as more Americans shed tradition for the fun and games of the Roaring '20s. At his death in 1935, he was barely scratching out a living from his crusade.

"Preacher" offers readers a delightful entry into a fascinating chapter in U.S. church history.

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