A grand and gaudy old-time evangelist


Back Story

Taking Note of History

July 02, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Remember Babylon! Remember Nineveh! Remember Rome!" cried the legendary revivalist, William A. "Billy" Sunday, who traditionally concluded his revivals by advising converts to "hit the sawdust trail."

Sunday was perhaps one of the grandest and gaudiest of the old-time evangelists ever to hit the sawdust trail, and for nearly 40 years, traveled the breadth and length of the land trying to save sinners from the evils of whiskey, jazz, evolution, immorality, flappers, Hollywood, Karl Marx, cigarettes, lipstick, chewing gum and other perceived examples of the devil incarnate, all the while urging them to "Get right with God!"

In 1921, he thundered that it was the parents who were to blame for their daughters becoming flappers "running around the streets with their forms adorned with peek-a-boo waists and short skirts and their hair all frizzled up."

"He had been a compelling figure on American revival rostrums since 1896 by reason of his thunderous voice, tangy phraseology and vehement gestures," reported The Sun at his death in 1935.

Those gestures included a series of crazed, whirling dervishlike corkscrew jumps that propelled him from one side of the revival stage to the other.

Additional gyrations in his physical repertoire, which were accompanied by a wide-eyed expression, included leg and thigh slapping while thrusting a clenched fist into the air.

Sunday's speaking style was to start his discourse in a quiet manner and then conclude with a thunderous climax exhorting the assembled sinners to repent.

And then he'd switch gears. He'd begin shedding his coat and vest, and then fling them down onto the stage. Next, he'd tear off his collar and tie, as thousands continued moaning their repentance.

His pathway to the sawdust trail began in poverty. He was born William Ashley Sunday in Ames, Iowa, in 1862, the son of a Union soldier, who was killed two months before his birth.

His early years saw him going from a log cabin home to an orphanage and finally to the farm of his maternal grandfather where he grew up.

A naturally gifted baseball player, Sunday caught the attention of "Pop" Anson, who signed him as a center fielder for the Chicago White Stockings in 1884. In the off-season, he studied at Northwestern University.

His conversion to Christ came one boozy night in 1887 in downtown Chicago with several fellow baseball players. Stumbling out into the chilled night air, Sunday was attracted by the hymns of the Pacific Garden Mission, which had set up an outdoor revival meeting at State and Van Buren streets.

After leaving baseball in 1891, Sunday became an assistant secretary of the Young Men's Christian Association in Chicago. He later became a Presbyterian minister, an evangelist's assistant and by 1896, had established his own career as an evangelist.

"I am a rube of the rubes, I am a hayseed of the hayseeds, and the maldors of the barnyard are on me yet, and it beats Pinaud and Colgate, too," Sunday explained. "I have said `done it,' when I should have said `did it,' and I `have saw,' when I should `have seen,' and I expect to go to heaven just the same."

In February 1916 he landed in Baltimore, and for the next six weeks, he preached to more than 1 million people from his 15,000-seat tabernacle at Greenmount Avenue and 29th Street.

He was greeted by 3,000 of the faithful who gathered to meet him and his wife, "Ma" Sunday, at Pennsylvania Station. Police had a difficult time holding back the throngs as the evangelist made his way to 13 W. Mount Vernon Place, where he stayed during his Baltimore visit.

"I saw and heard Sunday every day of those six weeks. For I was a reporter for The Sun, and Billy was my beat," recalled B. Conway Taylor in a 1954 article in the Sun Magazine. "To say he caused about as much excitement as the Baltimore Fire isn't too great an exaggeration. Sometimes it seemed as if he caused more."

Taylor found Sunday to be an "affable fellow," and recalled The Sun running a box of his folksy bon mots each day. Such gems as: "Jesus Christ was the first recruiting officer"; "God does not care whether you hoofed it to heaven or came in a limousine"; or "I despise those weasel-eyed, thin-lipped, lantern-jawed, long-necked, sanctimonious-faced, cadaverous-looking old neighborhood gossips."

By the end of Sunday's Baltimore revival, some 23,027 Baltimoreans had committed themselves to hitting the sawdust trail in his name.

"Opinion, of course, was varied about Billy," Taylor wrote. "Some persons looked upon him as an acrobat, a clown, a charlatan who used the pledge money only to enrich himself - a charge that always brought a roar from the pulpit."

It was estimated that at the height of his evangelistic powers, Sunday had a gross income of $80,000 a year.

Sunday's popularity began to fade in the 1920s, and his subsequent visits to Baltimore attracted little attention.

"During his forty-year ministry, Billy Sunday preached to more than a hundred million people - grasping the hands of all races, creeds and classes. By 1935, the year of his death, he had been credited with almost a quarter of a million conversions," wrote evangelist Oral Roberts in the introduction to Billy Sunday Speaks, published in 1970.

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